Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Review of "The Revolutionists"

Walking out of The Revolutionists, the outrageous, gloriously funny, and terrifically acted show at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, I thought of the opening line from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show—“And now for something completely different…”  This is a show that is unique, unexpected, and breath of fresh air in a mostly lackluster theater season.

Taking place during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the playwright Lauren Gunderson has delivered a fast-paced, dizzying array of comedic dialogue, laugh-out-loud one-liners, as well as thoughtful meditations on the power and necessity of the Arts, the potential of the spoken and written word, self-sacrifice, freedom from tyranny, equality for women and, simply, hope.  The four richly embroidered characters don’t just recite their lines, but attack them with a combined gleeful vengeance and unswerving forcefulness. 

The show starts off with the playwright Olympe De Gouges in her writing salon thinking of something new to produce.  A knock at her door, and in walks her friend, Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean freedom fighter pursuing justice for her homeland.  She is seeking De Gouges to write pamphlets or a play highlighting the struggle of her island brethren against the French rule.  The two converse and bicker over Marianne’s request, with the activist definitively declaring no musicals and no puppets.  Suddenly, another knock, and in walks in a highly charged Charlotte Cordey, intent on murdering the journalist Jean-Paul Marat and beseeching the playwright to construct some great final words.  As the, now, threesome begin to squabble and cross swords, a final knock at the door reveals none other than Marie Antoinette, in all her regal splendor.  The queen adds to the comic and biting repartee before the mood of the show takes a serious and more somber turn.  Cordey exits, her fate sealed.  Then Marie Antoinette, and finally De Gouges, with Angelle, alone, shattered by news from home.

Sarah Hartmann directs an energetic and fully engaged cast that works so well together.  She balances the cheeky and droll spiritedness with the more solemn and disheartening conclusion.  The director skillfully keeps the liveliness on stage from becoming too chaotic or veering out-of-control.  Her staging of the execution scenes are handled with imagination and restraint.

The four women who make up the cast are superb and make for a winning ensemble.  They are funny, witty, but can also be deadly serious.  They are led by Rebecca Hart, who made such a madcap appearance at Theaterworks’ Midsummer a few seasons back.  As the playwright Olympe De Gouges, she is the focal point and driving force for the narrative.  Her talents are perfectly suited for De Gouges’ seemingly stream-of-conscious banter and screwball, but purposeful, digressions.  Erin Roche’s portrayal of Marianne Angelle, is the most serious of the quartet of performers.  The actress conveys an urgency and focus for her mission, but also exudes a tender vulnerability and compassion to her compatriots.  Jennifer Holcombe pulls off the very difficult assignment of portraying Marie Antoinette as, at first, a vapid Queen of France but, as the play progresses, a sympathetic, thoughtful and, finally, tragic character.  Olivia Jampol’s portrayal of the murderess Charlotte Cordey, is not as layered or nuanced as the other three actresses.  Still, her determination and single-mindedness serves as a beacon that propels the early action in the 90 minute, intermission-less production.

Scenic Designer David Lewis’ slightly elevated performing space gives the production a play-within-a-play quality.  The singular door at the back of the stage portends various degrees of expectations—both welcoming and ominous.

Kate Bunce’s Costume Designs are historically accurate and, with Ms. Antoinette’s garb, wonderfully whimsical.

One last note is to commend Playhouse on Park for staging The Revolutionists, an ambitious and potentially risky undertaking for a small acting company.  But the reward for audience members willing to expand their theatrical horizons is a thrilling joyride, an exhilarating and absorbing work of theater. 

The Revolutionists, playing through March 10th.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review of "Tiny Beautiful Things"

I find it fascinating that complete strangers will bare their souls to anonymous advice columnists, seeking their opinion on everything from relationships, sex, careers, and their mental and physical well-being.  That’s what occurs on stage in Long Wharf’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things.  Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos, and adapted by the latter from the best-selling book by advice columnist Cheryl Strayed, this wisp of a show (it’s only 75 minutes long) is structured as a question and answer give and take.   Three actors, Brian Sgambati, Elizabeth Ramos, and Paul Pontrelli, play numerous characters writing (reciting) very intimate and personal pleas to Sugar, Strayed’s anonymous, online pen name, for her thoughtful, insightful and heartfelt responses.

Ms. Vardalos has not given the play much dramatic arc so while the initial set-up is intriguing, after 15 minutes of the back and forth my interest began to wane.  The impassioned appeals for help and the subsequent replies are powerful and emotionally charged, but there needs to be a degree of theatricality to strengthen and diversify the output on stage.

Ms. Strayed, an accomplished writer (she penned the 2012 best-seller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail), can dazzle, as demonstrated in the play, with her lengthy, sensitive, and highly personal elucidations.  What made her an Internet sensation was the honest, intimate experiences she shared with those individuals who wrote to her. 

The actress Cindy Cheung beautifully and compellingly portrays the advice columnist.  She effectively conveys a world weariness and depth of experience like the woman she portrays.  Ms. Cheung delivers her responses to the emailed letters with an intensity of feeling and compassion.  The other cast members earnestly communicate their distress, grief, and hardships with apprehension and optimistic anticipation.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll has smartly cast actors that are everyday types of people—those you might have as co-workers, meet in a coffee shop, or exercise side by side with at the gym.  They more realistically suggest individuals that may seek online help.  Setting the action outside allows the actors to wander about the yard, in and out of the spotlight.

The set for the interactions, by Designer Kimie Nishikawa, is a space occupied by a two-story house with a porch, astroturf, to signify a grassy lawn, and a picnic table center stage.  All the action takes place around the wooden table.  While eye-catching and well-constructed, the sizeable set is primarily an expensive backdrop.

Sound Designer Leah Gelpe’s neighborhood sonances of insects, children playing in the distance, and a train passing by in the distance, are heard just in the background, but add a naturalness to the production.

Tiny Beautiful Things, at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 10th.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Review of "Working"

In 1974 the noted Chicago radio broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel came out with a tome entitled Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  The book became the basis for a 1978 Broadway musical with a libretto, some songs, and direction by noted composer Stephen Schwartz.  Other contributors to the score included James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor), and musical theater veterans Mary Rodgers, Mikki Grant, and Craig Carnelia.  Over the past 40 years, the show has undergone a number of revisions including the incorporation of songs written by Linn-Manuel Miranda.  The lastest incarnation is a streamlined, uneven, 80 minute version playing at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Ridgefield.


The show is a series of musical vignettes and monologues celebrating the everyday worker, the people who may live in our towns and provide essential services to our communities.  They are dignified and proud individuals that are sometimes taken for granted.  Some of the songs in the show spotlight a lamenting teacher, a bubbly waitress, a hard-working factory laborer, and happy-go-lucky cleaning ladies.  The musical numbers can be buoyant, introspective, and melancholy.  Many of the scenes are augmented by short videos on multi-paned sliding screens that feature real-life area workers.


Several of the segments convey their message and observations better than others.  “Millwork,” focusing on a routine, mundane, and potentially dangerous factory job; and “Joe,” a poignant meditation on retirement are two standouts.  Other scenes can be more problematic and puzzling.  “Nobody Tells Me How,” concerning an older elementary school teacher bemoaning the changes she has seen, lacks an emotional, deep felt luster.  The thrust of “It’s an Art,” an homage to experienced waitresses everywhere, gets somewhat lost within the full cast production number.  Not to be a prude, but the profanity in the firefighter’s brief oration was unnecessary.


Each member of the ensemble cast has their moment to shine.  Standouts are Andre Jordan (“Delivery”), Cooper Grodin (“Joe” and “Fathers and Sons”), and Monica Ramirez (“Millwork” and “Cleanin’ Women”).


Director Daniel C. Levine states in the program that he interviewed Ridgefield workers to get a feel for their occupations, much the way Studs Terkel did in the early 1970’s.  Part of Levine’s research led to the creation of well-produced videos, overseen by Media Designer Caite Hevner, of some of the area workers talking about their jobs.  These prerecorded portions lead off a number of segments and parallel scenes within the musical.  While richly amplifying the local angle, each  video snippet could have been shortened to better maintain the dramatic continuity of the show.  The Director is most successful in the settings that feature individual portrayals.  He is able to draw out performances that are more layered and nuanced during these scenes.  Some of the larger production numbers, with collaboration from choreographer Chip Abbott, lack firm footing and polish. 


Scenic Designer Jack Mehler, in addition to winningly integrating the video panels into the musical, has incorporated a steel girder motif to form a cohesive motif throughout the production.


Working, playing at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Ridgefield through March 10th.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Review of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Skeptics can relax.  Playwright Aaron Sorkin has successfully transformed the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, into a first-rate theatrical production.  The play, featuring a superb performance by Jeff Daniels as small-time lawyer, Atticus Finch, is captivating and emotionally riveting.

Like the source material, the focus of the show is on the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a Black worker who is on trial for raping a local girl.  In Macomb County Georgia in the 1930’s that would be a sure death warrant, but Atticus Finch sets his sights on freeing what he sees as an innocent man.  Other characters swirl around the story, both amplifying the action and providing crucial backstory information—the lawyer’s two young children, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen); their friend Dill (Gideon Glick); the family’s Black house keeper Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); the father of the accused Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller); and others.

Harper Lee’s novel is rich in its exploration of injustice, racism, loyalty, socio-economic status, the social class system, honor, and morality.  The themes and scenarios have been fodder for middle school, high school, and college undergraduates for decades.  Sorkin, who at one point was sued by the Harper Lee estate for his conceptualization and structure of the play, has reconfigured the book where the trial takes center stage and other plot points emanate, like spokes of a wheel, from this core.  They serve to broaden and provide valuable nuance to the production.  Some of the tangents work better than others, which is expected when attempting to fully spotlight and sufficiently amplify critical moments from the book.

Sorkin has purposed the three performers playing the pre-teen and teenage kids as narrators of the events.  In the book, Scout serves as our guide through the novel’s happenings, but dividing the duties provides variety and subtlety to the action.  During much of the production they also serve, sentinel-like, just off center stage, silently witnessing the proceedings.

One of the playwright’s other significant changes was investing the character of Calpurnia with a more outspoken disposition than would be applicable to the time frame of the novel. Does this updating to 21st century attitudes detract or hinder the overall thrust of the production?  Only somewhat, but it also allows an adult counterpoint for Atticus.

The large cast is led by Jeff Daniels.  The actor totally embodies the role of Atticus Finch.  Fans of the book or movie version, which garnered an Academy Award for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the lawyer, will not be disappointed.  Daniels is caring and compassionate, yet firm.  He exhibits an inner strength that commands respect and deference.  Celia Keenan-Bolger is impressive as Scout.  She displays the spunkiness, earnestness, and vulnerability of the character.  Will Pullen admirably positions Jem between the world of a teenage boy and young man and all its accompanying pains and questions.  Gideon Glick infuses Dill with both a boisterous outgoingness and saddened affectation.  LaTanya Richardson Jackson portrays Calpurnia with a fine-tuned balance of grace and outspokenness.  Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues Tom Robinson with a quiet dignity and a highly principled disposition even as his fate is in jeopardy.  The character of Bob Ewell is a drunken lout and vile individual and the actor Frederick Weller completely personifies all these malevolent traits.  Erin Wilhelmi gives Mayella Ewell a realistic sorrowfulness layered with an inner, fiery strength.

Scenic Designer Miriam Buether has crafted two primary set pieces—the Finch front porch and the courtroom--that seamlessly flow in and off the stage with silent efficiency.  He also focuses on understated details, such as the dirtied green, peeling paint of the back walls of the courtroom.

Director Bartlett Sher, who has successfully helmed large-scale productions at Lincoln Center, orchestrates the sizable cast and creative components into a well-synchronized team.   The pacing is strong, never dragging.  However, moments of reflection and turmoil are allowed to be teased out for maximum effectiveness.
To Kill a Mockingbird, an entertaining and thought-provoking theatrical experience not to be missed.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of "Good Faith"

Dramatizing a real-life event, steeped in politics, can be a daunting task.  An example of a play that succeeded was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, which centered on President Lyndon Johnson’s battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The 2014 production was powerful, well focused and included a gripping performance by Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

In contrast, the Yale Rep’s world premiere of Good Faith – Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department, while well intentioned and firmly knowledgeable of the subject matter, is too broad and loquacious to succeed as a compelling piece of theater.

The show explores the background and ramifications of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Ricci v. DeStefano.  In that ruling, it was found that New Haven violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it refused to certify the test results of a promotional exam for city firefighters because of the disparate impact on Black and Hispanic candidates.

The play opens with a character identified as the Writer (Laura Heisler), a self-deprecating playwright given the job of dramatizing the aforementioned events.  Her questions and probing inquiries focus on some of the important players involved in the case.  They include Frank Ricci (Ian Bedford), a white firefighter who was part of the group that successfully sued for promotion; Mike Briscoe (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone Ewing (Rob Demery), two of the Black firefighters who, because of their low test scores, did not qualify for one of the original promotions; and Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), the lawyer who successfully argued the firefighter’s contention in front of the Supreme Court.   The Writer serves, at times, as interviewer, gentle inquisitor, referee, and impassioned listener within the meetings and sessions she arranges.

Playwright Karen Hartman spent a lengthy amount of time researching the case, the central players, its impact on New Haven and the city’s firefighters.  Many hot-buttoned topics are brought up within the conversations and repartees she dramatizes.  They include discussions of socio-economic status, race relations, affirmative action, equal opportunity, and classism.  However, her attempt to address a multitude of important issues is buffeted by an overload of information and fast-talking, overlapping dialogue.  The non-linear structure also makes it difficulty to grasp onto the valuable arguments being presented.

The cast is uniformly fine.  Laura Heisler brings an inquisitive nature, warmth, and sly humor to her role as the Writer.  Ian Bedford, who plays a number of roles in addition to firefighter Frank Ricci, is forceful and upstanding and gives his portrayals a self-assured cockiness.  While Billy Eugene Jones imbues firefighter Mike Briscoe with passion and a sense of righteousness, he also shows the hurt and pain of his ordeal.  Rob Demery’s portrayal of Tyrone Ewing is expressive and animated.  His scenes with Billy Eugene are layered with humor and are also quite spirited.  Rene Augesen brings an air of confidence and assertiveness to the role of Karen Torre.

Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set of large steel structures, with their bright red pigment, resonate with the authenticity of a multi-bay firehouse. Zachary Borovay’s projections effectively augment the scenic design.

Good Faith would have been much more successful if Director Kenny Leon would have massaged the material more, winnowing down the investigative findings to a more manageable and easily digestible amount.  At certain points in the production the audience has to work too hard to grasp concepts and the nuances of the landmark case.  The rapid fire and overlapping dialogue in some scenes can also be tricky and pose a challenge for the audience.

Good Faith, a well-meaning and provocative piece of theater that doesn’t always hit its mark.