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:

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

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"

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.