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Reviews  

An Intolerant Vaudeville
Presented by The Secret Theatre as part of the Unfringed Festival, Written by Wendy Biller, Chris Hawthorne and Sam Viverito, Original music by Ronnie Lawson, Lyrics by Ronnie Lawson, Wendy Biller and Chris Hawthorne, Conceived and directed by Sam Viverito
by Steve Capra
An Intolerant Vaudeville is a variety show exploring stereotypes and prejudices. It has jugglers and singers and a one-act play, among other acts. They all make for an interesting show. It begins with one of its best acts, The Juggling Act – “The Fat Lady don’t Sing”. It presents, along with the jugglers and The Fat Lady, The Dwarf and The Transvestite. It has the show’s best song, in which our friends are given predictions at birth: “You’re going to be fat”, or “short”, or “strange”, as the case demands. Fortunately, The Fat Lady does sing, and we’re treated to Robin Lounsbury’s extraordinary voice. The next act is a parody a job interview. The Interviewee is smart enough to give all the answers The Interviewer wants to hear. It’s not in the theme of the show, but it’s well written we enjoy it a lot. Jesse Manocherian’s performance as The Interviewee is great fun. A magic act is supposedly scheduled next, but’s quickly aborted when a homeless woman commandeers the stage and sings a song. It’s maudlin, and we’d prefer the magic show. Next is The Animal Act, one of the complex routines. An Animal Trainer presents a series of minorities as if this were an animal act: The Black Man; The Oriental Woman; The Jew Man; The Church Lady; The Latina Woman; the Homo Man. It’s the act most on point with the show’s theme. “You don’t get to define me” says the Black Man. “That’s how bigotry works” replies the Animal Trainer. It ends in a frenzy of name calling. In The Quick Change Artist – “A Mother’s Love” a WASPish woman sings a lullaby. Then she hands the baby to the Baby Sitter and changes into a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The show includes several short songs from a 1947 album called Little Songs on Big Subjects. They foster tolerance, and they’re very entertaining, if very brief. The show is at its best, in fact, when The Quartette sings and dances. True to vaudeville, the show concludes with a short play, called 12 Angry Schmucks. It’s a riff on the movie 12 Angry Men. God charges jurors with deciding which religion to snuff. It’s tolerably clever, and it’s well acted. An Intolerant Vaudeville is very flawed. There’s recorded music, even though there’s a pianist and keyboard on stage. And from time to time the acts fail. Still, it’s an interesting concept and often well done. It needs to weed the dull spots and expand on its undeniable strengths (primarily its talented cast).

Shake the Earth
Written and performed by Lousine Shamamian, Presented by Arev Productions, Inc., in association with The New York International Fringe Festival – FringeNYC; Directed by Misti B. Wills
by Steve Capra
Nothing’s more interesting than a dramatic juxtaposition. One of the best sorts is the abutment of the personal and the historical. It can put our lives in perspective. It throws the ordinary into a sort of dramatic relief. In her interesting one-woman show Shake the Earth, presented by Arev Productions in association with The New York International Fringe Festival, Lousine Shamamian stands on stage and tells us about coming out as a lesbian to her Armenian mother. Pretty standard for the form, which used to be called performance art. But she does something more interesting as well: she talks about the Armenian genocide, relating her great-grandfather’s experiences in 1915. She begins with her personal story. “There are no gay people in Armenia”, her mother tells her after reading her diary. She describes her family, Armenian dishes, her first crushes on girls. She describes herself as a child reciting poetry for her family: “When you speak, it has to shake the earth” she’s told. But she manages to find her way back a few generations to describe the horrors of 1915. The transitions between the personal and historic are quick, but they never feel forced or false. Sometimes she speaks to us in her own person, as the actress herself. Sometimes she takes on characters, but she never really acts; she keeps them at a distance. She’s at her best when she takes on the character of her great-grandfather Georgi as a young man. She shows him going from doors to door looking for his sister, the only member of his family to survive the massacre by the Turks. She’s in character, but barely; she can address horror by holding it at bay. She even makes us laugh during her story of the genocide, and she manages to do it respectfully. She never looks for sympathy and she never trivializes. She simply bears witness to the event after the fact. It’s odd that Ms. Shamamian never makes explicit the tie-in between the Armenians and gays as persecuted groups. It would make for an interesting moment. Misti B. Willis’ direction is crisp, but there are still passages when the show lacks definition, when Ms. Shamamian doesn’t make much of an impact. But Shake the Earth is very good.

The Submarine Show
Created and performed by Jaron Hollander and Slater Penney, presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival
by Steve Capra

As soon as Jaron Hollander and Slater Penney walk on stage in The Submarine Show, looking goofy in their striped shirts, suspenders and glasses, we can see that the show is going to be fun. It’s an elaborate mime with tumbling and vocalizing. The two nimble performers fill up the stage for 75 minutes as if they were a whole company of actors. We follow their story as they crash in their submarine, surface to the jungle, machete their way through the brush, hunt, fly and have a series other adventures. One of them even has an out-of-body experience. The audience isn’t left out. The performers coax us to put on our imaginary regulators so we can breathe underwater. hen they turn into birds, they sidle through the aisles picking up our accessories with their beaks. They’re remarkably expressive; their faces register relief, satisfaction, alarm, disgust, impatience… And they vocalize in a hundred different ways, bleeping, screeching, howling, squeaking… There are points when we nearly hear language beneath the garbled sounds. There are many moments when the story is obscure; we’re not sure just what is going on. But we can always enjoy the performance in the abstract. These are very talented performers and The Submarine Show is well done. The Submarine Show is presented as part of the 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival, presenting 185 shows this year.

Woyzeck FJF
by Georg Buchner, adapted by Jeremy Duncan Pape and D.L. Siegel; directed by Jeremy Duncan Pape; presented by No-Win Productions
by Steve Capra
Georg Buchner, German, wrote Woyzeck in 1837, but the play wasn’t produced until 1913. Its distinction among important plays is that it’s probably unfinished, and we don’t even know in what order the scenes were meant to be presented. Its series of scenes are held together less by plot than by theme. Woyzeck tells the story of a downtrodden soldier oppressed and humiliated by his betters. A doctor uses him as for experiment and orders him to eat nothing but peas. His military superior routinely abuses him verbally. His mistress takes a lover and finally, at the end of his tether, Woyzeck murders her. No-Win productions has set the play in a psychiatric hospital. We recognize this immediately by the padded wall. Alfred Schatz’ set is simple and handsome, a white wall over a white floor, two beds. Woyzeck and Andres (Andres is Woyzeck’s buddy in the original script) are the two patients in the room. The other characters appear as Woyzeck’s hallucinations as he relives the events that landed him here. The reality of this world is that Woyzeck and Andres play a Chinese board game called go (what an odd choice!) during the course of the play. Andres moves so slowly that he’s nearly catatonic. As Woyzeck, James Kautz is suitably put-upon and has analyzed the script well, but he lacks the intensity of emotion necessary for this monumental role. Allesandro Colla, as the peculiar doctor, gives the only performance on stage that makes much of an impression. His seems to relish the bizarre character he’s playing. This is a creative, high-concept production. But it’s boring. Pape and Siegel have made bold choices, but the wrong ones for the script. The script lacks a strong through line, but it can have enormous dramatic tension as we see our anti-hero move from one abusive situation to another. We don’t find that tension here in Woyzeck’s visions. Even Andre’s movements themselves, while the actor exhibits a fine physical control, are so slow that they try our patience.  Let’s hope that No-Win Productions better suits the concept to the script.

Going Once! Laughing Twice!! by Brian Jaffe; directed by Eric Parness, produced by Sixth Sense Productions
by Steve Capra

The premise of Going Once! Laughing Twice!!, the silly, entertaining, interactive show from Sixth Sense Productions, is that the audience is bidding at a fine art auction – the type we might find at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. We’re given bidding paddles when we enter, and a wad of big phony bills in large denominations. We’re encouraged to go on stage and examine the “artwork”, and we’re offered “champagne”. And so we’re already a part of the show by the time the bidding begins, primed to participate. Once the auction is underway, the paddles flutter and the bids jump by millions. Under the direction Eric Parness, the actors do a terrific job of keeping in parody. The personalities we meet are mostly zany. The auction house owner, played by the playwright, Brian Jaffe, is the buffoon. His girlfriend is a doll whose “performance art” – performed privately in the back room – is up for auction. The auctioneer is smart and straightforward. The minority owner is a dweeby heir to the founder of the auction house. There’s an artist with a French accent, a moll with a thick Bronx accent, an overbearing German, a nice girl on her first day on the job... In short, it’s a population that we’re happy to recognize in the form of cartoons. Mr. Jaffe’s character is the center of the show, and he leads the cast ably through the evening. He has a talent for improvising as the moment demands. The characters played by the three actresses are the evening’s hostesses. They’re usually in the audience chatting with us. There are times when the focus is on the stage and there are mutterings in the audience as they talk with us. This is a nice choice from Mr. Parness. It gives the fiction the texture of life. We need to block out the murmuring in order to hear the on-stage dialogue. We may miss some lines, but it’s worth the cost for this sort of interactive naturalism. There’s a bit of a story here, a type of structure, but it’s sketchy. The activity of the auction doesn’t substitute for a framing device. And the period before the auction itself begins, interesting as it is for a while, lasts too long without the show’s central business to engross us. In all, Going Once! Laughing Twice!!, is fun, creative and flawed.

The Quantum Eye written and performed by Sam Eaton, produced by Eaton magic Creations, Inc.
by Steve Capra

In The Quantum Eye, mentalist Sam Eaton presents such terrific demonstrations of his talent that by the show’s end we’re certain that he possesses telepathy, precognition and any other paranormal skill he might choose to claim. Actually, he doesn’t claim any; he tells us that he works with suggestion, mnemonics and non-verbal cues.  In the first demonstration of his powers, he has four volunteers on stage. One is told he’s the murderer, and each one tells Eaton that he is not the murderer. By examining their facial expressions and holding each one’s arm, he can tell which one is lying. He chats with them a bit first, and he told us in the performance I saw that was establishing “a base line for truth.”  In another demonstration, he draws the same figure that his audience member has drawn and concealed. He writes numbers on a chart so that vertically, horizontally and in blocks they add up to the number in another volunteer’s head (the arrangement is called The Magic Square). He splits a well-shuffled deck of cards between two people on stage. Then he runs through the names of the cards and tells us which person holds each – Jack of Spades, the man to his left; Deuce of Hearts, the man to his right, etc… He scored 52 out of 52.  In his most impressive demonstration, Eaton works with a scissors and some news articles. He each of his three volunteers tell him at what point to cut each article in two, then he has them read out the line where each was cut. Then he reveals that he’s already written each of those lines in a large roll. Pretty impressive! Naturally, the bulk of the 85 minutes this show lasts is spent preparing us for each revelation. A performer has to have more than ESP to pull this off; it takes stage presence. Eaton has no problem with the challenge. He embeds his feats in marvelous layers of stage embellishment, sometimes preparing us for two or three demonstrations at once. He keeps us immersed in his work, in a state of prolonged anticipation. He entertains with enthusiasm and control, and he’s great with the kids who come on stage as volunteers along with the adults.  A show for the whole family doesn’t always appeal to the adults, but this show genuinely entertains and amazes all ages. It couldn’t be more delightful, more marvelous.

Winter Light: Songs, Music and Rituals from the Carpathians, directed by Virlana Tkacz
by Steve Capra

Winter Light: Songs, Music and Rituals from the Carpathians is a delightful hour-and-a-half from Yara Arts Group (at La MaMa) consisting primarily of Ukrainian folk music. The cast of 21 sing in a range of flavors, sometimes clapping, sometimes stamping their feet. The styles range from the ethereal to the staccato, from the placid to the hearty.  The singing is almost exclusively in Ukrainian, with only a few moments of translation indicating the lyrics. “Nothing lasts forever,” we hear, and “How long I waited for you.”  The night I attended, the audience broke into spontaneous clapping as the singers ran through a song. Such is the contagious energy of this troupe. Many songs are sung a capella, but there’s an instrumental accompaniment to others, and the instruments are choice. There’s a fiddle with a special tuning, sometimes doubling with the four male singers. We hear an accordion, a cello, recorders, flutes, drums and horns six feet long that are held vertical by the singers when they’re not being blown, like staffs.  The musicians play several unique instruments. The tsymbaly is an extraordinary instrument, a hammered dulcimer with 175 strings on flat wood held on the lap. When the musician turns it over, it doubles as a wooden drum. The bandura is another unique piece, like a lute, but with 66 strings. The trembita is a horn made of pine that’s been struck by lightning!  The performers speak sparingly. The show begins with a woman carrying a suitcase, performing a monologue about being a refugee. Later there’s a sort of narrative about King Herod (he appears on a throne with wheels), partly mimed and partly spoken in a very interesting conversation in which woman speaks English while Herod himself speaks Ukrainian. Some songs are sung by Koliadnyky, a group of “winter song singers” from the Carpathians. They preserve the koliada, an ancient ritual held around the Christmas season and the year’s most important ritual in those mountains. Most of the singing is technically fine, and if falters from time to time we don’t care. Indeed, we enjoy its down-to-earth quality. Winter Light is a terrific nod to the beginning of winter, and the Yara Arts Group has (again) fascinated us with its traditional performing art.

The Elephant in Every Room I Enter by Steve Capra
co-created by Gardiner Comfort and Kel Haney; produced by La MaMa; directed by Kel Haney with Gardiner Comfort

Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repeated involuntary outbursts – or “tics” – verbal and physical. Gardinar Comfort is a person with TS, active in the NYC Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. The Elephant in Every Room I Enter is his solo show, co-created by him and the show’s director, Kel Haney, and produced by La MaMA.  A solo presented on a bare stage show is the most personal theater. It demands enormous honesty (not to say courage) on the part of the creator, and bravo to anyone who embarks on the perilous route. I hesitate to call this show autobiographical; it focuses for the most part on one event in Comfort’s life, a week TS conference in Washington DC. One of the play’s important functions is to educate, and it’s great to see a playwright show us that theater as education is not trivial in content or cogency. Since Tourette’s tics are involuntary, Comfort’s tic turns up many times during the course of the show, which is something more than an hour long without intermission. His tic is a cough – he calls it “disgusting” – and we hear it many times. It isn’t disgusting, actually; it’s merely extremely annoying. But it’s expected. Indeed, Comfort’s tic – its very annoyance – is part of the presentation, a way the show makes its point. Comfort discusses his condition and exhibits it as well. It’s not only apparent, it disrupts the flow of the monologue. It gives an immediacy to the presentation, and a distancing that’s the aspiration of productions that work for alienation. It’s a spontaneous mechanism of verfremdungseffect. Comfort’s work explores elemental questions of theater.  Should we be involved? Should theater discuss or present? Should it be metaphor? As is so often said, the more personal art is, the more universal it is. One of Comfort’s achievements is that he presents his pathology as something we can relate to. He describes his reaction to the TS Association meeting: “For the first time in my life it was actually normal to have Tourette”. “Hearing all those different ticks,” he tells us, “it was like I didn’t have Tourette”. It’s the honesty, the truth of the statement that keeps it from being a blunt instrument. This is quite an accomplishment. Comfort’s acting is at its best when he imitates in a rush of words the many varied tics he hears at the conference. He manages somehow to give the monologue humor, another instrument of verfremdungseffect. For all Comfort’s achievements, The Elephant in Every Room I Enter lacks elements this sort of theater needs. There’s little contrast. Comfort may be disarmingly honest, but he expresses depth of emotion only once, and that’s in the final moment. Strictly in terms of style, the writing is routine. But what fascinating items we find in fringe theater! What would we do without it?  

 

Mothers and Sons by Jules Becker
Tyne Daly may have lost out to Audra MacDonald for the lead actress in a play Tony Award, but her performance as an initially homophobic parent ambivalent about reconciling with the lover of her late gay son (an AIDS victim about 20 years earlier) is one of many reasons to catch four time Tony winner Terrence McNally’s latest Broadway offering “Mothers and Sons” (through May 22 at the Golden Theatre). The Tony nominated drama-set in a present day Manhattan home-richly detailed by designer John Lee Beatty- candidly confronts mother Katharine Gerard’s intolerance and prejudice without turning her into a monster or a villain. As the play develops, her ideas about parenting, family and the title relationships themselves evolve as she gets to know her son’s emotionally strong lover Cal Porter, his caring husband Will Ogden and their spirited son Bud Ogden-Porter. Frederick Weller is properly feisty as Cal, while Bobby Steggert provides good contrast as more serene Will. Grayson Taylor proves very appealing as Bud, especially in exchanges with Katharine, who begins to bond with him as though he were her grandson. There is discussion of a national tour for this thoughtful and timely Tony -nominated play. A McNally play always deserves attention, and so it goes for this affecting gem. Golden Theatre , New York City - 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com

 

Dhrama by Steve Capra
At the center of the The Mahabharata, one of the Hindu holy books, is The Bhagavad Gita, an epic of enormous proportions. At the core of the Gita is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and the god Krishna. Arjuna is expected to start a war to defend disputed land, but he hesitates. The god Krishna exhorts him to do his duty as a warrior and, finally, convinces him to attack. A mythical dialogue is unlikely material for a stage production, but playwright João Falcão has condensed it to an arresting hour-long, two-actor play called Dhrama: The Remarkable Dialogue Between Krishna and Arjuna. It presents the sort of mutual attempt at persuasion that we find in Man and Superman. The production comes from Brazil, presented in English. The production company is Tetris. The superb, masterful actors are Luca Bianchi (Arjuna), and Livia De Bueno (Krishna) playing the god traditionally represented as a man. The name Dhrama is derived from the Sanskrit word dharma, roughly translated as right behavior. The stage is bare; the floor is covered with sand. Mr. Bianchi and Ms. De Bueno enter slowly in dim blue light, looking like ghosts in their pale, simple, ivory-colored costumes (designed by Paula Raia) that suggest the design we associate with prints of Indian myths. The performer’s movements are stylized and straightforward (the director of movement is Carlos Fittante). Sometimes she stands with her legs turned out, her arms pointing in the same direction, one arm across her chest, or sometimes with the familiar pose of thumb touching third finger. His physical life is human but deliberate and precise as well. His gesture when he places his head on her lap is simple and eloquent. In the show’s most stunning image, the actors, one behind the other, create an image of a four-armed god, with the light behind them. The dialogue is lean and poetic; there are no long speeches that might make the writing pretentious. It challenges our listening skills. We need to pay rapt attention, but we’re never left behind. The Brazilian accents present a problem for the listening audience, with all those L’s becoming W’s, but the obstacle is largely overcome as we become accustomed to them. The translators weave in some archaic pronouns, sometimes using thou for you. The inconsistency, though, isn’t intrusive, and adds a stately and lyrical quality. And, cleverly, there’s an occasional laugh for a contrast. Luca DeBiancho, the actor playing Arjuna, has directed the show as well, and splendidly. He’s kept it flowing and unpretentious, neither static nor with excess blocking. Krishna, of course, prevails in the argument, and persuades Arjuna to wage war even against his cousin. “If you allow others to hurt you, she asks, “are you not hurting yourself?” She reminds him that he is immortal, not his body, and that “Non-action does not exist.” But the dialogue’s grandest moments are Krishna’s references to him/herself: “I am everywhere–in all that departs, arrives… a god as great as I.” To the closing, reconciling kiss, Dhrama is resplendent.

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Steve Capra
(The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble; directed by Kevin Confoy)
Tom Stoppard has a talent for being clever and intellectual at once. In Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, he’s so clever and intellectual that he leaves us behind. The plays are so abstruse that they’re puzzling. Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth are companion plays, each a relatively short piece running about an hour. They show us a population who speak Dogg, a language that uses the same words as English but with meanings unrelated to the meanings we assign to them. Presented first, Dogg’s Hamlet is concerned with Dogg-speaking people producing Hamlet, and we see many of the scenes from Shakespeare. Much is made of their building a wall and the words they use to build it. The play itself is delivered in familiar Shakespearean English (Stoppard had referred to Hamlet in that earlier, more famous, play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). A delivery man enters; he speaks normal English, and is unintelligible to the others. Most characters in Cahoot’s Macbeth speak English, and in this play he’s added a discussion of censorship. The characters (not the characters in Dogg’s Hamlet) are presenting a private production of Macbeth (and we see many of those scenes as well). A pair of government agents intrude to stop that subversive activity, theater (“I could nick you just for acting,” the leader says.). Thus far, the play is clear. Finally that delivery man speaking Dogg from the earlier play enters, and we’re back in the world of heady word-play. It’s all enormously baffling. Stoppard is discussing the nature of language, the nature of art, censorship… The language-rich building of the wall comes directly from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work about the nature of words. The plays have been mounted by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. The production is rich with skill even as it fails to make the plays totally accessible. Kevin Confoy’s direction is rigorous and precise. He never allows the pace either to flag or to rush. His picturization is clear. Actors enter from the audience when they should and the whole fiction has a real sense of taking place in the theater. The actors are so adroit that each seems to have been perfectly cast. Jason O’Connell gives a particularly fine performance as the lead Government Inspector who crashes Macbeth. Imposing and moving as the moment demands, he has an expressive physical life reflecting a clear analysis. But the two plays, particularly the first, need humor to function and, try as it might, the show fails to get laughs. It has proper timing and flow, but nonetheless too serious a tone. It fails to make a comic connection with the audience. And so there’s mechanism missing that would have helped us to connect with the scripts. Be all that as it may, The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a company to attend to; its talent is undeniable. They’ve chosen a difficult task, and are to be credited for it.


Fool’s Lear by Steve Capra
(by Randy Neale; produced by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble; directed by directed by Grant Neale with Grant Neale and Craig Smith)
Randy Neale’s play Fool’s Lear is a riff on King Lear. It shows us the king and his fool when they’re not on stage, in a dynamic dyad relationship. It’s a clever conceit, and quite well executed by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. Neale has assimilated lines from Shakespeare (Lear’s great first speech), lines that sound like Shakespeare (“What brings my king to this barren and dangerous place?”) and a colloquial idiom (“They love their Daddy bunches and bunches.”). He even borrows from Julius Caesar for a moment. He manages to suggest Shakespeare without ever sounding pretentious. Grant Neale’s direction keeps everything moving and finely wrought. He keeps his two actors in a moment of Shakespearean wonder throughout the piece. His work as an actor is no less accomplished. He plays the Fool with a stammer, making him smart and disingenuous. He’s committed to his choices in every moment. He has an acrobatic skill that animates the stage picture and gives scenes delightful vitality. Craig Smith plays Lear – Lear as a fallen tragic figure. His work has substance and subtlety. The problem is that he lacks grand status in the beginning of the play, so he hasn’t far to fall to become a doddering fool. This weakens the play’s structure. No Shakespearean character falls from such a high place, but Smith mutes the tragedy. There are other characters flitting briefly in the play, from King Lear as well. They’re represented by clever contrivances, the Fool holding objects or the suggestions of a costume in front of him. The stage is largely bare. Its main set piece is a versatile chest, suitable for storing and hiding. The play’s most stunning image is Lear dragging the fool behind him on that chest. But neither Neale’s directorial skill, nor his acrobatics, nor even Randy’s gift for words can change the fact that passages of the script are boring. Cleverness and acrobatics are no substitute for action in a two-hour play. The play claims its action by reflecting that of Shakespeare, but it doesn’t follow Shakespeare on a level granular enough for King Lear’s action to support it. Moreover, an at least passing familiarity with the Shakespeare is necessary for comprehension. The Phoenix’ production, then, is only a qualified success. It certainly exhibits the company’s boldness in choosing material that is, whatever else, challenging.

The Head Hunter by Steve Capra

(Termination Productions)

Mark Borkowski’s so-called comedy The Head Hunter is about a mobster who decapitates people, and his cousin, a writer who’s been cheated out of a screenplay. It’s been produced recently by Termination Productions. The action takes place in the writer’s apartment. The tough-guy cousin is determined to convince his kin to let him handle the problem with the screenplay his own way. As he is a mobster who decapitates people, you can imagine what that is. There’s potential here. During the course of the play the unsavory relative reveals some pretty alarming secrets to his nice-guy cousin. Unfortunately, Borkowski has loaded the play with such a virulent string of obscenities that it’s obscured beneath a blanket of vulgarity. It gets tolerably better after the intermission, when there’s at least some interesting dramatic action. By that time Borkowski has essentially exhausted the lexicon of smut. The Head Hunter is served better than it deserves by the other talented artists involved. The set, brimming with walls of books, is skillfully designed. It’s a tawdry apartment but there’s a poetry to the stage picture. The director is uncredited, which is unfortunate since he enhances the script considerably. He keeps things moving, thus relieving us fairly quickly of the scatology we’ve been subjected to. What’s more, he mines whatever drama he can find in the script by directing his two actors into tight, clear performances. His blocking on the small stage is clear, and the stage picture is always telling. Of the two performers, it’s Robert Mobley, as the victimized writer, who gives the stronger performance, and it is indeed quite good. His focus is always clear. The criminal cousin shocks him repeatedly, and Mobley’s reactions are believable and, remarkably, emotionally grounded. As the foul-mouthed organized crime fellow, Salvatore Inzerillo is convincing, by no means shabby. But his range of emotion is limited in a role that could actually does give him opportunity for subtlety. Actors, director and designer are to be admired, but they’d do well to find better material to show their talents.

 

Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery by Steve Capra
(The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre)
Vit Horejs’ Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery is an adaptation of the Don Juan myth by The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. The company produced it recently with beautiful, superbly painted puppets designed by Jakub “Kuba” Krejci. They have exquisite, detailed costumes by Michelle Beshaw. They range from a few inches high to one or two feet. The master of the puppet company is Vit Horejs, a Czech puppeteer who wrote the adaptation, directed the show, and “plays” the puppet role of Don Juan. Horejs’ work springs from traditional Czech puppetry, but he’s developed the form into something more complex and contemporary. Horejs is joined by four other puppeteers. The puppet stage is the traditional clothed platform with a series of backdrops. The puppeteers, in costume, are seen above backdrops. They’re acting from the waist up – or shoulders up – their faces expressing the characters. At one point, one is standing next to the platform, manipulating the puppet directly with his hands. At another, the puppeteer takes the Don Juan puppet into the audience. And so we’re treated to multiple realities, like some of the best avant-garde. Usually, the marionettes are controlled by a metal rod through the head, by which the puppeteer can actually make the marionette move one leg at a time. Don Juan’s servant here is named Kasparek – not Sganerelle as in Moliere’s Don Juan or Leporello as in Don Giovanni. It’s the name of a Czech folk character appearing in any number of tales. The adaptation focuses on this character as much as on Don Juan. Kasparek speaks in harsh New York accent. It’s clever, but the harshness becomes annoying after a while. The character, of course, is quick-witted. His dialogue is enormously creative, including alliteration, colloquialisms, modern allusions, and veiled or near obscenities (“We’re in deep sh– trouble”). Horejs deftly keeps the show suitable for children while also entertaining the adults. Don Juan’s pursuit of Donna Anna is kept at a farcical level. His onstage murder of her father has the distance that all puppetry has, making it acceptable for a younger audience. But in this adaptation of the myth Don Juan kills his own father as well. He does it offstage, and we hear about it only briefly, but is this embellishment really appropriate for the piece? The Marionette Theatre keeps us engrossed in the puppets as if they were actual actors. Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery is too long (the first half is too wordy). But still it’s superb and a welcome piece of New York’s theater. We want to see a production from Vit Horejs and his company every year.

 

Ragtime – for a good time! by Jim DeBlasi
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY -
(914) 592-2222 or online at www.RagtimeWestchester.com)
Who says you need a time machine to visit New Rochelle in the early 1900’s?  Not when you can see “Ragtime” the Musical at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, presented by Standing Ovation Studios.  Directed by John Fanelli and choreographed by Greg Graham, “Ragtime” takes you back in time and paints a poignant picture of a young nation as it suffers the growing pains of change.  When the musical "Ragtime" arrived on Broadway in 1998 it was praised as much for its epic size as its astounding storytelling about the American Dream at the dawn of the 20th century.  The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 1998, and won for Best Actress, Original Score, Book, and Orchestration.  With its 50-person cast and sumptuous sets and costumes, "Ragtime" featured planes, trains, a full-size Model T and on-stage fireworks to represent the invention and ostentation of the time. Based on the acclaimed 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Terrence McNally's "Ragtime" tells the multi-strand story of three groups of Americans in and around New York City in 1906. The blindly content are suddenly faced with the unfortunate, the dreamers are faced with harsh reality, the innocent meet with cruel prejudice, and all the while, everyone struggles to reach their American dream as they fight against the currents of racism and violence.  Collectively, they signify the sweeping changes occurring at the turn of the century.  The suburbanites are represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white, upper-class Victorian family in New Rochelle, who welcome a runaway and her baby into their home. The African Americans are represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem jazz pianist who turns an injustice into a revolution. The immigrants are represented by Tateh, a Jew from Latvia who sells his silhouette portraits on the streets to survive the squalor of the Lower East Side. Their personal journeys, which intertwine in the course of the play, come alive as historic figures - including escape artist Harry Houdini, auto tycoon Henry Ford, educator Booker T. Washington, and infamous entertainer Evelyn Nesbit - offer diversion and perspective. All this is seen through the awe-struck eyes of Edgar, Mother's young son. The Westchester Broadway Theatre pulls out all the stops with a cast of 40, a large orchestra, talented actors and singers, dazzling costumes and choreography and they even produce a full size Model-T. The beautiful songs of Stephen Flaherty range from the toe-tapping strains of ragtime music to the moving, lyrical lines of a ballad. The rousing opening number alone will remain stuck in your head long after the show has ended, and the strong cast does justice to Flaherty's moving melodies. Victoria Lauzun gives a touching, sympathetic portrayal of Mother, a sheltered homemaker whose eyes are suddenly opened to the world around her. Her voice is lovely to hear, and she has a quiet dignity that never leaves her, no matter how drastically her life changes. Fa Tye is a fiery, passionate Coalhouse and sings some of my favorite songs, “The Wheels of a Dream” and the 11 o'clock number, "Make Them Hear You." Joey Sanzaro as Tateh portrays a Jewish immigrant struggling to give his daughter a better life is touching and heartfelt. Though their appearances are brief, Cali LaSpina’s flighty Evelyn Nesbit, Antoine L. Smith's solemn Booker T. Washington, and Nadine Zahr's acidic Emma Goldman make the most of their stage time in their portrayal of these iconic figures. The ensemble in general is very solid, and with Musical Director, Dan Kazemi, the full orchestra added power and emotion to the lyrics. As we witness Coalhouse's rise and fall, and the way the world works on all the characters, their times influencing their actions, we come to see in them our reflection. We, too, live in a time of great changes, some of which inspire hope and some fear, and too many of us still move in separate groups of whites, blacks, and immigrants, warily circling one another. In a day when this has figured into the debate over our direction as a nation, when we have the opportunity to vote on it, Westchester Broadway Theatre's staging of Ragtime is remarkably timely. It reveals to us how we live in history and how we bear responsibility for making it. “Ragtime” runs through May 4th at the Westchester Broadway Theatre.  Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. A special ticket price of $67 plus tax is offered which includes a 3 course dinner.

A Doll’s House by Steve Capra
(The Young Vic, London at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Directed by Carrie Cracknell)
There’s no play more iconic the Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It wasn’t the first modern drama, but it announced modern drama with unprecedented volume and insistence. It confronted Europe with theater as revolutionary. If Ibsen had written nothing but Doll’s House, his position theatrical paterfamilias (aka “The Father of Modern Drama”) would still be assured. Doll’s House concerns a monumental simp – Nora –  to whom her husband, Torvald, condescends to an epic degree. What he doesn’t know is that years earlier she forged her father’s signature to get a loan that would help him (he doesn’t even know about the loan). She’s been paying it back through scrimping and saving on her own allowance. Today the lender shows up to blackmail her. She believes that when her husband learns what’s happened he’ll take responsibility for it – but instead he floods her with abuse and shame. Fortunately, it all works out in just a moment; through a plot device, the blackmailer reconsiders and Nora’s husband loves her again. Everything would be fine except that Nora is p-r-e-t-t-y resentful. To the shock of her husband – and all of Europe – she walks out. Just packs up her suitcase and slams the door behind her (Nora’s slamming the door is the great iconic moment, a basic in every student’s drama class). The script is not without its problems. It’s unabashedly melodramatic and it dwells on the core emotional moment. Ibsen knew that he had to address his audience in language they understood. He had not yet begun to write without melodramatic devices. Leading lady Hattie Morahan gives us a Nora in a frenzy, so nervous that she startles at every prod. She’s always emotionally grounded, but she’s in a constant state of hysteria. She gets her first case of the jitters in the second scene and her nerves never calm for the duration of the play. It’s understandable that Nora would be tense – to say the least – but saturating the role with jumpiness drowns the character’s subtlety and complexity. In her final dialogue with Torvald, after that enormous plot hinge, she has no transition. She’s already hit ten-out-of-ten in hysteria and she merely goes to eleven instead of changing direction. I was expecting that Nora would have a sort of epiphany and find calm when she’s lost her illusions. But Ms. Morahan is wedded to that one face of Nora.  The rest of the cast does marvelous work. As Torvald, Dominic Rowan has what must be the most demanding ten-minute transition in drama, and he pulls it off, through sheer commitment to the character, as well as can be done. Carrie Cracknell, director, keeps everything sharp and polished, emotionally solid and with pulsing rhythm. But in that moment emotional peak – Nora does the tarantella for Torvald – she inserts a sound like a freight train to underline her desperation. It’s intrusive. There were moments when the audience laughed at lines that are melodramatic or too obvious – not because they’re delivered badly but because audiences have moved beyond melodrama. Is there anything too be done about this? And is it even a bad thing?

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s TITANIC – Mesmerizing!
After watching the film, “Titanic”, I could not imagine the entertainment value a Broadway musical depicting the suffering and tragic loss of the lives of more than a thousand passengers could possibly have. The film was so riveting and so well done; I had little desire to see the musical. The Broadway production had many technical difficulties and expenses due to the outsized, mechanically driven set, a large cast and sizable orchestra. In spite of the technical difficulties and mixed reviews, it won several Tony Awards. But its success was short-lived, as attendance tapered off rather quickly and the show closed after approximately 800 performances. In 2011, this Tony winning score by Maury Yeston and Tony winning book by Peter Stone was cleverly scaled down and opened in London to rave reviews. I’m sure that WBT’s version of this production is second to none with set design by Patrick Bizzotti, special projections by Howard Werner, sound by John Hatton and Mark Zuckermanm lighting design by Andrew Gmoser, which created the perfect atmosphere for intimate moments, festivities and ultimate fear and grief. The simplicity of the set enabled this exceptionally talented cast, under the direction of Don Stephenson, to shine brightly, and Liza Genaro‘s choreography contributed to the swiftness of the activities. The cast’s precision in the execution in the staged movements is remarkable. The musical numbers under the direction of Ian Weinberger, were so beautifully sung that I actually got “goose bumps”. This is truly a star-studded cast with so many humorous, intimate, touching moments that I can’t even begin to list them. Kudos to Drew McVety, Kate Walbye, Adam Heller, Donna English, Philip Hoffman and Tom Hewitt for outstanding performances that captivate the audience and keep us on the edge of our seats even knowing the outcome of the story. For me a stand out moment is the awareness of the ships growing peril when a food cart suddenly rolls on its own, showing the ship's growing tilt; the dramatic silence says it all. It is heartbreaking to watch families separated in order to save women and children and the scene where Ida (Kay Walbye) refuses to leave her husband Isadore (David Studwell) actually brought me to tears. The production is flawless and even the chef should take a bow for including in the menu several entrees which were served on the Titanic. It was certainly a memorable evening, which instilled in me a renewed gratitude for all of the beloved people in my life. After WBT‘s production, the show will open in Toronto and then on Broadway in the fall of 2014.

Noise in the Waters by Steve Capra
(From Teatro Delle Albe, Italy, LaMaMA, NYC)
LaMaMA (New York, off-off-Broadway) has presented an Italian show, from Ravenna, Noise in the Waters, written and directed by Marco Martinelli, It’s a monologue performed by Allesandro Renda, with the help of two musicians. From the opening moments we’re challenged by the play. The musicians enter and, standing down center, pause to look at us with before proceeding to their stage right chairs. Their gazes express a request for response. The single actor enters and stands center, where he remains throughout the performance. Renda presents us with a man in a fit of stress so strong it’s as if tension has created a sort of spastic paralysis. His movements, without exception, are abrupt, violent jerks. The script is written in disjointed free verse. Except for few short passages in English, it’s spoken in Italian with English surtitles projected at the back of the stage. Throughout, Renda growls out his lines. The disjointed quality of the script challenges us to discover character and situation as the play progresses. At first it’s incoherent. What strikes us most – and the theme is foremost throughout the play – is this man’s fixation on numbers. Fixation to the point of distraction – he dwells obsessively, over and over again, on individual digits and their placement in the number. Renda is wearing a military uniform, highly medalled, and his allusions tell us that he’s some position of authority. We discern that he’s The General supervising the arrival of refugees on a island south of mainland Italy, who’ve risked their lives to leave Africa for Europe. Furious and racist, he demeans and rails at the Africans. But we see soon that his emotions are considerably more complex. The first story he tells us is about the Italian ship captain who comes to save the refugees after their raft has capsized. He doesn’t stop the boat’s propellers, thus slicing those in the water. The General can barely express his disgust. There’s more than enough rage to go around – against the refugees, the Italian captain, the people traffickers, The General’s own superiors. He tells us the story of a young woman raped once she’s arrived in Italy, and the story of a boy who jumps into the water, drowned on the trip to Italy. Rage as he might, he’s revolted by the experiences of the refugees. He despises his job, the work of “lining them up”. “I do the dirty work” he tells us. Defensive and furious, he shouts “This is my island. I’m the one in charge.” We glean that The General’s obsession with numbers is a counting of the bodies of refugees. But the numbers, given in no order, are as high as 20,000. We realize that he’s not counting the refugees at hand, but some hallucinatory total of victims drowned. The singer/musicians sometimes moan sonorously, sometimes sing a simple dirge, sometimes a sort of frenzied dirge, sometimes a cacophony. They’re singing in a Sicilian dialect. Martinelli told me that he hadn’t planned on working with them initially, but that as soon as he heard them, he knew these were the voices of the refugees. And indeed, their harsh sound is the picture of desperation. Sometimes their voices are so nasal and strident that they sound like distortions. They’re playing instruments from the perimeter of the Mediterranean: harmonium, bağlama, Turkish flute, marimba. The flow of bravado, rage, and pity-as-rage is impressive. Still, the performance would benefit from a moment of subtley. The idea of presenting the plight of the refugees through the man charged with the job of policing them is brilliant. This is a unique, stunning show with an incredible full-speed-ahead performance. LaMaMa has again presented an extraordinary production.

 

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s WHITE CHRISTMAS by Doug Bagnasco
If you’re looking for a show that’s thoroughly, unabashedly Christmassy, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Westchester Broadway Theatre has all the trimmings. Lavish, winter-inspired costumes, classic carols, even a light dusting of finale falling snow. For spectacle, sentimentality, and nostalgia alone—not to mention complex and graceful choreography— White Christmas is a winner. Though the movie, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, has been kicking around since the 1950s, the stage production is a creation of the past decade. Fans of the classic film will find much of the show familiar—an Irving Berlin song has been added here, a character’s role has been enhanced there—but the end results are what you’d expect. The nostalgic 2004 stage adaptation follows closely in the steps of its namesake, the classic 1954 film about the shenanigans that ensue when a pair of suave, singing-and-dancing WWII veterans Phil (Jeremy Benton, the Kaye character) and Bob (Sean Montgomery, who fills Crosby’s shoes) and a pair of lovely singing-and-dancing sisters Betty (Lindsie Van Winkle) and the more freewheeling Judy (Kelly Sheehan) spend Christmas together at a Vermont inn. They mount a musical revue in a barn, grow the Army general (Jamie Ross) turned innkeeper's Grinch-sized heart, and by about 9:45pm, everyone falls in love. The four leads give a fantastic performance, providing great vocals and dancing that seemed so effortless and fluid that I felt transported back in time. And one of the show's most memorable moments belong to the inn concierge Martha "the Flop" Watson (Karen Murphy), a loud and proud former Broadway performer. She nails every note and kills every joke, to the chagrin of her stern boss, General Waverly and the delight of her young protege, Waverly's granddaughter Susan (Nicole Kolitsas, alternating with Julia White). Vocal highlights include the charming “Sisters” duet (reprised gamely by the men in the second act) and the complex chorus number, “Snow,” set on the train ride to Vermont. The buttoned-up Betty gets to play the siren during her solo act number, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” The show features a full cast of outstanding dancers that dazzled throughout the evening. The costumes are lavish and period appropriate. And while the sets are designed with what I would refer to as a minimalist approach, they create enough background to bring each scene to life, yet allow plenty of space on the stage for the many show-stopping dance numbers. And I thoroughly enjoyed the “I Love a Piano” number, when the faux baby grand piano becomes a two step dance platform for some fast action tap dancing. White Christmas is a sentimental stroll through a winter wonderland that occasionally follows the film like a loyal pup. The production is fabulously executed and a joy to behold. Besides, nothing says Christmas like snow and Irving Berlin! White Christmas runs through January 12 at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets which include dinner ($54 to $80) are available.

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s Kiss Me Kate - Entertaining and Vivacious! By Camille Kaiser


“Taming of the Shrew” and their off-stage lives. It follows two main characters, the divorced actors Lilli Vanessa and Fred Graham, playing the roles of Katherine and Petruchio. Under the direction of James Brennan, the comedy evolves as we see the conflict that exists between the two of them both on and off the set with peppery battle-of-the-sexes banter. Add to this some of Cole Porter’s most memorable tunes, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Too Darn Hot”, “Wonderbar”, under the capable music direction of Leo P. Carusone, and what you have is a most enjoyable, nostalgic, fun-filled evening. William Michaels as Fred/Petruchio is impressive with his big voice and comedic talent. He dominates the stage with his masculine presence while at times showing his vulnerable side, making his character likeable in spite of his ego. Christianne Tisdale is excellent as Lilli/Kate, swooning at the right moments, clamorous during the rest, and bites out 'I Hate Men' with conviction. Missy Dowse as Lois and Brian Ogilve as Bill make a charming couple and delight the audience with their numbers “Why Can’t you Behave” and “Always True to You (in My Fashion)”. James Van Treuren as Baptista plays a convincing Shakespearean actor with just the right dose of humor. Michael Kubala and Michael J. Farina were delightful as the gangsters who, while attempting to collect a debt from Fred on behalf of their boss, become enamored with theater and are a humerous highlight with their antics and dance to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. The “Taming of the Shrew” players and the ensemble were supple and energetic and certainly did justice to James Brennan’s athletic choreography. Kudos to set designer John Farrell, lighting designer Andrew Gmoser and costume designer Derek Lockwood who provided the finishing touches to this flashy, splashy, bright and colorful production.

 

City Island Theater Group: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later by Angela Theresa Egic
October 12, 1998 is a date many of us have forgotten, or never remembered. Yet, if I say Matthew Shepard, you may remember. If I say Laramie, Wyoming, more of you may remember.

October 12, 2013 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard. Matthew was the young gay university student who was robbed, pistol whipped, and left to die tied to a wooden fence in October 1998.

Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, wrote the original play, “The Laramie Project”. Ten years after Matthew’s murder, Moises and and his team returned to the town that was, a decade later quoting a new mantra “Laramie is a community, not a project.” In 2004, ABC’s “20/20” re-focused the hate crime by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson into nothing more than a robbery and drug deal gone bad; completely negating the original confessions and even the first responders evidence.
City Island Theater Group’s reading of the play "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" was like a dark walk into history; into Laramie, Wyoming and our changing society. Even with some of the nineteen actors having distinct New York regionalisms, all portraying multiple roles, scripts in their hands -- we were soon overlooking that and were easily transported to 2008 Laramie, Wyoming. The story involves many memories and various characters carrying us through the changed face of this little town. A young man, a friend of Matthew, portrayed by baby-faced Danny Conover, could be the living Matthew Shepard. He reminds us how young Matthew really was. Emily McSpadden in moving moments portraying another “friend of Matthew Shepard” reminding us, to her character, he was “just Matt”, is sobering and holds us up – to keep Matt alive, keep the truth alive.
“Crazy redneck gay slayers” does not describe all the residents of Laramie. Henderson (Denis Zepeda) does an excellent job of portraying the reporter who asking the hard questions, and is both empathic and professional when hearing such prejudice and horrifying details of a very real hate-crime. One of the strongest scenes was the interview between Henderson (Denis Zepeda) and Aaron McKinney (Nic Anthony Calabro). From Aaron speaking of the “sense of honor” in prison, to why Matthew “needed to be killed”: We were able to observe the man-boy, who, at times, you wanted to hug, then you wanted to hurt for his heinous act. Calabro handled it so well, we weren’t sure whether to weep for Aaron and Matthew or scream for the death penalty. Watching history come alive through these sensitive and quick changing nineteen actors was both moving, poignant and even had us applauding the speeches of the Republican (Andy Ravick) when he talks about his gay daughter and her partner. Reggie Fluty (Susan Rauh) is vulnerable being the first cop on the scene, and is still trying to understand and searching about why it’s been so slow to pass laws and how to get people to understand it was a hate crime!
One of the most poignant moments is when Matthew Shepard’s parents (Christopher McGowan and Paula Jean Rocheleau) unveil the bench for their son. There were moments when the energy would slow down a bit, and although the company members were all excellent readers, it had some moments when it was less acting and more read. Luckily, it was only brief moments; and then one of the University students would pick up the energy with their upbeat skills, Also, each time, Cathy Romanovitch came up to read, or become, another character, the room filled with her energy. Also kudos to Andy Ravick and Frank Siciliano, always high in appropriate energy; even when some of the other players dropped in energy. Elizabeth Paladino’s direction was well choreographed, and she executed smooth transitioning between characters. All the actors handled their scripts skillfully. Closing the play with a recording of President Obama was brilliant, as he signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Bill into law. City Island Theater Group did an excellent job with the thought-provoking two-act reading of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later”. Paladino’s directing was inspired and worked well with such a large cast and small stage. And bless Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project for keeping the truth out there.  In the playbill we read a letter from Matthew’s friend, Romaine Patterson ( www.eatromaine.com ).  “Matthew’s dream was to change the world.”  He did. Let us never forget: Matthew Shepard (December 1, 1776-October 12, 1998)

 

En Avant by Steve Capra
Written and performed by William Shuman; directed by Ruis Woertendyke, produced as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, 2013
A one-man play poses unique problems. With no plot, structure, conflict or the other dramatic tools, they’re difficult to pull off. William Shuman has done a splendid job in En Avant!: an evening with Tennessee Williams. Shuman wrote and performs the piece. En Avant (onward) was Williams’ dauntless motto.  It has been 30 years since Williams’ death. He led a life ripe for the biographer, with violent ups and downs. On the artistic plane, he saw two Pulitzers to critical rejection. Personally, he dealt with being gay, alcoholism and commitment to an asylum. Not to mention a breathtakingly dysfunctional family. And lovers. Shuman’s based the script on Williams’ journals. He presents his life in a non–linear way, creating a dreamy tone. For those of us familiar with the playwright’s biography, he offers no particular revelations. But we’re engrossed by Shuman’s affectionate recounting of the events of Williams life and companions – his agent Audrey Wood, his lover Frank Merlo, his unfortunate sister. Wisely, Shuman makes no attempt to impersonate his subject. But he’s wearing Williams’ signature white suit and Panama hat. Our actor has a charming southern accent, evident but not intrusive. He drinks in a way reflecting sharp observation and never suggesting drunkenness. The set is beautiful, with a fan-backed wicker chair. In moments of anguish, Shuman turns his face from us, giving the character depth without staining the fun. Shuman’s had the sense to keep the show brief. Still, I’d have liked to learn more about his relationship to the plays, particularly Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is mentioned only in passing. In fact, this En Avant one of the few plays that we’d like to see expanded, not because it needs to be fleshed out, but because we want more of a great thing.

Final Analysis by Steve Capra
By Otho Eskin, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, produced by Signature Center, off-Broadway thru 10/6/13
Vienna was the center of central Europe of the turn of the 20th century. The upper classes were still enjoying life in these last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the masses struggled, typically for the period, in poverty. In that city many of the talents of the early 20th century lived, and many of the century’s ideas were born. 1910 Vienna is the setting for Otho Eskin’s play Final Analysis. The play was a roaring success at the New York International Fringe Festival last year. It presents no lesser personages than Gustav Mahler, his wife Alma (who would, incidentally, later marry Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Josef Stalin and Sigmund Freud. Mahler, as it happens, engaged the services of Sigmund Freud during the period. Mahler’s relationship with Alma, shown in flashbacks during an initial therapy session, forms the spine of the play, such as it is. A single day in a stylish café is presented, with conversations between these five in various combinations. They’re joined by a young artist/composer of dubious talent. Mahler approaches Freud for help and his first therapy session takes place right there by the Danube. During the flashbacks document Mahler’s relationship with Alma up to that point in their strained marriage. The play touches a theme of sexism as Alma is expected to surrender her own musical ambitions to focus her life on her husband. Somehow Alma ends up in a conversation with Stalin, too. The script strains plausibility here and passes into an extreme and entertaining unlikelihood. It’s the best scene of the play as she insists on his pointing his gun at her. The minimal set, two café tables and chairs, is delicate and stylish. The play’s primary theme is the juxtaposition of ideas that can emerge from in a given time and place. Given this particular time and place, the play is charming. However, it’s unsatisfying. Charm can only get a show so far. There’s no real plot here, no conflict beyond what’s found in conversations. We find no meal, only desert. 

 

Richard III  by Steve Capra
By William Shakespeare, produced by The Drilling Company as part of its series Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, directed by Hamilton Clancy
Space for off-off-Broadway theater is in short supply. The Drilling Company has been creative and rented some parking spaces from the Department of Transportation. They produce Shakespeare in the Parking Lot! The company’s second production this summer has been Richard III, the last of Shakespeare’s plays recounting the events of The War of the Roses. His main source, as with all the history plays, was Raphael Holinshead’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, first published in 1577. The play was first published in 1597 under the title The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Containing , His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence; the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes; his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life and most deserved death. As it hath beene lately Acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his servants. It’s clear from his opening soliloquy that Richard is the ultimate bad boy:

…since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

This famous speech informs the entire extravagant, melodramatic play. Never mind being a villain – Richard proves to be a hellhound. The play gives any company a great opportunity to relish tragedy. This is a very skilled company and the production is most successful. Hamilton Clancy, a marvelous director, keeps everything snappy and crisp. He takes every opportunity to show some humor, and that’s what makes the production memorable. Humor makes horror more horrible. In the title role, Allesandro Colla is as monstrous and oily as the playwright would like. He has a deft, masterful acting style (although rather too influenced by Al Pacino, whom he even resembles). And Sheri Graubert gives a terrific performance as Queen Margaret; she dominates the stage whenever she appears. Speaking of Queen Margaret… she has a famous scene with Queen Elizabeth (King Edward’s wife, not QEI) and the Duchess of York in which the three ladies enjoy some commiserating. Before classical education faded, these three characters were known as the wailing women of Richard III. The problem with producing Shakespeare in a parking lot is that the actors can be inaudible when they have their backs to us, as they often do in this outdoor theatre-in-the-round. And this play is a challenge for the audience in the best of circumstances.  We’re looking forward to sitting in the parking lot with this company next summer.

Bard Music Festival by Michael J. Moran
(Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, August 9-18, 2013)
Over two weekends every August since 1990, the Bard Music Festival has focused on a single composer, along with predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who influenced or were influenced by that composer. What distinguishes Bard from other music festivals is the annual publication by Princeton University Press of an accompanying book with essays contributed by scholars who also participate as speakers and panelists at festival programs. The 2013 festival, “Stravinsky and His World,” presented 11concerts, three panel discussions, and two film showings on the Bard College campus. Most evening concerts featured orchestral music played by members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President and ASO Music Director Leon Botstein in the 900-seat Sosnoff Theater of the distinctive Richard B. Fisher Center designed in 2003 by Frank Gehry. Daytime concerts offered mainly chamber and instrumental works in the 200-seat Olin Humanities Building auditorium, where the panels were also held.  While the “Rite of Spring” centennial was duly observed in Weekend One, a highlight of Weekend Two was a live ASO performance of Hanns Eisler’s modest score for Resnais’ watershed Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog,” projected behind the orchestra (in a rare political statement, Stravinsky defended the Communist Eisler against the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948). The festival climaxed with a double bill of Stravinsky’s pastoral melodrama “Persephone” and his shattering opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” both imaginatively semi-staged by Doug Fitch. To hear these pieces in the context of other work by major influences (Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and contemporaries (Bartok, Varese), lesser-known colleagues (Tansman, Lourie), and the variety of Stravinsky’s own invention, from solo piano miniatures (“Madrid”) to serial chamber music (the Septet) and austere choral music (“Requiem Canticles”) was to appreciate anew Stravinsky’s protean talent.  Performances by ASO musicians and their guests were consistently fine. Of special note were mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell as Persephone, tenor Gordon Gietz as Oedipus, and pianist Piers Lane, who turned Antheil’s knuckle-busting “Sonata Sauvage” into a showstopper. James Bagwell led the Bard Festival Chorale in a stunning choral concert that ranged from a glowing “Beatus Vir” by Monteverdi to a lovely, if challenging, lamentation by Krenek, of which Bagwell wryly noted, quoting Ringo Starr, “it don’t come easy.” With a packed schedule at the festival, time to visit such nearby attractions as the historic town of Rhinebeck and museums in Hyde Park celebrating the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt families can be scarce, but the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley rewards all visitors to the area.

 

Alligator Summer: A southern gothic atrocity in three acts by Steve Capra
(Written by Dylan Lamb from Squeaky Bicycle Productions, NYC, directed by Brandi Varnell; set design by Kathryn Lieber; lighting design by Christopher D’Angelo; with Nicholas Yenson, Mark A. Keeton, Annalisa Loeffler, Dylan Lamb, Jackie Krim, Nathan Brisby & Erin E. McGuff.)
Squeaky Bicycle Productions has been presenting a superb production of Dylan Lamb’s excellent new play Alligator Summer. It’s a rare amalgam of first rate work from all artists involved. Alligator Summer is subtitled A southern gothic atrocity in three acts, and it’s indeed in the vein epitomized by Albee’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. And it’s firmly in the expressionist tradition. The situation concerns two families holed up in an attic because the alligators have overrun the streets.  Here in the garret, Atticus Julep is the Julep pater familias. His wife has been in bed for 13 years – that is, since the birth of their son, Antietam (also in residence). They’re joined mid-play by the older son, Toby, a decidedly bad example for the young boy. They’re joined in this tight space, overheated thermodynamically and emotionally, by the Gettysburg family. Bundle Gettysburg is a dumb, astoundingly good-natured lug. His wife, EthelynnAnn is Julep’s mistress. Antebellum Gettysburg, their daughter, is a girl Antietam’s age with either mental retardation or psychosis – it’s unclear which. Her father complains that she’s jabbering nonsense, but the actress (whose performance is otherwise very good) speaks so quickly that we don’t know which condition applies. We don’t even know if we’re supposed to understand all of what she’s saying. However, during the play Antebellum’s parents get at her and she ends up undoubtedly with both mental retardation and psychosis. We still can’t understand what she’s saying but at this point we’re certainly not supposed to. 13-year-old Antietam, gay and abused, is the focus. This is a memory play, and he breaks the action from time to time to address us as his older self. Nicholas Yenson gives a terrific performance as a boy so maltreated that we can see he’ll never recover. Oh, he tells us at the end – speaking as the adult in recollection and referring to his alcoholism – “I didn’t make it out alive after all”, but Yenson’s acting is so articulate that we’ve realized this already. He moves with the hesitancy of someone who’s been physically crippled by emotional violence.  He expresses such intense victimization and resentment that he doesn’t even evoke pity, only recognition.  The playwright, in the role of Toby, has a lengthy near-monologue that he executes with deft, meticulous technique, but without the symptoms of drunkenness that should be apparent. There are nearly no other problems with the ensemble’s acting – only that the actress playing Mdme Gettysburg has a voice so squeaky that it’s annoying. Throughout, the cast’s work is crisp and well analyzed. The director, Brandi Varnell, keeps everything moving briskly and with careful rhythm. Her blocking is so good that those of us on the side of the stage never feel that we’re missing a gesture. With the production’s heady pace, she makes demands on out listening skills. The playwright tells us something only once, and one of the things that make the production so engrossing is that we have to concentrate to keep up with it. The set and lighting are first-rate as well. The production’s only general weakness is its lack of subtlety. The show is in a tiny theatre (seating only about 50), and the acting is at times too big for the space. For example, the actors playing Julep and EthelynnAnn are so determined to show us the subtext of their lines that leave nothing for us to divine; they leave no work for us to do, no contribution for us to make. This is a common problem off-off-Broadway. Dylan Lamb is a playwright of extraordinary talent, and will undoubtedly be widely recognized in time. He never dwells on a moment, never skims over it; each dramatic element is given the weight it needs to balance the whole. His characters are bizarre without being grotesque. The structure is tight without being obvious. Like Tennessee Williams, he slips delicately poetic lines into the dialog almost without our being aware of them. When she complains about the heat in the attic, Mdme Julep says “It’s as if the devil himself moved in to get a better view.”  However, the memory element of the play – the adult looking back on the events – should be knocked out as superfluous. Lamb peppers the dialog with malapropisms so that it doesn’t get oppressive. But Varnell overlooks these in the fever of the moment, and they aren’t effective. What keeps the dialog from being dismal is not its humor but the weirdness of the situation. We’d like to see more from Lamb as soon as possible.

 

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (a true romance) by Steve Capra
(Written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman, produced by the Public Theater in association with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater)
Richard Foreman the emperor of the off-off-Broadway OOB-downtown avant-garde, has been producing his Ontological-Hysteric Theater for 45 years – over 50 productions. Kooky and cryptic, they’re no more to be rationally interpreted than that weirdo name. They leave the audience with a remarkably refreshed feeling, like a meditation.  His latest work is Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (a true romance), which Foreman wrote, directed and designed, produced by the Public Theater in association with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in May, 2013. It makes it clear that he’s as weirdo, as idiosyncratic, as brilliant as ever. Non-narrative, with singular, stylized acting, it’s a perplexing dream. In its way it’s as far from verisimilitude as Everyman. The immensely cluttered set has papers on the back wall, his signature strings over the audience,, pillows, a chandelier… There are lights on the audience, bright flashes, loud crashes… a phone ringing, jazz… The central character wears a book around his neck like a scapula medal. It’s an obscure mirage and a festival of design. The situation, such as it is, in this non-narrative, concerns an artist, hence the papers and the book. Samuel is on a boulevard in a “familiar city”. He comes across a prostitute named Suzie. They both have friends – well, other actors really – and there’s a strange character in a bloated white costume named, according to the program, Bibendum (aka Michelin). They’re strongly miked. That’s about it. The actors speak in a slow, dreamy monotone, immediate, without the flow of time. They’re usually talking to themselves. The script suggests the philosophical musings of Nausea. There are phrases like “I require meaning” and “this self-evident world”. There are just enough lines to keep the play referent to a dramatic situation. In reference to Suzie, our man says “I suddenly do exist” and “This is the one who’ll certify my actual existence.” To give you an idea of the surreal “events”: Suzie is provocative, Samuels’s buddy grabs his crotch (an alter-ego?), Samuel’s foot goes numb so he puts it in a bag… who knows why… Chaotic as Foreman’s work is, we have a subconscious recognition of all this. Otherwise how could it be so engrossing, fascinating, irresistible?  There’s a certain frenzy I missed in this production that his earlier work had. There’d be carnival music riff, and sort-of-gremlins would do a sort-of line dance. Foreman once said to me “People are so afraid of being in a situation where they don’t know exactly what’s black, what’s white. How interesting it is, when you’re on a trip, to sometimes get lost and discover all kinds of fantastic things. Someone who is open to these possibilities could have a wonderful time. We hope that Foreman’s parade of hallucinations never ends.

 

Jean Genet’s The Balcony by Steve Capra
(The Horizon Theatre Rep, OOB, directed by Rafael de Musso; Scene design: Joseph Kremer; Costume design: Amanda Shafran with Maria Wolf, Rafael de Mussa, Carlo Giuliano, Jon Okabayashi, et al.)
For those who haven’t run across Jean Genet’s French play The Balcony in a college drama class: it’s set in a brothel. Its opening presents a series of scenes between clients and employees. They’re highly eroticized charades of social power: a gentleman masquarades a priest, a woman a judge, another man a general. The hired professionals play along to reinforce the socio-sexual role-playing, and there’s always a dominant/submissive element of S&M. There’s a stress on the iconic costumes the clientele don. Meanwhile, there’s a revolution going on in the street. The bordello is aligned with monarchy. When the ancien régime –and its authority figures – fall, the aforesaid johns put on their play clothes and, in the script’s climactic scene, pose for a photo to perpetuate the monarchy’s power. The impression that these people (priest, judge, general) exist is enough to suppress rebellion. In fact, Madame Irma, the Madame of the establishment and the play’s focus, impersonates the queen, who may be dead (but for this playwright, it doesn’t matter if she’s really dead or alive). It’s happily not my brief to analyze Genet’s uncommonly complex and abstruse text. In the The Horizon Theatre Rep’s recent OOB production, Director Rafael de Mussa has eschewed the theatricality that the play’s productions are noted for (mirrors, oversized costumes) and expressed it in human terms. There’s a television on stage channeling footage of real riots, and the sex scenes stress the carnal, not the political. De Mussa’s vision is well executed. He’s grappled with this bête noir of the modern canon quite well, if with limited success. The Balcony is, after all, theTour de France of stage direction. At times it seems to float into unclear surrealism. At other times it’s simply unclear. One problem is the highly stylized, deliberately obscure quality of Genet’s dialogue. Sometimes a line seems interchangeable among characters, as if its meaning were more important than its expression of character and action. The play is la philosophy first, le drame second (in contrast with a playwright like Checkhov, whose first concern is with les gens). To make matters worse, no one educates us to lines like “When life departs, the hens cling to a sheet”. We’re not told that “hen” (poule in French), refers to a prostitute. And why the indefinite article? At other times it’s unclear whether the characters speak as their real selves or as characters in the fantasy, or the degree to which they’re doing either, or the degree to which we’re not meant to know. A very fine analysis is required here, and the supporting actors, who have the hardest time of it, aren’t quite up to it. The principle actors serve well, led by a bravura Maria Wolf in the complex role of Madame Irma. She’s a businesswoman, and if she strikes a pose it’s because she’s in the business of posing. Carlo Giuliano gesticulates so extremely that he nearly leaves acting behind, but he does it so well that we believe it. Rafael de Mussa (our director) gives a very solid performance in the pivotal role of Chief of Police, grounded and subtle. Jon Okabayashi gives the most interesting performance. As a wimp with military fantasies, he seems to be struggling to understand himself and the situation. We see him fall in and out of moments of clarity. The secondary players don’t always fare so well. De Mussa has cast an actress unsuited for the role of Chantal, the prostitute who’s joined the rebellion. Chantal is meant to be an opaque icon of glory, and the actress is simply miscast. And while the role itself isn’t major, it's is a serious weakness. The character adds complexity the theme of iconography by applying the principle to the resistance. There’s a line: “In every revolution there's the glorified whore who sings an anthem…” Costume and set are quite well done by Amanda Shafran and Joseph Kremer, respectively. And so the show works sometimes well, sometimes less well. Whatever its faults, we’re grateful for a company that takes on such a work like this. I'll look for them next season.

 

Bello Mania by Steve Capra
(Bello Nock & Company, New Victory Theater, Broadway, NYC)
Everybody loves a clown. Well, I suppose it depends on the clown. But everybody loves Bello Nock, the former Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey master. From the moment he appears in his recent production of Bello Mania, in a huge, inflated version of his costume, we cannot take our eyes off him. Athletic and precise, he does handstands on a high wire and executes somersaults on a trampoline. He grapples with Spot the (invisible) Wonderdog. He brings a grown-up from the audience and shoots an invisible apple off her head with an invisible arrow. His bike keeps falling apart, but he’s indomitable. Those infallible critics in the audience, the kids, loved every minute. He invites a few up on stage and works with them to everyone’s delight. The highlight of the show is the Sway Pole act, in which Bello climbs a mildly streetlight that ascends to the ceiling. The pole is off the stage, at the foot of the audience and, apart from the delight of the act itself, it’s the location that distinguishes it. Even a slight repositioning like that gives the stage event a greater immediacy. The greatest thing is the contact he keeps with his audience. He’s no marionette-as-clown, no detached Punch. His goofy face registers confusion, pride, enjoyment… With his red hair six inches vertical and his silly lop-sided smile, he radiates exuberance, enjoying with us our enjoyment of the act. And he does it all silently. He’s brilliant.

 

Fragments by Steve Capra

(Written by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, produced by C.I.C.T. <Centre international des creations theatrales> and Theatre des Bouffes du Nord <Paris>, presented by Theatre for a New Audience)

Samuel Beckett was one of the giant icons of 20th-century theatre. Of the important playwrights of those hundred years, he represents the century’s unique contribution to dramatic literature, the combination of absurdism and minimalism. Of the directors who created what we think of as modern theatre, the age of the director, Peter Brook is one of the two still alive (the other is Judith Malina). His contribution has been a stage minimalism that’s been enormously influential. Marie-Helene Estienne has been Brook’s assistant, dramaturge and producer. Brook was born in London, Beckett in Dublin, but both spent much of their careers in Paris. In its compulsive sparceness, Fragments, short pieces by Beckett, epitomize the distillation of our theatre. The five short Beckett pieces (directed by Brook and Estienne) that make up the evening present no characters, really. The actors on stage (if they can be called actors) represent ideas personified. They have no offstage life, they exist to reflect life for our benefit.  Rough for Theatre I presents two actors, one as a blind man, the other as an amputee. Rockaby is a quintessentially Beckettian monologue, the actress speaking – reflecting – merely to keep company with herself.  Neither also presents a single actress, speaking a sort of internal monologue, while Come and Go offers us three women whispering about each other. That’s it. Act without Words II is the most accessible of the set. There are two actors on stage. One exhibits constant chagrin and disappointment, the other a vapid cheerfulness, both silent. One at a time they dress and undress. They engage in a bit of activity and then crawl back into the bags from which they emerged, unchanged by the futile work of the day. The powerful, rarified performances are like acting under a microscope. Each gesture, each inflection, is amplified, because there are so few of them. Between them, the playwright and directors have an anal retentive vision as refined as a pianist playing with one finger. These abstruse works demand a new way of receiving theatre. They’re brilliant and enigmatic. They’re unconcerned with the reception they might receive from the public. They’re stunning, but they’re symptomatic of a crushing temperament of modern theatre. The playwright is so hermetic and erudite that his work has nothing to do with popular theatre literacy.

 

The Poor of New York by Dion Boucicault, by Steve Capra
(Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre, directed by Tyne Rafaeli)

Dion Boucicault (1820 – 1890) was one of the most successful melodramatists, acclaimed in both London and New York. His The Poor of New York opened in our city in 1857. It was one of the first plays of its century to take a stab at social amelioration. It was subsequently produced widely, with the place names (and the title) changed to suit the locale.  All the melodramatic elements are here: the hyperbole; the excess of emotion; the black-and-white moralizing. Instead of simply reflecting nature, melodramatists wrote for effect.  The Poor of New York is set during the financial panic of 1857. Most of its characters are the destitute exploited by the greedy. Its allusions to the corrupt the financial system and its managers, it goes without saying, are pointedly topical. Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre produced it recently in a large venue off-off-Broadway. Director Tyne Rafaeli assumes the challenges of presenting a bona-fide melodrama with all the excesses of its form. She succeeds wonderfully, using humor selectively to keep the play from being ridiculous to our taste. The first syllable of the term melodrama implies music, and Rafaeli works in form with an 11-piece ensemble. Music underscores the text selectively. And Jiyoun Chang’s set is marvelous, lugubrious brick buildings that extend on to the balconies around the audience. Rafaeli and her talented cast take lines that could be ludicrous and manages them without embarrassment. “I may blush from anger,” the bitch cries, “but never from shame!” At another point our dastardly villain threatens “Give it to me or I’ll blow your brains out!” Delicious! And speaking of our villain, it’s extraordinary fun watching the evil Mr. Bloodgood in his black frock coat and top hat. Christopher Tocco is superb in the role, marvelous, playing it in style or slyly as suits. At the play’s climax, the long-suffering mother and her daughter attempt suicide by inhaling the fumes of burning charcoal. But it’s their neighbor on the split stage, whom we know intimately, who dies from the fumes. The split stage was this play’s innovation. Anyway… the playwright has it both ways when the three soon shows up again. The neighbor (who is a sous-villain) alludes to the event when he mentions “the day after my suffocation.” Now how is a director to deal with that unspeakable line? Rafaeli and her actor (Brian Hastert) handle it deftly. He turns to the audience on the phrase, and delivers it with humor and an inflectional wink. Rafaeli plays the piece allegro because she has to, but the production plays a price. As the convoluted plot speeds by, we can scarcely keep up with it. We admire Boucicault’s social concern, but let’s take a look at a certain speech from the first act: “The poor – whom do you call the poor? Do you know them? Do you see them? They are more frequently found under a black coat then under a red shirt. The poor man is the clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children. The poor man is the artist who is obliged to pledge the tools of his trade to buy medicines for his sick wife. The lawyer who, craving for employment, buttons up his thin paletot to hide his shirtless breast. These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content – smoking a cigar to disguise their hunger. They drag from their pockets their last quarter, to cast it with studied carelessness to the beggar, whose mattress at home is lined with gold. These are the most miserable of the Poor of New York.” What drivel this is! First of all, it’s confused, classifying that artist with the clerk. But the point is clear: the impoverished bourgeois suffer more than the underclass. Try as he might, Boucicault couldn’t shake the 19th-century worldview. And that beggar with his mattress stuffed with gold! Yipes! Rafaeli knows this is meant to be the play’s position statement, and very oddly, she takes it seriously, giving the speech a modern tone unseen elsewhere on her stage. Her attitude is inexplicable. This production was at any rate a terrific contribution to our theatrical season.

 

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s “GUYS & DOLLS” – A Good Bet! by Camille Kaiser
Once again, veteran director/choreographer, Richard Stafford, rocked the house with his amazing talent and outstanding casting. Musical director, Jihwan Kim and his expert musicians certainly did justice to some of the best music you'll ever hear including, “Guys and Dolls,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat.” Together they brought us the ever-popular 1950 classic musical, “Guys & Dolls” that is just so “New Yawk”! In the city that never sleeps, we meet loveable thugs and their long-suffering dolls. Nathan Detroit (well played by Michael Brian Dunn), a ne’er-do-well shyster who runs the “oldest established permanent floating crap game” in New York and is always desperately seeking a place to play while trying to keep his fiancé of 14 years, Adelaide, from becoming his wife. Allie Schauer plays the role of Adelaide with a perfect mix of klutzy and sweet, capturing the audience with her comedic timing and delivery as well as her song, “Adelaide’s Lament”. Gary Lynch as Sky Masterson has the look and demeanor of a high roller with a heart and a great voice. Courtney Glass, who plays Sarah Brown, has a lovely soprano voice, which blended so perfectly with Sky’s voice during their duet, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”. She also has a great presence, morphing from prim mission doll to liquored, loosened up hottie in Havana, topping off the transformation with her number, “If I Were A Bell”. As soon as the lights went up and the opening numbers performed by Nicely Nicely Johnson (Jayson Elliott), Benny Southstreet (Sheldon Henry), Rusty Charley (Jonathan Stahl), Sarah, Arvide Abernathy (Tony Triano), Calvin (Ryan Ross), Agatha (Leah Landau) and the ensemble, the energy crackled and continued throughout the show. “Bushel and A Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” with Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls (Leah Landau, Amy Brewer, Rachel Boone and Lisa Rohinsky) were pure fun, as was “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” with Nicely Nicely and the ensemble. Costume design, by Derek Lockwood, was authentic with the appropriate glitz. Set design by John Farrell and lighting design by Andrew Gmoser provided the perfect setting for a quality production. I’d like to give a shout out to the house and wait staff who are efficient and courteous. I happened to overhear an audience member comment during dinner that “they run a tight ship here” and I thought I’d pass it on because they certainly add a special something to an evening at the theatre. This is a show for guys and dolls of all ages, nostalgic for some and a brand new experience for others. Bring the whole family! The production continues through June 9, 2013. For reservations, call 914-592-2222.

 

Westchester Broadway Theatre's In the Heights by David Pentz
Standing Ovation Studios has joined with the Westchester Broadway Theatre to present an outstanding production of the Tony Award-winning musical, IN THE HEIGHTS. It officially opened on Wednesday, February 13th, celebrating its first Westchester County production along with a Proclamation Plaque presented to the composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, proclaiming it Lin-Manuel Miranda Day in Westchester. It added an extra special moment to an already satisfying and entertaining evening. IN THE HEIGHTS is a medley of vignettes conveying the dreams and aspirations of the people on this particular street in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. We meet a series of characters including Usnavi, beautifully played by Perry Young, the narrator of the evening and the owner of the bodega that he runs with his cousin, Sonny, a very funny Greg Laucella. Usnavi engages the audience directly and shares the details of his friends, neighbors and the many cultural connections that keep this block a close-knit community in a big city. Young demonstrates a naturalness on stage that makes his performance effortless. We meet Usnavi’s “Abuela,” his grandma Claudia (Christina Aranda) – the matriarch of the street. She reminisces about the old country in a wonderful song, “Paciencia y Fe.” There is the couple (Benjamin Perez & Nicole Paloma Sarra) who own the local taxi stand and their daughter, Nina, who has returned home from college after being put on probation for poor grades and financial problems. Nina is played by the outstanding Arielle Jacobs. Jacobs treats the audience to a wonderful song, “Breathe” about coming home to the comfort of family and friends. Usnavi’s ever-pursuing girlfriend, Vanessa, works at the local hair salon, and expresses her dreams of having her own apartment and furthering her career - she is portrayed by the sultry Gizel Jimenez. And then there is Daniela (Ariana Valdes), the bigger than life owner of the salon who has to move to the Bronx due to escalating rent hikes. Valdes simply commands the stage in her scenes. Act II conveys the changes and disruption to people’s lives due to certain situations and their desire to better their lives, while never forgetting where they come from or this neighborhood, infused with their Hispanic heritage. There are multiple storylines to wrap up in this act so it can feel a bit long. Some of the stories tend to feel feather-thin and you can find yourself yearning for something a bit more substantial. What seems to work better for this show is the intimate setting of the WBT, which helps create greater focus enabling the audience to be more engaged in the characters and the story – something I missed during the Broadway production and a major advantage to this production. John Fanelli’s direction and Morgan Marcell’s hip-hop reproduced Tony Award-winning choreography are simply outstanding establishing a seamless production from start to finish. Each and every cast member brings a unique and special trait to his or her character and make for a superb and talented ensemble that all totally embody their roles and demonstrate great respect for the “people” they are playing. The production design team all did an amazing job respectively: Steven Loftus – Set Design; Andrew Gmoser – Lighting Design; and Maria Castaldo for the perfect, contemporary street Costume Design.  Go and see IN THE HEIGHTS at the WBT one of the best productions I have seen in a very long time. The show runs now through March 17. For information, call 914/ 592-2222

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s Can Can – Viva la France!
By Camille Kaiser
After watching this colorful, energetic, light-hearted production, I wanted to hop on the next plane to Paris! The book by Abe Burrows is set in the year 1893 and tells the tale of Paris dance hall owner, La Mome Pistache (magnificently portrayed by Glory Crampton) whose business has become popular due to the sexy Can Can dance. She battles with a self-rightious judge, Aristide Forestier (portrayed with equal brilliance by Tony Lawson) who is determination to shut down her business. Their mellifluous voices certainly did justice to Cole Porter’s classics, “C’est Magnifique” , “It’s All Right With Me” and, of course, “I Love Paris”.  When Judge Aristide investigates her dance hall business, La Mome Pastache seduces him and the two eventually fall in love. By the time her case comes to trial, Aristide has had a change of heart and works to win her acquittal. Their on-stage chemistry was infectious and while we all knew where this relationship was going, it was a pleasure to watch it evolve. Under the skillful direction of Richard Stafford and musical direction of Craig Barna, the entire cast and ensemble delivered expert performances and nimbly performed Richard Stafford’s creative, complex choreography with boundless energy. The “Garden of Eden” ballet was mesmerizing and the “Can Can” dance expertly performed by Pistache, Claudine (Lauralyn McClelland) and the ensemble, was dynamic. The comedic timing and delivery was impeccable in “Never Never be an Artist”, where Patrick Richwood as Boris, whose energy and seemingly effortless physical antics throughout the production, turned a prop malfunction into a well-received laugh line. Another audience pleaser was Boris’ duel with Hilaire (well played by Charles West), when once again Patrick wowed us with his comedic agility. Costume design, by Loren Shaw, was colorful and authentic, as was the hair design by Gerard Kelly. Set design by John Farrell and lighting design by Andrew Gmoser completed the illusion of a romantic Paris. The production continues through October 7th. For reservations, call 914-592-2222. Don’t miss it.

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s GEORGE M by Jim DeBlasi
George M. Cohan almost single-handedly invented the American musical comedy, writing more than fifty shows and hundreds of songs, some of which are included in the musical, “George M”, with book by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal. Directed by Richard Stafford, the story tells of Cohan (John Scherer) starting as a child performer of the family act called The Four Cohans, which included his father, Jerry Cohan (Jim Walton) mother Nellie (Melodie Walford) and sister Josie (Amanda Trusty). John Farrell’s set and Andrew Gmoser’s lighting design enable a smooth transition of venue from Providence to Cedar Rapids to New York City and we get a glimpse into what working in show business must have been like in those early days as we watch George strive for and attain his American dream.  George is portrayed as a driven, egomaniacal workaholic, but while he was temperamental in his early years, he later learned to control his frustrations. I would have liked to have gotten more than just a peek inside the mind of the King of Broadway. Mr. Sherer gives a poignant performance near the end of the show after Cohan comes out of retirement for an acting job and returns to his old song-and-dance style. He is forcefully reminded that times have changed and you can feel the heartache of a man who has outlived a dream. The show is abundant with bombastic tunes that are pure Broadway fun as are the costumes by Leon Dobrowski. John Scherer’s vocal and dance skills as well as the talent and energy of the entire cast and ensemble are a joy to watch. Nothing captivates an audience more than tap dancing and this show is abundant with it, cleverly choreographed by Jonathan Stahl. We are also treated to some of Cohan’s best tunes, under the musical direction of Leo P. Carusone; among them “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag”. The staging for “You’re A Grand Old Flag” is magnificent and it was refreshing to see the audience enjoy this display of patriotism. When I attended the show, there was a class of elegantly dressed high school students who were obviously delighted with their “Senior Night Out” celebration. It was interesting that what was nostalgic to me was bright and shiny new to them! This is definitely a show for all ages. 

August Strindberg’s Playing with Fire
by Steve Capra
Strindberg’s reputation doesn’t lie on his comedies, but he’s credited with a few. Playing with Fire is one, written in 1892. The playwright called it “a very serious comedy where people hide their tragedies beneath a certain cynicism” The play deals squarely with Strindberg’s great obsession, uh, gender relations. It resembles closely Strindberg’s Creditors, another one-act about a love triangle, written a few years earlier. There’s the same emotional exposition, less concerned with the story than with the complexity of the relationships, giving the play an ominous tone. And there’s an emotional disaster at the end of both. Adaptor Leslie Lee has placed the production in the marvelous ambiance of the “colored aristocracy” of the 1920’s. The characters gather in an upscale African-American resort in Martha’s Vineyard. He’s taken liberties in the adaptation. For example, the matriarch gossips about someone who’s scandalously “passing for white”; Lee’s invented this detail. Knowing this, it’s impossible for us to tell what the playwright himself has written. This sort of thing isn’t to my taste. I like the classics to be classic; we have a lot to learn from authenticity. But Lee’s been inspired - and very deft - creating a society for the characters. We enjoy it. Ulrika Brand’s translation is puzzling. It ranges from appropriate idiom (“He just suddenly flew the coop.”) to clunkiness that sounds like Strindberg in translation (“I needn’t have to answer that for you.”). The problem with the production lies in that difficult phrase, “a very serious comedy”. “Comedy” is a slippery word, and difficult to interpret. After all, Chekhov used it in the same decade to describe The Seagull. Laughter is secondary in this genre, a by-product. Strindberg himself told the actress in the central role: “Be extremely reserved, like a young wife from a good family who conceals her emotions.” However, this company works so hard to be funny that we don’t believe the characters. The actors deliver their lines with the clipped endings on the smart-aleck kid, well beyond the playwright’s “certain cynicism.” They seem to have to taken to an extreme a certain line describing the characters as having “an artificial openness to block their anger.” They lay on the irony like a thick, over-sweet frosting that masks the flavor of the cake. Only James Edward Becton, as the interloper, gives us moments of authenticity. At the plot’s crucial moment, the “young wife of a good family”, finds herself bereft. She’s understandably perturbed, and her line is “I can’t breathe”. Comic or not, this is typical Strindbergian hyperbole. Director Robert Greer has his unfortunate actress swill down an entire bottle of booze before she delivers the line as if she’s responding to an excess of absinthe. The tech staff doesn’t seem to know how to extend a light change to a count of ten, and the house drawn on the upstage wall is absolutely frightening. But Lora Jackson’s period costumes are absolutely gorgeous, in light summer pastels.

The Secret Garden: A Magical Night at the Theatre by Stephanie Schleicher
"What little girl doesn't want a garden of her own?" So says one complicated, multi-layered character to another in the delicious, rose-scented confection THE SECRET GARDEN currently running through Memorial Day at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. I hadn't known quite how much I apparently wanted a secret garden of my own until I found myself buried in tissues at the end of Act One! The White Plains Performing Arts Center, nestled among movie theaters and chain stores at City Center, is quite a venue. The seats recline, the stage is gorgeous, and the theatre that can be witnessed there is nothing short of professional. The lighting, music, staging, costuming and performances were spot-on Broadway-calibre, in this reviewer's estimation. The word that kept coming to my mind was "seamless." The $40 ticket price (for non-students) might give one pause, but I assure you, it's worth every penny. THE SECRET GARDEN, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved novel, is a flowery musical with dark, gothic undertones. It tells the story of Mary Lennox, a little girl who loses her parents to the cholera in colonial India, moves to her uncle's haunted mansion on the Moors, and proceeds to charm and heal everyone around her by virtue of her presence and spunk. I brought my 11-year-old daughter to the show, and she absolutely loved it. From the dreamlike beginning to the gratifying conclusion, she was engaged at every moment, although she did quip: "I can see how someone who hasn't seen the movie (or read the book) might be a little confused." Sometimes it was hard to tell who on stage was alive and who was dead. In addition, THE SECRET GARDEN is a musical in the true sense of the word; we get our facts through the lyrics. All I can say is, listen carefully! And you'll be able to follow along. Director/choreographer Brian Swasey is adept at creating impossibly beautiful tableau. I found the staging thoughtful, evocative and creative. Jaye Beetem's set, all lattice and roses, gave the illusion of an evolving storybook illustration. When the topiaries were rolled out, it elicited a gasp from my daughter! Samantha Irons' costumes, all high-button shoes and ruffles, were authentic and expensive-looking. The unparalleled lighting designer Andrew Gmoser once again worked his considerable magic. And kudos to sound designer Jonathon Hatton for successfully weaving ghostly howls, stormy gales and wordy music into a seamless whole. I saw doll-faced Lilli Jacobs as Mary Lennox, and her voice, talent and presence blew me away. 9-year-old Jake Kitchin nailed the part of Colin, Mary's sickly cousin whom she finds convalescing deep in the mansion. His comic timing was perfection, and he didn't even lose his cool in the face of a potential wheelchair accident. Maggie Thompson was picture-perfect and statuesque as the cold, unwavering housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. Sheira Feuerstein, as Martha, had the honor of being my daughter's favorite character. Her friendly chambermaid provided much-needed comic relief, and we grew to like her more and more, the more we saw and heard of her. Her song in Act Two ("Hold On") was the highlight of the night for me. Rubber-faced, beguiling Patrick McGee was fantastic as Dickon, a young man who befriends Mary. Kathleen Desilva, as Rose, boasted the best ghostly facial expression. The chorus, under George Croom's musical direction, sounded hauntingly divine. There wasn't a weak link in the whole operatic bunch. An interpretive dance moment performed by some chorus members was touching and sublime, where it could have been cheesy in a lesser production. I wish I could have seen even more of Victor Borjas and Leslie Jackson, as the ghostly Indian servants of Mary's childhood. They sounded and looked amazing. Golden-throated Caitlyn Fischer was both charismatic and flawless as Lily. Kristoffer Lowe and Stephen Tewksbury, portraying flawed and complicated men, sent chills up and down my spine with their effortless tenor harmonies in the power ballad "Lily's Eyes." Both strike just the right tone with their characters. Tewksbury is an "actor's singer," and Lowe is alternately likable and detestable as he struts about in Victorian fashion. And last but not least, Thomas Kramer, as Ben, wins the award for the best accent of the night - and the best line: "It's gettin' to be a full time job, keepin' all the secrets around here!" Get thee and thy children and grandchildren (and a box of tissues) to THE SECRET GARDEN! It is a picture-postcard that will stay with you for a long time to come. There is broadway-calibre theatre in Westchester… make no mistake!

Dream Bridge by Steve Capra
The Yara Arts Group presented at La MaMa recently Dream Bridge, a production based on a couple of poems by Oleh Lysheha, a Ukranian poet. The content of the poems is mixed with the content of the actors’ dreams. We’re given an opportunity to read the poems in our seats before the show begins. I forgot about them even while I was reading. Source material is of no importance to an audience, and presenting the same content in different forms creates a jarring dissonance. Source material only clarifies stuff that shouldn’t need clarification. The Yara doesn’t need it, and we don’t know what to do with it. The production features actors dressed in white, on a small stage draped with white fabric on the sides and back. The jet black hair of the Kyrgystan actors is stunning in the bright light. The only things on the white stage are a small carpet and an arched wooden piece suggesting a bridge. Indeed, it will represent a bridge late in the show, its most denotative moment. There are projections on the smooth upstage white, and they’re nearly always in black-and-white – a black-and-white white sea, white branches on a dark background, an abstract white miasma. The entire show takes the loose form of a dream. One character is identifiably The Dreamer, another his younger self. The Dreamer speaks in English, not a lot and not to great effect. Other actors represent other people in the dreamer’s life. But we don’t care about these other people, even when we can identify them. The finest moments in the production are when these actors form a chorus. From time to time, they speak in or sing in Kyrgyz – never in English – and from time to time, they whisper. Their movements – usually they move as one - have a sort of minimalist stylization, with simple, smooth crosses, not dance-like. There’s no narrative, just a series of white-on-white images and largely unintelligible speech. There’s an evocative echo in one moment, a delicate shadow in another. They’re used so effectively because they’re used so sparingly, just as the entire production is delicately short.

12th Night OP by Steve Capra
The work in The American Theatre of Actors’ (off-off-Broadway) recently mounted a very admirable production of 12th Night. As it always should be, it wasn’t necessary to understand the lines to appreciate the play. The interpretive choices were clear and the actors excited the text with a vibrant stage life that was eloquent in itself. The accomplishment was all the more appreciated because the actors are speaking Shakespeare’s English – or Original Pronunciation (OP). Our linguistic ancestors the Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English from about 500 AD. Around 1100, with the Norman Conquests, it morphed into Middle English. From about 1500, with the Renaissance and all, the transformation into Modern English began. Words lost many of their grammatical endings (some remain, such as the ‘s’ at the end of plurals). Word order became more important. Shakespeare’s language was Early Modern English. Of course, we can’t be sure how it was pronounced, but we can estimate pretty reliably through linguistic reconstruction. Examining the rhymes and puns in the period literature is rewarding in this respect, and there is material from the period about how the language was spoken. Finally, Shakespeare’s spelling gives us clues. The OP gave the production a delicious distance. What’s more, it made us listen harder than we might, engrossing us all the more. As with Stravinsky, our ears learn the sounds as the piece proceeds. An initial period of befuddlement leads to a greater comfort with the them. I’d like to have seen more tonal variation among the scenes, and the company could have taken greater pains with the set. But we hope that the company’s next OP production will have a considerably longer run than 12th Night did, and that it will get the attention it deserves. It’s important to see that creative theatre doesn’t need to be avant-garde.

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s “Hairspray” - WOW!
by Camille Kaiser

John Waters provided the foundation for “Hairspray” on which Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have constructed a clever and entertaining book which tells its story with effectiveness, much laughter, and a lot of heart. Marc Shaiman, who wrote the music and lyrics with Scott Wittman, has created a series of bouncy, tuneful numbers that will make both those who savored the 1960s and those born too late wish they could go back in time. Plain and simple, this is a feel good show! It tells the story of a teenage dance show on local Baltimore TV, The Corny Collins Show (Pat McRoberts is delightful in his role as the Baltimore “Dick Clark”). Tracy Turnblad (Erin McCracken who just oozes vivacity and amazing talent -- she can sing, dance and act!) is a pleasantly plump high school student, whose dream is to appear on The Corny Collins Show and dance with Link Larkin (well played with an appropriate hint of “Elvis” by Tripp Hampton). We watch Tracy overcome numerous obstacles while attempting to make her dream come true. The audience finds itself rooting for her, her mother, Edna (played to the hilt of campiness by Tad Wilson), a large woman who spent her life just being a mother and laundress instead of being a dress designer and her father, Wilbur (the hysterical Bruce Rebold), who owns a trick and magic shop. Through music, merriment and dance we watch Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (adorably played by Stacy Gogo), get past the tryouts, meet and dance with the African Americans from “the other side of the tracks”, dethrone the dance queen, Amber, and integrate the TV show upsetting Amber’s mother, Velma (portrayed to the extreme by Ann Van Cleave) who manages the TV station and makes sure that her daughter, Amber, is featured and that The Corny Collins Show remains a racially segregated program. This show is great fun, with songs like “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome to the Sixties”, “Hairspray”, “The Nicest Kid In Town” and “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now”. But more significant, it is the story about people just being people and that black or white, all teens just want to be teens and dance to the music. It was a delight to watch Seaweed J. Stubbs (smoothly portrayed by Elgin Giles) teach the white kids how to dance like black kids (who we all know have the best moves), watch the adorable Little Inez (Sidni Beaudoin) win the competition and of course, meet the vivacious Motormouth Maybelle (Inga Ballard) and hear her belt out “I Know Where I’ve Been”. This large and extremely talented cast is completely in sync throughout the show and performs with tireless, playful, infectious energy that had many audience feet dancing under the tables. This show is full of laughs. Some of my personal favorites included Scott Colgano’s portrayal of Harriman F. Spritzer, the show’s sponsor and the incredibly versatile Terry Palasz as Prudy Pingleton, the gym teacher and also the prison matron. Adding to the magic of this show is a colorful, adaptable set designed and constructed by Bottari and Kase, the multi-talented and experienced eye of director and choreographer, Richard Stafford, perfectly designed costumes by Bottari and Kase, hair and wig design (of which there were so many) by Gerard Kelly, excellent lighting effects (Andrew Gmoser), perfect sound (Jon Hatton) and the many props (Grumpys Props) which make all the little items fit the puzzle. And, of course, the icing on the cake was outstanding musical direction by Leo P. Carusone. The electrifying energy crackled through the theatre from the stage through the audience and brought the audience, including this reviewer, to its feet. The production continues through June 3, 2012. For reservations, call (914) 592-2222. Don’t miss this one!

(Good Acting + Good Set Design) X (Good Directing) - (Audience Behavior) = CITG's "Proof"
by William Kozy
When the curtain parts and the play begins, the audience is treated to an almost breathtakingly appealing image of a father and daughter sitting peacefully on their backyard porch, drenched by a teal-colored moonlit night. The color palette of the wonderful set design by Joe Burck lends a very professional look to the production and the standard is upheld by the fine directing by Nina Gabriele-Cuva. Too often what happens in community theatre is you get a sort of over-politeness amongst the cast regarding dialogue: "Oh, I didn't want to step on your line" whereby no one talks at the same time as anyone else. That tactic has killed the energy of so many productions, but not here with this presentation. The cast has been encouraged it seems to me, to overlap dialogue when it made sense to, creating a naturalistic feel to the events unfolding and a pace that keeps the audience attentive instead of bored. This is particularly the case with the two leads, Taliesen Rose as Catherine, the daughter of a revered math professor who questions her own sanity, and Denis Zepeda as Hal, the math student who falls in love with her and then must question his own beliefs when faced with the question of whether Catherine was capable of some astonishingly advanced work in mathematics. Ms. Rose and Mr. Zepeda have a believable and touching romantic chemistry onstage, and it is matched by their chemistry as performers as they bounce their dialogue off one another with energy and focus. It is very encouraging to see two performers who actually seem to be listening to each other; they did a great job together. Kevin Gordon (whose last CITG appearance was a nearly-show stealing glib take on a concert producer in "Lend Me a Tenor") does nice steady work here as Catherine's dementia-riddled father, particularly in his monologue about watching the students as they browse through the bookstores; it's a mesmerizing moment for the audience. And Elizabeth Paldino as Catherine's sister Claire, gets the biggest laugh in the show, exiting the house to the backyard after a night of partying, pained by a hangover that is absolutely palpable to the audience without overdoing it.  It's a very well written play by David Auburn, although one thing I was never convinced about was the issue of whether Catherine and those around her could really be questioning of her sanity that seriously, to the point of Claire's looking into a facility for Catherine. It has always seemed to me to be a plot point that was wedged too uncomfortably into the storyline, and I didn't feel that that issue went away here, but through no fault of the production. It still feels a bit like Mr. Auburn imposing a narrative device that I don't believe the characters would realistically abide. What after all is so crazy about Catherine? After all wasn't she the sole caretaker of her truly crazy father? Anyone who has performed that sort of task knows that although yes, it is a trying experience and can indeed lead to fits of despair, that's a far cry from needing to be institutionalized. In fact, Hal even raises that very question, declaring Catherine's competence because of the care-giving role she performed. It's as though Mr. Auburn himself had to accede to that very question gnawing at him and figured if he let a character give rise to it, that would ease his writing burden. While 99% of Alzheimer cases are not hereditary, some forms of dementia such as Huntington's are, but even in those cases, one isn't going to even start showing signs until at least 60. Unless we are to believe that Catherine that Catherine actually believes she is seeing a ghost and undergoing hallucinations I guess you could see this being the case, but does she really think she is? Not really. So, it doesn't really add up. A visit to any nearby nursing home will show you what crazy really looks, sounds and smells like. It's this sort of inbetweeness that I feel makes the logic unconvincing or at best, unclear. But again, one couldn't fault this cast's acting nor the directing, which are both very good. Another good sign that the production was in good hands under the watchful eye of Nick Sala and Carol McCabe (who also did the costumes) were the timely scene changes accompanied by very appropriate mood-setting music. I'm told the music chosen was taken from the film version of the play, composed by Stephen Warbeck. The only bad performance of the evening? It was in the audience. Perhaps spurred on by one young woman who took a flash picture during the picture, yes, a FLASH photograph, another young woman soon followed suit and started clicking away. I thought she'd stop after one or two photos? No, she went on clicking away during the first act, and continued again in the second act. Up and down she'd raise her camera, click it, and then we'd here a beep from it. At least there was no flash. Finally she was asked to stop. Then I had the guy right next to me cracking his knuckles. First one hand, one knuckle at a time, then the other. Pure genius. This isn't fair to the cast who are working are to maintain focus onstage and believe it or not, often do notice these things happening. But it also isn't fair to the other paying members of the audience who don't deserve to be distracted by this sort of nonsense. So I'm not naming names this time, but next time watch out. Nevertheless, the CITG production team proves once again, they put on highly enjoyable shows.


Westchester Broadway Theatre’s “Legally Blonde
by Camille Kaiser
If you liked the film, you are going to love WBT’s production of the musical “Legally Blonde”. I personally did not like the film, but found myself totally absorbed in this production. The music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin kick the story up a notch and make for a pleasant evening of fun and fluff. Elle Woods, a perky sorority president and UCLA fashion major whose signature color is pink is skillfully portrayed by Kelly Felthous. Ms. Felthous exhudes charm and energy and from the moment she stepped on stage, the audience was hers. Not only does she capture the audience with her good looks and witty performance, but her vocal ability is top notch and the lady can move! The motivation for Elle to start studying hard is so she can traipse after her ex-boyfriend, Warner Huntington, III (well played by Robert Patrick Ryan) to Harvard and prove that she is the serious girlfriend he desires. But she never abandons her signature phrase, “omigod,” which permeates the musical nor does she abandon her Chihuahua, Bruiser, played by Roxie, a Louisiana rescue dog adopted and trained by William Berloni. Among her snobby classmates, Elle meets Warner’s new, brunette, upper-crust girlfriend, Vivienne, played by Lauren Blackman with appropriate haughtiness. Christopher deProphetis, as Emmett, a young lawyer who befriends Elle, emits a rugged charm and Jacqueoyn Piro Donovan is a feisty Paulette, who charms the audience with her musical number “Ireland” and her antics during “Bend and Snap” with Kyle, the sexy UPS guy provocatively played by Timothy Hughes, assisted by interesting and suggestive orchestration. Another favorite is Paulette’s dog, Rufus, played by a Bassett Hound named Paul Newman, who was found in an abandoned garage in Jersey City and trained by Karen Wells. The ensemble blends perfectly and is full of spirit and warmth as they perform the simple, brisk choreography. The show opens with a lively ensemble number “Omigod You Guys” and the energy level never dips through all the other ensemble numbers. Exceptionally well choreographed and executed numbers are “Whipped Into Shape” with Maria Logan as Brooke and “Ireland” reprise which is a great take-off on “Riverdance”. Set designer, John Farrell does a good job suggesting a sorority house, classroom, courtroom and other sites, aided by Andrew Gmoser’s lighting. The production was directed by Jonathan Stahl, choreographed by Leisa Mather with musical direction by John Daniels. “Legally Blonde” continues through April 29, 2012. Call 914-592-2222 for reservations. This show has something for everyone from age six to sixty (and then some) so gather the family and don’t miss it.

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s “S Wonderful” is Marvelous!
by Camille Kaiser
Most of the songs the Gershwin brothers wrote were incorporated over the years into Broadway shows and of course worked into various plots and characters. In “S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical”, the familiar, time honored music is definitely the “star” of the show and enables the audience to simply enjoy plenty of Gershwin favorites, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “Shall We Dance”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and many other classics as well as several lesser known but equally enjoyable numbers. The orchestra is set upstage center with an elegantly simple set design by John Farrell and subtle, effective lighting by Andrew Gmoser. The opening number, “Rhapsody in Blue”, cleverly stylized with orchestra pieces gradually joining in and the piano driving the number home, was absolutely thrilling. Kudos to Ken Lundie, the pianist and musical director for a powerhouse performance. Ray Roderick, who conceived and wrote, “’S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical,” could not have chosen a better mood setter for an evening of this grand music. He created a series of five musical vignettes with each story leading to romance. Under the crisp direction of Ray Roderick, this multi talented cast performed with youthful exuberance, keeping pace with Vince Pesce’s detailed, complex choreography. It begins in New York City in 1928, where we meet Harold, played by Blakely Slaybaugh, a newspaper typesetter who'd rather be an investigative reporter. While trying to break a story, he finds himself handcuffed to a beauty (Deidre Haren) and teams up for some lively song and dance numbers. Then it’s Nina's (Mary Millben) story. Her boyfriend and best friend run off together, leaving her on her own in 1957 New Orleans where we hear a soulful “It Ain't Necessarily So." In 1939, Leslie's (Deidre Haren) story set in wartime Paris, where she meets and, of course, falls in love with a sailor (Sean Watkins), who returns from combat for the "Love Is Here to Stay" duet. In Hollywood, Jane (Stacey Harris) is a makeup artist who lives out a 1948 on-screen fantasy through such boisterous numbers as "Do Do Do (What You Done Done Done Before)." Because the show is really not strong on humor this comedy section is extremely welcomed and well executed. Ms. Harris has exceptional comedic timing and her performance is seemingly effortless. The last vignette brings us to the present day, which is set from coast to coast, and brings us among other familiar pieces, a medley of songs by the entire cast. “’S Wonderful” will be performed through March 25th. Don’t miss this pleasant, nostalgic experience. For reservations, call 914-592-2225 or purchase on line at www.westchesterbroadwaytheatre.com.


City Island Theater's Group's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Bill Kozy

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is the City Island Theatre Group's comedic offering this Winter, a lightweight sitcom-like play dashed off by the acclaimed writer Alan Ball . While Ball insists on hammering a barb or witticism into the end of each and every line of dialogue, the tactic succeeds in achieving an adequate number of laughs even if his batting average is pretty low. Through sheer volume of attempts he gets enough chuckles even if you might feel annoyed at times by this technique that winds up sacrificing believability. Luckily this particular show is bolstered by the casting of a very appealing ensemble of young women as the titular bridesmaids: Emily Bendler as Frances, the naive and pious cousin of Tracy, the bride (whom we never see in the play); Tee Cotter as Georgeanne who is still in love with one of the groomsmen while she's stuck in an unhappy marriage; Christina Drake as Meredith, the sister of the bride carrying a long-held secret; Susan Rauh as Mindy, sister of the groom and an outspoken out-of-the-closet lesbian; and Elizabeth Paldino as Trisha, the bridesmaid with the bad reputation who may have forsaken romance for cheap thrills, until the play's penultimate scene with Tripp, a groomsman played by Steven Bendler (equally likable) casts a ray of hope that she may come back around. The writing bounces from topic to topic without exploring anything in depth, settling instead on an array of one-liners with the occasional spat that is resolved 60 seconds later. It isn't until that final scene between Ms. Paldino and Mr. Bendler that the play finds some narrative juice. The play finally feels like it's about something. As these two characters spar romantically, digging into each others psyches and motives and desires, we feel, "Now why couldn't Mr. Ball have taken this approach from the beginning?" In other departments, the set design is very well thought out. It takes place in the Knoxville Tennessee bedroom of Meredith (Ms. Drake who succeeds nicely in capturing the disgruntled sister whose barely suppressed inner demons poke out here and there). The yummy green sherbet walls and the furniture are adorned with seemingly uncharacteristic "goody girly" knickknacks, but as we discover in a critical revelation, this decor is very likely an outgrowth of Meredith's need to maintain a hold on her damaged innocence. A Malcolm X poster glaringly hangs incongruously on the wall, seeming to scream out, "What's wrong with this picture?" Well, it's Meredith screaming out, "There is something that is wrong that has happened and I can't talk about it!" The costume design is spot-on as well. The dresses all look like puffs of lemon chiffon cake: there is a sweetness to them but definitely a tartness as well, befitting the wide range of character types (although perhaps too conveniently different from each other in order to suit Ball's penchant for jokiness instead of realism?) Certainly the dresses are as goofy as so many bridesmaid dresses are notorious for being, but they're not unbelievably ridiculous. They realistically portray the condemnation the characters themselves heap upon them. You may or may not have heard of this playful offer being made by the production to the public, but I'll mention it here because I think it's so awesome: If there are any brides out there, you can make a reservation along with your bridal party and you'll receive: a free ticket for the bride, reserved seating for the bridesmaids and the bride, a bottle of champagne, a picture of the bridal party taken with the cast, and a special recognition of the bridal party at the performance you attend. It's that kind of creative community spirit that makes CITG one of the very best Community Theatres around. So go and see "Five Women Wearing The Same Dress" and support this theatre group...until death do you part. The produced is by Nick Sala and Carol McCabe, directed by Maria Provenzano, with set design by Joe Burck, and costumes by Carol McCabe. The show continues March 8 with a discounted ticket price and on March 9 & 10 at 8pm at 116 City Island Avenue.


Tragedy Done Right in Yorktown: YCP Theatreworks Presents
The Glass Menagerie by Stephanie Schleicher
YCP Theaterworks, the self-proclaimed “oldest community theatre group in Northern Westchester,” should be very proud of their thoughtful rendition of Tennessee Williams’ classic “memory play” The Glass Menagerie. I saw it on a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, and left the theatre toasty warm from the glow of good writing, nostalgia and some seriously satisfying performances. Director Richard Troiano handled this tragic tale of a Southern belle’s quest for “gentleman callers” for her homebody daughter with affection and dexterity. This show, which can be called the “poster play for not living with your parents too long,” moved along at a brisk clip, engaging the audience without beating them over the head with metaphor and melodrama. The director is to be commended on the show’s pacing. The warm bath of nostalgia evoked here never became “moldy,” but retained its freshness from start to finish. I did find myself wishing the menagerie of glass animals was a little more visible from the audience, and the staging was a bit Stage Right-heavy, but these are minor concerns. The VanCortlandtville Elementary School, with its seemingly brand-spanking-new auditorium, provided a fine stage for this production. When the antiquated music hit the audience at the opening curtain, the futuristic auditorium seats juxtaposed with the warm 1930s-era set (designed by Marshall Moseley) conflated to remind this reviewer of Disney’s Carousel of Progress. This old world-versus-new world theme would play out again and again as the action raced towards its tragic conclusion. This play essentially belonged to Susan King, whose star turn as domineering mother Amanda had the audience eating out of her hand by the middle of Act 1 - in spite of her hateful character. Her crisp, vaguely Southern vocal delivery was handled with the confidence of a 1940s-era movie heroine. Even when delivering problematic lines like “I had to send the darkies for some folding chairs” or “Instinct… Christian adults don’t want it!” she did so with a pitch-perfect blend of irony and old-world sincerity, and we were hers. Heather Campbell turned in a touching, very believable performance as Laura, her emotionally and physically crippled daughter. Isolated and completely without confidence, she lives the life of a “little bird-like woman… eating the crusts of humility all her life.” Ms. Campbell commenced to shine in Act 2, drawing out the audience’s affection for a Laura outfitted in demure pink and fighting nausea as her mother schemes to foster a love connection between her and her “gentleman caller.” My only (small) gripe is that her limp was not quite noticeable enough in the first half of the play... but this may have been a conscious directorial choice. The men of The Glass Menagerie, as representatives of the outside world, provide the only fresh air to be had in this claustrophobic world of unmet expectations. Mathew Douglas Rowe was likeable and sometimes quite pleasantly understated as Tom, Laura’s tortured brother. He seemed most comfortable when clowning around and calling himself “the czar of the underworld.” He also enjoyed excellent chemistry with his stage mother, especially once they started fighting. His finest moment came at the play’s close, when we beheld a haunted man mourning the ghost of the sister he left behind in a shattered world. James R. Wilkinson dazzled us as Jim, the pivotal “gentleman caller” around whose visit the play is organized. He oozed a friendly, accessible charm onstage which was very refreshing. He also displayed a fine singing voice and a physical dexterity unusual for his size, which had us rooting for this “good old boy.” Anne Signorelli’s costumes were thoughtful and appropriate. Laura’s “little-girl-in-distress”-looking cape and homely shoes and Amanda’s lacy white blouse were standout pieces in a seamless whole. The lighting design, by Doug Faulborn and Jan Dyckman, was dexterous, evocative and sometimes comic – as in the running gag of illuminating “Father’s portrait” on the wall at key moments. The choices for accent music were both varied and consistently appropriate, and a perfect Victrola-needle-scratch was indeed executed. The only “downsides” to the production were technical in nature… namely some clunky scene changes, an impotent thunder-and-lightning sound effect and the unwelcome intrusion of some very loud heating vents, which provoked audible sighs from the audience when exploding into action every ten to fifteen minutes, effectively drowning out the action on the stage and reducing the audience’s experience of the play to lip reading. Overall, The Glass Menagerie was a jewel in the crown for this friendly, enthusiastic group. They pulled off a wonderful production of a classic play that will somehow never lose its relevance (although one can’t help but be struck by the thought nowadays that the internet would have solved all of Laura’s problems… OKCupid.com, anyone?) Fresh performances and pacing kept the very appreciative audience on their toes. Alas, Tennessee Williams shows no sign of losing steam.

“Big River” – Big Hit! by Camille Kaiser
Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY- 914-592-2225; www.westchesterbroadwaytheatre.com

The Family Theatre Company’s “Big River”, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s timeless classic, has a current that flows from start to finish. The outstanding set and lighting design by Bob D’Urso immediately captured the spirit of life on the Mississippi River in the 1840s where we shared the adventure and self discovery of Huckleberry Finn, escaping from his drunken father. Tom Ammirato is impressive as Huck’s Pap, swinging from tomfoolery to violence with his rousing musical number “Guv’ment”. As Huck, Anthony Malchar, has youthful enthusiasm and a sly sense of humor. He can sing, too, whether it’s a rousing number like “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” or the soulful “River in the Rain” a beautifully harmonized duet with the runaway slave, Jim, played with urgency and feeling by Fa Tye, as they sail on their path to freedom. On their journey, they pick up two flimflam artists, posing as a Duke (Joey Sanzaro) spouting Shakespearean gibberish intended to dazzle and his partner in chicanery (August Abetecola) trying to sell himself as the deposed King of France. The Duke and King come up with a scheme to make money ("The Royal Nonesuch"), by tricking the townspeople and by the end of the evening they taught Huck to appreciate a new way of life. They are full of humor and gusto and are a delight to watch every time they appear on stage. Another stand-out is Cali LaSpina as Mary Jane Wilkes as she mourns her father with her magnificent solo, "You Oughta Be Here With Me". The clever choreography by Dorena DiLullo clearly told a story and was perfectly executed by the ensemble as were their vocals under the musical direction of Sue Anderson. Kudos to director, John J. Fanelli for assembling this multi-talented cast and bringing us this excellent production which is rich with music, comedy and, of course, a book that is perfection. On the downside, the opening numbers were a little too long and there were times throughout the show when dialogue could not be understood. I’m sure these are just minor glitches which will be resolved. This production was everything an audience could ask for and we all left with a smile.

This Crew Was Able in "The Crucible" by Bill Kozy
City Island Theatre Group, Bronx, NY
One of my favorite plays, Arthur Miller's political/ sociological allegory is the type of play that will always seem to have a relevant opportunity for staging since unfortunately civilized society will always seem to be afflicted with political and sociological bullies and fear-mongers. It is a play that will alternately enrage you and break your heart and the City Island Theatre Group's recent production fulfilled this play's promise to provoke both those extreme emotions in audiences. The play's milieu is the Salem Witch trials in the year 1692, and was originally written as a mirror held up for us to examine the parallels in 1953 to McCarthyism and Cold War Era paranoia in America. In the play, the overly austere clergy and politicians prosecute the citizenry in return for their acquiescence and coerced confessions. What prevents the play from becoming some sort of simplistically symbolic "message" play is the wise decision by Mr. Miller to focus intensely on the one-on-one relationship between a husband and wife, John and Elisabeth Proctor, played by Matthieu Regney and Nicole Colina. The story of their marital problems and their refound devotion amidst the accusations pointed their way provide for a very personal story that grips the audience as we root for their love to overcome the adversity. Mr. Miller also explores the penchant for covetousness that plagues the population whether it is landowners coveting their neighbors' property, preachers coveting power and material adornments for their church, John Proctor's coveting young Abigail during some lean sexual times between he and his wife, or young Abigail's coveting John and seeking to supplant his wife in his life. The production has designed a simple but effective set to shift the scenes from bedrooms to courts or jail cells or a forest. I particularly liked the flats that were composed of black and wood panel slats. It evoked a very nice sense of humble home and church construction. The play requires a large cast and community theatres can often run into trouble finding performers for so many roles. But despite a few slight missteps such as an anachronistic costume choice in one or two instances, and some Bronx accents slipping through (Nicolas Perugini as Reverend Samuel Parris does the best job conjuring up an accent for the time and place with the rest of the cast achieving varying degrees of success), and one actor in particular compelled to sneak peaks out at the audience sometimes for extended periods of time (you know who you are!), the production nevertheless succeeded wonderfully in getting you to feel an intense range of emotions. The frustration and anger felt toward the pompous oppressors and their circular logic as they prosecuted the innocent was palpable. You could really feel and hear the the rage swell in the audience as the accusations mounted. And there were plenty of tears flowing during the terribly sad unraveling of the lives of the Proctors and so many others as the depravity of the injustices continued and grew unabated. The choices the characters are forced into making plumb the depths of irony and the result is tragedy. It was a frightening and truly sad show. A brave undertaking by CITG. There are some amazing lines of dialogue that you would almost believe were added to exploit more recent political climates; for instance, at one point Governor Danforth exclaims, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.” I couldn't help but hear President George W. Bush's toeing the line at his September 20, 2001 address to Congress, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." And this is the power of The Crucible, and why it will last a long time and bear repeating by community theatres and Broadway shows, and films for years to come. In the meantime, I am looking forward to next season at my favorite community theatre, The City Island Theatre Group as they teased the closing night audience, almost revealing next year's slate of plays. Anyone who saw "Lend Me a Tenor" this past year at CITG will fervently hope that another comedy is on their schedule, or a musical since they expertly produce those as well. Come to think of it, their thrillers are great too. So then, while the poor persecuted characters of The Crucible were doomed, we on the other hand, are in a no-lose situation with CITG.

Table of Contents

 

9/3/15
An Intolerant Vaudeville
(The Secret Theatre, Unfringed Festival, NYC)

 

8/29/15
Shake the Earth
(Arev Productions, NY Int'l Fringe, NYC)

 

8/29/15
The Submarine Show
(NY Int'l Fringe Festival, NYC)

 

3/20/15
Woyzeck FJF
(Now Win Productions, NYC)

 

2/11/15
Going Once! Laughing Twice!!
(Sixth Sense Productions, NYC)

 

2/11/15
The Quantum Eye
(Sixth Sense Productions, NYC)

 

1/5/15
Winter Light: Songs, Music & Rituals from the Carpathians
(Yara Arts Group, NYC)

 

10/30/14
The Elephant in Every Room I Enter
(La MaMa, NYC)

 

06/19/14
Mothers and Sons

(Golden Theatre, NYC)

 

05/27/14
Dharma

05/27/14
Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth
(The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble)

05/27/14
Fool's Lear
(The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble)

04/28/14
The Head Hunter
(Termination Productions)

04/28/14
Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery
(Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre)

3/19/14
Ragtime

(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

3/2/14
A Doll's House

(The Young Vic, London at The Brooklyn Academy of Music)

2/21/14
Noise in the Waters
(Teatro Delle Albe, Italy @ LaMaMa, NYC)

1/31/14
Titanic
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)


12/10/13
White Christmas(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

9/30/13
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
(City Island Theater Group)

9/26/13
Kiss Me Kate
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

9/2/13
En Avant
(NY International Fringe Festival, 2013)

9/2/13
Final Analysis
(Signature Center, off Broadway)

9/2/13
Richard III
(The Drilling Company, NYC)

8/23/13
Bard Music Festival
(Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson)

7/2/13
Alligator Summer
(Squeaky Bicycle Productions, NYC)

6/10/13
Old-Fashioned Prostitutes
(Public Theatre/ Ontological-Hysteric Theater, NYC)

6/10/13
The Balcony
(The Horizon Theatre Rep, OOB, NYC)

5/14/13
Bello Mania
(Bello Nock & Company, New Victory Theater, Broadway, NYC)

5/14/13
Fragments
(Centre international des creations theatrales & Theatre des Bouffes du Nord/Paris, presented by Theatre for a New Audience)

5/14/13
The Poor of New York
(Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre, directed by Tyne Rafaeli)

4/26/13
Guys and Dolls

(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

2/22/13
In the Heights

(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

9/10/12
Can Can
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

6/18/12
George M
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

05/29/12
Playing With Fire
(The Negro Ensemble Company and The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre)

05/24/12
The Secret Garden
(White Plains Performing Arts Center, NY)

05/24/12
Dream Bridge
(Created by Virlana Tkacz with Yara Arts Group and guest artists from Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, La MaMa, NYC - May 2012)

05/11/12
Hairspray

(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

05/07/12
PROOF
(City Island Theatre Group, Bronx, NY)

04/05/12
Legally Blonde
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

03/08/12
S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)

03/07/12
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
(City Island Theater Group, Bronx, NY)


02/13/12
The Glass Menagerie
(YCP Theatreworks, Yorktown, NY)

02/10/12
Big River
(Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY)


11/24/11
The Crucible
(City Island Theatre Group, Bronx, NY)