Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of "Amy and the Orphans"

The play, Amy and the Orphans, can be a painfully realistic examination of how society looks at and treats individuals with developmental disabilities.  To her credit, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino has managed to make powerful statements—both overt and subtly—that is tinged with humor and poignancy.

The plot toggles between a twenty-something couple coming to grips with their troublesome relationship and, years later, scenes with their grown-up children--Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum)—both in their late 50’s, early 60’s, and their younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer), a younger woman with Down’s Syndrome living in a Group Home.  We quickly learn their father has recently passed (their mother died years earlier) and Maggie and Jacob have flown into New York City to pick up Amy, gently break the word to her, and head to his home to settle his affairs.  Along for the ride is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy’s no-nonsense aid.

From their very first interaction with Amy, the two siblings are not only over-productive of their sister, but treat her almost as if she was still a child, not a grown, semi-independent living adult.  Sadly, within the context of Amy’s life these condescending attitudes began at an early age with the way the entire family approached their “different” sister, rarely visiting her or realizing her vast potential.   Maggie and Jacob don’t even know she has a day job, a relationship, and understands the world and its surroundings.  She knows about her father’s death thanks to Kathy, who gives a puzzling look when informed the woman was never informed.

As the play progresses, the audience learns more about the family dynamics, both when Amy was very young and today.  It is important to note that the portion of the show given over to the young parents and their heart-wrenching discussions and decisions takes place in the 1960’s when children with developmental disabilities were, more often than not, shunted to state-run facilities.  At one climatic point the name Willowbrook is spewed from Kathy’s lips.  You could fill the recoil from the mostly older audience members who remembered the scandal and horrors of the former Staten Island facility.

As the play concludes, after a chilling and climatic scene, there is a better understanding and a new awareness between the three remaining family members.  We can only hope that is the direction all the characters take.

Ms. Ferrentino has painted an honest, at times playful and bittersweet, portrayal of a family coming to terms with its past and present.  She balances the reality of views towards individuals with disabilities with a theatricality that makes the production entertaining and enriching.  Her inclusion of scenes when the parents were young assists in providing needed background information and helps enhance the overall presentation.

The acting troupe is up to the challenge of handling the material with deft and aplomb.  Jamie Brewer, as Amy, an actress with Down’s Syndrome, gives a vigorous, persuasive performance.  She’s a wisecracking and confident woman forcefully declaring her independence.  Debra Monk gives Maggie a layered vulnerability and excitable personality.  She is not only coming to terms with her life, her father’s passing, but also with her mercurial relationship with her sister.   Mark Blum, as Jacob, is more reserved and a perfect counterpoint to Ms. Monk’s character.  Vanessa Aspillaga is direct and protective as Kathy.  For any family with a loved one in a Group Home setting, a person like Kathy is someone you would want in your child’s life.  Diane Davis, who plays the young mother, Sarah, is a bundle of mixed emotions as she grapples with her own self-worth and the life determining decision she felt compelled to make.  Josh McDermitt’s Bobby, the patriarch of the group, gives a believable performance as a man who doesn’t fully understand the magnitude and ramifications of what is happening around him. 

Director Scott Ellis brings a skillful hand to a sensitive storyline.  He allows the material to develop naturally, slowly unfolding to present a genuine, gratifying production.  There is a good pacing to the show as he adeptly switches between the past and present.

Amy and the Orphans, a provocative and worthwhile production that is authentic and moving.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of "Baskerville - A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

The playwright Ken Ludwig is having a banner year for productions of his works in Connecticut, with decidedly mixed results.  Last November The Game’s Foot had an underwhelming presentation at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is currently receiving a sleek and stylish production at Hartford Stage (through March 25th).  That brings us to Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery playing until March 25th at Long Wharf Theatre.  The show, a dramatization of the Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” is a straightforward and sometimes amusing telling of the classic tale.  The play is staged with only five actors.  Think of The 39 Steps (playing at Music Theatre of Connecticut through March 18th), but with less inventiveness and adrenaline.

Brian Owen, Daniel Pearce, Alex Moggridge and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."

The plot of the show is simple enough.  Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. Watson are asked to investigate the menacing, maybe otherworldly, events on the English Moors by Baskerville estate.  The previous occupant has been suspiciously and horribly murdered by, what seems, a ferocious beast.  The duo race up to investigate as well as protect the new Lord of the manor, a wide-eyed Texan, who might be the latest victim of a supposed family curse.  There are disguises, red-herrings, clues to be deciphered, deceit and a love story thrown in for good measure.
Daniel Pearce, Brian Owen, and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
The playwright has been quite faithful to the original story so audience members, not familiar with the mystery, will not be lost.  Ludwig has embellished the tale with humorous trimmings and a frantic sensibility.  Still, while the overall production is entertaining, there is too little of a comic temperament.  I smiled more then I laughed.

The five actors play 40 different, sometimes eccentric, characters.  The acting team is led by Alex Moggridge as the intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes.  He is suitably erudite, aloof, and without peer.  His portrayal is assured and less comical then the other performers, which helps anchor the show.  Daniel Pearce, as Dr. Watson, is less the inept sidekick so famously portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies from the 1940’s.  Here, the actor is less a bungler and more Holmes’ partner-in-crime.  The actor has bounding enthusiasm for the role that helps propel his scenes forward.  The three other performers—Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston, and Brian Owen—seem to be having the most fun as they flit in and out of dozens of quirky, idiosyncratic characters.  While all fine actors, Brian Owen needs to be singled out for his more daft, off-the-wall portrayals.
Daniel Pearce, Kelly Hutchinson, Brian Owen and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
Director Brendan Fox keeps the game afoot with quick costume and set changes synchronized at a dazzling pace.  His work with Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel helps push forward scene changes with modest, yet effective lighting techniques.  The director is at his best, as is the play itself, when the action and hijinks are ratcheted up a notch or two. 

Tim Mackabee’s minimal scenic design gives just enough visual cues to
define set locales.  Victoria Deiorio’s Sound Design and original music add a sinister and melodramatic underpinning to the production.  Lex Liang’s Costume Designs deserve special notice for their spot-on Victorian accoutrements as well as permitting lightning quick costume changes, a must for this type of show.
Alex Moggridge as Sherlock Holmes in "Baskerville."
Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a droll and diverting piece of entertainment, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through March 25th.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Support the 27th Annual CT Critics Circle Awards

Christy Altomare receiving her award for outstanding actress in a musical for Hartford Stage's production of "Anastasia."
The Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will hold its 27th annual free event Monday, June 11 at the Westport Country Playhouse -- but we need your help.

The not-for-profit organization wants to keep the the show, that celebrates the best of the state's professional theaters, a free and open-to-the-public event but costs have increased over the years.

On Thursday, March 1 is Fairfield County Foundation Giving Day and money to the CCC through this fundraising template will go directly for awards to give out to theater artists and for expenses incurred in the ceremony.  The link to the form, which goes live on March 1st is:

Please circle the day and give as generously as you can. Over the last few years, the event has become a terrific event for theater lovers to gather, celebrate the season and applaud the wonderful work that occurs on the state's many stages.

Please help us reward the many great regional theater artists who have given their lives to the theater. In many cases, this is their only venue to take such an honored bow. 

Reprinted with permission from

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review of "Red Hot Mama"

Sophie Tucker, the songstress and performer who was a mainstay of American entertainment during the first half of the 20th century, is being celebrated in a charming and appealing one-woman show, Red Hot Mama, at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT.

The actress and cabaret singer Sharon McNight stars as the brassy, powerhouse songbird who was a mainstay of burlesque, vaudeville and all other forms of entertainment for 60 years.  Ms. McNight also wrote the book of the musical and directed the production. 

The focus of the show is the music that made Ms. Tucker a star.  There are over two dozen songs and ditties that she made famous, many with risqué lyrics (for that time-period) and most dealing with men and relationships.  In between the musical numbers Ms. McNight has sketched out bare-bones biographical information—from her start in rundown, forgettable theaters to her numerous failed marriages (three) to her life in the big time.  While the snippets and vignettes give structure to the show, it is the songs of years ago that resonate and pulsate with emotion and titillation.

The patter she has with her three-person band, most notably Brent C. Mauldin as her accompanist and musical director Ted Shapiro, are good-humored and naughtily nice.

Sharon McNight beautifully embodies the soul and dynamism of the tireless trouper.  You can tell the actress is giving it her all, looking to please every last person watching the show.  On the night I saw the production the theater was, due to inclement weather, not very crowded.  Ms. McNight could easily haved dialed in her performance, but just like her alter ego she worked unremittingly to beguile and captivate the audience.  

While on-stage the performer is sassy, full of swagger, and brimming with bluster.  Her portrayal of Ms. Tucker away from the bright lights and cheering audiences is more reflective and melancholy.

As director, Ms. McKnight, gives the show a breezy and lighthearted gloss.  However, a different set of eyes might have been able to tighten up the production, giving it a better flow.

Red Hot Mama, a worthwhile trip down memory lane from one of the great performers of the last century.  Playing at Seven Angels Theater through March 11th.

Review of "Murder on the Orient Express"

The Agatha Christie mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express,” is one of the author’s best known and most intriguing.  It features the dapper Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at its center and a baffling murder on the celebrated train at its core.  The prolific playwright Ken Ludwig (this is the second of three shows he is having produced in Connecticut this year) has transformed the novel into a taut and dashing stage show, receiving a glimmering production at Hartford Stage.

The story is both simple and surprising.  Who stabbed to death the contemptible, secretive businessman during the early morning hours as the train hurtled through the Yugoslavian countryside?  Poirot who, by happenstance, is traveling on the train is called in to investigate.  With a bevy of international suspects to investigate and a multitude of inscrutable clues to sift through the famed sleuth needs all his “little grey cells” to solve one of his most puzzling cases.

Ken Ludwig has compressed the British author’s work, providing the essential plot lines and twists without sacrificing a well-played and gripping adventure.  He skillfully fashions a multitude of characters that are distinct and fully rendered. There is more humor then you would expect from a Christie yarn, but the mix of comedic moments and furtive machinations provide an intoxicating cocktail of excitement and danger.

The acting company is first-rate, filled out with many Broadway veterans.  While the entire troupe deserves recognition, there are two performers that need singling out.  At the top of the list is David Pittu, who brings a knowing perception and intelligence to the role of Hercule Poirot.  It is a masterful performance that binds the show together.  The actor puts his own unique spin on the renowned detective with highly satisfying results.  He is fussy, observant, and has a dynamic presence. 

The second performer of note is the actress Julie Halston, whose comedic talents and over-the-top histrionics are second to none.  Out of all the characters slinking around the first-class berth, Ms. Halston, as the loud-mouthed, outrageous American divorcee Helen Hubbard, shines brightest.  Be forewarned--as with many Agatha Christie novels what you see is not always what you get.

Director Emily Mann, who helmed an earlier version of the show at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, keeps the scenes lively and the production well paced, especially when factoring in the large moveable sets.  She deftly maneuvers the actors through the narrow train corridors and rooms with fluidity and flair.  Her staging of the climatic “who done it” scene is creatively and dramatically executed.

One of the other stars of the play are Beowulf Boritt’s sets, most notably the sleek, skeletal richness of the Orient Express.  The exactitude and detail of the train sections add a wow factor to an already entertaining production.

Darron L. West’s Sound Design adds an element of menace and foreboding with his musical interludes.  The other sounds, most notably those emanating from the train, add a degree of realism.

William Ivey Long’s period costumes are on-the-mark and help define each character’s persona and status in life.

Murder on the Orient Express, a thrilling and captivating whodunit, not just for Agatha Christie fans.  Playing at Hartford Stage through March 25th.

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.