Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review of "West Side Story"


If you cannot wait for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the film version of West Side Story this fall, you can head to the Broadway Theater for the revisionist, highly unsatisfying stage show directed by Ivo Van Hove.  For what seems like a majority of the 100-minute, intermission-less production, audience members are viewing what is happening via real-time projections streaming onto the back of the stage.  By being forced to watch the two-dimensional action, the intimacy and dramatic engagement between the characters and audience is largely missing.  The two primary settings, where the projections are incorporated, are Doc’s store and the dress shop where Maria and Anita work.  They are tucked in the very back of the stage making them virtually unviewable unless via the projection.  Designed by Jan Versweyveld, these are superb recreations of an “In the Heights” bodega and a cramped, manufacturing sweat shop. The attention to detail is truly exceptional. 

For individuals not familiar with the plot of West Side Story, it is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written by librettist Arthur Laurents.  Unlike most revivals of the musical that hark back to the late 1950’s, this rendering of the show takes place in the present.  The multi-racial cast, most adorned with extensive tattoos, is divided into two street gangs—the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and Jets (more White)--that battle for control of their changing neighborhood.  Complicating the rivalry is the star-crossed love affair of Tony, the former leader of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.   In the end, their ill-fated romance leads to anguish and grief.

The score for West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most iconic in Broadway musical history.  To name just a few of the well-known numbers - "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "America", and "Somewhere."  The song “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet sequence have been excised from the production, supposedly to save time since there is no intermission.  The score is full of energy, with songs full of hope, and desires.  The lone comedic number, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is now effectively delivered with a note of cynicism and despair.

With many of the songs and production numbers, there is a ceaseless barrage of projections which made it hard to focus on the conflicts and encounters on stage.  For example, with the raucous “Dance at the Gym” sequence the streaming video was extremely distracting and diverted from enjoying Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s rambunctious, sexually charged choreography.  During the aftermath of “The Rumble,” both gangs are spread across the naked stage, slowly recovering from their wounds and realizing the deadly ramifications of what just transpired.  It is a solemn moment when, suddenly, the screen lights up with an aerial view of the setting, robbing the moment of its power and intensity.

Director Ivo Van Hove has come up with some interesting concepts for this production.  The latter half of the musical is set during a constant rain, which amplifies the bleakness and despair of all involved.  Cell phone videos are playfully employed, primarily, during the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number.

The acting troupe, while effortlessly portraying their respective roles, is hampered by the two-dimensionality of their characters playing just overhead.  It was difficult becoming enmeshed with the actors and actresses and feeling 100% connected to them. 

Isaac Powell’s Tony, intoxicated with his love for Maria, could be seen as overplaying the part, but his boyishness and euphoria come across as real and heartfelt.  The same could be said for Shereen Pimentel’s Maria who, also shot with cupid’s arrow, is exhilarated and rapturous in her newfound, yet forbidden, love.  Besides a withering sneer and absolute repudiation for members of the Jets, Amar Ramasar, does not show much range or nuance as Bernardo.  Dharon E. Jones as Riff and Yesenia Ayala as Anita provide assured, compelling performances.

West Side Story, an ineffectually conceived revival, at the Broadway Theatre.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Review of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time"

Creativity is center stage in the worthy production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through March 8th.  Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the show cleverly and imaginatively delves into the world of a 15-year old boy on the autism spectrum.

The story focuses on Christopher, a young lad with Aspergers, who lives with his father in Swindon, a small town in England.  As the play begins, Christopher discovers someone has killed his neighbor’s dog and, against his father’s orders, begins to investigate.  This child-like objective quickly tests his personal boundaries and fears as he begins a journey of self-discovery that reveals household secrets and lays bare family dynamics.

Playwright Simon Stephens has brilliantly adapted author Mark Haddon’s book to reflect the emotional awareness and day-to-day life of a teen on the autism spectrum.  Christopher is very smart, but the world outside his special needs school and home are a foreboding place full of obstacles and challenges.  What makes the play even more engrossing is how realistically parents of a boy with autism are portrayed, from the demands they face to the commitment they have for their child.

Audience members acquainted with individuals like Christopher will give knowing nods throughout the show.  For some individuals, the play can be hard to watch.  As a parent with a severely developmentally disabled son, I have shed a number of tears watching the drama.

For a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to be successful, the three main characters need to deliver precision, heartfelt portrayals.  Tyler Nowakowski, a 3rd year BFA student at the University of Connecticut is very good in the demanding role of Christopher.  He deftly embodies a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  His mannerisms—both overt and more subtle—are on target.  The actor shows the many facets a teenager on the spectrum faces each day of his life.

Joe Cassidy, who plays Christopher’s father Ed, gives a rewarding performance full of mixed emotions.  There is anguish, distress, but also the deep love he feels for his son.  You sense his inner turmoil and come to understand the sacrifices he has made.  Margot White’s portrayal of Judy, the boy’s mother, is heart rendering.  The actress gives a realistic performance of a mother in distress who wants balance in her life, but cannot cope with the ups and downs she is presented.  Thalia Eddy, a sophomore BFA student at the University, is caring, soft-spoken, but firm as Christopher’s teacher Siobhan.  She is a steady force in the lad’s life.  Her understanding and compassion are thoroughly convincing.  Maybe she should change her major to special education?

Director Kristin Wold utilizes the ensemble throughout the production, sometimes overusing them in scenes, which can prove distracting from the main focus of the play.  She is most effective with the more intimate scenes between Christopher and his father and mother.  Here, the story can speak for itself.

Set Designer Dennis Akpinar relies on a minimal design, relying on building blocks that are assembled for a variety of settings and functions.  Projections Designer Taylor Edelle Stuart builds in numerous backdrops whose images can broaden our perspective of Christopher’s inner world.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a captivating and emotional-charged show, playing at the CT Repertory Theatre through March 8th.  Information and tickets are at:  https://crt.uconn.edu/Online/default.asp

NOTE - In the show, Christopher exhibits traits which are not fully explained. Why does he not want to be touched? What is the significance of his model train-building obsession? Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?  I asked my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country, to help me write a column that would provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics (Click here). Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Review of "Pride and Prejudice"


The production of Pride and Prejudice, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through March 8tht, is described by director Jason O’Connell as “a screwball rom-com…playful, irreverent.”  Add in gender swapping roles, and the show can be seen as a charming and entertaining piece of theater that remains faithful to Jane Austen’s classic novel.  However, in some respects, what holds back this version of playwright Kate Hamill’s vision is its tameness.  It is spirited and has a mischievous streak to it, but the production would have benefitted from more histrionics, not less.

As with the book, the play revolves around the Bennet family—mother, father and their four daughters--Jane, the family beauty; Mary, the plain, perpetually gloomy sister; Lizzy, independent-minded and strong-willed; and Lydia, young and impetuous.  Mrs. Bennet’s sole purpose in life is to find her daughters suitable husbands, both to aid the family’s fortunes as well as ensure happiness for each young woman.  A succession of men enters their lives to varying degrees of success, but the focus centers on Lizzy and the enigmatic Mr. Darcy.  Their initial encounter, reserved and cool, with ups and downs that confound and embarrass, develops into a relationship that becomes rooted in mutual admiration and, dare I say, love.

Ms. Hamill preserves the essence of the novel, chiefly the pride individuals foster upon themselves and the prejudices people in 19th century England had towards those deemed at a lower social and economic standing.  Her sometimes eccentric and madcap devices may not be to the liking of Austen purists, but they can prove to be humorous and diverting, especially to audience members not familiar with the source material.

For the most part, the acting troupe is fine; some of the performances are slightly stilted.  Three of the notable actresses include Kelly Ketourneau, a delight as Lydia Bennet.  She imbues her character with a devil-may-care view of life, a spunkiness, but also a naiveté that provides more nuance to the role.  Jane Bradley, who portrays both Mr. Bingham and Mary Bennet, is highly entertaining as the sullen Mary.  Her deadpan delivery and glowering expressions enliven the show.  Maia Guest is a scene stealing dynamo as Mrs. Bennet.  Her pleadings, whimpering, and fatalistic mindset can be hilarious, but sometimes overwhelm the other actors in her vicinity.  Kimberly Chatterjee’s Lizzy Bennet comes across as principled, but not as forceful with her convictions or adamant about her desires or beliefs.  While Nicholas Robert Ortiz’s Mr. Darcy is aloof, proud, and awkward among the ladies, he is almost too reticent in the role.  The other cast members - Nadezhda Ame as Jane Bennet, Sophie Sorensen as Mr. Bennet, Matthew Krob as Wickham, Mr. Collins, and Miss Bingley – provide solid support to the production.

Director Jason O’Connell keeps the pacing up tempo and the character transitions quick.  The comical scenes work better in conveying the tone of the work.  The more serious-minded portions of the play are less captivating.  The infusion of modern day music into the ballroom sequences are amusing and smile provoking.  However, its incorporation is overused, which lessens its overall playfulness.   

Pride and Prejudice, playing at Playhouse on Park through March 8th.  Information and tickets at:  https://www.playhouseonpark.org/

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.