Local mother and daughter among those impacted by Kenny Awards

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Buffalo, NY – Shea’s Performing Arts Center and The Lipke Foundation will celebrate 25 years of the Kenny Awards, a year-long educational initiative which includes performances, numerous awards, theatre workshops and a fully realized ceremony open to the public.

The 25th Annual Kenny Awards ceremony will be held at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre on Saturday, May 12, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. The ceremony is the culmination of a year-long program that honors and recognizes the talent, hard work, and dedication of area students and teachers to high school musical theatre in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegany counties.

This year’s ceremony is especially meaningful to Michelle and Emma Jeziorowski, a mother and daughter who are now both Kenny Award participants – Michelle in 1993-1994 for the West Seneca West production of Pippin, and Emma in 2017-2018 for the WSW production of Anything Goes. As fate would have it, Michelle won the Kenny Award in its inaugural year, while her daughter is currently a nominee as the program celebrates its 25th anniversary.

“As a student the Kennys 25 years ago brought some recognition to the fantastic music programs that our high schools in the area have. As a mom, I started sharing my love of the arts with my own daughter at a young age.  She was bit by the stage bug and never looked back,” said Michelle Jeziorowski. “Twenty-five years later, seeing her perform on the same stage that I did, in the same music department, honoring the same traditions – my heart just beams with pride.  To be able to say that two generations of our family have been able to be part of a program that gives back so much to the community is amazing.”

“Getting chosen for the Kenny has allowed me to see even more of the theatre. As I enter my senior year, I get to take with me the memories of being on stage with my closest friends. Not only that, but being on the same stage that my mom stood on when she was my age,” added daughter Emma Jeziorowski. “My mom showed me the theatre, and her love of music and the arts passed down to me. I can only hope that the Kennys will be here another 25 years. Then my children will be able to stand on the same stage and get to feel that rush of adrenalin when the curtain goes up.”

“Like Michelle and Emma Jeziorowski, there’s a strong generational connection with the Kenny Awards for my family and others,” said Carlisle Lipke, Director of the Kenny Awards. “My mom started the Kenny Awards to honor my father’s love of theatre 25 years ago and eventually passed it onto me to continue the legacy.”

Since the inception of the program, the Kenny Awards have recognized and honored countless outstanding musical productions in local high schools and put $120,000 into area high school theatre programs.  Now in its 25th year, the Kenny Awards will again recognize local high school talent for excellence in producing and performing musicals with host and Kenny alum Lauren Hall from One Buffalo.

Tickets are now on sale for $8 and may be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, or in-person at Shea’s Box Office, 650 Main Street. The day of the ceremony, tickets may be purchased for $10 at the door.

Applications for this year’s Kenny Awards program were accepted in October and reviewed by the panel of Kenny adjudicators. From the applicant pool, 10 schools were selected to participate as finalists in this year’s program and be eligible for the Outstanding Musical Production award. The finalists for the 2018 Kenny Awards are:

Buffalo Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts – Chicago

Dunkirk High School – Little Shop of Horrors

Eden Jr/Sr High School – Catch Me If You Can

Forestville Central School – Disney’s Beauty & the Beast

Lewiston Porter High School – Into the Woods

Pioneer Central School – Mary Poppins

St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Starpoint High School – Mary Poppins

Tonawanda High School – Jekyll & Hyde

West Seneca West Senior High School – Anything Goes

The Kenny adjudicators viewed and evaluated the productions and determined the nominees and winners based on what they saw. There are 15 award categories, including “The Kenny” for Outstanding Musical Production in which the winning school receives a $5,000 grant from the Lipke Foundation to be used solely by the school’s theatre department. Other awards include individual performances in leading and supporting roles, as well as areas of technical production, orchestration, choreography, set design, and dance performance.

The Kenny Awards is one of 40 regional awards programs nationwide participating in the National High School Musical Awards Program, aka The Jimmy Awards, which will allow the selected Outstanding Leading Actress and Actor of the Kenny Awards to win an all-expenses-paid, week-long trip to New York City to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in June, 2018.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will include rehearsals and coaching sessions with Broadway performers, performances, and other beneficial experiences. Participants in “The Jimmy Awards” will compete for various college scholarships.

Ceremony tickets are available now through a finalist school for $8.00 presale.

For information on the Kenny Award Program, visit KennyAwards.weebly.com or contact Shea’s Education Coordinator Holly Grant at (716) 829-1171 or hgrant@sheas.org.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope’ at The Paul Robeson Theatre

Can’t cope? Dreary winter weather got you down? Finding the TV as dull as dirty roadside snow since the Winter Olympics ended? You may want to take a trip to the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center where the musical revue “Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” is sure to ignite a spark to thaw the winter blues away.

. . .one of the best musical ensembles you’ll see in Buffalo Theatre this season.

The 1973 Tony nominee for Best Musical, with music, lyrics and book by Micki Grant, celebrates the African-American experience as seen from the heart and disco soul of the 1970s. Its message of tolerance and perseverance still resonates today.

Director and choreographer Carlos R. A. Jones has assembled a talented group of singers and dancers who raise the theatre with spectacular voice and electrify the stage with extravagant foot work from nearly every imaginable dance step.

Video projections draped along the back of the stage, from the Obamas to The Cosby Show families, provides a history of Black America, and while changing as rapidly as the dance steps, never obscures the powerful messaging coming from the stage. I especially liked the history of popular dance steps, with the names of the dances – from the Charleston to The Twist and on –  projected on the screen as the cast changed from one dance to the other in exuberant joyous timing. 

The militant and fiery stomping during “They Keep Comin’” while the ensemble shouts/chants milestones in African-American history, is a thrilling theatre experience. Perfectly synchronized, the complex dance arrangement with the emotionally charged vocals, delivers a loving sucker-punch to the gut.

While the first act explodes with rapid-fire pace and surprising turns, the second act is a little less exciting, centering mostly on the same wonderful singing and dancing, but contained within the confines of a Sunday church. This change tempers the revue significantly, as Black Gospel seems a more ordinary response to the street-level activism expressed in the first act.

But that’s a tiny quibble in a show where performances are so engaging, it is difficult to single out any one player. Certainly, London Lee sets the stage solidly with a fine baritone vocal in the first song, “I Gotta Keep Movin’”. Naila Ansari-Woods and Kayla Henigan, in separate dance moments, offer gentle and seductive dance that expresses a global, nearly hypnotic level of freedom from oppression.

The musical combo – David Wells (Bass), Abdul-Rahman Qadir (Percussion), and Musical Director, Frazier Thomas Smith (Keyboards), provides expert accompaniment. During pre-show and intermission, they got me thinking about my old Ramsey Lewis Trio records.

“Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” is as warm and inviting as a fireplace in winter. It is one of the best musical ensembles you’ll see in Buffalo Theatre this season.

Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” runs through March 25, 2018 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center. Tickets can be purchased here.

Theatre Review: ‘Far Away’ at Torn Space Theater

The cast of “Far Away” at Torn Space Theatre. Photo by Mark Duggan.

The opening scene of the Torn Space production of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” is the most engrossing. In it, a young girl named Joan (Allison Barsi) approaches her aunt Harper (Bonnie Jean Taylor) to tell her that she cannot sleep. TST mainstay Taylor is particularly strong, her performance, characterized by restraint as well as range, often grounding what will be a plot-lite and highly suggestive production. The exceptionally talented Barsi — a ninth-grader — matches her, though, perfectly balancing in her delivery a fear of what she saw, an assertion of its truth, and a readiness to believe the best of it.

Fine performances, choreography, set design, sound, and lighting conspire to render powerfully something that is only suggested in Churchill’s script. 

As the girl and the woman, both dressed with a sort of fascicized Puritan sensibility, move about a small room of wood and lit white sheets, not square but opening outward toward the audience, and set on a rounded bottom: Each step an actor takes sends the whole contraption – the home – tilting and thunking from side to side. Intimacy, here, is impossible. Touch is unnatural. There is no comfort in any corner.

From their strained conversation, the audience pieces together that the world is in conflict and even those with intact families and homes live in a state of constant fear and suspicion. “Here we are,” Harper reassures her niece, “in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of the people who are putting things right.”

We tell ourselves stories in order to live – so Joan Didion says. In the world of “Far Away”, Harper’s simple, flimsy story may be the only one left worth telling. We can almost hear it collapse along with scenographer Kristina Siegel’s house at the close of the act.

The second act opens on an adult Joan (Corrine McLoughlin), now a milliner in a stark, futuristic factory, where she, her coworker Todd (Kalub Thompson), and other artists make high-fashion hats for prisoners. Allusions to corruption, mass incarceration, futility, and execution are layered over the undercurrent of general and all-encompassing conflict, as the dialogue loosely links the themes of aesthetics, imprisonment, observation, judgment, and production and consumption.

“The script for ‘Far Away’ resembles a relief for what could be a vast epic of 20th and 21st century turmoil,” writes director Dan Shanahan. The particulars of culture, geography, and exposition have been erased, leaving only a system at the root of the turmoil.

Following the collapse of the home — a defined, if precarious, “little bit of space” — all of the characters are radically exposed, and slip further into a manic anxiety of affiliation. In Churchill’s world, every constituency of the natural world is at war with every other: Japanese and French, as well as deers, mosquitos, cats, and children under five. Alliances are always shifting: “The dentists have been linked with international dentistry, and that’s where their true loyalties lie,” Joan shouts, in one example of the play’s characteristically quick-guttering humor.

Written and first produced in 2000, Churchill’s play was a frank warning to an increasingly divided world. Nearly 20 years later, the warning’s last echo has died and we see in the work only a stark reification, embodiment, and animation of our hyper-partisanship. When Todd remarks that life here and now is “tiring … because everything’s been recruited,” he is voicing, in Churchill’s simple and effective language, nearly every audience member’s secret end-of-the-workweek thoughts.

Audience members looking for a a satisfying narrative arc, high drama, clever banter, or Aristotelian catharsis would do better to look elsewhere. But for the theatregoer hoping to be unsettled and impregnated with an idea that may not give its first full kick until long after you’ve stepped back out onto Fillmore, “Far Away” is worth seeing. Fine performances, choreography, set design, sound, and lighting conspire to render powerfully something that is only suggested in Churchill’s script. As the descriptions of parties, sides, and alliances multiply and grow increasingly absurd, an absence at the heart of the performance widens. While there are countless Others, there is very little — save accidents of proximity, incarceration, and death — on which to found an “us.”

Running Time: 65 Minutes with a 10 minute intermission.

“Far Away” runs until March 11, 2018 and is presented at Torn Space Theater. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Jesse Sloier.

There’s a certain advantage to attending a show you know very little about — there are no preconceived notions, and the intent is simply to enjoy the performance. MusicalFare’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” certainly delivered a knockout performance for their audience. This musical revue is an enjoyable mix of high-energy ensemble pieces and slower, more intense solo numbers. The show is a revue of pieces written by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, including songs such as “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Stand By Me”.

. . .most definitely a show you won’t want to miss.

At first sight, the stage seems well fit for such a production — the set is decorated as a colorful jukebox,  with a sign reading “Wurlitzer” above the stage. The use of moving panels aid in entrances and exits for some of the more intense numbers, and the band is stationed behind a scrim, beneath a neon sign reading “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”. When the stage is lit just so, the band is nearly as visible as the cast members themselves. There was a small solo section for each musician in the opening number of act 2, which had the audience cheering.

One  difficulty with a musical revue is showcasing each performer’s talents without one or a few overpowering the rest. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” was cast so well that each solo or small group could then seamlessly transition into an ensemble number with ease. Marc Sacco was charming and charismatic onstage in songs in which he was featured more heavily. Brian Brown’s voice is a smooth and clear tenor. Dudney Joseph Jr. brought soul and emotion to his performances. Lorenzo Shawn Parnell’s performances were strong, and he looked at ease on stage. Ben Michael Moran’s rich bass was supplemented by his characteristic facial expressions throughout the show. When all five men were performing together, they created a vocal powerhouse that blew the audience away.

The females in the cast were no different. Victoria Perez and Zoe Scruggs were incredibly soulful; Perez has a gorgeous low range, and Scruggs was, at times, vocally reminiscent of Aretha Franklin. Michele Marie Roberts has a beautiful belt and soprano range, and Nicole Marrale Cimato shone particularly onstage when she was dancing, not to mention her knockout voice. The four women got together for a song entitled “I’m a Woman” and the audience whooped and whistled throughout the performance.

The choreography was extremely well-done by director John Fredo. It was just enough to supplement the vocals, but not too busy to detract from the rest of the show.

It is certainly a feat to do justice to this music, but the cast didn’t let the audience down at any turn. This is most definitely a show you won’t want to miss.

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

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs until March 11, 2018 and is presented at Musicalfare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Over The Tavern’ by Lancaster Regional Players at Lancaster Opera House

Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern” recalls a time when the comedic violence of Woody Woodpecker and the shoot-‘em-up heroics of The Lone Ranger flickered on an absurdly futuristic black and white television set.

. . .impressive and entertaining. . .

A time when juvenile delinquency amounted to crude and simple street graffiti, smuggled and concealed “Playboy” magazines, and experimentation with beehive hairdos.

It is Buffalo, New York, in the late 1950s, and we are at the home of the blue-collar Pazinski family. They live in an apartment above their family owned tavern, Chet’s Bar & Grill.

The family kitchen is stockpiled with an arsenal of sugary breakfast cereals, a cupboard of canned beets, and either milk, Kool-Aid, or beer in the fridge. I don’t know why but it is so Buffalo.

The children’s bedroom is adorned with pictures of favorite TV stars, and the one bathroom and one telephone accommodate only one person at a time.

Chet, husband and father, is a gruff, complaining, hard-nosed provider, and his wife Ellen, is a working-class version of “Leave it to Beaver’s” June Cleaver. Except that Ellen has a more budget minded wardrobe, and you won’t find June snapping off a beer cap alone in her kitchen at the end of a long hard day.

Their concern is their kids who offer them no end of adolescent trouble. Daughter Annie is on the verge of womanhood and is convinced that she will never be desirable to boys, even in her forbidden beehive doo.

Oldest son Eddie is sleeping at the “Y” after an explosive argument with his father, and Rudy is demanding to know exactly what a “soldier for Christ” is on the eve of his Catholic Confirmation. He is not sure he wants to be a “soldier” at all.

Least trouble of all is Georgie, who gleefully shouts out his newly learned “dirty” word at the most inappropriate moments.

Intruding upon this domestic squabbling and sitcom premise, is Sister Clarissa, Rudy’s parochial school teacher who seems part corporal punishment advocate and part devout religious believer. When she visits the family unexpectedly, they scramble and hurriedly mount a picture of Jesus Christ on the refrigerator.

And there you have it. A domestic comedy ripe with familiarity and laughs. Especially if you’re Catholic. But this play is surprising in its dosage of equal parts humor and something approaching anguish. The comedy earns big deserved laughs from the audience, while the drama gets very close to genuine discomfort.

It’s as if the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and the pop-gun sounds of The Lone Ranger have spilled from the TV and have manifested themselves as verbal and physical violence.

Sister Clarissa’s habit of smacking Rudy on the head and rapping his fingers with a wooden ruler is unsettling. Even more disturbing are both Rudy’s and Eddie’s heated proclamations of hatred for their father.

These are genuine moments that are played out as passively as Ellen reaching in the refrigerator for a beer or Georgie clicking on the TV. And before you can absorb these alarming developments, or ponder the state of Catholic School doctrine, the family tumbles into another comedic spin and tragic notions are obliterated.

Dudzick’s play reflects family life honestly, and sometimes darkly, but mostly sweetly, all while Woody Woodpecker laughs his fool head off.

The adult performances are strong and solid. Greg Reggie (Chet) and Eileen Stevic (Ellen) have portrayed these roles several times, and although there was a slight lack of fluidity from them on opening night, they commanded a parental and matrimonial presence which allowed the stage a huge degree of ease.

Alicia Michielli as Sister Clarissa is justifiably bigger-than-life in a wildly entertaining performance that manages to exceed the bounds of her character’s devout religion to a level of humanity.

It’s the young performers who put this production over the top. Caroline Schettler as Annie, and Samuel Fesmire as Eddie possess a seasoned comedic timing, both physical and verbal, portraying youngsters on the verge of adulthood.

Isaac Fesmire as Rudy, the semi-autobiographical version of the playwright, is outstanding and natural in a lead role that allows him a wide range of childhood angst which he delivers masterfully. And he offers a funny Ed Sullivan impersonation to boot.

Ayden Herreid as the developmentally challenged Georgie, is a wonder. His believable and touching performance can only come from a child actor with a profound grip on performance.

Director Gail Golden and the Lancaster Regional Players have given us an impressive and entertaining “Over the Tavern”. It’s a treat to hear references to Swan Street, Chef’s Italian Restaurant, and beef on weck, in a play that has reached global success.

And a shout-out to Post Cereal’s defunct and maligned Rice Krinkles, featured in the play. It was pulled from the marketplace sometime in the mid-60s, due to its near total lack of nutritional value, and a racist advertising campaign concerning an Asian cartoon character. I remember it fondly. And it was so sweet and yummy!

It seems to fit perfectly on the Pazinski family’s breakfast shelf. Right next to the “Wheaties.”

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Over The Tavern” runs through January 21, 2018, is produced by Lancaster Regional Players and is presented  at The Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Photo by Benjamin Richey.

Theatre of Youth’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a delight. Charles M. Schultz’s beloved holiday story, based on his “Peanuts” comic strip, debuted as an animated television special program in 1965, and quickly became as representative of the season as Scrooge and eggnog. Its sophisticated anti-commercialism nods and winks – revolutionary then for a children’s holiday TV show – is said to have nearly killed the aluminum Christmas tree industry in the mid-1960s.

. . .a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

What is most impressive about Theatre of Youth’s stage adaptation by Eric Schaeffer is its reverence for the Emmy and Peabody Award winning show, which has run every year on network television since its inception. Even the smallest supporting roles in the ensemble, say Violet (you don’t remember Violet? You will!) is so acutely accurate to Schultz’s simple and elegant illustrative design, watching the show is like viewing the stage through a virtual fantasy lens.

In case you’ve forgotten, or have never owned a television, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the story of a hapless loser, Charlie Brown (Dan Urtz) searching for the true meaning of Christmas when secular commercialism drives him into a state of depression as he and his “Peanuts” gang prepare for the holiday. “Child” psychiatrist Lucy (Arin Lee Dandes) diagnoses his condition and assigns him the role of director of the annual Christmas pageant as therapy.

Director Meg Quinn draws out playful and sharp performances from her entire cast. They nail the beloved animated characters’ actions and mannerisms, while adding a flesh and blood comedic expression to what sometimes looks like a ballet of children celebrating Christmas. Barbara Priore’s bright and familiar costume and hair design, and Kenneth Shaw’s intricate, minimalist set design pay devoted homage to the original source.

Dan Urtz gives the anxiety ridden Charlie Brown a frowning, desolate disposition as he mopes about the stage, shoulders hunched high, eyes nervously searching, as the expectant joy of Christmas slowly dissipates from his mindset. Quite the contrary is Arin Lee Dandes, as Lucy. She is confident and brass, busying about the stage like a bundle of misplaced Christmas spirit, hoping Santa brings her a requested gift of real estate. Given the era this story was first presented, she is surprisingly a gender-equal, liberated, indeed dominating young girl.

Lighting designer Todd Proffitt creates an air of foreboding as Charlie Brown and Linus (Lucas Denies) search for the perfect Christmas tree, as a dusk filled urban horizon bears down on the smallish decorative lights of a trees-for-sale lot. It’s an effective scene. So too is the whimsical scene with the characters catching snowflakes on their tongues in an airy and bright winter wonderland.

The wild dance choreography during the Christmas pageant rehearsal is as amusing and fun as in the original TV show. I especially loved Shermy’s (Shawn Michael Edward Robinson) armless, back-and-forth dance technique, a moment in the original TV show that always captured by attention as a youngster.

The special effects are as impressive as the show’s attention to detail. A special floor mat allows the actors to truly ice skate across the stage on a winter pond. Snowflakes gently fall from the sky as white light filters through as if a hole in the Allendale Theatre’s roof was revealed. The transformation of Charlie’s pitiful Christmas tree to a respectable and proud lighted display is seamless.

And what a delight to hear Vince Guaraldi original jazz score performed by a live musical combo. Paul Sottnik (Pianist), Brian DeJesus (Bassist), and Jamie Sunshine (Percussionist) provide an added layer of warmth and cheer to the festive production.

It’s a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

Running Time: 40 minutes with an audience holiday sing-a-long at show’s end.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” runs until December 17, 2017 and is presented at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Painting Churches’ at O’Connell & Company

“Painting Churches” follows the story of Fanny and Gardiner Church and their daughter, Mags, as they prepare to pack up and move from their home in Boston to Cape Cod year-round. As can be expected with any family dynamic, the strains between characters are there – but what the actors show the audience is the endearing and compelling story of a small family grappling with the onset of Alzheimer’s in the patriarch of the Church family.

. . .The direction of Lucas Lloyd in conjunction with the wonderful talents of the actors made this production a must-see.

Fanny Church (Tina Rausa) is the sole caretaker of her ailing husband, and handles it with humor; this sometimes makes the character come off as mocking, but Rausa brings to the character compassion and ease of presence. Rausa never fails to get the laugh as she tromps around in galoshes nearly as large as her head and recreates famous paintings with Gardiner sprawled across the steps of their home.

Mags Church (Sara Kow-Falcone) arrives home to assist her parents with another wish as well: to paint their portrait. Mags has unresolved issues with her childhood and her parents which gradually present themselves, but Kow-Falcone is so easily her character that I found myself enthralled with her performance even in the most difficult moments. The entire show is a subtle power struggle between Mags and her parents in order to determine on whose terms this portrait is painted.

Gardiner Church (Jack Horohoe) is a loving father and husband as well as an award-winning poet slowly declining as the Alzheimer’s takes hold. Gardiner is still dedicated to his poetry, and randomly spouts lines of poems throughout the play. Horohoe is charmingly absent as Gardiner, very convincingly portraying the disease addling his mind.

The dynamic between Mags and Fanny is strained at times as Mags comes to terms with her father’s illness and not quite agreeing with how Fanny is handling the situation. Through this, the three Churches show off their quirky antics on stage and find a common ground despite their differences. Fanny and Gardiner, being high-brow traditional people, never expected their daughter to become a free spirited artist. In the end, we see a reconciliation between Mags and her parents as the portrait is finally finished.

The small space in O’Connell & Company is intimate enough that the small cast of three filled the space very well, and the set design on the two-tiered stage made the Church residence appear much larger than the stage would be expected to allow. The direction of Lucas Lloyd in conjunction with the wonderful talents of the actors made this production a must-see.

Running time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

“Painting Churches” runs until November 19, 2017 and is presented at O’Connell & Company at The Park School of Buffalo. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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The cast of “The Crucible” at Kavinoky Theatre

“We are what we always were in Salem,” John Proctor cries out in Act II of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” Proctor (Adriano Gatto), guilty of adultery, realizes that his act unwittingly empowered the single minded girl whose dalliances with unashamed sexuality and “dark spirits” have sparked witch trials — trials that now threaten to snatch up Proctor’s long-suffering, all-forgiving, and unflinchingly truthful wife Elizabeth (Aleks Malejs). Later in the scene Proctor returns to the thought: “We are what we always were — but naked now!”

. . . masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Proctor is talking about the witch trials. Because Arthur Miller is the author, Proctor is also talking about 1950s American anti-communist hysteria, another “crucible” in our history, which would sweep up and imperil Miller and some of his closest friends around the time of the play’s composition (1953). And because we are the audience and our year is 2017, John Proctor is also talking about the American Kangaroo Court culture and its Tweeter in Chief, where to prosecute is to hold power, to accuse is to claim privilege, and there is only safety in the transference of blame.

“The Crucible” is about all of this — “lock her up,” and loyalty oaths, and so on — and, yet, it isn’t. Though at times electrically relevant, there is something deeper than the frissons of recognition that play across our skin when we hear lines like this. The play is almost an American ur-narrative, for in plumbing the Salem witch trials and 20th century anti-communist frenzy, Miller taps into the dynamics of fear, doubt and superstition always active, if latent, in our politics; and he drives to the wellspring of insecurity in American civil relations, which probably began when John Edwards preached to us that few are saved, most are damned, and your neighbor’s heart might hold more wickedness than your own. The play’s “relevance,” then, is never the point. “We are what we always were in Salem.” Director Robert Waterhouse recognizes this, and signals — with subtle costume changes, the appearance of an ahistorical flashlight — that the play is not tied to any time or times.

This production opens with projected images of black and white bodies engaged in forest rites, played over a string-and-percussion cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Here, Brian Millbrand’s projections and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound — at best illustrative of elements only alluded to in the text, at worst overassertive — accidentally highlight shortcomings of both the play and the production. While superficially related to the plot of “The Crucible,” “Sympathy for the Devil” treats the taboo, anti-social, destructive, and heedless sexuality that is ostensibly at the heart of John Proctor’s misdeed as well as Salem’s hysteria. (There is a Bacchae somewhere in this script.) Here the song signals what the play will not explore. The nature and dynamics of John Proctor’s relationship with his former servant Abigail Williams, and the reason Abigail and the other girls drink blood and dance naked in the woods, these thematic elements number among many — including racial othering, class and democracy, the subjection of women, Calvinism and the American character — that break the surface of the plot and dialogue but ultimately fall outside the narrow scope of Miller’s fiery focus. This is part of the reason for the play’s belabored ending, as John equivocates over declaring, signing, displaying, and “destroying” a confession: Miller comes to the end of his play and realizes he has not taken the time to understand his protagonist’s motivations.

An uneven ensemble accentuates these flaws: Some central cast members fail to dig down and discover nuance where the script gives little direction. Switching Peter Palmisano (Judge Hathorne) and David Lundy (Rev. Samuel Parris) might have yielded interesting results. Abigail Williams’ character is underdeveloped and Shelby Ehrenreich’s performance, though energetic, draws on a limited emotional palette; the same could be said of John Fredo’s Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. That said, one of the most gripping scenes in the play comes when these two, caged, collide: Danforth feels himself losing control of the proceedings and, therefore of his political power; Williams fights to retain her precarious place at the center of the witch hunt, which is the only form of privilege her society will permit her. Fredo and Ehrenreich give outstanding performances here.

Highest honors go to the Proctors, though: Adriano Gatto (fresh off his endurance performance in Irish Classical’s “Design for Living”) powerfully embodies John, who in Miller’s script is something like a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, a man of reason as well as fallen human passions and weaknesses, a skeptic who keeps Church and State both at arms length, and who treats people as individuals rather than members of collectives. In Gatto’s performance the yeoman hero becomes as complicated and compelling an American figure as Jefferson himself — towering, wounded, guilty, aware of his guilt, tragically resolute and tragically unresolved. Aleks Malejs likewise conveys every shade of Elizabeth Proctor’s complicated character. She becomes something like a tragic American demi-goddess — all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving, but aware that these powers will be insufficient to save her husband or herself. Beside the Proctor’s woundedness and love, the trial will sometimes seem silly and incidental.

Though occasionally slow and imbalanced overall, at its emotional crescendos (which are not, usually, the play’s loudest parts), masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, 15 minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Script’d Box Review: ‘Luna Gale’ by Rebecca Gilman

Rebecca Gilman creates an easy read with this script. I don’t mean that this is, by any means, light-hearted content. “Luna Gale” isn’t THAT type of easy read; it’s a heart-wrenching, cant-put-it-down page turner that captures the reader’s attention and doesn’t relinquish it until the back cover is closed. Gilman creates a cast of relatable characters from beginning to end and explores the topics of parenthood, substance abuse, sexual assault, and suicide – but among those she lets us find redeeming characteristics in nearly every character.

The play opens in a hospital waiting room, where parents of the baby Luna Gale are waiting. Here we are introduced to Karlie and Peter, both 19, who love Luna yet suffer from an addiction to drugs. They are both high in this scene as they are told their child is being taken away from them, setting into motion the clockwork for the central conflict of the entire play – with whom does Luna truly belong?

Caroline, the workaholic social worker who originally seems no-nonsense, develops herself into a sympathetic character by revealing her own past along the way. On top of that, she becomes a staunch advocate for Karlie and Peter’s recovery, with the ultimate goal being the recovery of Luna into their care.

Luna’s father Peter loves her dearly, as he does his girlfriend Karlie. Peter’s character is originally seen as almost a background character to Karlie’s more ferocious attitude – developing into a father dedicated to his own recovery for his daughter’s sake. Karlie herself is committed to recovering from her drug addiction, eventually realizing what’s truly best for Luna.

In the midst of their recovery from drug addiction, Luna is temporarily fostered by Karlie’s mother Cindy, a devout Christian hell-bent on saving Luna’s soul. Her kooky ways turn sour at times as she becomes more and more fanatical, with backing from the pastor of her church.

These four characters struggle back and forth as they all believe they know what’s best for baby Luna. The plot is supported by Caroline’s by-the-book boss, Cliff, who checks in on the status of Luna’s case every now and then with some advice on the handling of the situation. The cast is rounded out by a recent graduate of foster care, Lourdes, whom Caroline is determined to see succeed in life, and the pastor of Cindy’s church, Pastor Jay, who encourages Cindy’s fanatical obsession with raising Luna a certain way.

Above it all is the determination from every party to do what’s best for Luna – no matter how mistaken some may be along the way.

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Theatre Review: ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Starring as the the title character in Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s “Macbeth” this summer, Matt Witten reminded us that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”

Life, in other words, is a sales pitch.

. . .the cast, crew, and director of this “Glengarry Glen Ross” production have done an excellent job. They’re closers.

Or so it seems in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about an office of unscrupulous real estate salesmen faced with a workplace competition. The only goal is to close. First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Cue sound and fury.

The play is best known from its 1992 film adaptation, which was graced with the greatest ensemble cast ever caught on camera. The production running at Road Less Traveled Theatre now through November 19 is, like the film version, an outstanding ensemble performance. David C. Mitchell (Shelly “The Machine” Levene), Patrick Moltane (Dave Moss), David Marciniak (George Aaronow), and Matt Witten (Richard Roma), raving, ranting, boasting, joking, spinning, and wheedling their way through a fast-paced two act, two hour production. Their material is some of the most difficult ever written: the fragmentary ifs, buts, and sundry obscenities are an enormous burden for the individual actor to memorize; the scenes, which play out like a demolition derby of simultaneous monologues, with every character saying a lot and no character saying exactly what he means, are incredibly hard for the actors to execute as a unit; and the rhythm and sound-dynamics of the whole constantly threaten to run away or fizzle out, imparting something of the conductor’s accomplishments to any director who successfully pulls off this play.

The play opens with a scene Mamet added to his script for the film; in that version, Alec Baldwin plays a more powerful salesman (unnamed; “Blake” in the credits) sent from “downtown” to explain the competition to the office. Mamet set out to explore and expose the savagery of capitalism; but his distillation, in this speech, was so perfect that managers in many sales-driven fields still show this clip at orientations and PD seminars. As other stage directors following the film have done, Road Less Traveled’s Scott Behrend turns this into a monologue directed to the audience. Anthony Alcocer (uncredited) delivers this with gusto and conviction. He can’t match Baldwin’s physical presence – he wanders the stage before he begins, tapping his knuckles aimlessly on desks and walls (and drawing attention to an out-of-character hand tattoo that Behrend should not have overlooked); he appears like a man with time to spare, which is wrong. When he opens his mouth, though, he is outstanding. He nails Baldwin’s lines inflection by inflection, pause by arrogant pause, an act of imitation so perfect it becomes original. The scene functions as an invitation – we are supposed to feel the pressure, our insignificance; we are supposed to reflect with discomfort on the value our cars, our houses, our performance at work, and therefore our lives – and it works, sort of. We’re laughing, if a little bit nervously.

The first act, then, is a series of dialogues (or, again, monologue collages) between the salesmen, a prospective buyer (James Lingk), and the officer manager (John Williamson, played by Steve Brachmann with a delightful touch of Jared Kushner). All take place in a booth at a restaurant, with the players seated – and the act almost never lags, a testament to the power of Mamet’s language and the actors’ energy and chemistry.

Levene, in a slump, alternately begs and threatens John for better leads – all behind a noisy front of specious recollections from his better years, better decades. He’s a man whose patter is rapid but not rapid enough – he delivers his lines in an out-of-breath whine, like he’s being dragged through life by his polyester tie. Williamson, his interlocutor, is cold and inscrutable; the manager sells the salesman, and drives Levene into an impossible bargain – indifferently, cruelly, as if only to see if there is any genuine pride beneath all the old man’s bluster.

Moltane and Marciniak as David Moss and George Aaronow are sublime – their dialogue, in which a complaint turns into a plot which turns into a trap for one of the parties – is a masterful demonstration of the way language determines reality and the way capital coerces human minds and bodies.

Finally Matt Witten’s Richard Roma appears with James Lingk (David Hayes), a sucker. He’s not quite as forceful or sinister a presence as Al Pacino, who plays Roma in the film – but Witten is also more interesting. He’s bent on being the best, sort of like Witten’s Macbeth – if the Scottish striver started without any moral qualms. Roma’s strangely compelling ramble through sex, art, food, action, and philosophy captures the audience as well as the insecure Lingk. But we notice the uncontrollable trembling of Witten’s left hand, holding a cigarette. It may be unintentional, but it’s perfect, an indicator of hidden frailty that adds depth to every non sequitur turn of the conversation. The walls are red, the rain is pouring, the smoke is curling, and no one knows what time it is. “A hell exists on earth?” Roma asks. “I won’t live in it. That’s me,” he says – the irony evident only to us. He does, of course – and I’d venture that Witten’s Roma knows this better than anyone else.

In the age of Zillow, the basics of the play – an all-male real estate office fixated on index-card leads – seem a little dated. But RLTP has proven that the play is timeless – and ferociously relevant right now. Picking up on Arthur Miller’s more nuanced exploration of anxieties related to masculinity, work, and mechanization in “Death of A Salesman,” Mamet plays on Levene’s nickname, “The Machine,” to great effect in this play’s final moments. Levene’s fortunes have reversed for a second time when Roma, unawares, tells him, “It’s not a world of men, Machine,” and “The Machine, that’s a man I would work with, there’s a man.” Today artificial intelligence, smartphones, and the fact of mass manipulation through social media have reshaped our anxieties about the mechanization of modern life. But the question of work – what it is and why we do it – is still central in the American consciousness. Like these salesman we are all poor players, we are all walking shadows, strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage; we are full of sound and fury and we aren’t sure if anyone is listening: if there is someone out there, above us or behind the eyes we meet on the subway, at a Chinese restaurant, in the office, in bed, all we care is that they “sign on the line which is dotted.” All we want is to close; but as Glengarry Glen Ross demonstrates so powerfully, there is no final “closure,” and winning the Cadillac El Dorado “signifies nothing”: There is only the next sucker, the next sale, the next word in a neverending monologue. When Levene gloats to Williamson, “A man’s his job and you’re f*cked at yours,” he could, really, be speaking to any of us.

But the cast, crew, and director of this “Glengarry Glen Ross” production have done an excellent job. They’re closers.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult Language and Content.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” runs until November 17, 2017 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.