Othello at SUNY Buffalo State

The work of William Shakespeare is elastic and enduring, crossing the boundaries of culture, language, ritual and time. Popular Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, and the “Merchant of Venice” have been translated into over 100 languages, and Shakespearian works are often reinterpreted into different time periods and reimagined for modern audiences. The theatre department at SUNY Buffalo State is continuing this tradition with their current production of “Othello”, the Bard’s classic story of revenge and deception, told through a modern sociopolitical lens. 

“Othello”, a tragedy believed to have been written by Shakespeare in 1603, revolves around its two central characters: Othello (Keion Abrams), a Moorish general, and his treacherous ensign Iago (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez). Othello marries a noblewoman, Desdemona (Lissette DeJesus), without the blessing of her family. Iago plots with Roderigo (Azarias Matthews) to essentially destroy Othello. Iago cites several reasons for his vengeance, including Othello overlooking him for a promotion and giving the position to Cassio (Stephen Weisenburger) instead, and Othello possibly sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia (Gabriella McKinley). Roderigo, who is used by Iago because he is rich, is in love with Desdemona and works with Iago because he is promised that he will win Desdemona if they are able to defeat Othello. Iago’s plans become progressively more manipulative and complex as he preys upon Othello’s insecurities and convinces him that his new wife is having an affair with Cassio. Notably, director Jennifer Toohey transplanted the story from its original setting in Venice and Cyprus, Italy, to the modern backdrop of the U.S/Syrian conflict. 

Modernizing Shakespeare is a tricky endeavor, and it flops as often as it succeeds. When done well, a modernized Shakespeare can breathe fresh air into centuries-old text and bring relevance to young audiences who haven’t yet been introduced to the themes and characters. When done poorly, the story often becomes lost and the characters overburdened. This production doesn’t squarely fit into either of those descriptions, but the retelling of the story against a modern foreign policy backdrop proves a bit unnecessary, mostly because the story, while told in a military context, isn’t really a military story; it’s a story of love, revenge, deceit, racism, and violence, and the elements of warfare are more a vehicle for the interpersonal machinations of Iago and Othello. Dressing the actors in modern camouflage perhaps provides a change of scenery, but doesn’t make any kind of meaningful thematic statement.   

Though retelling “Othello” through the modern lens of the U.S/Syrian conflict doesn’t add a lot of substance to the story, this production is still excellent, largely because of the standout acting performances from Abrams, Gomez, DeJesus and McKinley. Gomez perfectly captures the maniacal nature of Iago, his constant manipulations and treachery always present. Abrams is a subtle and thoughtful performer, acting as a perfect vehicle for Shakespeare’s words and the complexity of Othello, a character who’s full of both pain and rage. DeJesus has a wide emotional range, fully on display with her love of and devotion to Othello, and her anguish over his mistrust of her. Most impressive is McKinley, whose Emilia is cutting, fierce, and enormously powerful, delivering the character’s monologues—especially the monologue about adultery—completely magnetically. Kudos to Toohey for her world-building, and for helping to guide these young performers to such excellence.  

Buff State’s production of Othello is intense and captivating, one of the better collegiate theatre productions I’ve seen in some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover dozens of local, regional, and professional Shakespeare productions across New York and Canada, and the young people in this production of “Othello” are some of the finest actors I’ve seen to tackle the complexity of the Bard; we’ll surely be seeing more of them for years to come. 

Othello is playing at SUNY Buffalo State until March 14th; for tickets and more information, click here

Theatre Review: ‘Superior Donuts’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

To start its 2019/2020 season, Shea’s 710 Theatre has partnered with Road Less Traveled Productions to present “Superior Donuts”, a show from acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (of “August: Osage County” fame) that tackles topical sociopolitical issues like race and gentrification, but more importantly, spotlights a friendship between an aging hippie who’s stuck in his ways, and a young black man desperately trying to bring him into the 21st century. 

. . .funny and touching. . .

“Superior Donuts” tells the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Steve Jakiel), the owner of the decrepit donut shop from whence the play gets its name; it’s a staple of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which has been in Arthur’s family for 60+ years. Finding himself in need of a new assistant, Arthur hires Franco (Jake Hayes) a young college-aged African-American man who, as we come to learn, is desperately in-need of a job in order to continue supporting his mother, and to pay off steep gambling debt to a local bookie.  With the donut shop struggling financially, Franco makes suggestions for improvement and modernization to the often-reluctant Arthur, who punctuates the story with regular monologues about his daughter, ex-wife, and past as a draft-dodging hippie.

Jakiel and Hayes absolutely shine in the leading roles of Arthur and Franco, with Jakiel masterfully playing the grumpy curmudgeon who is surprisingly educated and open-minded, and Hayes playing the enterprising young Franco who has a gift for writing. The chemistry between these two actors is organic and palpable, one that either comes naturally or was honed through hours and hours of intense rehearsal (or both). Regardless, it’s completely magnetic and is the foundation of this production. 

Rounding out the cast are a handful of smaller supporting roles, all of which add color and context to the setting of “Superior Donuts.” Most notable are Max Tarasov (John Profeta), the flamboyant Russian owner of the DVD shop next door, Lady Boyle (Tina Rausa), the bag lady who frequents the shop, and Officer Randy Osteen (Lisa Vitrano), the neighborhood cop with a sweet spot for Arthur. 

Even though it’s only 10 years old, it’s striking how remarkably well “Superior Donuts” has aged. Our culture is awash with well-intentioned plays and films that attempt to heavy-handedly address important racial themes, and end up coming across as a little too “white savior-y” (one need look no further that 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book” for a prime example). Tracy Letts had the foresight to not lead “Superior Donuts” down that road; there are no white saviors, and at the end of the show’s two acts our main characters haven’t tidily solved racism. “Superior Donuts” gently explores themes of class and, yes, sometimes race (there’s an impactful moment where Arthur actually concedes that he probably harbors some implicit racism), but it’s mainly about two new friends who learn to challenge and protect each other.

I listened to a podcast recently in which the hosts were discussing the film “The Shawshank Redemption”, and they described it as “not so much a prison movie as a romance movie about two best friends.” At the time it struck me as a curious description, but upon further reflection I realized that it was absolutely spot-on. Fans of “Shawshank” know that prison is certainly the backdrop, but the movie is really about the deep, meaningful friendship that unfolds between Andy and Red over the course of their years behind bars together. The podcasters were making the point that this storytelling format is more common with romance movies than in prison thrillers, and it occurs to me that “Superior Donuts” could be summarized the same way; “a romance movie about two best friends.” Sure, “Superior Donuts” flirts with issues like race, gentrification, and even the protest movements of the 1960’s, but the real thematic weight lies with the friendship that develops and grows between Arthur and Franco during the course of the play, and how that friendship becomes a saving grace in both of their lives. To Arthur, Franco becomes an adopted son of sorts, someone to encourage and protect, but also to help pull him and his shop into the 21st century. 

“Superior Donuts” is a funny and touching production, and a thoughtful collaboration between two of Buffalo’s finest theatre institutions. It’s also an important play to revisit, given the cultural and political backdrop of 2019. 

“Superior Donuts” is playing at Shea’s 710 Theatre until October 27th. For tickets and more information, click 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: ‘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

Theatre Review: ‘The Glass Managerie’ at The Shaw Festival

Julia Course and Jonathan Tan in “The Glass Managerie.” Photo by David Cooper.

Tennessee Williams comes from a cohort of playwrights whose early 20th century upbringing, while horrid by any standard, provided ample source material that would later be used to craft some of the most iconic works of American theatre. Along with Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”, “The Glass Menagerie” is semi-autobiographical and features characters loosely (or not so loosely?) based on himself, his mother, and sibling. This window into Williams’ early life illuminates the psyche of a man who experienced profound heartache, but repurposed that heartache into dramatic works that speak to the human condition. One of those works is currently experiencing a stunning production at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s renowned celebration of theatre.  

. . .haunting and brilliantly acted. . .

“The Glass Menagerie” tells the story of Tom (Andre Sills), a 20-something man toiling away in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton), an overbearing and faded southern belle; and sister Laura (Julia Course), a mentally fail and cripplingly shy shut-in who spends the bulk of her time obsessing over her glass animal collection. In an effort to appease his mother, Tom arranges something of a blind date between Laura and Jim (Jonathan Tan), a co-worker and friend from the shoe factory. After overcoming an initial bout of nerves and shyness Laura seems to be warming to Jim, until he reveals that he’s already engaged to be married. This revelation breaks Laura’s heart and sends Amanda into a rage, which she ultimately redirects to Tom, who flees the home and, as he later reveals, never returns.

The humanity and profound sadness of this production largely stems from its intimacy; in terms of acting choices, staging, and the theatre itself. Like most productions of “Menagerie”, Shaw’s takes place in-the-round, with seats on all sides in a theatre that’s only slightly larger than blackbox (I’d estimate 200 seats or so). Being so close to the stage gives the impression that you’re sitting in the Winfield’s living room seeing firsthand the agony on Laura’s face and the fire in Amanda’s eyes. The use of darkness and sparse lighting also added to the show’s intimacy, as well as the ways in which Tom—who also acts as the story’s narrator—moves in-and-out of the apartment as he toggles between his two roles.

Each member of this small cast beautifully channels the complexity of William’s characters. Course’s Laura is fragile and childlike, filled with youthful wonder but also utterly broken. Laura is a human embodiment of the glass ornaments that she treasures so dearly; she’s beautiful yet fragile.

Allegra Fulton’s Amanda is the seminal southern belle, a character found in many many Tennessee Williams plays (similar to Balance Dubois in “A Streetcar Names Desire”). She’s manipulative and overbearing, but also charming and magnetic. 

Jonathan Tan’s Jim is relentlessly positive, constantly brimming with a smile and a bursting with a kind word, even as he’s breaking Laura’s heart.

And stealing the show is Andre Sills’ Tom, whose magnetism as the narrator is mirrored in intensity as Laura’s protective older brother. Sills brings out a different dynamic in his relationship with each character in the show. With Laura he’s nurturing and patient, frustrated and fiery with Amanda, chummy with Jim. He brings immense focus likability to a complex character and is an absolute powerhouse in this production of Tennessee Williams’ most iconic play.

Ultimately, Shaw’s production of “Menagerie” stems from director Laszlo Berczes’ understanding of the fact that, while rich with emotional baggage, the story is simple. It’s about the delicate balance between reality and hope, and the acceptance that life can be both beautiful and tragically unkind. 

The Shaw Festival’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is haunting and brilliantly acted, an intimate and deeply sorrowful story about beautiful dreams and the cruelty of reality. It’s playing at the festival’s Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until October 12. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at The Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford. Photography by David Hou.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is traditionally viewed as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. Perhaps because it carries neither the weight and depth of a “King Lear,” nor the grandiosity of “The Tempest,” nor the magic of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In its time I imagine it was regarded as something of a chick flick, an Elizabethan popcorn movie that you watched because there was nothing else on. And maybe that was the case historically, but the production of “Windsor” currently playing at the Stratford Festival plays like the ultimate comedic revenge comedy, led by two conniving and duplicitous wives who band together to put a cretin in his place. 

. . .roaringly funny. . .

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” tells the story of Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), a stout and coarse knight who, because he’s short on money, attempts to dually seduce the married Misses Ford (Sophia Walker) and Page (Brigit Wilson) using identical love letters. After comparing the letters and realizing his ruse, these two women (the “Merry Wives”) engage in a series of double-dealing highjinx in order to shame and embarrass the fat knight. Concurrently, three different men are trying to win the hand of Mrs. Page’s daughter, Anne Page (Shruti Kothari). Mistress Page would like her daughter to marry Doctor Caius (Gordon S. Miller), a French physician, whereas the girl’s father would like her to marry Master Slender (Jamie Mac). Anne herself is in love with Master Fenton (Mike Shara). Most noticeably, this production of Windsor is set in the 1950’s.

All too common is the modernizing of Shakespeare, and equally common is the swing-and-miss of the modernized Shakespeare. Be it a 1920’s fedora-clad “Twelfth Night” or a “Hamlet” with machine guns or the Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes “Romeo and Juliet” (which I personally think is an abomination, but does have a cult fanbase), the Bard’s works have been dropped into just about every period of human history imaginable, usually to the detriment of the original. Surprisingly, this doesn’t apply to Stratford’s “Merry Wives,” which is perfectly suited to the “I Love Lucy” backdrop that the audience is presented with. 

This can be chalked up to artistic choices, but also the text itself. “Windsor,” while originally set in a quaint Elizabethan town, has all the trappings of a “Leave it to Beaver” suburbia; the gossiping, the petty feuds, the romance. Comedically, the show’s biggest gags are delightfully sitcom-y, particularly the scenes featuring Falstaff, the wardrobe, and the laundry basket. Even the dueling romance of Anne Page /Doctor Caius/Slender strikes as something that could be plucked out of an episode of “Lucy” or “Beaver.” It’s a fresh, humorous take on a play that’s over 400 years old.

And speaking of humor, Stratford’s production of “Windsor” has plenty of it. With a cast that is top-to-bottom funny, standouts include Doctor Caius, the French physician with an absurdly exaggerated accent and a love for dueling; Mr. Ford (Graham Abbey), the perceived cuckold, who spends the bulk of the show red-faced with rage and spitting with jealousy; and of course, the timeless Falstaff, whose boundless self-deprecation throughout the Shakespeare cannon culminates in the “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Davies is surely one of the best Falstaffs the Canadian stage has ever seen, a master of boorish behavior, a sweaty and insufferable oaf who shuffles around the stage and uses his rotund physique as the butt of ceaseless physical humor. Admittedly the character hasn’t aged particularly well, with the barrage of fat jokes (albeit Elizabethan fat jokes) feeling decidedly cringy and his overall lechery toward women not vibing with the #metoo era. But the audience didn’t seem to mind on the afternoon I was in attendance, as there was nary a moment in which the Festival Theatre wasn’t filled with ringing laughter. 

The Stratford Festival’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is roaringly funny and will be a delight for both fans and non-fans of Shakespeare. It’s playing at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

“Hamilton” may be the buzzy American origin story that everyone has been talking about since its premiere in 2015, but did you know that a different—albeit much less flashy—musical forged that path almost 50 years earlier? While “political procedural with the occasional chorus line” might be a more accurate description than “musical” for “1776,” it undeniably gets O.G status when it comes to Broadway depictions of the founding fathers. “1776” doesn’t have “Hamilton’s” cannons and rap battles, but O’Connell & Company found a different way to infuse this dusty, decades-old musical with life: cast it with all women.

. . .a unique, fresh take. . .

“1776,” the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and by Peter Stone, is a large ensemble show featuring all of the founding fathers you’ve heard of–and likely some that you haven’t–as they toil over many months to craft a Declaration of Independence that appeases the varied priorities and interests of delegates from all across the 13 colonies; particularly, whether or not to continue the practice of slavery. The show is largely seen through the eyes of John Adams (Pamela Rose Mangus) as he struggles to persuade his colleagues to vote for independence.

If you talked to 100 theatre lovers, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find more than one or two who would name “1776” as their favorite musical; I certainly wouldn’t be one of them. For a musical there’s shockingly little music (it actually holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams”, the next song in the show). There’s not a great deal of romance, action, or even meaningful conflict between the delegates. Truthfully, it’s more-or-less three hours of voting. But given how dull the source material is, O’Connell & Company manages to squeeze laughter from the audience through well-honed individual character development and comedic timing from this cast of talented women.

All 21 women in this production of “1776” bring a unique, fresh take to their as-written male character. From Edward Rutledge (Emily Yancey), the syrupy southern gentleman from South Carolina, to the Pennsylvania firebrand John Dickinson (Mary Craig), it’s easily evident that each member of this cast took the time to research their character, develop relevant mannerisms, and distinguish themselves from their fellow delegates, avoiding the common pitfall of less-talented “1776” casts: not enough deliniage between characters.

It also helps that, rather than 21 crusty old white dudes who all look and sound the same (as is often the case with lesser-quality productions), this cast of “1776” features a cohort of witty, sharp, diverse women who breathe some life into the show. While they’re all great, Pamela Rose Mangus’ John Adams and Mary Kate O’Connell’s Benjamin Franklin are standouts, both frequently eliciting raucous laughter from the audience and getting lost in the peculiarities of their characters.

While “1776” is one of the less musical musicals out there, this production features talented singers who excel at both the large ensemble numbers like “Sit Down, John”, as well as the slower ballads such as “Till Then.” They’re aided by an economically-sized on-stage orchestra that also sounds quite good.

I had the interesting experience of being in the audience for this production of “1776” exactly 24 hours after seeing “Hamilton” at the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, and while they’re vastly different musicals with little more than their historical time period in common, it’s refreshing to see such bold, artistic, and progressive spins put on the story of America’s founding. And while not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, O’Connell & Company’s production of “1776” is funny, features a talented cast, and maximizes the good aspects of what is otherwise a pretty dry piece of theatre.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“1776” is produced by O’Connell & Company and is playing at the Park School of Buffalo until May 19, 2019. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘An Act Of God’ by O’Connell & Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

For one weekend only, Buffalonians can bask in the almighty presence and supreme glory of God himself. Well, in a manner of speaking. He doesn’t look like God, act like God, and he certainly knows a lot more dirty jokes than God. He is in fact Joey Bucheker, the well-known Buffalo stage presence of “Betsy Carmichael” fame, and while he may not be able to absolve you of all your sins, he can certainly give you 90 minutes of sinful belly laughs.

. . .hilarious. . .

“An Act of God,” written by David Javerbaum and directed by Victoria Perez, is a mildly sacrilegious retelling of the book of Genesis, the Ten Commandments, and the creation of the universe, as told by God himself (Joey Bucheker) with the assistance of his two archangels Gabriel (Dan Morris) and Michael (Daniel Lendzian). Acting as his own autobiographer, God takes us through his greatest hits, his biggest pet peeves, and his pivotal role in the major events of mankind, as well as putting his own comedic twists on well known Biblical hits like Adam & Even, the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Most importantly, God rewrites the Ten Commandments for a modern day audience, with spin like “Thous shalt not tell me what to do.”

The weight of “Act of God” rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Joey Bucheker, whose mile-a-minute witticisms are coupled with the pizzazz and showmanship of a game show or Broadway kickline. With the pace of a one-man show and almost nonstop zingers, “An Act of God” is a real comedic workout for Bucheker who—with only a few tongue-tied moments—proves up to the task, bringing the Betsy Carmichael energy that he’s known for to this new almighty calling.

Lendzian and Morris also act as fun additions to this God-dominated performance, popping in-and-out to take questions from the audience and assist God in his storytelling. A particularly funny moment comes when Gabriel gets a little too mouthy and God strikes one of his wings off, only to have Gabriel return to the stage moments later looking ashamed and hawking “An Act of God” merch.

Despite a couple flubbed lines, easily chalked up to opening-night jitters, “An Act of God” is a hilarious night at the theatre, perfect for date night or a night out with friends. It’s playing tonight and tomorrow at the Shea’s Smith Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ at Theatre In The Mist

You may think you have a firm grip on the quirky family comedy genre. You may have even seen the staged or filmed version of “You Can’t Take it With You” (written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) before. But I promise that you haven’t seen anything quite like the production currently being presented by Lewiston’s Theatre in the Mist. TITM takes the screwy, oddball chaos of the well-known Sycamore clan and really cranks it up to 11.

. . .funny, zany, and chaotic . . .

“You Can’t Take it With You” isn’t so much about plot and storyline as it is the bizarre, never-resting ecosystem of the Sycamore house.  The Sycamores (technically the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichaels) are the zaniest, most eclectic bunch of folks you’re likely to ever meet. Martin Vanderhof (Joe Sciammarella), the patriarch usually referred to simply as “Grandpa”, is a tax-dodging old kook who raises snakes. Penny Sycamore (Kathleen Recchione) is an aspiring painter and playwright, who happens to be terrible at both. Eddie Carmichael (Karissa Allen) plays the xylophone and loves to print any and everything, include the family’s nightly dinner menu. Her wife Essie (Samantha Scheffler-Ploetz) is a novice ballerina and candy-maker. Even Mr. De Pinna (Robert Janusz), who’s not technically a member of the family, practically lives in the basement as he tinkers away at fireworks and modeling for Penelope’s paintings. You get the picture.

The only normal one in the bunch is Alice Sycamore (Taylor Tedesco), a typist who wants to bring Tony Kirby (Peter Andres)—the young VP of her company whom she’s recently started dating, and his parents (Tracey Pici and John Addison)—home to meet the family. Tony “accidentally” brings them over for dinner a night too early and all hell breaks loose as the polished socialites clash with the chaos and disorder of the Sycamore clan.

The most most refreshing aspect of TITM’s production is that director Anne Kurtis made bold, brave choices, and bold choices aren’t something you normally associate with the old chestnuts of the American theatre cannon like YCTIWY, many of which are done ad nauseam by high school drama clubs and community theatre groups and most of which are pretty tired and stale.

Kurtis chose to put her production in a modern(ish) setting, rather than the 1930’s of the original play, as well as use a female actor for Eddie Carmichael. Similarly, TITM’s Mr. Kolenkov is Ms. Kolenkov, played by the quite-funny Sarah Comfort (especially her helicopter spin on Mr. Kirby, which had the audience in tears). Probably the biggest standout among Kurtis’ many out-of-the-box production choices is her use of a puppet and ventriloquist to play one of the tax collectors who comes looking for Grandpa in Act I. There’s no discernible logic behind this choice, but I—and the audience—really enjoyed it, and for whatever unbeknownst reason it really landed well. Just roll with it!

Now, like any production that makes a lot of audacious choices, not all of this production’s choices totally work. As Kurtis alludes to in her director’s notes, the time period of this play is so ingrained into the fabric of the story that picking it up and dropping it 80 (or so) years into the future is a bit of a head-scratcher. Apart from the frequent period-specific references to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and other bits of 1930’s pop culture, the politics of of YCTIWY are so tied to the post-depression/pre-WWII era that it’s discombobulating to try and surgically graft them onto a modern 2000’s-era family. Economics, money, and communism are extremely overt throughout the play, as are Stalin, Trotsky, and Cossacks, and seeing them discussed at-length by a tattooed grandpa in a Hawaiian shirt and Nikes feels disjointed at best and confusing at worst.

That all said, TITM’s production is just as funny, zany, and chaotic as the more traditional renditions, and while not all of the original spin of this production neatly came to fruition, it’s easily forgivable because the choices that did work really punched-up the comedy and breathed some fresh air into a show that many theatre-goers have seen one-too-many times. In essence: I—and I suspect most— would rather see risks be taken that don’t work 100% of the time than see safe, cardboard productions. TITM’s production—while not perfect—is fun, wildly unique and anything but cardboard.

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

TITM’s “You Can’t Take it With You” is playing at Stella Niagara school in Lewiston until April 7th. For Tickets and more information, click here.