Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of "Intimate Apparel"

Life can be like the patchwork quilt that Esther, the main character in Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel, receiving a highly satisfying production at Playhouse on Park, has so lovingly created.  The shapes and various sizes of the cloth, the patterns within the design, and the threads weaving their way in different directions can be random or in an orderly fashion just like capricious and helter-skelter life she leads.

The play begins in the year 1905 and focuses on Esther (Darlene Hope), an African-American woman from the south who migrated to New York City in the late 1800’s.  Reserved and, at 35 years of age, she worries about becoming a spinster.  Staying at a rooming house run by a boisterous, prying widow, Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray), Esther ekes out an existence as a talented seamstress.  She buys beautiful fabric from a Jewish salesman, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), crafts exquisite fashions for a bored, Upper Eastside matron, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider); and frequents the salon of a friend, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), a striking call girl.

Darlene Hope as Esther and Beethoven Oden as George in "Intimate Apparel."

Esther’s life is, one day, suddenly changed when she receives a letter from a George Armstrong (Beethoven Odan) working on the construction of the Panama Canal.  Timidly, he asks to begin a correspondence with the woman.  At first, flummoxed, she reluctantly agrees and an atypical courtship begins, that by the show’s end, significantly affects Esther’s trajectory as well as the other characters in the show.

Playwright Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that brings forth several issues akin to the times.  They are unobtrusively woven into the fabric of the show and include the plight of African-Americans in New York City, religious traditions and taboos, and social mores and restrictions.  Ms. Nottage’s writing is laced with beautiful prose and dialogue.  The show’s strength is centered on the well-drawn character portraits and overlapping storylines and multifaceted structure, which adds a fulfilling, unsettled intricacy to the production.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Ben McLaughlin as Mr. Marks in "Intimate Apparel."
The six-person cast is well-balanced and skillful.  They are led by Darlene Hope as Esther.  The actress has sorrowful eyes that are expressive and revealing.  She brings an understated dignity to the role which, by the end of the production, has grown in confidence and desire.  Her character is a fighter and survivor and Ms. Hope convincingly displays the emotions and adversity she encounters.  Beethovan Odan’s George Armstrong has roguish good looks and a mellifluous voice.  The recitation of his letters from afar are communicated with a vibrancy and passion that are earnest and pulse with the everyday hardships he faces.  In Act II, now ensconced in New York, the actor effortlessly conveys a number of contradictory qualities that keeps his women in the show, as well as the audience, guessing his real intentions.  The other group of actors are purposeful in their roles, but their performances are not as layered as the two principals.  The subtlety and variations in their character’s personas are faintly missing.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Zuri Eshun as Mayme in "Intimate Apparel."
Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has segmented the stage into four, modestly designed, performance spaces, each the setting for Esther’s interactions with characters from the worlds she habituates.  They are conventional, but effectively rendered by Scenic Designer Marcus Abbott. The technique allows the audience to more focus on the character’s relationships within the confines of the small Playhouse on Park boards. The staging of the letter readings in Act I are kept as simple orations and are smartly inserted at different spots on the stage, which adds an understated flow and rhythm.  There is a smooth transition between scenes, which keeps the action flowing unimpeded as the play builds to its melancholy climax.  One of the problems directors at the Playhouse face is its three-sided layout.  This can cause some sightline and hearing issues, which have not been totally solved with this production. 

Intimate Apparel, an engrossing and entertaining production for all audiences, playing through March 4th.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review of "Field Guide"

There are numerous outcomes for audience members when attending a dramatic presentation.  These can include having belief systems challenged, to be imparted with new ideas, and to question our values and viewpoints.  One essential ingredient for a production to be successful, however, is that the audience needs to be entertained and not scratching their heads trying to figure out what they are watching.  In Yale Repertory Theatre’s Field Guide, more time is spent struggling to understand the action on stage then being engrossed with the work and what it has to offer about life, morality, and family relationships.
Hannah Kenah in FIELD GUIDE created by Rude Mechs.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.
Field Guide, an adaptation by Rude Mechs, an Austin based group that collectively creates theatrical pieces, leads us through what is stated as a “surreal hike through one of the greatest—and longest!—novels ever written: “The Brothers Karamazov.”  The start of the production is a bit off-beat—actors, who would not be out of place from the movie Ice Station Zebra, garbed in winter outer wear trudge up to the stage from a side exit door.  From there we are treated to a lone actress in front of an unadorned curtain giving us ten minutes or so of passable stand-up comedy.  Whatever symbolism or imagery this beginning represents was, well, lost on me.

From there, disregarding the comedic bear towards the end of the production and large cardboard-like boxes stuttering around the stage (think of playing in refrigerator or other appliance boxes when you were young), the play has some semblance of order and understanding as it introduces the main set of characters.  There is the disagreeable and repugnant father Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), and his four sons—the self-styled and self-centered sage Ivan (Thomas Graves), the drunken rogue Dmitri (Lana Lesley), the religious zealot Alyosha (Mari Akita), and the misbegotten off-spring Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher).  Add in the love interests of Grushenka and Katya (both played by Hannah Kenah) and you have the recipe for Russian angst, self-loathing and murder.
Robert S. Fisher and Lowell Bartholomee in FIELD GUIDE created by Rude Mechs.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.
For audience members well-versed in the novel, the dreamlike nature of the show might be thought-provoking and appealing, but for those of us unfamiliar with the plot the 90-minute production seems a lot longer.  Give credit to Rude Mechs for their innovative work and popularity—this is their third stint at Yale Rep—but they are an acquired taste that may be too much for the average theatergoer.

The acting and creative troupe, in their mannered personas and idiosyncratic portrayals, give their characters a unique complexity that is definable and individualistic.  Sometimes they appear rather relaxed and indifferent, but that seems to be the vive of the production.
Thomas Graves in FIELD GUIDE created by Rude Mechs.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.
Director Shawn Sides is a drummer marching to his own beat, fitting the segments of this singular and avant-garde work together with a seemingly slapdash artistry.  The overall effect is a somewhat baffling piece of theater.

To sum up, I quote a line from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “And now for something completely different.”  Field Guide, playing at Yale Repertory Theatre through February 18th.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review of "Office Hour"

The first scene in Julia Cho’s play, Office Hour, is a realistic scenario that could easily be played out on college campuses across the country.  Three adjunct faculty members are huddled around an upright table drinking coffee while discussing one of their problematic students.  He is menacing looking and hands in violent, sexually charged writings.  One of the instructors mentions he has the profile of a shooter.  The part-time faculty members’ concerns are very real when it comes to a student that might seem unsettling, maybe dangerous.
Jeremy Kahn, Kerry Warren and Jackie Chung in "Office Hour."

After the three individuals end their coffee break the setting switches to a spacious office where Gina (Jackie Chung ) awaits Dennis (Daniel Chung) who must attend her office hour as part of his course requirement.  At first the undergraduate, with hoodie, baseball cap and dark sunglasses, doesn’t respond to any of her overtures but, eventually, he does begin to open-up.  Mixed in during their mostly one-side conversations are some jarring, chilling visions by Gina that are deftly inserted into the staging.  The duo’s ensuing exchanges, questioning, repartee, and heart-to-hearts veer from the possible to the implausible.  I don’t know of any faculty member that would talk about her divorce or reveal intimate family details like Gina does in a cross-cultural, faculty-student counseling situation.  And touching a student, even one in obvious pain, that’s a no no.

The overriding question in Office Hour is whether Dennis is or is not a shooter.  There is no comfortable answer especially when the character pulls out a revolver from his backpack. 
Jackie Chung and Daniel Chung in "Office Hour."
Ms. Cho does bring to light the anxiety and alarmed feelings of campus teaching faculty as students with all types of mental illness and other pronounced issues matriculate into the higher education environment.  Her portrayal of Dennis, while an extreme example, also illustrates the dysfunctional nature of a amall portion of undergraduates today.

However, the show stumbles into an improbable representation of an instructor’s interaction with a troubled youth.  The method in which goings-on unfold are unrealistic and flawed. 

Ms. Cho states she was inspired to write Office Hour after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, but then disregards safeguards put in place in response to that tragic event in order to create a theatrical event.  For example, an undergraduate in his Junior year, like the character Dennis, exhibiting the tendencies portrayed in the show would, nowadays, be flagged much, much earlier in his academic career.  An adjunct, or even a full-time faculty member, would not engage in the rather intense counseling session depicted in the show.  An undergraduate would be referred, instead, and mostly likely be required, to see a trained campus counselor or Dean.
Jackie Chung and Daniel Chung in "Office Hour."
Why should I care about these incongruities if they are rendered in the name of dramatic license?  As a university administrator that works with challenging students and assists faculty when issues arise I found the show’s portrayals troubling and a disservice to academicians and students, like Dennis, that feel alienated, bullied, and psychologically beaten by their parents.  These are significant problems that college students may face and deserve a more authentic presentment. 

Jackie Chung is convincing as the instructor that, on the one hand, cares about the damaged individual in her class and, on the other hand, is frightened and wary of the young man.  Daniel Chung is intimidating and exudes a threatening demeanor, but he also exposes a vulnerability and confusion that makes his character more sympathetic.  Jeremy Kahn is somewhat excitable and foolish in his actions as David, one of the part-time instructors, who jump starts the production as it falters toward the end.  Kerry Warren is more low-key and introspective as Genevieve, another of Gina’s teaching colleagues.
Daniel Chung and Jeremy Kahn in "Office Hour."
Director Lisa Peterson, working within the context and confines of the play’s structure, deftly builds up the drama and suspense between the main two protagonists.  It’s not an easy task considering there are just two actors in one room and one of the roles calls for the performer to sit and stare into space for a significant portion of the show.  At the end of the production, she smoothly orchestrates the staccato like blackouts at the end of the production with precision and horror.

Office Hour, an unrealistic and problematic play that, nonetheless, does bring forth weighty concerns enveloping college and university campuses.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of "Something Rotten!"

Portions of this review are based on a previous production.

The Broadway musical Something Rotten!, a rollicking, no-holds barred extravaganza, is playing at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through February 4th.   The show is fun, clever, and full of merriment.

It is the end of the 16th century and William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) has achieved rock star status as the playwright everyone loves and wants to emulate.  Enter the Bottom brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti), that write and produce their own plays in the shadow of The Bard.  Unfortunately, they are in desperate need of a hit to keep their merry band of actors together and placate their moneyed patron.   Complicating matters is Nick’s desire to make a better life for him and his wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) and Nigel’s love for Portia (Autumn Hurlbert) the daughter of the holier-than-thou Puritan, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote).  In desperation, Nick turns to a demented soothsayer (Blake Hammond) to help him divine the next big thing in the theater.  His simple response of musicals sets in motion the wild, wacky and hugely entertaining Something Rotten!

The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell is very funny, poking fun at theater conventions and musicals of the past.  They have given their large and polished ensemble of performers robust characters, not an easy feat with so many actors and actresses requiring stage time.  While the defining premise of the show is rather offbeat, the two somehow make it work. 

The score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick is a delight.  Tuneful, zany and frenzied the songs are delivered with a full-throttled gusto by the talented cast.  From the raucous opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the bellyaching complaints of “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” to the madcap production numbers “A Musical” and “We See the Light,” the songs have a joyful assault on our auditory senses.

The cast is led by Rob McClure, a Broadway veteran (starring roles in Chaplin and Honeymoon in Vegas), as Nick Bottom.  He is uproariously funny, a superb dancer and singer.  The success of Something Rotten! depends on a superlative performance by the misguided, resolute Bottom brother and McClure delivers with energy to spare.  Josh Grisetti, as his brother Nigel, is hysterically excitable.  It’s great to see the triple threat actor in such a form-fitting role.  Now, if someone can just write him an original Broadway musical to star in.  Adam Pacal seems like he is having a lot of fun playing the boorish, calculating Shakespeare.  Maggie Lakis, popping up intermittently, provides humorous stability.  Autumn Hurlbert shows real comic skills and pairs up perfectly with Grisetti as the sweetest of sweethearts.  Blake Hammond is rib-tickling hilarious and is an audience favorite as he leads members cast in the Act I showstopper, “A Musical.”

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full rein of the show, making it a tightly run piece of musical theater.  Nicholaw’s work is well-thought out bringing forth superb performances by the skillful group of thespians.  As choreographer his high-octane dance numbers bring down the house.

The scenic design by Scott Pask can be whimsical; the costumes by Gregg Barnes are colorful with a slightly off-kilter take on renaissance garb.

Something Rotten!, a boisterous and jaunty ride not to be missed, playing through February 4th.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review of "Constellations"

The plot of Constellations is as old as the stars.  Boy and girl meet, break-up, reunite, and then, sadly, tragedy.  There’s a unique twist, however, to the story as it moves forward.  Instead of heading in a linear direction with one trajectory there are numerous threads to the narrative that are explored.  For instance, the opening scene between Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a cosmologist and Roland (M. Scott McLean), a beekeeper is portrayed multiple ways.  The actors start and then restart the action with slight variations before the next scene begins, reconfigured with alternative pathways.

The idea of a world with potentially limitless perspectives is teased out by playwright Nick Payne.  During the early days of their relationship Marianne attempts to explain her work as a physicist studying the origins of the universe, which could also include the notion of parallel universes.  The start and stop nature of the production, as the characters in this two-person show continue to move forward with their lives together, genuinely works.  At times, though, this 75-minute play becomes somewhat tedious with the back and forth but, overall, the imagination and originality of the show, coupled with the rapport between the characters, makes Constellations a winning production.

The two performers bring a simplicity and complexity to their roles.  M. Scott McLean, who was so good in Midsummer a few seasons back at Theaterworks, once again displays his prowess for playing quirky, appealing characters.  He finely displays a wide-range of personality traits, sometimes calling forth many within a very short time period as a scene is replayed a number of times.  Allison Pistorius is an engaging actress that can be affable one moment, sentimental the next, passionate or just a jerk. 

The difficulty for Rob Ruggiero, one of the most skilled and versatile directors in Connecticut, is how to take two people talking on a small circular stage and create an absorbing and intriguing production.  To complicate matters, the mini-scenes are constantly repeated so there needs to be the slightest nuance or twist at every variation to keep the audience involved and caring about the characters.  Fortunately, Ruggiero has enough savvy and artistry to forge a successful, enticing, and bittersweet comedy-drama come to life.

The set design by Jean Kim, a theater-in-the-round space that emulates a planetarium configuration, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design, consisting of small bulbs twinkling above the stage and reacting to the emotions below, helps set the mood for the play.  Michael Miceli’s inventive sound design and Billy Bivona’s original music augment the atmospheric nature of the show.

Constellations, a beguiling and wily take on two people navigating the landscape of love.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Review of "Feeding the Dragon"

Playwright and performer Sharon Washington spent part of her formative years living in the New York Public Library.  In her absorbing and entertaining one-woman show, Feeding the Dragon, she chronicles this magical experience as well as her family’s life within the confines of the repository.

In the early 1970’s she and her family lived in an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the library.  Heated by a coal furnace, the structure had to be maintained day and night.  A custodian was needed, such as her father, and given the spacious living quarters in exchange for stoking the fire and providing other routine work in the building.  When the library closed the young girl had free rein to roam the stacks, explore the interior’s nooks and crannies, and play atop the walled roof of the building.

The talented and ebullient actress does a laudable job connecting with the Hartford Stage patrons and enthralls the audience with her after hours adventures.  But her tale is not solely about her personal exploits and hijinks.  A good part of the show incorporates her no-nonsense mother, hard-working father and other family relations.  Their character’s interactions help round out the performance, providing background and depth to the story. 

While Ms. Washington’s portrayals are engaging and her autobiographic memories appealing, Feeding the Dragon lacks a definable dramatic arc that could have made her story more affecting.  There are junctures during the performance that could have been exploited for more theatrical moments.

Director Maria Mileaf skillfully paces the show.  She is at her best when guiding the performer through her impressions and derring-do.  She has the actress utilize all of the inventive set design by Tony Ferrieri, which has steps and risers, composed of colorful book binders, leading to a small stage.  Ann Wrightson’s lighting design and Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design add texture and fullness to the production. 

Feeding the Dragon, an enjoyable and winning solo performance.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of "John Lithgow - Stories by Heart"

The multi-talented actor John Lithgow knows how to tell a story.  Actually, he recites two short works of fiction in his one-man show, Stories by Heart.   For almost two hours the award-winning thespian of stage, screen and television captivates and entertains the audience with a theatrical delivery of the stories.  Stories and their power are the central theme of the production. 

Lithgow starts the show talking about his upbringing and, particularly, how his father inspired him to become an actor through his creation and management of many Shakespearean theater companies and festivals—some successful and some not.  As a pre-teen boy, Lithgow became mesmerized by the dramatics he beheld.  These on-stage productions were supplemented by a nightly ritual of bedtime stories read and performed by their dad.  Each night, Lithgow and his two other siblings would select a passage from a 1,000+ page volume containing dozens of short works that would then be acted out. 

To recreate the wonder he felt as a young lad, the performer brings us “The Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, in Act I.  Act II’s spotlight is PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”  The actor bookends the show by describing his father’s ill-health year’s later and how the ability of a story invigorated and revitalized him.

At its best the show pulsates as when an animated Lithgow portrays multiple, rather eccentric characters from the PG Wodehouse tale.  But the emphasis on the two stories, which account for most of the two-hour production, can come across like a one-trick pony.  If the stories don’t resonate there’s not much else to grab onto.

Dan Sullivan demonstrates his prowess as director by deftly guiding the actor through his various portrayals during the pair of recitations.

Stories by Heart, a very personal, mostly entertaining memoir, from one of our finest actors.