Wednesday, June 5, 2019

FOUNDERS’ VERSION: History and Highlights of the IRNEs

1988 on: Precursor of the IRNEs: Activist/journalists in Boston have banded together and are intensifying their coverage of (a lack of) diversity in the arts. Papers large and small shine a light on institutions like the MFA. (The Gorilla Girls point out that the only way women are represented in museums is on a canvas and in the nude.) This small group of activist writers marches in support of the ICA when city counselor Albert ‘Dapper’ O’Neill threatens to close down the Mapplethorpe exhibit. There is a proliferation of new companies on the theater front and one member of the group, writing for the Journal Newspapers, realizes that these new companies are doing exceptional work and for the most part, are not being recognized. She forms another organization to honor their work, joining writers from the brand new, pioneering world of internet review sites (Theater Mirror and Aisle Say being the earliest of their ilk). Other papers join up. By the ‘90s they’re known as the “outer critics” to indicate that they do not write for the big papers. A confluence of events propels the group to its mission.

19881989: Beverly Creasey is also a member of the national Theater Communications Group (TCG) which conducts a country-wide survey of theatrical output, finding that 80% of all productions in the U.S up ‘til 1988 were all white efforts. In response, the TCG organized the Non-Traditional Casting Initiative. Boston is the third city in the nation to hold a “Non-Traditional Casting Conference,” organized by Creasey with the aid of Clinton Turner Davis and Harry Newman of the NYC TCG HQ. The June 1989 conference is co-presented by Black Folks Theatre and Playwrights’ Platform (with support from the Asian-American Resource Workshop and Boston Theater for the Deaf) and hosted by actress Jane White (daughter of the founder of the NAACP).

Artistic directors, actors, theater and film producers are invited to the conference, to see a video in which James Earl Jones presented scenes from Chekov, Williams and Wilde with actors of color—and to witness live scenes with Boston actors with disabilities, Boston actors of color and women performing in traditionally male roles. They rocked, by the way.

Attendees discover why this is advantageous to their theaters: Greater resonance for the material, a theater which reflects everyone and a wider audience for their productions, among other reasons. The conference is covered in the “papers of record” and television shows like City Line. (Up to this point, Wheelock Family Theatre is the only company casting “non-traditionally.” Underground Railway Theatre also tours Black History shows, but opportunities are few and far between for actors from The New African Company or Black Folks Theatre to break into the established white companies.) Actors report that some theaters don’t even allow them to audition. Others agree to, but say they “don’t know where to find actors of color.”

19891995: Creasey develops and administers the Boston NTC actors file to be used gratis by casting directors, artistic directors etc. Next step is the NTC playwright file, also free to anyone who is looking for a new script. After administering the files for six extremely successful years, they are incorporated into Stagesource’s member bank and are renamed “the unity files.”

1995 on: THE MISSION: Creasey and the original outer critics (Larry Stark, Geralyn Horton, Will Stackman et al) founded their awards to encourage inclusion and to shine a light on the smaller companies. What started out as the outer critic awards included Boston, western Mass and R.I. because that’s where our critics worked. In a year or two, with the addition of more reviewers, the Outer Critics became the Independent Reviewers of N.E., to reflect all the communities being reviewed. (There weren’t nearly as many theaters to cover as there are now. In fact our ballot was not divided into Small and Large until 2001!)

The IRNE Awards were not intended to compete with any other awards, just to fill a gap. Astonishingly, we hit a nerve. Our very first year, the Herald critic complained bitterly about us in his regular theater column calling us “witches around a cauldron.”

199899: IRNE expands and writers are added from outlets like The Bay State Banner (Kay Bourne), The Sino-American Times (Beatrice Lee), The Jewish Advocate (Jules Becker), the Lynn Item (Rich Fahey), South End News/Bay Windows (Creasey), The Journal Newspapers/Citizen Item (Creasey, Titus Steele) and Metro West (David Andrews).

The Process: To vote, a reviewer has to have seen a minimum of fifty shows that year, has no conflict of interest, (i.e., no ties to any theater), and has the tested ability to write and review fairly. Some see 200 shows a year. Most see approximately 100. Three (now deceased) members have radio or television shows and concentrate on interviews. At the end of the year, reviewers submit three nominations in each category. The nominations are then tallied up, the ballot with the nominations that received the most mentions is configured and is printed. The ballots are then sent to the members, with ties being broken by re-votes of those who have seen both productions. Much like the selection process for the Oscars, Tonys and All-star teams, this is not an exact science. Simply put, it’s by the numbers.

THE NUMBERS: Members collectively see 200+ shows a year. Here’s the math. Say there are 5 characters per show vying for either Best Actor/Actress or Best Supporting Actor/Actress. That’s 1000 actors hoping to be nominated in one of four categories in 34 slots (Small, Medium and Large, 5 people within a category, M and F, plus 4 musical slots). That leaves 966 people not even nominated! (Every company faithfully believes their actors deserve a nod. Many a list has been sent to us and many a company has been disappointed.) We view the entire field of 1000 and even though founder Larry Stark is fond of saying “all comparisons are odious” we have to make the cuts. It’s heartbreaking.

2000Present: IRNE representatives meet numerous times with small companies, to distribute our contact sheets, to explain the voting process or to offer seminars on writing press releases. We’ve had requests for more categories (puppetry, projections), less reviewers and a request to add a second (!) evening of awards. The IRNEs respectfully consider any suggestion. And we’ve accepted many.

2009 on: More Reviewers are added. The Improper Bostonian calls the IRNE Awards “Boston’s Tonys.” Nancy Grossman of Broadway World and Talkin’ Broadway joins longtime reviewers Creasey, Fahey, Becker and Stark (emeritus) in ‘09. At present Michele Markarian and Mike Hoban represent Theater Mirror. Scott Reedy works for Metro West Daily and others (through Gatehouse Newspapers), Sheila Barth covers Independent News Group), Robert Israel writes for Arts Fuse, Michael Cox represents The Edge/Theater Mirror, Susan Mulford does previews/reviews for Boston & Beyond, Charles Munitz writes for Boston Arts Diary, Beatrice Lee writes for Sino-American Times and Jack Craib is South Shore Critic.

2012: Fringe companies ask us to expand from the “Small and Large” ballot distinctions and add a third entire “Fringe” category. We do. At one time or another, by Stark’s reckoning, there are over 90 fringe companies. It makes sense to divide “Small” into “Fringe” and “Midsize,” based on budgetary considerations.

Meeting with the Deaf community after the National 2012 TCG Conference held in Boston, IRNE begins an ASL initiative to address their request for more ASL translated performances. Our fundraising effort would place interpreters (using the Wheelock model) in fringe theaters at designated performances during a run and coordinate with an advocacy agency like D.E.A.F. Inc. to publicize the performance. IRNE raises funds from two foundations and transfers the funds to Stagesource to administer.

Another issue arising from the 2012 TCG Conference diversity sessions is that theater people across the country are beginning to witness a backlash against actors of color (ironically because of the number of productions now cast non-traditionally). Because our IRNE reviewers see so many productions and have an overview of the Boston (and environs) scene, we notice that roles designated for actors of color are being played by white actors. Creasey, Bourne and Becker address the issue in their publications. Bourne is currently at work on a book about the history of Black theater in Boston.

2013: The IRNEs honor the memory of beloved actor Bob Jolly (whose bequest funds a yearly award given out at the IRNES as well as starter grants to organizations, including most recently, the Front Porch Collective.)

2014: IRNE meets with STAB (Small Theater Alliance of Boston) regarding the issue of gender parity (in a year that had fewer female leading roles in the fringe category and fewer nominations for us to consider for lead actress/fringe). IRNE addresses the issue by honoring the leading ladies of IMAGINARY BEASTS, thirteen women who perform as part of an ensemble and in the past had only been nominated in the “ensemble” category because of the experimental nature of their productions (where the “lead” is exchanged within a piece). Thirteen women won “Best Actress” in 2014.

2016: The Factory Space closes, leaving many fringe companies without theaters for shows already in the works. Members of STAB ask for help. We start making inquiries and one IRNE member finds a suitable space and paints it himself (a church basement, with a stage, seats, parking, and a low rental cost). Other IRNE members reach out to local YMCAs and community centers.

IRNE Responds to National and International Crises:

2005: When Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans (and surrounding parishes) IRNE organizes a fundraiser, a concert/cabaret evening with performances by local actors/singers. The Lyric Stage donates the theater for the event. Proceeds are sent to the New Orleans Musicians Fund.

2010: When an earthquake ravaged Haiti, IRNE partners with Metro Stage for a musical evening (with performances by local musicians and actors). The Huntington Theatre donates the venue. Artists are invited to donate paintings for an arts raffle at the event. Donations are sent to Habitat for Humanity and the ASPCA.

2011: The week before the IRNE Awards, a tsunami levels the Fukushima Daishi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. IRNE quickly organizes artists to create “paper prayers” (small paintings traditionally made for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembrance Day) and other artwork to raise funds for Japan, with the event taking place right at the IRNE Awards. A Huntington Fellow creates 200 origami paper cranes and scenic designers donate dozens of small sketches and paintings to raise funds for Japan Relief.

20002019: With the unfortunate dissolution of print media in the new millennium, our newspaper reviewers adapted, and now, most write for the internet. Almost all receive no pay. Since the very first Outer Critics Awards to honor excellence from that year’s performances, our annual IRNE Awards celebration has been free and open to anyone. We have had a commitment to diversity and parity from the very beginning, and as was reflected in final IRNE Awards show held in April of 2019, that tradition continued. This year, half of the Best New Play nominees were women in both the Large and Small categories, and both were won by women. In gender neutral categories (Small Stage), 30 of 54 nominations went to women, and women won in 6 of 10 categories, including Best Director (Musical and Play). In 2019, over two dozen people of color were represented in the nomination process and won Best Supporting Actress in all three categories (Large, Midsize and Fringe), Best Actor in Midsize and Large, as well as Best Supporting Actor and Director in Midsize.

But the IRNEs have always been, first and foremost, about honoring excellence in theater, and it is our fondest hope that it will be our legacy.

Friday, April 19, 2019

QUICK TAKE Review By Beverly Creasey Gleeful Dog Days @ BCA

Pete Gurney knows dogs. Years ago the late Boston playwright fell hard for a Lab pup and brought it home, much to the chagrin of his wife, who was not consulted. That’s pretty much the plot of SYLVIA (playing through April 21st) except to say that the sensational comedienne Shana Dirik plays Sylvia in Michelle Aguillon’s delightful production for Theater Uncorked.

Dirik is all pup: She’s saucy, impetuous and desperate to be loved. And she’s not above flashing those irresistible puppy dog eyes at her master (Allan Mayo) when his wife (Kim McClure) opposes the adoption. Gurney’s script is smart, literate and just a bit shameless when Sylvia does, well, what dogs do with other dogs.

See the production for Dirik’s outrageous performance and for David Anderson’s nifty hat trick: first as a macho, nosey, know-it-all dog owner, then as a ritzy Vassar alumna, and lastly, Anderson  tops it off as a lunatic shrink who invites patients to choose whether they want a male or a female therapist, as (s)he can be either!

Believe it on not, the hilarious script has something serious to say about connecting with nature… and our need to bond with animals.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Whirligig of Time

TWELFTH Night was first performed in Boston in 1794. (I missed that one.) But Paula Plum’s 2019 production (at Lyric Stage through April 28th) should go down in history as one of the most fiercely intelligent versions ever to contemplate the comedy. There’s the rub, as the Bard might say. Is it really a comedy?

Plum posits the question, this being a play about strangers in a new, sometimes hostile country, not to mention in a climate where abuse is tolerated, even encouraged. Having seen Plum’s inspired take on kindness and cruelty, I couldn’t help but surrender my heart to the poor, “grievously abused” Malvolio. The combined Lyric/Actor’s Shakespeare Project production features master comedian Richard Snee in the role of the hilariously “cross-gartered” secretary to Lady Olivia (Samantha Richert).

Not to worry, there is an abundance of hilarity in the production, led by the brilliant Rachel Belleman as Feste, the “saucy” torch singer/nobody’s fool. She tears through David Wilson’s inspired arrangements of Shakespearean (as well as gorgeous 20th century) songs. In fact, Lady Olivia’s household is bursting to the brim with pranks and pratfalls. What there isn’t, in Plum’s capable hands, is a pat ending. That may be her triumph… That, and casting Haley Spivey as the perfect “divided” Viola. Divided, as she is a twin (to Dominic Carter) and, like Mozart’s divided violas, she takes our breath away with her sublime performance.

Don’t miss this Twelfth Night.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Hell Hath No Fury

My short-lived relief that Flat Earth Theatre’s NOT MEDEA (@Arsenal Arts through March 30th) would not be Euripides’ MEDEA (perhaps the most famous of all “scorned” women) was quickly replaced with resignation. O K, the play is about that MEDEA but Allison Gregory’s clever conceit melding the tragic sorceress to a contemporary single mother makes the story more approachable.

This mom’s husband, like Medea’s, has left her for a younger woman. She’s stressed to the max and can’t cope anymore, certainly a recipe for disaster, if not revenge. I’m not sold on the link but Gregory mounts an engaging comparison. More importantly, Flat Earth mounts a crackerjack production.

Just this week, a fire which consumed a whole family led the news, twice in fact, because investigators subsequently discovered that the fire had been set to cover a grisly murder/suicide. We struggle to understand why a parent would kill a child but turning to MEDEA for an explanation? It’s a gambit and one that necessitates we buy into the nasty old shibboleth about the fury of a “woman scorned.”

Is there a comparable saying for a man who’s been jilted? I can’t think of one, yet it’s used again and again to discredit a woman. I recall that Anita Hill was accused of being a “scorned” woman to explain away her motive when she testified against Clarence Thomas… as was Christine Blasey-Ford in the Kavanaugh hearings. The Greek Chorus in Gregory’s play doesn’t help much when it proudly proclaims that MEDEA will “be the hero of scorned women everywhere.” Good Lord.

Gregory jokes that a theater company might think twice before presenting her play when television offers similar fare every night of the week. If anything elevates Gregory’s effort above and beyond the mayhem on TV, it’s her smart dialogue and her humor (often at her own expense!). Flat Earth is fortunate to have Juliet Bowler as the cheeky, self deprecating mom so desperate for a night out that she wanders sight unseen into our audience. Of course she takes over the stage complaining that it’s, gasp, MEDEA. (We’re with her there!) Bowler maintains an impressive balance between the comedy in the play and the seriousness it addresses.

NOT MEDEA is not so much a play within a play, as it is a treatise within a play: that anyone could lose control and commit a savage act, given the right circumstances. In point of fact, judging from the statistical frequency of murder following a break-up (especially those with an order of restraint attached), one can make a case. But those murderers are more likely to be male, not female and Gregory is indicting the females in her audience. We’re the ones, she says, whose love “is so full of trouble.” There went my hackles, right up again.

My reservations aside, see director Elizabeth Yvette Ramirez’ compelling production for the performances. It’s no easy feat, switching from past to present and from character to character. Bowler is supported by Gene Dante, charismatic as the two philandering husbands, and by Cassandra Meyer in an affecting performance as the Chorus (et al).

Sunday, March 3, 2019


They don’t write barn burners like THE LITTLE FOXES anymore (@ Lyric Stage through March 17). The Bette Davis movie of the Lillian Hellman gem has long been a favorite of mine. I recall many riveting stage productions over the years (including the Lyric’s) but I didn’t realize what new life there was in this chestnut. Scott Edmiston’s thrilling, almost gothic production (Dewey Dellay’s music sets the tone from the get-go) mines all the resonance Edmiston can find in this tale of a greedy, scheming Southern family nipping at each others’ heels.

The Hubbards will stop at nothing to increase their coffers. They find “virtue” in lying, cheating and underpaying everyone they can. The elder brother delivers a nifty speech about leaving his honest competitors in the dust, predicting that the business men of the future all will be “Hubbards.” (How did Hellman know this seventy years ago!)

Regina (Hubbard) Giddens, like Hedda Gabler, is a dream role for an actress. Anne Gottlieb reigns as the avenging daughter who, when only her brothers inherited their father’s wealth, married money and spends all her thoughts on getting more. Like Hedda, she wants to escape her provincial life and the restrictions of second class citizenship. She’s tired of depending on men. Hellman gives her the chance for payback in THE LITTLE FOXES.

Hellman has created another plum role in THE LITTLE FOXES: A sister-in-law named Birdie. She’s everything Regina is not. She represents the old South (mind you, from a white perspective). She’s genteel. She treats the Black servants with respect and she despairs over her husband’s hunting of animals for recreation. Everyone, even Birdie, knows Regina’s younger brother married her for her family’s cotton. So she drinks.

Amelia Broome gives a tour de force as the wounded, heartbroken Birdie. With every word Birdie utters, you know she’s holding back tears of grief …tears of wasted years …tears of physical abuse. Broome physically forces Birdie to keep her composure, although it’s a tipsy one, because she’s a “lady.” When the floodgates open, Broome leaves us devastated and amused at the same time over Birdie’s wobbly confession. It’s a terrific moment in the action.

The women in THE LITTLE FOXES really pack the punches in Edmiston’s production. Cheryl D. Singleton as Addie, the family’s “beloved” servant, conveys both Addie’s pride in running the household (and indulging Regina’s daughter) and her disdain for the avarice expressed in front of her as if she were invisible. Singleton masterfully plays the lines, as well as the repressed emotion under the lines. Hellman doesn’t say it outright but she hammers home the subservient plight of Blacks who are no longer slaves and yet they still slave for the new plantation class.

Addie has a powerful ally in Craig Mathers as Regina’s estranged, savvy husband. Mathers gives a strong performance as the one family member wise enough to challenge the Hubbard “take no prisoners” philosophy. Rosa Procaccino, as the sweet, innocent daughter, gradually learns what happens to powerless women and her transformation is wonderfully satisfying.

Kinson Theodoris is delightful in the role of the servant who keenly observes the white folk behaving badly. Theodoris steals the scene when he is asked to deliver a message which doesn’t make sense. He finally agrees to do it, but he departs, shaking his head at what foolish characters these white people are.

Remo Airaldi, Will McGarrahan and Michael John Ciszewski portray with frightening gusto (as Addie calls them) “the people who eat the earth and everything on it.” Bill Mootos in a small but effective role, aids and abets the Hubbard men by providing them an irresistible opportunity to amass yet another fortune. Don’t miss the chance to see what happens to men and women who worship money above all else.


Friday, March 1, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey BIRDY’s Winged Victory

Commonwealth Shakespeare (in residence at Babson College) has assembled an impressive team to animate William Wharton’s allegorical novel, BIRDY (playing through March 17th). BIRDY has been adapted by playwright Naomi Wallace, whose brilliant ONE FLEA SPARE is fondly remembered by this reviewer. BIRDY is both the play’s title and the nickname of its central character. The touching, and at times humorously ironic, narrative soars alternately from past to present, illustrating the value of friendship and the devastating damage of war.

As a child, Birdy (Spencer Hamp) is fascinated by all things avian. Even before the play begins we hear the flapping of wings, hinting at what is to come. As a teenager, Birdy befriends a neighborhood boy, Al (Maxim Chumov) who is more than happy to join Birdy in his pursuit of flight, although Al is more interested in adventure than birds. With the boundless enthusiasm of young boys, they scavenge the town for aluminum scraps and bicycle parts to fashion mechanical wings.

WWII intervenes and we find the young men reunited in an army hospital, both with severe injuries. Adult Birdy (Will Taylor) no longer speaks. He sits on the floor like a wounded bird, perching on tiptoes, his arms wrapped tightly around him for protection. His best friend (Keith White), who is recovering from head wounds, has been summoned by the hospital psychiatrist (Steven Barkhimer) in a last ditch effort to reach the catatonic Birdy. Sometimes the younger and older characters appear together: when soldier Al is interviewed by the obtuse army doctor, his younger self suggests a nifty, wiseacre way to annoy the blowhard. He does it and we’re delighted.

The intricate bird references (about undulating flight vectors and complex bird song) have the echoing ring of authenticity and Hamp (as young Birdy) lovingly conveys his intense (perhaps too intense) devotion to winged creatures. Both Hamp and Chumov perfectly capture the reckless joy of perilous youthful exploits, clambering over Clint Ramos’ sky high scaffolding crowded with rusty cages and wing shaped driftwood. Director Steven Maler elicits our imagination to “see” the boys falling, sliding, and swimming.

You may know Alan Parker’s lovely 1984 film with Matthew Modine as Birdy. The film has an easier time of it, depicting flight. Maler and company have a tough battle on stage because we struggle with the limitations of our imagination. Additionally, the realistic flow of the play is interrupted by the necessity of our collective resourcefulness.

Various characters weigh in philosophically on the import of war. The hawkish doctor doesn’t much like soldiers, especially wounded soldiers, equating their fear with cowardice. The kindly nurse (Damon Singletary) whose job it is to tend to the severely wounded, has the opposite opinion. He’s the compassionate conscientious objector, who knows firsthand the costs of war. It’s Singletary, in fact, who humanizes the “anti-war message.” He’s the one character who understands humane treatment. (Certainly the doctor doesn’t.) That and the tender relationship of the young characters are the reason to see this BIRDY.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW by Beverly Creasey Extra Extra Read All About It: IMAGINARY BEASTS BANISH WINTER PAUL BUNYAN visits The Charlestown Working Theater through Feb. 10

The Winter Panto is a seasonal tradition in the U.K. Audiences young and old are regaled by stock characters (representing good and evil) as they banish old man winter (until next year) and welcome in the spring.

The only people having more fun than the performers staging a winter panto on this side of the pond, are the children joining in on the merry mayhem. They don’t have to be asked twice. They happily shout down the villains in Imaginary Beasts’ PAUL BUNYAN (and the winter of the BLUE SNOW), to warn the “good and true” characters of an approaching “baddie.”

The children (and a lot of the parents, as well) boo and hiss and at just the right moment, they offer contrarian advice to a stubborn character who dares to say, “No, I can’t.” The seemingly spontaneous “Oh, yes you can” audience reply goes back and forth until the children can’t laugh anymore. For most of them, I suspect this isn’t their first rodeo.

The Beasts have chosen a bit of Americana to hang this panto on: Paul Bunyan (Kiki Samko) and the famous blue ox, Babe (Colin McIntyre) figure at the center of a wager. King Zero, as in temperature, (company director Matthew Woods) has issued a challenge to an old storyteller, (Dan Prior), who sounds suspiciously like Hal Holbrook/ Mark Twain, although his name would suggest he hails from Oklahoma.

But I digress… and I caught it from the Beasts. There’s a contest afoot and if Oakey loses, winter will never end and the moon (Jemma Tory) will disappear. I’m not 100 % on this but I think that’s Woods’ plot. It really doesn’t matter because the joy of panto rests squarely on the shoulders of the characters.

From wily, ecologically motivated trees (James K. Sims and Kim Klasner) that can outfox any logger… to Amy Meyer’s runaway, tap dancing giant pancake… to Noah Simes’ shamelessly flirtatious “Dame” (fabulous costumes from Cotton Talbot-Minken and Sophia Nora for the flapjack), the premium placed on each and every character is to collect as many laughs as are possible. And, “Oh, yes they can.” Even the puppets get in on the hilarity.

Samko’s sensational Bunyan is aided in this shaggy dog story by a perky, indefatigable Laura Detwiler and a sad sack, self-doubting pup whose fleas even flee from his moaning. He’s portrayed by the incomparable Joey C. Pelletier. The entire kit and caboodle sing and dance selections, for example, from the late Captain and (the still with us) Tennille’s Muskrat Love, all the way up to Rogers and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone (delivered in high operatic form by Ly Meloccaro in a beard borrowed from James Harden or maybe I’ve been watching too much basketball), just another surprise to another madcap panto.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rendition and Reclamation

Company One’s MISS YOU LIKE HELL (ostensibly about a family divided by deportation), playing @ A.R.T.’s Oberon Club through Jan. 27th, was written by Quira Alegria Hudes first as a play; then around 2011 she began developing it as a musical at the height of President Obama’s stringent immigration policies.

Hudes is no stranger to collaboration. Her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on IN THE HEIGHTS won them the Tony for best musical. MISS YOU LIKE HELL, with music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, opened to acclaim Off-Broadway in 2018. Originally focusing on one mother’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter, in light of the current president’s attacks on immigrants, MISS YOU LIKE HELL has a whole new resonance.

You can’t watch this mother’s agony in MISS YOU LIKE HELL and not think of the three thousand children unlawfully separated from their parents and lost in the “system”with two dead(despite identification numbers stamped, Nazi style, on their forearms)… engineered solely to serve as a deterrent to asylum seekers.

The musical may represent one mother’s cross country journey to win back her child’s affection, but McKoewn’s songs are universal. Her urgent, plaintive I’m Just One Slip Away “treading water and waiting for the tide to rise” is a powerful, desperate anthem not just for this mother (the charismatic Johanna Carlisle-Zapeda) but for anyone fighting a lost cause.

MISS YOU LIKE HELL feels a lot like IN THE HEIGHTS because of the myriad stories which break in on the main “road trip adventure plot” (to get mother to a hearing which could lead maybe to a temporary deportation deferral). Some of the detours interrupt the momentum, detracting from the principal point of the journey: for Zapeda’s estranged mother to bond with Krystal Hernandez’ headstrong, resentful daughter.

The best songs and the best moments are the ones which center on the bonding: McKeown’s lovely country-rock Dance With Me “under the moonlight” reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lively Down at the Twist and Shout. Hernandez’ inconsolable Miss You Like Hell and mother’s ardent You Are the Bread. I am the Hunger “Fill me up for one more day” are the showstoppers. (Kudos to music director David Coleman’s nimble orchestra.)

While the rest of the musical meanders all over the map, we meet kind souls who help out (and a few unkind ones who don’t). Director Summer L. Williams and company mine the humor from the secondary stories, like the gay couple (Matthew Murphy and John O’Neil) whose goal is to get married in every state now that you can… and the daunting state trooper (Cristhian Mancinas Garcia) who could, if he wanted to, arrest mother on the spot… and the charming tamale vendor (Adrian Peguero) who seduces mother with one bite of his pie and a tasty song.

Come to think of it, though, she actually does the seducing… which is part of the musical’s undoing. She sells herself as an “earth mother,” brimming with the life force of her female ancestors, a free spirit possessing a vital spark which she wants to pass on to her daughter… but she seems rudderless and easily distracted from her mission. In point of fact, it’s Raijene Murchison as the park ranger/internet follower whose courage reunites mother and daughter, more than anything else.

The law of unintended consequences brought me right up to the present again when the park ranger sings an ode to our national parks praising their grand purpose: to be open to everyone. NOT anymore. And the ranger isn’t being paid. Perhaps that’s what MISS YOU LIKE HELL is now, not so much a mother-and-child reunion, but a stand against that horrific, useless, obscene wall.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Inside Voices

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS, Bess Wohl’s charming send-up of the self-realization movement is getting a crackerjack production at SpeakEasy Stage (meditating on itself through Feb. 2nd). Director M. Bevin O’Gara has choreographed space and silence so seamlessly that our laughter becomes part of the whole. You can’t help yourself when the leader of the four day, silent retreat greets the newcomers with “I am not the teacher. You are the teacher. You came here to meet yourself.”

If you’ve been to one of these seminars which promise “transformation,” and even if you haven’t, you recognize the absurdity of guaranteeing “instant karma” (with apologies to John Lennon). O’Gara’s actors express every emotion we need to understand their mission, all without speaking. For the most part, everyone but the gravel voiced leader (the cheeky Marianna Bassham) is silent.

Some suffer in silence. Some (like the hilarious Nael Nacer) suffer in loud, gesticulating silence when his pompous, full of himself roommate (Sam Simahk) hogs the floor of their small cabin in the woods, then fills it with irritating incense, which only serves to aggravate Nacer more. Two sincere women (Kerry A. Dowling and Celeste Oliva) arrive together, perhaps to strengthen their relationship or work on their problems.

One flirty young woman (the funny, cell phone addicted Gigi Watson) has signed up, it would seem, to work on her feminine wiles. (She needn’t have doubted her charms: Two of the men seem immediately interested.) The last camper/acolyte is a rather vulnerable, lost looking middle aged man who may be sick (Barlow Adamson, brilliant as the sad sack we all worry about).

The script has a few missteps, like how did the clueless sad sack get through the admission process or even get interested in the program … and why fool us, along with the campers, about a certain animal from THE WINTER’S TALE (I’m trying hard not to give anything away.) Mostly the play is delightfully amusing, especially when channeling Christopher Durang (the scene where the so-to-speak “fur” flies in BEYOND THERAPY). The best part of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is that Wohl gives us permission to laugh at the pedantic guru dispensing metaphors as wisdom.