Thursday, July 21, 2011

NYC: Broadway Stands Up for Freedom

Save the date for Broadway Stands Up for Freedom, the annual star-studded concert to support the youth programs of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

7:30 p.m. Monday, July 25, 2011
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Pl. at Washington Square South
 
Performers Include...

• Tony Winner Beth Leavel (Baby it’s You!, The Drowsy Chaperone)
• Tony Winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon)
• Tony Nominee Andrew Rannells (The Book of Mormon)
• Tony Nominee Mois├ęs Kaufman (The Laramie Project, Bengal Tiger)
• Tony Nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger
• Tony Nominee Gavin Creel (Hair)
• Tony Nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent)
• Tony Nominee De'Adre Aziza (Passing Strange)
• Tony Nominee John Tartaglia (Avenue Q, Shrek)
• Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire, Nurse Jackie)
• Nellie McKay (Get Away From Me)
• Krysta Rodriguez (Addams Family)
• Lindsay Mendez (Everyday Rapture, Grease)
• Carly Rose Sonenclar
• Erich Bergen (Jersey Boys)
• Kyra Da Costa (Baby It's You!)
• Crystal Starr Knighton (Baby It's You!)
• Christina Sajous (Baby It's You!)
• Liana Stampur
• Clinton Curtis
• The Bengsons
• Gray Reindhard
• Kate Ferber
• Marcelo Arias
• Justin Goldner

To purchase tickets, click here.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This Month's Title Photo

This month's title photo comes from the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity production of Yvette Heyliger's White House Wives: Operation Lysistrata!, which has received nine Planet Connections Theatre Awards nominations including Outstanding Play With Music.  The photo is by Yvette Heyliger.


White House Wives: Operation Lysistrata! is an anti-war comedy inspired by Aristophanes' Lysistrata. This "what if..." play is set in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House and stars the wives of the architects of the impending war in Iraq (Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, Alma Powell, Cherie Blair and friends!). It takes place in 2002 before Congress votes on Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. White House: Operation Lysistrata! captures Aristophanes' strong anti-war message laced in the bawdy sexual humor so enjoyed by ancient, as well as present day audiences.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Now" - Linda Eder

Review by Sherry Shaffer
For her latest album, "Now," Linda Eder reunites with the man who brought her to Broadway in Jekyll and Hyde, Frank Wildhorn.  All the songs on the album are Wildhorn originals, including a cut from his new show, Wonderland.
Eder has dabbled in pop and country music, but she has such a massive voice it’s surprising she ever tried to get away from Broadway-style show tunes.  "Now" features big, lavish arrangements and beltable tunes.  It is clear Wildhorn has found a muse in Eder – it must be a joy to write for someone with such an incredible range.  When listening to this album, comparisons to Barbara Streisand are inevitable – and at this point almost overdone, which I think this does both women a disservice.  Sure, both pack a punch when it comes to being able to convey passion and feeling through song, and I doubt either really need a microphone to fill a room, but they have different voices, different taste, and are from different generations.  That being said, if you like one, you’re probably going to like the other.  Especially since many of the songs on "Now" sound like they are straight out of a Streisand-heyday '60s cabaret show.  I half expected Sammy Davis, Jr. to come in to perform a Burt Bacharach tune.
As much as I enjoyed a number of the songs on this album, I kind of wish Eder had chosen to do more than a Frank Wildhorn songbook.  Some of the tunes are great, the album starts off with a bang with a jazzy rumba, “Not Gonna Fall This Time,” then moves into the sentimental “No Finer Man” and “Ordinary People.”  But when it switched back to a Latin rhythm for “In the Heat of the Night,” I felt like I’d gone back to the beginning of the album.  It’s catchy, but very similar to the first track, and “What’s Never Been Done Before” and “More Than Heaven” seemed uninspiring.  While I think it was a misstep to include “The Mad Hatter” on this album – it just doesn’t fit in with what is otherwise a group of songs about love – at least it’s a fun song and may turn out to be a showstopper on stage.  Perhaps she did it as a courtesy plug for Wildhorn’s newest show. 
That, I suppose, is my only real criticism of this album.  In an attempt to do nothing but Wildhorn songs, Eder sacrificed some continuity of theme and the opportunity to show off her magnificent voice with a better variety of songs.  You are rarely going to find an album that doesn’t have a ho-hum moment or two, but Eder has the voice and charisma to put together a spectacular collection if she would just make careful choices among several composers. 
Bottom line: If you enjoy a big sound from a bigger voice, you’re going to like "Now."  Be sure to listen in a place where you can crank up the stereo and let the flood of sound wash over you. 

A Powerhouse of a Story - "Unnatural Acts"

By Judd Hollander

One of the most riveting plays to hit the stage this young 2011-2012 season is the fascinating Unnatural Acts, written by members of the Plastic Theatre, conceived by Tony Speciale and presented at Classic Stage Company.

Set on the campus of Harvard University in May of 1920 the play, based on fact, unearths a story that was kept secret for more than 80 years. That being a "secret court" as undertaken by the Harvard administration, peripherally to investigate the suicide of a former student, one Cyril Wilcox, but in actuality an attempt to purge the University of any homosexual influence, both in regards to students and faculty members.

Entangled in the investigation are nine students, all young men on the cusp of adulthood, with prospective future in athletics, law, acting, etc., many of whom share secrets they would do anything to keep hidden.

The chief focus of the investigation is Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate), a somewhat spoiled congressman's son known for throwing wild parties in his dorm room, with alcohol flowing freely (this was during the Prohibition era) and where various sexual proclivities were also thought to occur. At least some in authority knew about these gatherings and turned a blind eye to the situation, but when Cyril's suicide becomes public knowledge, even though there are those who insist it was an accident, and certain incriminating evidence finds its way into faculty hands, events are set in motion which becomes impossible to stop.

Rather than simply showing an out-and-out bias against homosexuality, the play goes much deeper, painting a detailed look at not only the era depicted, but also the stage of life these young men find themselves when the world starts crashing down around them. College life, then and now, is a time for experimentation and beginning to find one's own way; insulated to a great degree from the pressures and responsibilities of the outside world. As such, these men feel free to embrace their feelings and emotions in a way they could not do so elsewhere. This is never more evident than during Roberts's final party where the students in question are having the time of their lives just being themselves. The fact that the audience knows what's coming, even though the characters don't yet, adds an extra layer of poignancy to the scene.

Also fascinating is how this wonderfully structured and directed production, (great work by Speciale, who also handles the directing chores) goes from being a museum piece in the beginning, with characters that are identically dressed and almost interchangeable, to feeling fresh and immediate with the inhabitants completely distinct individuals by the time it's all over. Such as with Kenneth Day (Roe Hartrampf), whose dream of competing in the Olympics may be denied; or Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), who fears his family will found out about what he's done, in a time where "family means everything;" or Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers) a shy young man who may be more guilty by association than anything else-at least in his own mind-and so on.

 The "court" scenes are terribly intimidating, the sequences staged to keep those sitting in judgment in deep shadow while shining a harsh spotlight on those on the "hot seat". Anyone who has ever been called in for questioning can certainly relate to the stomach-churning fear these moments bring out. Yet the trials themselves are not given nearly as much weight at their effects on the participants; the student's mostly jovial attitudes quickly becoming one of "every man for himself," and where friends and lovers quickly turn on one another. Some saying the truth as they see it and others trying to say as little as they can in order to hopefully emerge unscathed. A rather interesting sequence in this regard is where students Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio) and Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte) testify side by side (albeit at different points in time) with each man's answers basically contradicting the other.

An especially nice touch was the decision to mix in various bits of humor throughout the story, providing a much-needed bit of levity before plunging on to the next point of drama. Once such case in point is when Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins) is facing the court and claming not to be a homosexual, while at the same time desperately trying to stop himself from unconsciously making what may be considered effeminate gestures and thus giving himself away.

The acting is uniformly excellent. There is no one real star here, but all of the participants have pivotal moments in the story. Hartrampf is great as Day, a boy who wants nothing more that to get to the Olympics and who, like many others, tries to deny what he's feeling inside. Westrate is good as the somewhat smarmy Roberts, who delights at thumbing his nose at society, not caring what anyone else thinks or who he hurts. De Julio strikes a powerful note as Smerage, an aspiring actor brought down by one who professes to love him, while Koed has an absolutely dynamite scene as Cummings, one of the few who believes he can put an end to what's happening, only to find out that sometimes hatred and denial is too strong a weapon to overcome. Roderick Hill has a short but pivotal scene as Wilcox's bother and Jerry Marsini strikes the right note as a teacher who catches the eye of Gilkey and whose adult perspective on the same issues affecting the students offers a nice counterbalance to the younger men's reactions.

Speciale's direction, as mentioned above, is spot-on, creating a seamless blending of the insulated sphere of college life with the world of reality while making the entire process look completely effortless. Also quite good is the way the play ties up many of the loose ends after the events depicted, showing what did or didn't happen with many of those involved.

If the best thing theatre can do is teach while it tells a story, Unnatural Acts does exactly that, pulling into the light of day a long-buried incident and holding it up to the world for all to see. Great job on this one-go see it if you can.

Unnatural Acts
Written by Members of the Plastic Theatre
Conceived by Tony Speciale
Set Design: Walk Spangler
Costume Design: Andrea Lauer
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music and Sound Design: Christian Frederickson
Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Production Manager: Production Core
Marketing: HRC Marketing
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Tony Speciale

Featuring: Brad Koed (Eugene Cummings), Roe Hartrampf (Kenneth Day), Nick Westrate (Ernest Roberts), Jess Burkle (Edward Say), Will Rogers (Joseph Lumbard), Jerry Marsini (Donald Clark), Max Jenkins (Stanley Gilkey), Frank De Julio (Keith Smerage), Roderick Hill (Lester Wilcox), Devin Norik (Harold Saxton), Joe Curnutte (Nathaniel Wolff)

Assistant Stage Manager: Courtney James

Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street

Tickets: 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org

Closes: July 17, 2011

A Wide Variety of Possibilities - Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon Evening "A"

By Judd Hollander 

Perception and changing realities are the keys themes running through Evening A of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual Marathon of One-Act Plays. Evenings "A" and "B" playing now through June 25th.

Evening A consists of five works in various stages of development, several of which have the potential to be much more than they are right now. The entire evening clocks in at approximately three hours, with two well-placed intermissions. Fortunately, the time for the most part, flies quickly by.

Things begin with Ten High, Ben Rosenthal's rather intriguing piece about two very different sets of people congregating at different areas of a nondescript bar. Jane (Tina Benko) is accusing her husband Miles (Chris Ceraso) of having an affair, a fact he categorically denies. As they argue back and forth-she has no substantial evidence other than her suspicions-Luke (Danny Mastrogiorgio) is going through a crisis of faith, being a professional killer and having failed to execute his latest target because he felt sorry for the intended victim. As Luke talks with his mentor Al (Ned Eisenberg), Al man unveils his newest tool of the trade; a poison so powerful it can kill in seconds, which he and Nick arbitrarily decided to test on Miles if he leaves the bar within a certain period of time.

This is play about coincidence and happenstance, (i.e. "of all the gin joins in all the world...") and just how fickle fate can be when peoples' lives intertwine, if only for a moment. None of the characters are really fleshed out, though Benko does a nice turn as a presumably wronged wife. However it's the story that holds one's interest here, with director John Giampietro nicely keeping the audience on the edge of their seats by slowly building the tension throughout the work. In another reality, this entire scenario might be an interesting television series. Though the idea may not be new, it's still quite involving.

Play number two, School Night by J. Holtham, looks at teenage and twenty-something angst and the need to belong to something, somewhere. In a nondescript suburb where nothing seems to happen, teenager Ammon (Curtis M. Jackson) asks classmate Lucy (Lucy DeVito), a girl who's "been around" (to put it nicely) over to his house one evening when his parents are out of town. However when Ammon gets home, he finds that his ner-do-well older half-brother Daniel (Lance Rubin) has unexpectedly stopped by. Daniel is in mourning for his dead cat, who he keeps in a nearby box. With the raging hormones of a teenager, Ammon wants Daniel gone so he can spend time alone with Lucy, but Daniel has no intention of leaving just yet.

The main theme here is people trying to escape their pain if only for a moment; Lucy being ready to jump into bed with Ammon because it's something to do for a while and then forget about. Though Ammon would like it to mean much more. At the same time Ammon and Lucy want to grow up and move on, while Daniel would like nothing better than to turn back the clock and come home. It's a premise with possibilities, but the characters are neither that interesting nor likeable, the text staying too much on the surface when it should be delving deeper into the lives and psyches of those involved.

The centerpiece of the evening is the excellent Tennessee by the late Romulus Linney. In 19th century North Carolina, farmer Herschel (Rufus Collins) works his land with soon to be of age son Cardell (Eamon Foley), as wife Mary (Julie Fitzpatrick) looks after the new baby while getting dinner ready. As the family is about to relax after a hard day's work, an Old Woman (Kristen Lowman) appears, saying she has walked all the way from Tennessee, a distance of about 80 miles, in order to return to her family home. The very place Herschel and his brood now call their own. Soon this stranger begins to tell the story of her past; of being a strong-willed woman with no patience for men and insisting she'll be nobody's wife. That is until Griswald Plankman (Scott Sowers), a kind and quiet, if not the best-looking fellow, promises to sell his land and move with her to Tennessee, a place she has always wanted to go, if she'll marry him. Never believing Griswald will do such a thing, the Old Woman agrees. But he does just that and she finds herself forced to honor her promise before the two set out on their journey.

As the Old Woman tells what happened long ago, director Harris Yulin takes Linney's wonderfully literate text and makes it all come brilliantly alive. During the course of the play we watch as the Old Woman takes the audience through her life, and the triumphs and tragedies that go with it. An important touch to this are the expressions on Herschel, Mary and Cardell's faces as they become enamored with the tale, smiling at certain points, looking serious at others. (At different times, they also become characters in this play within a play Linney has conceived.) Yet toward the end, the playwright adds a completely unexpected twist, causing those observing, both on stage and in the audience, to question just how much of the Old Woman's history actually happened, while adding an element of "The Twilight Zone" to the proceedings. Lowman is outstanding as both as the elderly woman and her younger self, the actress taking the entire narrative and making it almost explode off the page. Collins does a realistic job as Herschel, a proud man who has worked hard all his life for what he owns. Fitzpatrick is good in the smaller role of Mary, projecting a nice earthiness in the part. Sowers is excellent as the quiet and seemingly browbeaten Fitzpatrick, and possibly the one person actually in control of the entire situation. Foley is okay as Cardell and Helen Coxe is good in a brief cameo as the Old Woman's Tennessee neighbor.

This is the also first time in Evening "A" that the show's scenic deign plays a vitally important part in conveying the story, (good job by Jason Simms), the set being nicely constructed to give at various times, the impression of a farmhouse at twilight, a long wagon trip and a Tennessee home. Geoffrey Dubar's lighting is also quite good here.

From the longest play (Tennessee) we move to the shortest, In The Middle of the Night; the latter a work quite powerful in its own right. Student Dan (Jared McGuire) and his girlfriend Sherry (Irene Longshore) break into a building for a bit of excitement, only to be followed by Dan's rather overprotective mother Elise (Coxe) and her friend Jack (Sowers). Elise clearly someone who does not want her son and Sherry to be together. However it soon becomes apparent Elise has a desperate reason for her actions. Sherry perhaps not being as real as one first suspects, but rather an illusion/fixation in Dan's mind, with his mom desperately trying to understand her child's condition and help him.

McGuire does quite well here, slipping in and out of reality while never changing his overall attitude towards what is going on around and inside him. Coxe is excellent as a mother helpless to come to the aid of her child. Longshore is fine as the image who wants Patrick to stay with her, with their final dialogue together showing the depths of their commitment. Sowers does well as a sort of stand-in for the audience, watching the proceedings from the perspective of an outsider while seeing a scenario that's obviously happened many times before. Deftly written by Billy Aronson and well-directed by Robert Davenport, the show presents a look at mental illness not from its starting point, bur rather from somewhere in the middle, with an ending definitely open to interpretation. This is a show that could easily be expanded upon, showing events before or after those events seen on stage. Very good indeed.

The final work in the Evening "A" series is Bike Wreck, written by Qui Nguyen. It's both the darkest in terms of subject matter and also the most violent. It's also a play that centers on the subject of perceptions. As narrator/actor Michael Louis Wells mentions more than once. Perceptions about being talked down to, perceptions about race and attitude, and perceptions about what's really important in life. Also discussed are perceptions from the way one handles a gun, to the way one carries oneself when dealing with others, and the way one faces pressure (both from peers and outside influences) when having their very life threatened.

Wells plays "The Man," a white, middle of the road, somewhat struggling businessman who is accosted by a Bike Messenger (Charlie Hudson, III) and a Delivery Boy (Arthur Acuna). The Messenger is a youngish African-American who The Man sees everyday, while the Delivery Boy is a somewhat older Chinese delivery person, trying to learn both English and respect from others, both subjects as taught to him by the Messenger. Yet as the play shows, time and again, perceptions and people's reactions to them can spell doom for all involved if they let one lets passion outpace reason. Nicely directed by John Gould Rubin with good acting all around, this is another play that could definitely be expanded, both character and plot-wise.

While not a completely perfect evening, in EST Evening "A" the hits far more than make up for the few misses. The result being a collection of works definitely worth seeing, and where three hours go by in almost no time at all. Check this one out if you can.

Ten High
by Ben Rosenthal
Directed by John Giampietro
Stage Manager: Alice de Cent
Featuring: Danny Mastrogiorgio (Luke Montcreif), Ned Eisenberg (Al Clay), Chris Ceraso (Miles Dancey), Tina Benko (Jane Dancey),


School Night
by J. Holtham
Directed by Abigail Zealey Bess
Stage Manager: Kate Pressman
Featuring: Curtis M. Jackson (Ammon), Lucy DeVito (Lucy), Lance Rubin (Daniel)

Tennessee
by Romulus Linney
Directed by Harris Yulin
Stage Manager: Mark Karafin
Featuring: Rufus Collins (Herschel), Julie Fitzpatrick (Mary), Eamon Foley (Cardell), Kristen Lowman (The Old Woman), Scott Sowers (Griswald Plankman), Helen Coxe (Neighbor)

In The Middle of the Night
by Billy Aronson
Directed by Robert Davenport
Stage Manager: Kelly Ruth Coxe
Choreography by Wendy Seyb
Featuring: Jared McGuire (Dan), Irene Longshore (Sherry), Helen Coxe (Elise), Scott Sowers (Jack)

Bike Wreck
by Qui Nguyen
Directed by John Gould Rubin
Stage Manager: Philip Rudy Fight
Choreographed by Carrie Brewer
Assistant Director: Heidi Carlsen
Apprentice Director: Beth Drenning
Featuring: Michael Louis Wells (The Man), Charlie Hudson, III (Messenger), Arthur Acuna (Delivery Boy)

Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Sound Designer: Chris Barlow
Press Representative: Bruce Cohen
Scenic Designer: Jason Simms
Production Stage Manager: Danielle Buccino
Technical Director: Derek F. Dickenson
Lighting Design: Geoffrey Dunbar
Production Manager: Kevin Feustel
Casting Associate: Stephen Brown
Properties Designer
Bruce Al Kraemer
Casting Director: Tom Rowan
Associate Producer: Web Begole

The Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 W. 52nd Street

(between 10th & 11th Avenues)
Tickets: 866-811-5111 or http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/
Running Time for Evening A: 3 Hours
Series A ended June 18, 2011
Series B ended June 25, 2011

A Fun Time in the Old Country - "The Shaughraun"

By Judd Hollander

Ah, the classic melodrama. Filled with hissable villains, over the top characters and good-hearted heroes. Where one never doubts that truth, love and humanity will win out. This type of play is not often presented these days, as it takes a sure hand to showcase the work in a way that doesn't go over the line into parody. Fortunately director Charlotte Moore shows she has the perfect touch with the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun, first produced in New York in 1874.

In County Sligo, on the coast of Ireland in 1867, Claire Ffolliott (Allison Jean White) and her cousin Arte O'Neal (Katie Fabel) live in a small cottage, often subsisting on game poached by Conn (Patrick Fitzgerald), the Shaughraun (vagabond) of the title. Arte is in mourning for her love Robert Ffolliott (Kevin O'Donnell), brother of Claire, who was shipped off to a British penal colony in Australia on a trumped-up charge. Now Arte is being pressured by the scheming landlord Corry Kinchela (Sean Gormley) to marry him or he'll seize their home and put them out. Meanwhile, British officer Captain Harry Molineux (Mark Shanahan), arrives to command the local garrison and happens upon the cottage, striking up a conversation with Claire who, despite her deep hatred for all things British, can't help but feel a deep affection for this dashing solider, especially when he stand up to Kinchela in support of the two ladies. It's a feeling which is quite mutual on Molineux's part.

Conn soon reveals he has been away from home these several months because he has gone to Australia and freed Robert from his captivity. Yet Robert is still a wanted man and Kinchela, the person who framed the young man in the first place so he could steal his inheritance, is determined to see Robert hanged before the truth is revealed. As for Robert, he believes this schemer to be a true and loyal friend, despite what everyone else says and winds up confiding in him far more than he should. Caught up in all of this is Molineux, torn between doing his duty (which requires him to apprehended Robert) or following his heart and doing what's right.

The Shaughraun is one of those stories that could be played either as a farcical comedy or heavy-handed drama, with Moore expertly navigating a middle ground between the two extremes. There are some terribly funny lines that make no sense when you think about them ("I have been madly in love with him for over three hours now"); as well as some nail biting moments when one wonders if Robert will be saved from the hangman's noose or a pistol shot. Not to mention just how in heaven will the various characters get away from the bad guys? But all in all the story feels like a sort of "easy read" novel, peopled with folks not quite real yet distinct enough to care about. While the characters sometime act as if they're in on the joke, they never acknowledge this point to the audience. At least not too much.

The characters are a lot of fun. (Several of the actors reprising their roles from the Irish Rep's 1998 production of the show.) Fitzgerald has a wonderful scenery-chewing role as the title character, a man who can spin a tale with the best of them. A hard-living fellow, with a reputation of a rascally ladies man, he is currently romancing Moya Dolan (Emma O'Donnell), to the dismay of her uncle (Geddeth Smith), the local parish priest. Conn is also one of those larger-than-life personalities you can't help but root for; his heart always being in the right place, even though his actions may not be. He also has some hilarious dust-ups with his mother (Terry Donnelly) just about the only person who can keep him in line, until her back is turned, that is. 

Shanahan is fine as Molineux, a good-hearted if somewhat dimwitted officer. Yet there's no denying his valor and conviction as he tries more than once to help Claire without betraying his duty as a solider. Kevin O'Donnell works well as Robert, another pure-hearted soul, and who also has the misfortune to trust the wrong people, such as his belief in Kinchela's ultimate valor. There's an interesting interplay between both Robert and Molineux when they first come face to face, showing how there's more to each of them than initially meets the eye.

White, Fabel and Emma O'Donnell all nicely portray the women in Molineux, Robert and Conn's lives. Strong and earthy, yet still wonderfully feminine, these ladies have learned how to survive as members of a somewhat lower class, at least where the British are concerned, and are definitely folks you want by your side in a fight. Donnelly has some good comic relief moments as Conn's mother, and Smith convincingly portrays Father Dolan. The latter at first a seemingly stereotypical role, but Smith also gets a chance to show the depth of Dolan's principles and the turmoil he feels when these principles run counter to protecting a friend.

Gormley does wonderful work as Kinchela, making the character more than just a simple cardboard villain. This is a man who has tentacles spreading to every corner of the county with always one more trick up his sleeve to ensure he'll end up on top, or at least get away unscathed. Though not if Robert, Conn and their friends have anything to say about it.

Klara Zieglerova's set works beautifully in the Irish Rep's relatively small space, offering a nice air of authenticity to the proceedings. Costumes by Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios Wright are quite good, and the lighting by Brian Nason and sound design by Zachary Williamson are strong.

Also in the cast are Tim Ruddy (doing a very good job as a tormented informer), Rory Duffy, Laurence Lowry, Jake Zachry and Gwenfair Vaughn. Special mention must also go to Sadie who steals the show as Conn's loyal companion, Tatters

More like comfort food than a five star meal, The Shaughraun is a lot going for it. While you may not think too much about the play once you've left the theatre, there's a very good chance you'll be quite willingly swept up in this tale of love, loyalty and daring-do while watching the performance. Which is not a bad thing at all.

The Shaughraun
Written by Dion Boucicault
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Co-Costume Design: Linda Fisher
Co-Costume design: Jessica Barrios Wright
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Associate Set Designer: Sonoka Fukuma Gozelski
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Choreography: Brian McNabb
Casting Director: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Elis C. Arroyo
Associate Stage Manager: Arthur Atkinson
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates
Producer: Ciaran O'Reilly
Associate Producer: Alexis Doyle

Featuring Kevin O'Donnell (Robert Ffolliott), Patrick Fitzgerald* (Conn, The Shaughraun), Allison Jean White (Claire Ffolliott), Kate Fabel (Arte O'Neal), Terry Donnelly* (Mrs. O'Kelly), Mark Shanahan (Captain Harry Molineux), Sean Gormley (Corry Kinchela), Geddeth Smith* (Father Dolan), Tim Ruddy (Harvey Duff), Emma O'Donnell (Moya Dolan), Jake Zachry (Sergeant Jones, Mangan), Rory Duffy (Prison Officer, Sullivan), Laurence Lowry (Reilly), Gwenfair Vaughn (Bridget "Biddy" Madigan), Sadie (Tatters-a dog)

* - member of the original 1998 cast

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or http://www.irishrep.org/
  
Running time: Two Hours, one intermission
Closed: June 12, 2011

Where pride indeed goest before the fall - "King Lear"

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Johan Persson

There's a surprising amount of humor and wit to be found in even the darkest Shakespeare plays, as wonderfully shown in the Donmar Warehouse's very satisfying production of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring Derek Jacobi in the title role.

In ancient Britain, the aging Lear, tired of a lifetime of royal responsibilities, decides to spit his kingdom into three equal portions, giving one segment to each of his daughters. However, first he asks his children to state just how much they love him. His two married daughters Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell), with their husbands looking on, loudly proclaim their undying and all-consuming love for Lear, who laps up the attention eagerly. (There's a wonderful bit of business with how and when each daughter kisses him during this sequence.) But when the youngest and as yet unmarried daughter Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) refuses to tell her father what he wants to hear, reserving her most powerful love for her future husband, Lear flies into a rage, banishing Cordelia from his sight after giving her to the King of France (Ashley Zhangazha), the only person who will accept Cordelia without a dowry. Caught up in the angry verbal crossfire is the loyal Earl of Kent (Michael Hadley) who, after desperately urging Lear to forgive Cordelia, is also ordered banished from Lear's domain.

However Lear's retirement doesn't go as planned. While intending to live with Goneril and Regan on alternate months, the two daughters quickly tire of this arrangement, and of having to feed and attend Lear and the 100 knights who accompany him. As such, they quickly close their doors to their father, stripping him of his entourage in the process. The resulting effect of Lear seeing the rug of his authority quite literally pulled out from under him threatens to send him over the edge into madness.

While all this is going on, there is also a subplot where Edmund (Alec Newman), son of the Duke of Gloucester (Paul Jesson) conspires against both his father and brother Edgar (Gwilym Lee) to gain control of the Duke's land and title. Edmund is illegitimate and while there was "great sport in his making," as his father points out, Edmund has no intention of watching his father's estate and power pass to Edgar, the legitimate heir. These two plot lines meet, separate and meet again several times before the final curtain.

King Lear is a work that lives or dies on the title character and thankfully, Jacobi gives a standout performance. The actor initially plays the role as a sort of aged, preening fellow who has grown somewhat complacent over the years. His major blind spot is his own ego, never dreaming that those who profess their love will eventually turn on him. All this leads to a remarkable transformation of the character when circumstances reduce him to little more than a beggar with only a few companions (including Kent, who has returned in disguise to become a servant of the King). Indeed, Jacobi spits out the line "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child" as if were a hail of bullets. Every word, syllable and nuance filled with angry, righteous, and yet ultimately impotent venom.

Even in the play's darkest moments, director Michael Grandage is able to evoke laughs. Such as when the addled Lear finds Edgar, who has disguised himself a mad beggar, and asks him if Edgar's daughters (he has none) are to blame for the young man's condition. This theme is also repeated in the not-often-seen "trial" of Regan and Goneril.

One of the main attractions in King Lear is seeing just which of the secondary scenes or sequences (i.e. those not totally essential to the plot) make it into the final staging in any particular production. In this case, great emphasis is placed on the Fool (more than ably brought to life by Ron Cook), with his corny jokes, shameless mincing and speaking numerous harsh truths when repeatedly chiding Lear for giving up his throne, and how in this case wisdom definitely did not come with age. There are many times when it appears that Lear is actually the fool, and the Fool is by the far the smarter.

Another character open to numerous interpretations is Edmund, here portrayed by Newman as a sort of angry rogue, but at the same time having enough charm to tempt both Goneril and Regan from their husbands' beds, coupled with a bemused sense of wonder that he is actually able to get away with his schemes. Yet at the same time there is no denying the hatred he feels for a condition of birth of which he had no control, as well as his complete lack of remorse against the innocent and not so innocent victims of his actions.

Unfortunately, while Lear, Edmond and the Fool all get their moments in the spotlight, many of the other characters don't fare as well. McKee and Mitchell, while both sweetly malicious at times (such as when they pass sentence on their father), feel almost interchangeable, neither really having their own identity. Bennett-Warner makes a good Cordelia, but has too little stage time in order to make a strong impression. (Her first scene with Lear is overshadowed by Jacobi's actions.) Jesson is fine as Gloucester but there's nothing in his performance to make him really stand out. (Same comments for Gideon Turner, who plays Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall.) Faring somewhat better is Tom Beard as the Duke of Albany, initially a sort of cuckold (married to Goneril) who slowly becomes a man in own right. Hadley is quite good as the valiant Kent, who would lay down his life for his king, while not at all afraid to get his hands dirty if need be. Lee is okay as Edgar, likable enough in the role but not all that particularly memorable.

Grandage's direction works well in telling the central stories, as well as when it comes to making the lead characters stand out. However, in making the entire work come together, his efforts fall a bit short. Some of the dialogue in the beginning also feels a bit rushed.

Christopher Oram's use of sets, basically a series of walls with minimum props, is an interesting choice. However when you go for the minimalist approach, the transitions between the scenes need to be especially sharp, which is not always the case here. Plus, for those who don't know the play all that well, it can hurt if you have to take a moment or two to figure out where the scene has shifted to, and when.

Lighting by Neil Austin is fine, sound design by Adam Cork is quite good. (There's a nice transitional effect during the storm scenes, switching back and forth from being outside in the elements to inside Lear's thoughts.) Fight direction by Terry King is engaging, if a bit shorter than it needs to be.

At its heart, the central theme of King Lear comes through perfectly. That being beware of foolish pride, for it can be very hard to undo the actions that result from this condition-assuming it's even possible to do so. An interesting interpretation with an excellent performance by Jacobi.

Also in the cast are Stefano Braschi, Amit Shah, Harry Attwell and Derek Hutchinson.

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Grandage
Set and Costume Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Casting: Anne McNulty CDG
Associate Director: Titas Halder
Associate Designer: Richard Kent
Associate Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Associate Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost
Production Manager: Patrick Molony
American Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Deputy Stage Manager: Mary O'Hanlon
Assistant Stage Manager: Rhiannon Harper
Costume Supervisor: Stephanie Arditti
Fight Director: Terry King
Rehearsal Photography: Marc Brenner
Production Photography: Johan Persson
Text Consultant: Russell Jackson
Wardrobe Mistress: Morag Pirrie
Set Constructed by: Bowerwood Productions
Set Painted by: Richard Nutbourne
Make Up Provided by: M.A.C
Costumes Made by:    Lynn Clark, Sue Coates, Judith Darracott, Sasha Keir, Hilary Marshner, Liz Poole
Millinery by: Jane Smith
Design Assistant: David Woodheard

Featuring: Michael Hadley (Earl of Kent), Paul Jesson (Earl of Gloucester), Alec Newman (Edmund), Derek Jacobi (King Lear), Gina McKee (Goneril), Justine Mitchell (Regan), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Cordelia), Tom Beard (Duke of Albany), Gideon Turner (Duke of Cornwall), Stefano Braschi (Duke of Burgundy), Ashley Zhangazha (King of France), Gwilym Lee (Edgar), Amit Shah (Oswald), Ron Cook (The Fool), Harry Attwell (Gentlemen), Derek Hutchinson (Old Servant)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater

651 Fulton Street

Running Time: 3 hours, five minutes

Closed: June 5, 2011

Much Food for Thought - "Benefactors"

By Judd Hollander

Extending a helping hand can sometimes have dangerous repercussions, as powerfully shown in the very interesting and involving revival of Michael Frayn's Benefactors by the Keen Company.

In early 1970s London, architect David (Daniel Jenkins) and wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch), who helps with his business, frequently entertain their neighbors Colin (Stephen Barker Turner) and Sheila (Deanne Lorette). In fact, Colin and Sheila are around more often than not; having meals together, bringing their kids by after school, etc. While David is the most conservative of the group, Colin is more radical thinking, the two often having far-ranging discussions about one subject or another, as Jane looks on bemusedly and Sheila is pretty much silent. Things change dramatically when Sheila is offered a job as David's secretary. After a series of false starts where she makes one mistake after another, she eventually become quite adept at the arrangement, becoming so invaluable she begins to insinuate herself into David's life. At the same time her relationship with Colin becomes more and more strained.

While all this is happening, David gets a contract to renovate (i.e. pull down) a large swath of aging and dilapidated homes and replace them with new housing. However as more and more bureaucratic obstacles are added to make the plan acceptable to the various competing interests, he finds he must build the structures much higher than originally planned in order to keep them economically feasible. This sends Colin off the deep end and results in him becoming a squatter in one of the soon to be demolished homes as he begins to publicly rail against the project. Soon Jane finds herself acting as the go-between between Colin and David, while her husband and Sheila are growing ever closer, even if David doesn't realize it.

An intriguing concept to be sure, but what makes it really interesting are the framing devices which have the various characters recalling events more than a decade later and looking back on what happened during this period when things went so wrong (or right, as the case may be).

There are actually several stories present in the text. Conservatism v. progressiveness, marriages in turmoil, and the peril of refusing to see what's right before your eyes being only a few of the messages put forth. Benefactors also offers a realistic take on the idea of "us v. them," with those intent on change and those adamantly opposed all eventually forced to compromise to some degree. As one character notes, you can't stop progress, all you can do it modify it at points to make it more palatable.

Another good thing about the story is that it's never clear where the piece is going. Indeed, we don't find out till almost the end just who ends up with whom, or what exactly happened and who's still alive to tell the tale. There's also a first act closer that's quite the shocker.

Casting is good all around. Jenkins is fine as the business-obsessed David, a man caring greatly for his work and frustrated to the extreme when having to deal with endless red tape. He's also someone who likes to keep things simple and is eventually forced to make some serious decisions in regards to both his professional and personal future.

Benesch works well as Jane, one of those women who adapts herself to fit into her husband's world. She's also a loving wife and mother, yet with passions and needs of her own. Ones which she finally realizes she can no longer ignore.

The Colin character is sort of a cipher. At one point a seemingly screaming rabble-rouser, at other times a rather sexist fellow with very particular ideas on how his wife should behave, and at still other times, someone trying to do what he firmly believes is right, with a world view certainly not everyone will agree with. It's a credit to Turner that he can make the character an object of curiosity and scrutiny rather than simple dismissal.

The unlikely linchpin of the story is Sheila, at first glance an overlooked mousy woman who never says a word, but later revealing herself to be an emotional vampire. She has a tumultuous home life and turns to Jane and David for friendship and security, while looking for her very identity in someone else's existence. The fact that this may not be the first time she's found herself in such a situation adds additional layers to her somewhat creepy persona. Lorette does a great job in making this complex person feel fully three-dimensional. All of these characters are probably not people you'd want to spend any long amounts of time with, but all are quite fascinating to watch.

Carl Forsman's direction is sure and smooth, letting the story unfold naturally and keeping the tension growing slowly, as the various characters are moved around like chess pieces in the text Frayn has created until they are ready for the endgame.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the realization of how much the characters' lives have changed over the course of the play, yet how little they've actually changed themselves.

Benefactors
By Michael Frayn
Directed by Carl Forsman
Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Scenic Designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume Designer: Jennifer Paar
Lighting Designer: Josh Bradford
Sound Designer: Will Pickens
Technical Director: Marshall Miller
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca Spinac
Casting Director: Judy Bowman
Props Designer: Ricola Wille
Assistant Costume Designer: Amanda Jenks
Assistant Lighting Designer: Stephen Sakowski
Master Electrician: Laura Schoch
Assistant Director: Joe Pikowski
Assistant Production Manager: Michael Lapinsky
Fight Choreographer: Paul Molnar

Featuring:
Vivienne Benesch (Jane), Daniel Jenkins (David), Stephen Barker Turner (Colin), Deanne Lorette (Sheila)

Presented by the Keen Company
Theatre Row Studios

410 West 42nd Street
Closed: May 7, 2010

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gruesome Fun - "The Blood Brothers Present... Freaks From The Morgue"

By Byrne Harrison

I will admit that I get a little spring in my step when I hear the Blood Brothers are back.  While I would never want to share an elevator with this particular pair of ghouls (so creepily brought to life by Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer), I know that their annual show, "The Blood Brothers present...," will be full of thrills, chills, and blood.  Oh yes, plenty of blood.

Narrated by the Blood Brothers, The Blood Brothers present... Freaks From the Morgue is a "torn from the headlines" evening of horror.  Freaks, in this case, refers to newspaper slang for short news articles.  The morgue is place where old newspapers and stories are kept.  So freaks from the morgue refers both to the cast of characters and the newspapers that inspire these stories.

The plays feature your friends and neighbors - drug addicts, good Samaritans and the people who take advantage of them, strong women, pedophiles, kidnappers, survivors, the mentally unbalanced, and of course, murderers.

Freaks From the Morgue is comprised of seven short plays from some of Off-Off Broadway's best - Mac Rogers, Stephanie Cox-Williams, James Comtois, Crystal Skillman, and Brian Silliman (whose work as an actor I'm familiar with, though this was my first experience with his playwriting).  The plays are directed by Pete Boisvert, Patrick Shearer, and John Hurley.

It would take a little too long to describe all the plays, so let me just give you a little snapshot.  Some plays are humorous, like Silliman's Hiccup, which features a girl (Leah Carrell) who can't stop hiccuping, and becomes addicted to the attention it brings her.  Some are gross - Comtois' Daddy's Bad Medicine nearly made me sick with its description of a stomach-turning mutilation, and his Otty, which features just a touch of cannibalism, had the best blood/body parts effects of the evening.  For pure creepiness, Silliman wins with his play Evening Lullaby featuring the relationship between a pedophile (Marc Landers) and his young victim (Ingrid Nordstrom).  It also features the best scream of the evening from Judy Merrick as the girl's mother.

My favorite of the plays, both in terms of the writing and the performances, is Final Girl by Mac Rogers.  This tight and well-written short play is disturbing, features some outstanding work by Ingrid Nordstrom and Stephanie Cox-Williams as meth-addicted whores, Collin McConnell as their dealer, Marc Landers as a serial killer, and Samantha Mason as a young woman looking for her lost sister - a young woman who knows one way or another, she will survive.  Adeptly directed by Patrick Shearer, this is the piece that shows just what The Blood Brothers presents... does best - creepy, supernatural thrillers.

Final Girl notwithstanding, Freaks From the Morgue isn't always as tight of a production as past Blood Brothers shows.  On the night I attended, some of the special effects didn't cooperate (a prop knife didn't discharge its blood in one scene, a blood pack was oozing blood early in another) and the timing seemed off in places.  But more than the timing, the energy seemed a bit off.  In past productions, there was an almost palpable feeling of perverse glee with the special effects (some scenes in previous shows still stick in my mind years later).  It's as though the designer was thinking, "Just how far can I take it this time?"  This year's production doesn't have quite the same joie de sang.  The effects are still well done technically, and plenty of arterial blood shoots across the stage (and occasionally into the audience), but with the exception of a gross (and absolutely terrific) blood effect in Otty, they just seem a little pro forma.

The high point of any Blood Brothers production for me is Boisvert and Shearer as the Blood Brothers.  Creepy and intimidating, their performances set the standard for the rest of the play.  Everything needs to be as disturbing as this duo is.

I will also say that one of the best ways to see horror, be it a play or movie, is to see it with a full audience.  The visceral reactions of your fellow audience members - the gasps, the starts, the covering of the eyes, the exclamations of disgust -  only serve to enhance the feelings you have while watching.  The matinee performance I attended had a small audience, which took away from the experience somewhat.
One other note, during the scene changes, bits and pieces from newscasts relating to the stories that inspired each short play can be heard.  Emphasizing the fact that these are based on real-life attrocities, this is a truly brilliant touch.

My suggestion is this.  First, go see Freaks From the Morgue before it closes.  The Blood Brothers present... is a rare annual delicacy, and shouldn't be missed.  Bring some friends.  And have some drinks, loosen yourself up.  Be prepared to be creeped out by what you see.  And sit close so you can feel the danger (and possibly the blood).  You'll have a great time doing it.

The Blood Brothers present... Freaks From the Morgue
featuring

Freaks
By Mac Rogers
Featuring: Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer as The Blood Brothers

Bad Samaritan
By Stephanie Cox-Williams
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Featuring: Ingrid Nordstrom (Woman), Abraham Makany (Larry), Leah Carrell (Missy), Ben Schnickel (Eddie)

Hiccup
By Brian Silliman
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Leah Carrell (Teenager), Ben Schnickel (Young Man), Samantha Mason (Young Lady), Marc Landers (Photographer), Stephanie Cox-Williams (Reporter)

Daddy's Bad Medicine
By James Comtois
Directed by John Hurley
Featuring: Stephanie Finn (Lil Angel)

Final Girl
By Mac Rogers
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Ingrid Nordstrom (Lil Sister), Samantha Mason (Ashley), Stephanie Cox-Williams (Dolly), Collin McConnell (Quentin), Bobby (Marc Landers)

Evening Lullaby
By Brian Silliman
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Ingrid Nordstrom (Young Girl), Juddy Merrick (Mother), Marc Landers (Pedophile)

Nest
By Crystal Skillman
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Samantha Mason (Girl), Collin McConnell (Man)

Otty
By James Comtois
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Featuring: Ben Schnickel (Rice), Abraham Makany (Smith), TJ Clark (McNeil), Leah Carrell (Priscilla), Judy Merrick (Otty)

The Kraine Theatre
85 E. 4th St.

Through July 3rd