Theatre Review: ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ at RBTL Auditorium Theatre

The cast of “Summer : The Donna Summer Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”, which began its national tour in Rochester, NY this week, starts out with a diva-level performance and a bass beat that you feel in your heart. The opening number, “The Queen is Back”, promises that this is going to be a hard-driving performance—but changes gears to be much more subtle through the middle and then changes back again at end.  

The show follows the footprint of jukebox musicals such as “Beautiful: The Carol King Story”, and “Mama Mia” which use the star’s portfolio of hit songs to tell the story of their life. “Summer” takes the audience through Donna’s childhood in the 50’s which were grounded by a loving family and church; her early career in the 70’s where she had a ground floor seat creating the disco genre with songs like “Love to Love You Baby” and “MacArthur Park”; and culminating in her diva years when she develops the strength to take better control of her career and her life. The part of Donna Summer is played by three actresses—one for her childhood (Olivia Elease Hardy), one for her mid-career (Alex Hairston) and one for her diva years (Dan’yelle Williamson). There were scenes in which the director craftily put multiple Donnas on stage to sing duets and trios together. All three actresses had powerful voices that filled the Auditorium Theatre to its dome but it was diva Donna, and her powerful command of her instrument, who was arguably most reminiscent of Donna Summer.

The emphasis on Donna’s irritation at being associated with her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” and being known as the “Queen of Disco”—as she shot up the charts and began to live a life in luxury—seemed a bit hollow. On the other hand, the treatment given to Donna’s childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a church member, mid-life physical abused by her first husband, and the devastating mishandling of her finances seemed to deserve more gravitas than was given. There was a very brief mea culpa moment in the show that revisited anti-gay statements made by Donna during a performance in 1983 that garnered strong public backlash. This incident was actually a protracted story at the time that stained the icon’s image, especially among some of her biggest fans in the gay community. The story also included little-known or forgotten tid-bits about the star’s life like when her managers originally wanted to have Cher record “Bad Girls” and Donna’s lukewarm attempt at acting in “Thank God it’s Friday”. 

The vocals, disco-funk music (Music Director, Amanda Morton) choreography (Choreographer, Sergio Trujillo), and costumes (Costume Designer, Paul Tazewell) will thrill any Donna Summer fan. The final two numbers, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” sent the audience out the doors dancing and singing their way to their cars (I know I wasn’t the only one).

Run Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

Age Recommendation: 12+

 “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs until October 5, 2019 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Auditorium Theatre. For tickets and more information, go to http://www.rbtl.org.

 

Buffalo Theatre Guide LIVE Launches!

Buffalo Theatre Guide has joined the Live Podcast world! Managing Editor John Szablewski will host Buffalo Theatre Guide LIVE! a podcast about local theatrical events and news, and opinion pieces! Be sure to SUBSCRIBE to us on Youtube. Our first episode talks about the National Tour Launch of “Mean Girls” which opened in Buffalo. You can read John Szablewski’s review here.

Theatre Review: ‘Into The Woods’ at Theatre In The Mist

I try, sometimes in vain, to approach every production I review with as much objectivity as possible. It’s not easy; I’m often reviewing a show I’ve seen many times before, that I’m intimately familiar with, or in the case of local productions, I may even know (or have performed with) one-or-two members of the cast.  Still, I feel as though it’s my journalistic duty—to the extent that I can—to always enter the theatre with a clean slate, carrying as little baggage as possible. This burden of impartiality is especially heavy when reviewing a show like “Into the Woods” because a) it’s one that near-everyone has seen, as it’s a favorite among high school drama clubs and community theatre troupes everywhere, b) it’s written by Stephen Sondheim who, for my money, is the single greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist of all time, and c) it just so happens to be one of my favorite shows. Understandably I jumped at the opportunity to trek up to Lewiston to catch Theatre in the Mist’s production of this masterpiece, and boy was it worth the gas money. Their production was charming and truly unique, bursting with talent from cast members of all ages.

. . .charming and truly unique . . .

 “Into the Woods”, the Sondheim classic with book by James Lapine, is an interwoven and somewhat revisionist retelling of the most well-known and iconic English/Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tales including “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, and “Cinderella.” As the result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Sara Kovacsi), a baker (Corey Bieber) and his wife (Casey Moyer) are childless. Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch’s beauty: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold. During their journey they meet Cinderella (Erin Coyle), Little Red Riding Hood (McKenzie Gilmore), Rapunzel (Julie Pitarresi) and Jack (Anthony Chavers), each one on their own quest to fulfill a wish. The story—equal parts whimsical, adventurous, and tragic—rests heavily on themes of love, loss, parenting, and the consequences of one’s actions.

One of the most impressive components of TITM’s production is the broad and eclectic cohort of actors that director Tim Stuff assembled. In the truest embodiment of “community theatre”, TITM’s “Into the Woods” features actors in high school, in their 50’s-60’s, and everything in between, all of whom bring immense talent and magnetism to the stage. What’s more wild is that the younger actors, the high school juniors and seniors who weren’t even born yet when I was performing in my 10th grade production of “Into the Woods”, absolutely steal the show! 

Anthony Chavers (17 years old)’ “Giants in the Sky” is heartfelt and innocent, demonstrating an enormous vocal range and tender acting sensibility. McKenzie Gilmore (a senior at Niagara Falls High School) has an equally impressive singing voice, with sass to boot. Julia Pitarresi (15 years old) embodies the often-overlooked role of Rapunzel with a beautiful operatic soprano voice, particularly on the refrain that reappears throughout the show. 

At the center of the story are the baker and his wife, brought to life through charismatic performances by Bieber and Moyer. Local productions featuring onstage marriages too-often feature forced, chemistry-less performances, but that isn’t the case with these actors, who bring tenderness and believability to their onstage relationship. Casey Moyer in particular shines as the Baker’s Wife (a title I loathe; why can’t she have her own name?!), delivering beautiful renditions of “Moments in the Woods” and others. 

“Into the Woods” features some of the best large ensemble numbers of any modern musical, and in true Sondheim fashion, they’re immensely difficult. The TITM cast was up to the task, delivering crisp and articulate renditions of “Your Fault”, “No One is Alone”, and “Children Will Listen.” 

Like most productions, TITM’s “Into the Woods” isn’t without its minor blemishes. There were fairly consistent mic issues on opening night (an easy thing to address before next weekend’s performances), and stretches of Act II drag a bit, a fault that’s more attributable to playwright James Lapine’s lopsided writing than to this particular production; it’s not a hot take to suggest that Act I of “Into the Woods” is much better than Act II, so much so that high schools and theatre companies often opt to only perform the first act and nix the second entirely. 

At the risk of gushing over TITM’s “Into the Woods” ad-nauseum, productions like this are genuinely why I love covering local theatre. After sitting through countless stuffy, self-important productions of lifeless plays featuring actors taking themselves way too seriously, it’s such a breath of fresh air to come to the theatre and see seriously talented performers of all ages—not professionals, but folks who are likely your co-workers, classmates, neighbors and friends—come together to put on a earnest and entertaining show, one that’s simple and unassuming but also exciting and emotional and tremendously fun. 

TITM’s production of “Into the Woods” is playing at Lewiston’s Stella Niagara Education Park on October 4th, 5th and 6th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Ben Michael Moran as Grimaldi and Adriano Gatto as Lord Soranzo. Photos are by Gene Witkowski.

While most theatre companies choose to open their season with a grabby title or celebrated classic, Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company begins 2019-2020 with a lesser known, nearly 400-year-old show that’s rife with drama and salaciousness.  And while it’s not their best work to-date, it’s a bold choice to begin a new season with a play that’s virtually unknown to modern audiences that focuses on an incestuous relationship. 

“Tis’ Pity She’s a Whore,” a tragedy written by John Ford circa 1633 and directed at ICTC by Fortunato Pezzimenti, centers on the forbidden love between a brother and sister. Young Parman nobleman Giovanni (Jeremy Kreuzer) is desperately in love with his sister Annabella (Anna Krempholtz), and is overjoyed when she reciprocates his feelings. But they know that their incestuous passion must remain a secret, a secret they believe they can keep – until Annabella is pregnant. With suitors clambering for Annabella’s hand in marriage including Bergetto (Adam Yellen), Grimaldi (Ben Michael Moran), and Soranzo (Adriano Gatto), the solution seems obvious: She must marry one of them right away to save her honor and keep the secret. With multiple revenge schemes, jilted lovers, and manipulative servants, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore spares no character from heartbreak.

The production’s sparse set design (a single chair) leaves the burden to the acting company of carrying this antiquated story along, and several of these cast members do so fabulously. Per usual Adam Yellen, an ICTC staple, is hilariously fresh as Bergetto, bringing ample flair to the role of the goonish dim-witted nephew of Signor Dinado (Christian Brandjes). Everything from his flashy stage entrances to his over-the-top gestures exemplify why ICTC continues to cast him in their productions.

And speaking of Dinado, Christian Brandjes excels in both this role as well as the earnest and devout Friar Bonaventura. Brandjes’ performances in both characters are organic and natural, allowing the audience to fall right in sync with the production during the scenes in which he’s center-stage.

While their chemistry is sometimes clunky, Krempholtz and Kreuzer share many moments of believable tenderness and intimacy, a credit to the skilled directing hand of Fortunato Pezzimenti. Krempholtz in particular radiates and grabs the audience’s attention, particularly in the first act’s scenes of romance.

ICTC’s production of “Tis’ Pity She’s A Whore” is a decent rendition of a play that’s likely lesser-known for a reason. While the action and violence of the later acts does perk up the audience a bit, large swaths of the show just sort of trudge along, a reality that’s less a fault of the production and more the fault of  John Ford. ICTC is one of Buffalo’s finest arts institutions, and their 19/20 season contains titles that will surely pack the house, but this choice for season opener is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

“Tis’ Pity She’s A Whore” is playing at ICTC’s Andrew Theatre until October 13th; for tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Mean Girls’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The cast of “Mean Girls.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

I wanted to hate this show. When I saw “Mean Girls” perform at the Tony Awards, I couldn’t even fathom how this was going to last. I didn’t understand the reason for the big Broadway sounding number in the middle of the high school cafeteria. I didn’t understand the song tone changes. I was very indifferent to the next Hollywood film being adapted for the Broadway stage. Boy was I wrong. Sure “Mean Girls” is not the best written musical, but it sure does entertain. It has the Tina Fey quality of jokes that we know and love. I didn’t stop laughing. The score was so interesting, I bought the piano sheet music. Overall, it has developed into a guilty pleasure of mine (don’t tell my girlfriend, she’ll want to go see it again!) When it stops in your town, go see it, or you might make it into the “Burn Book” for being cheap. . .

When it stops in your town, go see it, or you might make it into the “Burn Book” for being cheap. . .

“Mean Girls” is based on the 2004 film written by Tina Fey, who adapts her screenplay for the stage. It tells the story of Cady (Danielle Wade) who has lived her entire life in Africa, and who has been homeschooled. When her family relocates to Illinois, she is brought into a culture shock of public high school. Upon arrival, Cady meets Janice (Mary Kate Morrisey) and Damian (Eric Huffman) who explain the food chain of high school and set her on an adventure to infiltrate Regina George (Mariah Rose Faith) and The Plastics, the most popular girls in school. 

Danielle Wade has a voice that is so powerful that you have a hard time believing that a human being can produce that sound. I am happy to see her still going strong after her stint as Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” which appeared at Shea’s a few seasons ago (I also was able to interview her about the show then!) She knocks this role out of the park.

Mariah Rose Faith plays the mean, nasty, love to hate and hate to love, Regina George. Wow! What a stage presence! What a “de-mean-or.” Her performance in “Rocking Around The Pole” had me laughing so hard that the lady sitting next to me looked at me in disgust three times! (she also had her cell phone out and was texting so I truly think it was a fair trade off).

Mary Kate Morrisey did an awesome job as Janice in this show. Along with Eric Huffman’s Damian, the two tell the story, get the laughs, and keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Their comedic timing is perfect.

Jonalyn Saxer plays Karen, the extremely attractive, and completely airheaded Plastic to a tee. She is very entertaining, very funny, but she brings a great charm to the stage. Yes, Saxer is portraying a dimwit, but she is one of the most “real” characters in the show. Fantastic acting.

Gaelen Gilligand is hilarious as a trio of the adult female characters in this production. She lets her inner Tina Fey out, and if you close your eyes, you’d think that Ms Fey was actually on stage. 

Jeff Richmond’s score had me scratching my head at times, wondering what the score was trying to be? Was it a parody of Broadway showtunes? Was it a pop/rock musical? Was it an early Andrew Lloyd Webber style were many different genres would be used? I’m not sure, but it’s loud, it’s powerful, and it fits inside the world that his wife creates.

Scott Pask’s completely digital scenic design works so well in this show. At first I thought that the screens would take away from the theatrical experience, but they only complement them. 

Overall, I had a blast, and sure the story is called “Mean Girls” but if the story has one theme, it’s that we need to treat each other better. Except when it comes to getting tickets to this show. Push, kick, toss, slap, do whatever you need to do to get your seats! This show will sell out wherever it goes.

Running Time: 2 Hours 45-minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Mean Girls” launched it’s national tour in Buffalo New York, and continues to travel across North America. For more information, click here.

New Phoenix Rising in Sterling for 25th Season

New Phoenix Theatre will celebrate its 25th anniversary season with four shows that represent its hallmark eclectic appeal.

Founder Richard Lambert says,” After 25 years I feel lucky to still be doing this, and as a small alternative theatre we’re still glad people are interested.”  

The season begins September 20 with ‘Izzy,’ written by local theatre and radio legends Grant Golden and Jim Santella. Previous stagings were 19 years ago at MusicalFare and 27 years ago at the former Calumet Café. Like all good theatre, this heartwarming message of ambition and tenacity (Izzy is a fictional Buffalo songwriter that almost was something) is timeless. Lambert loves opening his sterling season with local playwrights and a musical review at that. Pianist/singer Chuck Basil steps out from behind the piano to center stage for this show, and is joined by Renee Landrigan, Nathan Miller and Brett Klaczyk. Lambert says Basil’s  voice “ just anchors and shines and when he hits some of those notes the theatre just shakes.”  

‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ starts its run November 22. Lambert pondered this on Facebook a couple years, wondering if the show (about a James Dean fan club in Texas called the Disciples) would still work. Famous for not being on Facebook, Lisa Ludwig caught wind of this and was eager to be part of it. Betsy Bittar, Kerrybate Abel (“with that big bawdy laugh as big as Texas,” Lambert says), Stephanie Bax, Jenn Stafford, Mary Moebius, and Dylan Brozyna are in the cast, and Lambert will direct.

Opening March 6  is ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman,’ and Lambert has a soft spot for this show. “It’s a bittersweet, romantic show,” he says, and he’s delighted that Victoria Perez has agreed to direct it “She’s a good luck charm wherever she goes, he says. Rolando Martin Gomez and Richard Lattimer will share the stage.

The seasons ends with Edward Albee’s classic ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ with Lambert and Pamela Rose Mangus as George and Martha and Pandora Liane Kew and Brett Klaczyk as Honey and Nick. Lambert is particularly excited about this production: “I’m already working this, and getting into  Richard Burton’s voice,” Lambert says referring to the 1966 film. The show opens April 22, and he’s confident that all will go off without a hitch, even though it opens on Broadway a month earlier. “We got in under the wire,” Lambert says. “No one else in the country can do this, it’s kismet, but our fingers are crossed that (Broadway producer) Scott Rudin won’t pull the plug,” referring to Kavinoky Theatre’s situation last season when the same production company forced the cancellation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For Lambert ending the 25th season with this production is a highlight for the actors and the audience alike.  “This is the last show of the season and I want the pay off to be rewarding night of theatre. The time was right to accept the challenges.” he says. He’s enthusiastic about this cast, too.  “If anyone in our city is lucky enough to hangout with Pam, you’ll know she’s wanted that role for some time. Pandora Lianne Kew came in to audition and was already completely off book. She made  such an impression. Her ‘Honey’ isn’t light and feathery; she’s dominant and strong. She renewed my faith in how seriously young people take their passion for theatre.”

For details about ticket, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Authentic Life Of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Productions

The cast of ‘The Authentic Life of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Picture it: New Mexico, 1908. An old acquaintance knocks at your door. He brings his silent (at first) mysterious driver: could he really be someone who thought has been dead for 27years? 

From its very dramatic stop-action opening scene, ‘The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid’ which opens Road Less Traveled Productions’ new season, ignites you into a strange psychological drama. It’s indeed a dark and stormy night when the former sheriff Pat Garrett (Daniel Greer) opens his cabin door to welcome former newspaperman Ash Upson (Peter Palmisano).  Amidst plenty of thunder claps and lightning cracks, Garrett flashes back to the night he shot the Kid dead at the Maxwell ranch after the Kid escaped from prison. Well, that’s what Garrett thinks and what the history books tell us, but was that really what happened? What does this do to the former Sheriff’s identity? As he says “I spent the last 25 years trying to be the man I meant to be.”

. . . ignites you into a strange psychological drama.

Playwright Lee Blessing’s story takes us down a different path. What if the Kid had master-minded a fake death with a stand in, and he’s lived an OK life under a new identity? With a little bit of Agatha Christie-esque intrigue (think ‘The Mousetrap’) and a dash of urban legend (“Elvis is alive and working at a McDonald’s in Michigan”) the story plays some mind games on Garrett while his old buddy Ash spins out his own plan to make some money on this sideshow.

Dave Mitchell is a perfect enigma as Billy the Kid. He has that cunning, haunting look about him, and he gives a little side-eye as Ash directs and coaches him along with the show he’s scripting. The interaction between these two is wild: “I’m am impresario,” Ash proclaims as he silently coaches the Kid how to illustrate a night of passion on a wooden chair and how to deliver his lines with equal passion.  Garrett is skeptical, and even though he acknowledges that “the west is what you make of it,” he’s not ready to join this circus. Yet. Ash tries to prove the Kid is the real deal, and even asks him to drop his trousers to reveal the wound Garrett caused to the Kid’s hind (“you’re staring in the face of history here,” proclaims Ash). Enter Jim P. Miller (Patrick Cameron), a surprise guest and a visitor from Texas who’s ready to buy Garrett’s property, until he gets caught up in the story. Funny how the thought of making a little extra cash can change someone so fast.

While Blessing’s story had some slow-to-emerge parts, this ensemble – directed by Road Less Traveled’s leader Scott Behrend is great.  Mitchell as the Kid lets his character delectably, slowly roll out from servant to gunslinger. Palmisano plays Ash with gusto: even when Ash nods off his chair, he’s dreaming of his next money making scheme. Greer as Garrett is solid, a force, the rock who wants what history told him he did….but some money would be good, too. It’s Cameron as Miller that is captivating: he’s all Texas charm until he weaves himself into the narrative.

Once again Dyan Burlingame’s set is dead-on, from the plank walls to the glowing kiva in the corner. Special effects, fight scenes, and ambiance are all there, bringing a little bit of outback New Mexico to downtown Buffalo. RLTP begins this season with a literal bang.

Opening night may have had a stumbled line or two (totally forgivable), but the woman next to me who whipped out her phone a few times – lights and all – to check the time…not so much. Seriously.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

 “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid” runs until October 6, 2019 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Navigators’ at Alleyway Theatre

Seems like Alleyway is looking to whet the appetite of Western New York theatergoers with its offering of Navigators.  Opening a week before Curtain Up! the cast and crew get several performances in the meantime, giving the production ample opportunity to work out any kinks before the big night.

. . .a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family. . .

There’s not a lot to work out really and, with its approximately 90-minute runtime, it’s a perfect opportunity for Curtain Up! patrons to take in a compelling comical drama and step out onto Main Street for its free festivities relatively early into the night. 

But what am I saying — even without free festivities and whatnot, Navigators is an altogether satisfying theater experience.  Take, for example, that it’s set on a New England lake, and its props include a boathouse, equipped with its own dinghy sailing vessel.   And a dock. Oddly, or not so oddly, when the Navigators set sail on the dinghy, it never moves – the set does. Couple that with an easy-on-the-ears interlude music and a sleepy starry backdrop sky, well, you get the drift.  And even more pleasing is that the passengers do too, swaying as they do with the waves.  

But hold on.  There’s more to Navigators than inspired set design and agreeable sound.  Living on the lake is E.J., the son of a US Senator who’s recently died.  E.J., played by Chris J. Handley, has just delivered a eulogy for his mother the senator and has stolen back to his boathouse to write.  He’s quickly followed onto the boat by his sister, Maddy, played by Sandra Roberts. It comes apparent that E.J. had just delivered the eulogy for his mother’s funeral.  As estranged son, he’s just recently returned to see her before she died.

Maddy and E.J. are smart, educated, and it’s apparent they are very close.  Their dialogue is fast, witty and on-point, funny and, at times, poignant. They “get” one another as only close siblings would.  Handley and Roberts play their back and forth tight as a sheet, as two persons of like experiences, who almost know what the other will say before they say it.  

But time has changed their lives’ trajectories.  One loves politics and is political, like their mother.  The other despises all of it and the compromises their mother had made to their ideals in the name of politics.  The script is hot-peppered with both characters’ views, the points and counterpoints. Handley and Roberts deliver them with the precision and passion you’d expect of staunch adversaries, amusingly so.  They are both appealing in their roles, because their characters truly understand one another. And it is this understanding and love for one another that moves the story forward through Gordon Farrell’s rich and demanding script.  

And the plot – the reason E.J. and Maddy are on this lake – is that in the world of politics timing is everything.  A dead senator needs to be replaced. The family has name recognition. The case is made by another senator, Leo, played by Tom Owen.  Leo is E.J. and Maddy’s long-time uncle, as it were, and their mother’s confidante through many years in the senate together. He believes the family’s name recognition can keep the vacant senator’s seat in the party’s hands.  E.J.’s life experience and notoriety becomes the clear choice for that.  

The cast of three embodies their roles convincingly.  Handley plays the intelligent E.J. as he stumbles and sways between sober lucidity and intoxicated smartass.  As the knowing Maddy, Robert’s matches him with a just-right mix of being on board with him, while steering the ship to port.  Interestingly, while it seemed some hiccups came and went with the script, this cast recovered from them so smoothly as to make it unclear whether those moments were in fact gaffs or slight idiosyncrasies of the characters.   And regardless of that, all appeared to have genuine joy in bringing an excellent script to life.  

Family, politics, and sailing.  Sincere and funny dialogue on the ups and downs of all of it.   A trio of characters who have much to say and reveal on each of these matters, often comically so.  Add a plot and script by Playwright-in-Residence Farrell that winds its way in and out of each subject and how they play against one another.  Combine that with a delightful setting of a New England lake, artfully constructed, and Alleyway’s Navigators rides a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family, hitting on every level.    

Running Time: 90-minutes with one intermission.

Navigators runs until October 5, 2019 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at The Stratford Festival

Members of the company in The Crucible. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Many of us can recall reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school, spending a few weeks reading lines out loud and talking about its themes for the purpose of education. While reading as a young person was a memorable experience, there is something terrifying about being swept into a live version of this pertinent story based on the most notorious American example of mass hysteria in the gorgeous Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival.

haunting and horrifying…

Inspired by actual events, the play opens with various Salem townsfolk convening at Reverend Parris’ house inquiring about his daughter, Betty, who has fallen suspiciously ill. Knowing Betty was seen with a group of young women dancing naked in the forest with Parris’ Barbadian slave Tituba, it doesn’t take long for rumors of witchcraft to swirl. As people take turns trying to diagnose Betty, accusations start flying. By the end of the first act, men and women of all ages and even spotless reputations are being arrested and tried for witchcraft. Amongst these accusations, the young and driven Abigail Williams tries desperately to reconnect with her former employer and one-time lover, the farmer John Proctor. 

Straford’s production tells the story phenomenally well, making it one of the most frustrating, uncomfortable and, at times, horrifying things you will sit through in a theater. Director Jonathan Goad has taken great care to avoid easy, predictable theatrics during Miller’s many speeches in favor of saving wild outbursts for only the show’s poignant moments.

The production design as a whole is stellar, backed by a simple, dynamic set by Michael Gianfrancesco and shrouded in utterly harrowing lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher. Complete with haunting and at times heart-stopping sound designed and composed by Debashis Sinha, “The Crucible’s” technical elements will stay with you long after the show concludes.

Every actor has a moment to standout throughout this staging of the Crucible, allowing the audience to morally question each character, wondering whether their accusations or the accusations against them are remotely credible. 

Leading the cast is Tim Campbell as the strong, increasingly frustrated and passionate Proctor. As one of the tallest actors in the show, he commands the room as he steps in wearing his tall boots and dirty leather trench coat. Without giving away how the story ends, his character arc is one of the most powerful and frustrating to watch.

Katelyn McCulloch is the notorious Williams, the ringleader of Salem’s young ladies at the center of the witchcraft accusations. What she says goes, and McCulloch makes that terrifying truth clear from the start. She’s manipulative and smart, and, no matter how unlikable, her powers of persuasion can’t be tamed.

This production also opened my eyes to two other characters who I think the audience resonates the most with as the story develops – the Proctors’ employee, Mary Warren (Mamie Zwettler) and Reverend Hale (Rylan Wilkie). They begin the story the same way – horrified at the possibility of witches in Salem and anxious to do their part to stop it. As Warren starts to realize what Williams is up to, with the help of John Proctor, she tries to stand up for herself in court, with Zwettler delivering a stunning performance as Warren is questioned and threatened.

Hale is committed to ridding the world of witches as well, and despite being one of the more level-headed people in power, doesn’t budge on his beliefs until Warren and Proctor arrive at the court. When Hale truly begins to realize the horror of what he’s assisted in accomplishing and is unable to stop it, it is a truly heart breaking moment for the audience.

Stratford’s “The Crucible” is haunting and horrifying, especially in a world where people put strong stake in things they believe to be true, no matter how outlandish, just because they heard them from a source they trust. It is a truly thought-provoking and unforgettable time at the theater well worth the drive to Stratford.

Running Time: Three hours including a 20-minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs through October 25 at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Mother’s Daughter’ at The Stratford Festival

From left: Irene Poole as Catalina, Shannon Taylor as Mary and Jessica B. Hill as Anne in Mother’s Daughter. Photography by David Hou

“Mother’s Daughter”, currently playing at the Stratford Festival, is the third installment of playwright Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker series, in which she offers a closer and more substantive examination of various Tudor-era women connected to Henry VIII. In preparation of seeing “Mother’s Daughter”, which focuses on Mary I (England’s first queen regent, often referred to as “Bloody Mary”) I read the first two installments in Hennig’s series; “The Last Wife”, which focuses on Catherine Parr, and “The Virgin Trial”, which examines Elizabeth I and her involvement in a coup attempt against her younger brother, King Edward VI. Each play in this magnificent series is thoughtful and cutting in the ways it explores the humanity, motivations, and depth of these oft-overlooked historical women, and while “Mother’s Daughter” is ultimately my least favorite of the three plays, it’s still a gripping and intelligent piece of theatre that’s absolutely worth seeing. 

In “Mother’s Daughter” Mary I (Shannon Taylor), daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (Irene Poole), is pulled by the opposing forces of mercy and strength (or cruelty?), as well as her duties as both queen and sister as she scrambles to keep her kingdom, her crown, her family, and her line of succession in order. Upon the death of King Edward VI, thirty-eight-year-old Mary wrests the throne from Edward’s deemed heir. But Mary’s mother appears from the vaults of memory, and adamantly questions the motives of Mary’s cousin Jane (Andrea Rankin) and her half-sister Bess (Jessica B. Hill), despite Mary’s affection for them both. As the kingdom splits along Roman Catholic and Protestant lines, Mary walks a tight rope of squabbling ethics and politics, and is forced to make some tough decisions. Should she mimic the savagery often exercised by her father and start sending opponents—in this case, her own kin—to the guillotine? Should she scramble to find a husband who can give her a rightful heir, thus securing the line of succession and averting rebellion? 

The minimalist set (just a table and chair) and production design leaves the narrative propulsion of “Mother’s Daughter” in the hands of its small, predominantly female cast; and propel the story they sure do. At the center of the story, Shannon Taylor gives a powerhouse performance as Mary, who is just as comfortable delivering quippy sarcasm and wit (Hennig wrote “Mother’s Daughter” in modern vernacular) as she is searing, tear-jerking monologues. Her Mary is relatable and familiar, presented as a flawed and imperfect woman doing her best to navigate the impossibly complex worlds of royalty, war, and religious conflict. Rather than being stuffy or aristocratic, Taylor’s Mary is funny and sharp, but also sweaty and confused and overwhelmed. She’s a queen whose every fiber screams, “What the hell am I doing here?!” rather than, “I deserve this, bow to me.”

Equally powerful is Irene Poole as the ghost (or memory? or ethereal manifestation?) of Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon, who is constantly urging Mary to choose the crueler, more violent path, often against Mary’s better instincts. She balances her role as mother against her duty as a wartime consigliere, and does so with the presence and booming certainty that we would expect from one of the most famous Tudor queens, but also finds moments of delicacy and love. Like Mary, Poole’s Katherine is complex and endlessly interesting.   

In possibly the most impressive acting performance, Jessica B. Hill doubles as both Mary’s sister Elizabeth (or “Bess”) and Bess’ mother Anne Boleyn. Hill’s Bess fluctuates between snarkiness and sincerity, fear and loyalty, leaving the audience to wonder if she’s truly capable of the conspiratorial plot that Catherine is determined she’s scheming, or if she’s just a concerned younger sister. In the flashback scenes she brings a cunning, sexual energy to Anne Boleyn that makes you double-take when realizing she was portraying Bess moments previously. 

“Mother’s Daughter” is a powerful and important play about authority and humanity, mercy and love, and particularly about being a powerful woman. It gives nuance and depth to a character who’s mostly written-off by history as a savage tyrant, and while Mary is almost certainly not a hero or someone to be canonized, she was complicated and intensely human. Thanks to Hennig, audiences and readers have a more multi-dimensional idea of the ruler Mary may have been. 

“Mother’s Daughter” is approximately two hours long with a twenty-minute intermission. It’s playing at Stratford’s Studio Theatre until October 13th. For tickets and more information, click here