Theatre Review: ‘A Christmas Story’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

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The cast of “A Christmas Story” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House.

What is it about “A Christmas Story.”  There’s no sweet holiday message, no fa-la-la, no chestnuts roasting.  Fact is, there’s a good amount of humbug. There’s the hapless Ralphie and his dysfunctional family, the bully, the fact that Santa has an un-jolly disposition, and that the theme is predicated on one lad’s desire to get what he wants for Christmas rather than any kind of higher notions of good will toward men, or women, or kids.  

. . . a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.  

But this story endures every holiday season.  The movie has marathon runs on cable television.  There’s that familiar stripper-like leg lamp, that tongue stuck to a frozen light pole, and that “official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and the thing that tells time.”    And there’s that notion that the Christmas holiday season, even for a kid, may not be all fun and games, even if nobody puts an eye out.

With such a continuing legacy, it’s no surprise that Rocking Horse Productions brings “A Christmas Story” to the Lancaster Opera House stage.  Because even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re probably aware of it and some of its imagery. And Rocking Horse doesn’t seem to have skipped over much of it.  At about two and a half hours it seems nothing has been left out.

Like the movie and book, the play is narrated by an adult Ralphie, retelling for us the events and his thoughts and feelings of a particular Christmas in 1950s Indiana in which his only wish was to get a bb-gun for Christmas.  Adult Ralphie, Ralph Parker, the narrator, is played by Chuck Both who, being on stage narrating or in supporting bit roles for nearly the entire production, does well with the massive amount of lines he has. A feast of words.  That’s not to say that a missed cue here and there, and one or two false starts with a line now and then, were not there, but no one’s eye was put out because of it, and his overall performance was robust and delivered with enough force that a man might use in retelling some of the most frustrating parts of his youth.  Relatively new to being on stage, Both’s presence is both the foundation of the story and a gift to it. One that should only get better with time.

The kids were no delinquents either.  Ralphie (Joey Bielecki) and his friends were all charming in their roles, and often seemed like they were having fun, especially when they made their way across the stage in a bone chilling Indiana winter blizzard.   All of the kids in the production did relatively well, and both of the parts of Ralphie’s female classmates, Ester Jane (Tiffany Nowak) and Helen (Isabella Bindermann) were standouts. Having played in LOH’s production of Annie, the two young actresses brought an age-appropriate maturity that contrasted perfectly with the rough-around-the-edge antics of the young male roles.  

The adults weren’t without certain antics.  Most notably was Marc Ruffino in the part of the father, Ralphie’s “Old Man”.  Ruffino is enthusiastic, playing the zealous king of the Parker domain, who is both enforcer and blissfully oblivious to his own follies.  Ruffino’s Old Man plays up his father-knows-best persona and child-like wonder, making us believe he’s not the tyrant whose wrath Ralphie fears.  

But adults are a mystery to young Ralphie, and he consistently misreads them.  Including his teacher, Miss Shields, played wonderfully by award-winning actress, Katie Buckler, and his mother, played by Katherine Parker.

What it is about “A Christmas Story” at Lancaster Opera House is the narrator, adult Ralphie, appearing in the glow of light at stage left and stage right, above stage, and in the Parker kitchen, telling us about his recollection of this sequence of events — one Christmas point in time.  He is the driving force of this show. The story plays in, and in front of, the Parker house, which never leaves center stage. Scene changes are small vignettes at the front of the stage, where the actors engage the audience more directly. Overall the set and lighting was well thought out and executed, although one of the kitchen walls on stage left blocked some of the action from the view of patrons sitting house right.

Like the film and book, this production may bring some adults to retrospective moments of their own youthful Christmas’ past, and children and kids to their own funny and frustrating present.  Because this story had moments where the kids in attendance cheered for Ralphie, and laughed at the adults. So did the adults. And for that reason it can be said that “A Christmas Story” is a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.”  

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

“A Christmas Story” runs until December 9, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions and is presented at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Fahrenheit 451’ at Subversive Theatre Collective

The cast of “Fahrenheit 451” at Subversive Theatre Collective.

Sure, sometimes it’s just easier to go with the flow.  But when the everyday reveals itself to be kind of bleak, well, a bit of something different might be recourse.  It’s kind of like when you are tired of eating the same old thing, day in, day out. And you dissent – it’s what’s for dinner.  And it’s being served with an appetizer of disorder, a side of discontent, and a bit of anarchy for dessert. Wash it down with glass of bliss.   

It’s served up year-round at Subversive Theatre, and without exception for this year’s Curtain Up!  Kurt Schneiderman and troupe are offering up one of the classic works of anti-authoritarian, opposition to a world gone twisted with its production of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

. . . an unpretentious production, true and honest to its script and its audience.

This is Bradbury’s somewhat visionary tale and script of a world turned away from intellectualism and introspection, art and individuality.  A world that values mindless self-indulgence, no vision, one-liners, and given way to the powers of the state. Too many disparaging viewpoints and thoughts and feelings of society have led it to downsize, pursue one right way, and mandate it onto the world.   And it’s left to the firemen of the world to ferret out any dissenters and set their books and lives aflame.

One such fireman is Chief Beatty, played by John Profeta.  It is through the Beatty character that Bradbury scripts some of his most affecting world-view dialogue.  Profeta delivers, showing us a man whose convictions have driven him to a state of single-mindedness law enforcement, with a literal joy in his undertaking. Just as adeptly Profeta shows us a side of Beatty, so knowing, and so versed in the dissenting arguments against the state.  Profeta masters this juggernaut of dialogue with his stage presence and the assuredness of a man who’s sure of himself, and sure of the world he is up against. He’s a been there-done that kind of guy, and Profeta does well to suggest to us the underlying anger and weight Beatty carries with him in knowing why the world has turned the way it has.  

His underling firefighter is Montag — played by Rick Lattimer — seemingly the heir apparent to the chief.  But when Montag meets a young lady full of life and joy, he is moved, for the lady’s world is nothing like his own.  And he begins to see his own wasn’t so great to begin with. Montag wants to learn, know more, and find happiness. Lattimer keeps the character just south of a wide-eyed kid of wonder, reflecting well a man who must struggle first to unlearn what he has always known.  He slowly begins to see the world differently, and Lattimer’s character progresses in kind.

There are some strong moments with these characters, both of whom deliver Bradbury’s dialogue with skill and conviction.

If the firemen bring this heat to their roles, then standout Colleen Pine, as Clarisse, brings the unruffled warmth.  Pine plays her part with a wistful quality and is consistently mesmerizing, calming, uplifting, delightfully giving inspiration to Montag’s transformation with her own charming qualities and Bradbury’s outstanding script.   And Brendan Didio, as the zealous fireman, Hudson, brings standout fervor. Didio — as does most of the cast — makes a re-appearance in the final scene where he strikes a finer chord of earlier enthusiasm with a slightly more reserved gusto and the more demanding script of the later character.   Both of these relatively young actors are products of the the Niagara University theater program.

All the cast work their craft in and about an austere set, industrial and dark, spotlighting down on the individual actors, casting them in arresting spaces, in a futuristic sense that you might expect of a Bradbury tale penned in the 1950s.  Costumes are inventive and worthy of firemen in a future where almost nothing is flammable anymore, except books. There are flatscreen presentations of state-run television, calling to mind a sort of “Max Headroom” kind of approach. There are wireless headphones, and the design of a robotic creature, — all speaking to the foresight of Bradbury’s tale and the attention to every facet of the original work by Subversive’s design crew.

Bradbury himself penned the play long after writing the novel.  Subversive Theater has kept with its tradition of subject matter, and the vision of Bradbury with this run.  See it if you are game for a bit of grand-scale dissent in an unpretentious production, true and honest to its script and its audience.  It makes you hungry for more.

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

“Fahrenheit 451” runs until October 6, 2018 and is presented at the Manny Fried Playhouse, and produced by Subversive Theeatre Collective. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ at Aurora Players

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Funny – isn’t it just like the noble class to engage in criminal behavior in order to improve their own bored condition, and assume they can get away with it?   What type of crime they undertake doesn’t seem to matter. A victim seems somewhat necessary. But more than that there needs to be a beneficiary. Because what’s the point otherwise?  And the planning, well, surely the educated and well to do would have that covered.

. . . an evening well spent. . .

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” — Aurora Players’ latest production at the Historic Roycroft Pavilion – is murder.   Being of noble class and none-too-bright, Lord Arthur is ill-suited for the crime, but just privileged, hapless, and in love enough to assume he can follow through and needs to pull it off.   

Arthur (Christopher Jackson) needs to indulge his crime after he reluctantly has his palm read, coerced by his fiancée’s mother, Lady Julia Merton.  She wants to check on his past, present, and future to determine whether he will be a suitable husband for her daughter Sybil (Mia LaMarco).

Luckily though, the renowned palm reader, Mr. Podgers gives Arthur a general thumbs up, telling Lady Julia and Sybil that he will lead a fine and generally happy existence in marriage.  Arthur senses there’s more to it, and in private Podgers tells him he has seen that Arthur is destined to commit a murder — the only hump in his otherwise blissful future with Sybil. Arthur determines he needs to get the crime out of the way before the marriage, and the crime is set in motion .  

With Oscar Wilde’s story at its core, Constance Cox’s play is ripe with laughs, wit, class commentary, and manslaughter built into the script.  While most of Lord Arthur’s circle – those who are privy to his murderous task – are willing and enthusiastic cohorts, the skeptical opposition to his hapless task is Lady Merton, played by Jessica Rasp, who steadily and dryly delivers her criticism of Arthur and the less than noble pursuits of society with all the motivation that you’d expect of a protective mother of the bride-to-be.  Rasp has a presence on stage that delivers, convincingly played against the murderous and hapless undertakings of the characters central to the crime.

But make no mistake those murderous characters hold their own as well.  Most notably the anarchist, Herr Winkelkopf, played by a talented Finnegan Lasch.  His Winkelkopf character is a murder loving, high stepping, “near-do” well at his craft, whose enthusiasm for murder is unmatched, but his effectiveness in carrying it out don’t exactly match his boastful claims.  A sort of bomb-toting hitman with an explosive personality and desire to kill. Lasch is plenty up to the task of bringing him to life. And “to life” is an understatement. Lasch is animated, verbally and non-verbally, prances about the stage, delivers his script with enthusiasm and seeming joy.  He kills his role, and the audience along with it. Lasch is a high school junior, no less, and so well embodied the murder-lover Winkelkopf that at times it seemed he had some of his cast mates on the verge of laughter.

The cast as a whole is a mix of relative newcomers and veterans to AP.  All have shining moments. Another honorable mention should be Colin Fleming-Stumpf’s portrayal of Mr. Podger.  Fleming-Stumpf creates an air of quirky, friendly eccentricity early in the play, then transforms it to the calculating and devious reader of palms seamlessly.  And Monish Bhattacharyya, in the role of Baines, the butler, balances nicely the role of loyal servitude to Arthur, while his willingness to enable the murderous plot is to suggest Baines’ own view of class and privilege.  

AP’s production overall slays it – “it” being the script, the production, casting, acting, the entertainment factor, and the audience.   It’s consistently humorous, hilariously funny at times, and it never backs away from that. Elements of Wilde’s story can be marked by some of social commentary and parody of class, and that remains timeless.  So does funny. And “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” by Aurora Players is an evening well spent for all of those reasons.

With its intelligent and upper class script, there were several hiccups that occurred, often enough to notice, but not enough to detract from the performance overall.  This review is of opening night, and it’s likely with the talent on display throughout this production, any kinks will be worked out before the next viewing. The set, Arthur’s drawing room in London, was dabbled with period elements, and the costumes seemed appropriate to period and well fitted.  A lot of work has gone into this production, its hilarious depiction of English nobility no doubt challenge the players, and delighted the audience. And the Roycroft Pavilion set in Hamlin Park is a pleasant venue.

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

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” runs until June 17, 2018 and is presented at the Historic Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park, in East Aurora. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Rounding Third’ at Lancaster Opera House

Little league.  Two things that nearly every kid who ever took up the game of baseball must have been told at one time or another:  One: Keep your eye on the ball. Two: Keep your head in the game.

Oh sure, you can go on about learning the physical skill and technique of the game.  And maybe one kid has an arm like a cannon. Maybe another kid can hit the ball a mile.  And another has cheetah-like speed. Those things are helpful to playing the game, to be sure.  But the moment you take your eye off the ball and your head leaves the game, and let one groundball squib right between your legs, well, to borrow another word of caution from the little league fields of dreams – silly you — didn’t play the ball, you let the ball play you.  The sad result of not sticking to the two basic things.

The production as a whole keeps its eye on the ball and its head in the game.

Currently playing at the Lancaster Opera House, “Rounding Third” brings a slice of little league to the stage, when two coaches struggle to get themselves and their team through the baseball season to the championship game.   One of the coaches, Don, played by Ray Boucher, is a sort of win-at-all-costs, student of the game, looking to field the best possible team to win it all. His first-year assistant coach, Michael, played by Darryl Semira, is a newbie coach whose son has entered little league for the first time, and who believes the kids are there to have fun, learn comraderie, and all get a chance to play.

As you might suspect, the two coaching styles come to odds through the little league season.  Boucher is solid as Coach Don, who only has one rule for nearly every situation, and therefore has many rules. His character tells the kids that he will never yell at them for making a mistake, but mental errors are a different matter altogether.  Boucher gives Coach Don the right amount of stern conviction, and his character imports humor and sensibility, showing how his philosophy of baseball fits into a way to live life that you can’t help but like him, if not understand him.

Semira’s Coach Michael character knows nothing about baseball’s mechanisms or strategies for winning, and he’s not much concerned about them.   It is a game, and games should be fun. He’s there mostly to bond with his son, wants his son to make friends, and learn how to play the game. While Semira brings to the character an awkward, sort of green naiveté about the game and deference to the other coach’s experience, he also brings a conviction to his character’s own views about the joyful experience and sense of fair play that he believes should be little league baseball.   Likeable to the core.

So which coach is right?  Can a team willing to win any cost have fun and experience joy, and can a team out solely to have fun with a sense of fair play to all hope to win?  The coaches are the only two characters in this play. If you go looking for a team of little leaguers for the answer, you will have to look to yourself, or no further than the person in the seat next to you.  Boucher and Semira both speak to the audience, as if we are the little leaguers, and they do it well. And like a little leaguer, you may find yourself having a favorite coach of the two, one that speaks to you.  As the season plays out on the practice field, in the dugout, the back of Coach Don’s van and team meetings, it’s altogether possible you might surprise yourself.

There are many examples across media and entertainment where how one approaches baseball is symbolic of how one approaches the game of life.   Likewise here. The team meetings and baseball are the backdrop to how Coach Don and Coach Michael carry out the fundamentals of the game. You don’t have to be a fan, or even knowledgeable about the game of baseball to “get it.”  While the story of “Rounding Third” touches all the bases, it also leaves us purposefully and wonderfully in a space just short of home. And Boucher and Semira skillfully take us through what little league can be like for the adults, what the adult world can be like when we are thrown some rather nasty curves.  Somehow, they make us forget there is an actual game going on here and engage us into theirs.

The production is nicely done, somewhat minimally, with the set changes happening quickly and efficiently between the scenes.  The Lancaster Opera House has wonderful acoustics so even the lowest of clicks and clacks of the bat are audible and clear, and the audience’s frequent laughter must have been a pleasing sound for the actors and production crew as well.  If there was a point of wonder, it would be that the background never changed as sets did, and remained as a looming brick wall through every scene. It seems like an opportunity to add just a little more flavor was missed. But it’s hard to call that an error.  The production as a whole keeps its eye on the ball and its head in the game. Go see it, it’s little league season right now.

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

Rounding Third runs until May 20, 2018 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.   

Theatre Review: ‘Present Laughter’ by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse

The cast of “Present Laughter” by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at Ellicott Creek Playhouse.

If you follow along a certain creek meandering through Tonawanda, you’ll eventually happen upon the Ellicott Creek Playhouse.  It stands to reason, then, you would be following along Ellicott Creek. The whole thing gives you a new appreciation for the folks who name things like creeks and playhouses.  The straight-up wisdom and simplicity of it.

. . .they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy. . .

The Ellicott Creek Playhouse is home to Niagara Regional Theater Guild (NRTG) which, in one form or another, has been in the practice of theater for 95 years.  It stands to reason, then, they have been doing something right for a very long time. One of those somethings is that the venue as a whole is a just right mix of welcoming community space and practiced trades-people of theater.  And springing forth from that one-something comes the NRTG’s current offering of Noel Coward’s play, “Present Laughter.” You could say NRTG brings the wisdom of experience.

The straight-up simplicity of it – “Present Laughter” was written in the 1930’s and made it to the theater in the early 1940’s.  It has been produced and brought to stage many times since, in many venues, right up to the near present on Broadway. So “Present Laughter” must be a thing that can provide audiences with laughter in the present, whenever the present.  

The present is current.  And the play, set in the 1930’s, follows several days and evenings in the life of English actor Garry Essendine (Marc Ruffino).  Essendine is an actor full at heart, given to dramatic flights of fancy and impromptu quotes from parts he’s played and not played in his efforts to maintain his hold on, and tame the mayhem of, the stream of players that surround him.  It is a life in which he is the center. His hold is precarious at times, making the action a romp through the challenges to Essendine’s self-absorption.

The challenges come in the forms of his maid, butler, secretary, and ex-wife to name a several – all adding to Essendine’s dismay and playing off his dramatic discord.  With the entire ensemble, Ruffino juggles very well a charm, pinache, desperation, and contrived melancholy to create a very pleasing, funny, and a just short–of-over the top character.  He carries a fine mix of sensibility, physical-facial comedic recognition to bring the audience along. He brings the audience into Essendine’s plight, at times, almost talking to them, then turns and plays it with just enough pomposity to remind the audience that Essendine is at least partly the cause of his own dismay.

If Ruffino’s character keeps the challenges to his vanity from becoming mayhem, Brian Tabak’s rendering of the infatuated and oddly bookish playwright, Roland Maule, presents a character that paces and preens over Essendine like some mad cat in heat, to the audience’s delight.  He brings another level of mayhem. So raucously comical was Tabak’s initial scene that when his character came to appear again, the audience responded with a hushed, “Uh-oh.”

The plot is predicated on Essendine keeping his world of acting, ego, and self-admiration together.  His inner circle of hired hands and theater cohorts help him keep it alive, because they do need him.  But when the lovely Joanna Lyppiatt (Lori Panaro) enters to try and seduce him into a love quadrangle, it threatens all of it.  Because Essendine’s band of characters do care for each other, they are not just colleagues.

The exchanges between Panaro and Ruffino are as well-matched as the characters themselves, both knowing what is at stake but both confident in their own natures.  Panaro’s performance mixes a perfect amount of confident class while with an alluring, un-sweet portion of a self-assured manipulator.

You can probably look up exactly what happens if you wish, as it’s likely that a lot has been written about this play.  But this production, taking place in the present, and put forth by a group that’s been around longer than the play itself, is a far more enjoyable experience.  In fact, it’s at times hilarious farce, at times cleverly written, and each turn is well played.

The NRTG production lends itself to all of this in its welcoming, unassuming gathering of people, and space that lends itself to an intimacy with the players.  The stage is surrounded on three sides by audience seating. And the actors are most often just above, just below, or right at eye level with the audience — a treat with all the non-verbal antics that fill the lines of the script.  The set is nicely done with all the necessary props needed to support the action, and with some clear effort to giving the 1930s English studio a touch of realism.

NRTG has been at it a long time.   With its latest production, they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy, and they do it in a welcoming setting for any comedy loving, theater going, creek meandering patrons to enjoy.

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours 20 minutes with two brief intermissions.

“Present Laughter” runs through March 25, 2018 and is presented at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For  more information, click here.

Comedy Review: ‘Weekend Laughs’ at Main Street Cabaret

Late Friday night, somewhere between, say, 11:15 and midnight, the Metro Rail rolled and clanged down Main Street in front of the Alleyway Theatre, and someone inside the theater’s Main Street Cabaret yelled “Look out, don’t hit that train!”  

It didn’t make the late news, but it made a lot of people crack up.  

. . .the comedy is overall engaging, laugh out loud and snort-through-your-nostrils funny stuff.

Let me explain.  This month, Alleyway Theater’s Main Street Cabaret is the setting for a night of comedy hosted by local stand-up comedian, Billy Whelan.  On the face of it, “Weekend Laughs” as it’s billed, looks to bring pure comedy to the Theater District.  Because who couldn’t use a good laugh during the month of March in Western New York.

There’s a slight disconnect here.  The venue, being at least temporarily billed as Main Street Comedy Cabaret and at the same time a late night comedy club doesn’t seem to fit.  If you’re expecting cabaret and its trappings of tables and cocktails and gaudy vaudevillian humor — this isn’t it.  If you’re expecting a typical comedy club atmosphere, it does not exactly deliver on that, either.  But the idea and the endeavor is,  transformative.  And if you’re in Western New York and not accustomed or open to transformation in progress, then perhaps you’re visiting from out of town.   

Whalen, a local stand-up comedian who’s done some stints at comedy clubs outside Western New York, starts off the show with some off with his style of stand-up, kind of laid back and matter-of-fact with some profanity thrown in.  But this is late night comedy, so if you’re thinking of bringing the kids, you’re likely visiting from out of town, and have no place to stay.  Whalen seems at home with his style and delivery.

Next up, Comic Sans, a group of four performers (three men and a lady) practice a method of short-form improvisational comedy, that is, often asking for and taking their subject matter from the audience, and playing out brief skits based on the situations presented.  They’re engaging and enthusiastic, and the audience responded in kind.  Think a Whose Line is it Anyway style of Improv.  

And the local duo, Babushka (Todd Benjin and Don Gervasi)  bring their exceptional brand of long-form comedy improvisation.  Here Benjin and Gervasi, both professional actors, grab a slice-of-life situation from the audience and make it one continuous improv, taking on multiple characters while playing it out.  A sort of narrative on steroids, held together by a single slice-of-life thread, weaving and fraying off into the funny and even absurdly funny.  These guys are good.

The atmosphere is loose, the interactions with the audience frequent, engaging and, at times, enthusiastically received.  If you’re the type who wants to have a say in what the performers are doing, the opportunities are many.  The “set” was a stage with a brick back wall and two boxes.  The lighting was, well, powered by electricity.  

Regardless, the comedy is overall engaging, laugh out loud and snort-through-your-nostrils funny stuff.   You could call this theater in the raw.  Here, the details don’t matter, the narratives have no script, the players work their craft, act out what the moment brings, and the audience is engaged.   Time passing tells where it all goes, how it all plays out, and whether weekly comedy has a niche at this cabaret, this club, or the Alleyway’s front room.

“Weekend Laughs” is slated to run from 10 p.m. to Midnight, every Friday in March.  At this time, it’s unclear whether the same acts will be playing every week.  Regardless, it’s guaranteed to be different every week.

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Beginning Again’ at Alleyway Theatre

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The cast of “Beginning Again” at Alleyway Theatre.

Whether there are five, seven or — who knows — twelve and one-half stages of grief over loss would be a debate in which few of us are willing to take part.  After all, it’s not likely to be pretty, this talking of grief.  And if we’re willing to take a guess, we would guess that Roland Oliver is none too happy about exploring them either.  And who could blame him.  Really.

. . .the dialogue, the script throughout from start to end, and how well all of the actors exchange the demands of it that gives “Beginning Again” its strength.  The more charm the better.  

Nevertheless, he will.  And that’s because in “Beginning Again,” — winner of Alleyway Theater’s 2016 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition – we are taken through three seasons (acts) of Roland’s progression of grief over the loss of his wife, jamming however many stages of grief we might dispense into it.  You might think: that’s a lot.  And you might be right.  

But that’s okay, because it is David Alan Brown’s script that is the leading light here, after all, it won the Alleyway prize competition which, by its very definition must be unique and not imitative of a typical TV or film script.  Mr. Brown won the prize with good reason.  He doesn’t seek to define the stages of grief, he rather seems to want to dissect and scatter them to dust.  

His script takes us through three seasons – winter, then autumn, then spring – making a single stop at each season and the progression of Roland Oliver’s trying to come to grips with the death of his wife.  Roland is a critic by trade of, well, various art forms, and unavoidably a critic of the grieving process and even life.  It has been his occupation.  He needs to define, understand all of it, and this is what drives the play forward.

The first act finds him on a train where he meets Anita Bryant (not the Florida Oranges Anita Bryant) but an Anita Bryant whose life experience includes falling down a well as a child.  Anita is a survivor and she seems to do so simply, with street-wise answers and anecdotes to Roland’s struggle.  There are no easy answers for Roland in this early stage, and he would not have them anyway.  So Anita’s gifts only provoke his underlying grief, which helps bring forward Roland’s angry rage and an emotional breakdown right there on the train.  But Roland goes up and down swinging, much to actor David Hayes’ credit.

In autumn, Roland is in woodsy rural Pennsylvania where he meets Gene, who is fishing along the road to his land.  After Roland has another emotional breakdown, Gene, a vaguely proclaimed wise old man, offers up Roland some down-home advice which Roland is typically skeptical about. But Gene’s skills are an even better match for Roland’s criticism.  Or maybe Roland has, in the time that has passed, become more open to healing.

In spring, Roland meets with his gifted son, Dante, at an art gallery.  It’s awkward.  They have yet to take the time to speak of their grief, but their memories of family’s shared history brings them closer to one another and to the understanding of their mournful never ending.  Through it all are raised more questions than answers as to grief and its stages, as light is shed on the subject of coping with a strobe effect more than a shining beacon.  But questions likely have no simple answer, and they may be fleeting, and it all may come down to how Roland and Dante look at it.   The prism they bring.

Make no mistake.  A synopsis of “Beginning Again” does not begin to describe Brown’s script, nor the play as a whole.  Together with Alleyway’s production, this script is about an everlasting grief, a momentary coping, a desire to move forward and move on with meaning and, obviously, a search for where to begin again.  Among these the script presses on the paradoxes of how we cope with emotional stress and the things we tell ourselves and one another.

All of this the script conveys with philosophical musings, intelligent ruminations, humorous wit and lyrical dialogue.  It is left to the actors to lend the charm.  They move through it wonderfully and convincingly covering, as it does, so much in so little time.  Anita, played by, Smirna Mercedes-Perez, brings a welcome lightness and humor, a sense of realism and contrast to the usually stoic Roland; and Tom Owen gives a wonderfully wise yet smart-alecky feel to Gene the fisherman.  But it’s the dialogue, the script throughout from start to end, and how well all of the actors exchange the demands of it that gives “Beginning Again” its strength.  The more charm the better.  

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes

“Beginning Again” runs until March 10, 2010 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre. For more information, click here.