Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review of "I Am My Own Wife"

I had high expectations for the one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, receiving an unfulfilling production at Long Wharf Theatre.  The play won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play, the star, Jefferson Mays, was honored with the Tony for Best Actor that year, and it was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.  Playwright Douglas Wright’s work can be captivating and at times riveting.  It is uniquely structured, part historical play, part investigative reporting with Wright in the middle of the drama, inserting himself, through dialogue and audio tape recordings.  But the overall presentation is ineffectual, minimizing the power innate in the narrative.

The story of I Am My Own Wife is fascinating and multi-faceted. Wright read of 65-year-old transgender, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf (Mason Alexander Park), who had survived the Nazi rule in Germany and the subsequent Communist regime in East Germany.  Intrigued, the playwright contacted her, seeking to write a play about the life she led.  The work that was crafted is part mystery, survival story, and morality play.   We follow Charlotte, who operated a museum filled with fine, antique furniture and a sumptuous collection of timeworn phonographs, gramophones, Victrolas, and other vintage playing devices, from her early years through the latter part of her life.  As the story progresses, disturbing questions come to light that seed doubt on the truth and veracity of the narrative.

The strength of any production of I Am My Own Wife rests on the actor playing the lead role.  Mason Alexander Park gives a fully-realized, convincing, but muted performance, portraying 40 individuals during the show.  Some of the characterizations are brief, others more extensive.  Sometimes the actor’s German accent is hard to understand and, therefore, the action that follows. 

While Director Rebecca Martinez skillfully guides the quick-change transitions with the multitude of characters, the production can be meandering and sometimes confusing, especially in Act I.   The engagement between actor and audience is less absorbing.  It is not until Act II that the story becomes more engrossing and the show’s appeal increases significantly.

Britton Mauk’s Scenic Design centers on numerous, oversized gramophone horns emanating above the stage.  They serve as an obvious reminder of Charlotte and her friend’s unusual collection, but could also be seen as a metaphor for listening devices utilized by the Stassi, the East German secret police that are a significance presence in this, at times, enthralling tale.

I Am My Own Wife, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 1.  Information is at https://www.longwharf.org/i-am-my-own-wife


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Review of "Paradise Lost"


Using John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, as his source material, playwright Tom Dulack has crafted an engaging and entertaining play of the same name.

This version of Paradise Lost is a 100 minute, intermission-less show.  The performers are engrossing and committed to their roles.  The production values--scenic design, costumes, lighting, projections, and sound—work in perfect unison that rival larger, more costly Broadway plays or musicals.

Milton’s tome begins with the angel Lucifer and his vast followers’ fall from grace, and banishment to Hell, after trying to wrestle control of heaven from God.  Director Michael Parva, in conjunction with Projection Designer John Narun, has wasted little exposition for this set-up by mounting a 20-30 second montage of old wood engravings that succinctly and artfully bring us to the netherworld and into the presence of the battle worn Lucifer (David Andrew Macdonald) and his Lieutenant Beelzebub (Lou Liberatore).  Here, Dulack has written a very funny opening scene between the lordly, arrogant Lucifer and his buffoonish associate as they recount their failed battle.

Moving forward, Lucifer seeks revenge on God and, with the assistance of Sin (Alison Fraser), a character both Satan’s wife and daughtr, he plots the destruction of God’s new world where Adam and Eve live in comfort and purity.  Even with the warnings of Archangel Gabrie (Mel Johnson Jr.), Eve is lured into eating the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge by Lucifer.  Eve, in turn, appeals to Adam to do the same and both are vanquished from the Land of Paradise.

The playwright has segmented the play into scenes of Hell and the Garden of Eden.  Those that take place in the underworld are more absorbing and attention-grabbing.  There’s a dollop of humor sprinkled throughout the dialogue, which keeps the play from becoming too serious and earnest.  The characters are flawed, but compelling.

Adam and Eve, however, are not as exciting and their relationship is less captivating.  Adam (Robbie Simpson) and Eve (Marina Shay) convey the innocence and naivety of the first two humans on earth, but they are conventional and languid.  In essence, evil is just more bewitching than good.

David Andrew Macdonald seems to clearly relish the role of Lucifer.  He is sinister, smug, and majestic and shades his performance with humor.  He is an overall charismatic character.  Lou Liberatore’s Beelzebub provides continuous comic relief, which leavens out what could have been an overly serious production.  Who would have thought a fallen angel in Hell could be so funny.  Alison Fraser’s Sin is giddily lustful and conniving as she helps Lucifer in his grand desires.  Mel Johnson Jr. has a small but, nonetheless, important role as the overseer Gabriel.  He brings a stoic unflappablability to his portrayal.

Director Michael Parva never lets the air of the show become too audacious or pretentious.  He skillfully integrates all the creative elements of the production into a wholly satisfying whole.  The scenes with Adam and Eve could have been more dynamic and energizing, but don’t take away from this impressive production.

As previously stated, the inspired contributions of Scenic Designer Harry Feiner, Costume Designer Sydney Maresca, Lighting Designer Phil Monat and Projections Designer John Narun cannot be overemphasized.  Their artistry and prowess strikingly elevate the production to lofty heights.

Paradise Lost, playing on Theatre Row, Off-Broadway through March 1st.  Click here for Information. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review of "The Lifespan of a Fact"



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The Lifespan of a Fact, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through March 8, is what I term a good cheesecake show--after the performance you want to go out with friends for a slice of creamy New York cheesecake and discuss the merits and the questions pondered in the production.

There are a number of timely and important issues raised in this riveting, thought-provoking, and entertaining play.  The essential questions are who and what define a fact, in this case, within a non-fiction magazine article (or essay as the character John refers to his work)?   Is it necessary for a fact(s) to be thoroughly vetted before publication or is a cursory examination okay?  Lastly, should the author of a piece have some leeway with the veracity of the facts to allow for editorial and creative flexibility?

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have taken the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal and fashioned an intriguing, rooted in truth, story.  Emily (Tasha Lawrence), the editor of a high-powered magazine, recruits Jim (Nick Lamedica), a young, eager intern, recently graduated from Harvard, to fact check an article by star journalist John (Rufus Collins).  Taking his assignment to heart, Jim begins to scrutinize the writer with what seems like, at first, the minutiae within his work, but eventually encompasses much more.  This leads to emotional-laden discussions on what exactly is a fact within the context of a truth-based article/essay.  Should a writer be handcuffed to the facts or, if the essence of the story is correct, some latitude should be allowed?  There are numerous outbursts, justifications, and pleadings by all parties.  Even Emily becomes involved in the fray, but her motives not only encompass journalistic ethics, but also the economic realities of publishing a magazine at a time of dwindling subscription numbers and the downward spiral of ad revenues.

The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact has taken on more urgency in today’s world of “fake news,” sometimes low editorial standards, and the public’s distrust of the media. 

As the 80-minute, intermission-less production progresses, you begin to take sides.  Whose argument and rationalization is more meaningful and defensible?  As someone who came of age during the Watergate investigation, where reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously would not print an accusation or revelation unless there were two corroborating pieces of evidence, my allegiances lean towards accuracy.  I found John’s explanations more self-serving and pompous.

The three-person cast is first-rate.  Nick Lamedica, is superb as the eager, passionate, youthfully arrogant employee.  He brings an intensity, but also innocence to the role.  Rufus Collins, projects honesty and zeal as John.  He is combative and cantankerous, but also a principled professional fervent about his methods.   Tasha Lawrence has an officious presence in a role where she is more referee between the other two characters.  Her forcefulness, though, keeps the play on track to its surprising, but satisfying ending.

Director Tracy Brigden keeps the pacing brisk, never letting the sermonizing and moralizing become too tedious and prosaic.  She smartly builds the dramatic arc slowly, layering in more information and inquiries as the play moves forward.   She skillfully meshes the comedic side of the work with the serious and contemplative aspects of the production.  Her most pivotal choice is the use of silence during key parts of the show.

Set Designer Brian Prather’s matter-of-fact two set staging is artistically augmented by Lighting Designer Brian Bembridge, Sound Designer Obadiah Eaves, and Projections Designer Zak Borovay.  They have combined their talents to transform the intimate Theaterworks space into an inspired and inventive set.

The Lifespan of a Fact, a provocative production that is sure to provoke debates and discussions.  And make mine a cherry cheesecake.

Review of "Godspell"



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Trent Sauders (middle) as Jesus and his followers in "Godspell."
Godspell is the type of musical where the artistic vision of the Director can take center stage.  The current production of the show at A Contemporary Theater of Connecticut in Ridgefield is a good case in point.  Director Daniel C. Levine has pulled out all the stops in providing a high quality and energetic production.  Had his efforts displayed some restraint and editing, the musical would have been superb.

The show Is loosely organized as a series of parables from the Gospel of Matthew with the Jesus figure and his followers participating in the oratory.  In addition to the spoken words is the iconic Stephen Schwartz score that bubbles over with passion and vitality.  They include “Save the People,” “Bless the Lord,” “All for the Best,” “Light of the World,” and the classic “Day by Day.”  The songs are powerfully delivered by the strong cast and backstage combo.  It is one of Schwartz’s most satisfying efforts for the musical stage.

The production is centered in an abandoned church, beautifully and imaginatively rendered by Scenic Designer Reid Thompson.  Lighting Designer Jack Mehler and Sound Designer John Salutz strikingly augment the production values of the musical. 
The cast of "Godspell."

Among the garbage, clutter and ramshackle interior reside a group of squatters and ragamuffin children.  Their impishness and good humor is suddenly interrupted by a group of developers that enter the former house of worship.  They are there to survey the building’s core with plans to raze the structure in order to build high-priced condos.  In quick succession, with a spark of fantasy, the well-healed white-collar workers are transformed—in both awareness and dress—into followers of “The Lord” as the teaching and learning begins.  The accomplished child actors, for most of the performance, are perched above the goings-on, serving as innocent, silent observers with occasional levels of participation.

Levine has incorporated cultural, political, and musical references to aid the storytelling.  Some work extremely well such as the Hamilton and Wicked tie-ins.  The Games of Thrones nod is underwhelming and a prolonged scene parodying Harvey Weinstein’s misogynistic behavior is a miscalculation.
The cast of "Godspell."

Even with these ups and downs, the Director’s inventiveness and creativity never lets up.  The ideas and inspired choices come fast and furious, mostly with positive results.  Choreographer Sara Brians contributes engaging dance numbers to keep the show lively and enjoyable.

Every nook and cranny of the performance space is utilized and Props Designer Abigail Bueti deserves kudos for the variety and amount of objects she has assembled for the production.

Again, while Godspell is thoroughly entertaining, some pruning or reconceptualization of some passages would have made the show more fluid and nimbly paced.  For example, the beginning of the musical, while a novel and interesting approach—Levine states the property developers “see money as their God and the high-rise condos as their church”—the scene is overly long and could have been trimmed or quickened.
The cast of "Godspell."

The show is truly an ensemble piece with each of the first-rate cast members deserving recognition—Shaylen Harger, Jacob Hoffman, Katie Ladner, Alex Lugo, Cameron Nies, Andrew Poston, Monica Ramirez, Phil Sloves, Morgan Billings, and Emma Tattenbaum.  In addition to working as a cohesive unit, each performer is given a star turn through song, dance, or narration.  Still, two of the actors do warrant singular attention.  Trent Saunders, as Jesus, brings a subtle, introspective aura to his portrayal.  He has a penetrating insight that commands attention and respect.  Jaime Cepero, brings a diversity of talents to his roles of John the Baptist and Judas.  He exerts a high level of confidence and showmanship.

Godspell, overall, a charming and winning production.  Playing at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield through March 8. For information, go to:  https://www.actofct.org/