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.

Script’d Box Review: ‘Hir’ by Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac’s fast-paced dramedy explores the dissolving dynamics of a traditional family. We are introduced to the family when the oldest son Isaac comes home after being dishonorably discharged from the Marines. His mother, Paige, welcomes him to a much different home than when he left: clothes piled on the floor, dishes molding in the sink, and the air conditioner perpetually blasting freezing cold into the house. Isaac’s once-sister, Maxine, is now Max – a transitioning teen who is just finding hir voice. The use of gender-neutral pronouns “hir” for he/she and “ze” for he/she are prevalent throughout the text as Isaac comes to grip with his new brother. Amidst all the chaos, Isaac is hit with another change – his father, Arnold, has had a stroke and is just a shadow of his former self.

The dynamic of the play presents itself in the beginning, in the dialogue surrounding Max’s transition. Max’s moody teenage comments are balanced by Paige’s quirky declarations, with punctuation provided by grunts and occasional words offered by Arnold. Through all this, Isaac’s PTSD is triggered – mostly by the blender, which causes him to rush over to the sink and vomit. This doesn’t escape Paige’s notice, and unlike a typical mother, occasionally turns the blender back on to trigger Isaac.

Perhaps the most startling image Isaac comes face-to-face with – even surpassing his surprise at Max’s transition – is the condition of his father. Arnold had always been in control; after his stroke, Paige’s “care” consisted of continued emasculations – hosing Arnold down in front of the house when he soiled himself, dressing him in women’s clothing and garish makeup, and spraying him with water, much like a dog, when she was displeased with him. Paige’s character arc does not much surpass this; along with her treatment of Arnold, her insistence at keeping a messy household and not being financially aware paint the picture of a woman who perhaps has gone a little mad.

Arnold provides some comic relief throughout the text, interjecting grunts and repeating words spoken by other members of his family. He clearly doesn’t appreciate Paige’s presence, as he speaks more freely to Isaac when Paige is gone. When speaking to his oldest son, he can utter short phrases instead of single words. This lets us know that Arnold is most likely very aware of the treatment he is receiving from Paige, but can do nothing about it.

Max’s character provides the others with a chance for change. Max is constantly pushing the boundaries of Isaac’s limited experience with tolerance, despite Paige’s occasional humorous comments surrounding Max: “I credit the Cheetos. How could we feed our children fluorescent food and not expect a little gender confluence?” Max’s demeanor in the beginning of the play does evolve past the typical moody, conflicted teenager stage: instead, Max becomes the glue holding the family together as it swiftly falls apart.

While Paige continues to treat Arnold like a child, dismiss Max’s feelings and Isaac’s experiences “picking up body parts” in the Mortuary Affairs department of the Marines, Mac reveals the plot surrounding Paige and Arnold – not only was Arnold a strict man, but also a cheater and a wife-beater. Occasionally, we find out, Arnold had turned his fists to his children. Despite the fact that he doesn’t deserve it, Paige says, she still cares for him – in her own way. Her perceived battiness traces back to a very real trauma she and her children continually experienced in the family dynamics prior to the start of the play. While there’s not much of a character arc where Paige is concerned, this revelation instead changes the mindset of the reader regarding Paige’s actions.

Isaac’s reactions to his new home life mirror those of the reader; he is the least fantastical character in the play. Where Max is numb to the makeup on hir father, Isaac reacts with shock and disgust, quickly wiping Arnold’s face with his sleeve. Although prohibited by Paige, Isaac cleans the house while she is away, making the house into a home again. Isaac cleans his father and cares for him in a dignified manner, though Isaac recognizes that Arnold’s treatment of his family was never so pleasant.

Mac takes on these four conflicting characters with ease and transforms the dramatic events and feelings of his characters into something far more humorous. This play could easily be a dark drama, were it not for Mac’s choices in how these characters are portrayed. Instead, the reader is given a dark subject matter made palatable and enjoyable.

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Theatre Review: ‘Killer Rack – The Feminist Horror Musical Comedy’ at Alleyway Theatre

“There’s something more going on here than your usual human remains scattering.”

So says James Cichocki’s Detective Bartles toward the end of the Alleyway musical “Killer Rack,” in a brief moment of calm, before the topless plot bounces and bounds its way to a camp-horror conclusion that will send you laughing into the lobby. “Something more,” indeed.

“Killer Rack” is the world premiere of Alleyway Theatre Executive Director Neal Radice’s successful stage adaptation of the camp/cult movie-musical of the same name, which was filmed in Buffalo and released in 2015. Billed a “Feminist Horror Musical Comedy,” it is riotously funny, passably “musical,” more charmingly grotesque than horrifying, and not even arguably a little bit feminist. It’s also the most straight-up and unmitigated fun audiences will have had at an Alleyway season premiere in quite some time.

. . .Radice has written a very good script, full of winks, puns, sight-gags, non sequiturs, and a healthy scattering of human remains — but also full of real human emotion.

Betty Downer (Emily Yancey), an earnest, flat-chested girl with a rapey boss and a schlub boyfriend named Dutch, seeks a fuller, rounder, more elevated experience of life, and decides to get a boob job. Instead of going to, say, Dr. Samuel Shatkin, she goes to Dr. Libby Niptuck, who is sort of like a Scientologist, if Scientologists read the fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft instead of the fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Instead of the usual silicon, Niptuck augments Betty’s breasts with the spawn of Mamora, some sort of faux-Cthulhic-breast-deity, which is after what all faux-Cthulhic-breast-deities are after: total world domination.

Or maybe the reification of mankind’s devotional-sex drive, sublimated over the years into a widely practiced cult of distorted body images wrought in plastic and pixels, channeled into aesthetic surgery, dog-face filters, and the iPhone X Portrait Mode — now, before the ascendant breasts, become a very real form of willing, bodily, bloody sacrifice.

Or maybe just a good time. This fine point of character motivation isn’t clear.

But no matter: the implants begin to take over Betty’s mind as well as her body — just as she’s begun to fall in love with a sweatervested and virginal Mr. Right (Nathan Andrew Miller as Tim Trite). For color, Radice tosses in a few cheekily undeveloped subplots involving a nurse who loves knives, a cut-rate soothsayer, a French film critic, and a detective duo suffering from ulcer-related complications and the desire to be a dad, respectively.

Emily Yancey’s singing is strong and controlled but entirely absent spinto, gravel, and a belter’s afterburners — which makes hers the perfect voice to lead the show. It would be easy to let Betty Downer become a kind of idiot, but Yancey’s total earnestness, which infuses every line and gesture, manages to ride the rough tides of the play’s ridiculous plot with an even keel. This earnestness is so total that, when her demon breast-babies “take over,” seeking bloody sacrifice, it’s less an act of mind-control than full-body puppetry. With her loose lunatic smile, oculogyric spasms, and pinocchio-arms akimbo, Yancey plays this physical comedy to great effect. Kim Piazza, in a powerful turn as Dr. Niptuck, matches Yancey’s energy and control, down to the last deranged eye-twitch, and grounds her with a chestier mezzo-soprano.

Joey Bucheker also shows his range as both Nurse Candida, larger-than-life Latina and comic foil to Niptuck, as well as Detective Jaymes, who helps to investigate the bloody boob-related murders. In this role he plays the sidekick and straight man to James Cichocki’s hilarious Detective Bartles. Cichocki is three parts Philip Marlowe, two parts Daniel Craig , another two parts Elwood Blues, and one part Bran Stark (Season 7). (The math is complicated, but trust me.) Filming Bucheker and Cichocki in a serialized police procedural could usher in a Fourth Golden Age of Television.

Nathan Andrew Miller has a very fine voice, and he’s believable as Tim Trite, whose bowtie and hand puppets have relegated him to Betty Downer’s friend zone. In an uncorseted play spilling over with catcalls and scores of synonyms for “teat,” Nathan manages to bring real weight to his role, convincing us that he loves Betty for her personality, while at the same time responding naturally to her killer rack. The play’s few moments of successful pathos depend on him. But — because of an unfortunate combination of man and material — Nathan’s two solos, “Inner Beauty” and “It’s A Date,” are the criminally boring parts all the more noticeable in an otherwise rapid comedy. The lyrics are banal and overlong, and Nathan stays rooted to whatever spot the other characters left him in, singing beautifully, without a single boob in sight. At least in this role, Miller — and these songs — can’t hold the stage alone.

“Killer Rack” is the professional debut of Andrew Zuccari, here playing the boyfriend Dutch and two different catcallers — the first like a perverted Drake and Josh-era Josh Peck and the other played like a European comfortable with group sex. His straight-faced and full-throttle exploration of man-boy misogyny is one of the show’s strongest features. At the tender age of 19, his acting is the least sophisticated of the leads — but it also works. His scenes feel like and could compete with the best of “Mad TV.” His timing and delivery show great promise, and I’ll be shocked and disappointed if he doesn’t soon take a turn in a some drama from Miller or Mamet at Irish or Kavinoky.

While bad pit bands can do more damage to a production than even the strongest lead could cover up, any musical without a live band is reduced to a shadow of its potential. The use of recordings exposes Radice’s musical direction and sound as the show’s weak links. The lyrics are often quite sharp and the leads are all strong-enough singers, but the scores are, at best, inoffensive. You will not be humming these melodies as you leave the theatre, which will hinder the production’s chances of success on the road. Some — like the Miller solos — structurally sag. Harmonies, likewise, could use a lift — a problem worsened when ensemble members repeatedly soar into sour notes, curdling the entire effect. The recordings sound tinny and insufficient — and the choice of music for a “nightclub” puts in mind a Korean knock-off of an early Mario Kart game.

But Radice has written a very good script, full of winks, puns, sight-gags, non sequiturs, and a healthy scattering of human remains — but also full of real human emotion. His directing clearly has made the most both of that strong script and his excellent cast.

Toward the end of the show, an elderly gentleman to my right, clad in a white cardigan sweater and his usher’s nametag — “Don” — couldn’t help exclaiming, “There are beasts in those breasts!

Right you are, Don. Right you are. But the show’s irrepressible spirit doesn’t stop at the bra-less boobs.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 10 minute intermission.

Advisory: Some Adult Content

“Killer Rack – The Feminist Horror Musical Comedy” runs until October 7, 2017 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘An Octoroon’ at The Shaw Festival

Capture

Ryan Cunningham, Star Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s safe to say that The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is commonly known for high-quality detailed productions on a typically classical scale. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the home for a strong subversive piece, but that didn’t stop the festival from producing the Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” now playing through Oct. 14.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Jacobs-Jenkins offers a reinterpretation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon,” sprinkled with moments in the present. The play within the play (Boucicault’s play) depicts the happenings on the Plantation Terrabone as a new man, George, comes to take over the property following the death of his uncle, the previous owner. A villainous fellow slave owner, M’Closky, announces the plantation is for sale due to financial woes and plans to take all of the slaves, as well as the beautiful owner’s child, Zoe who is implied one-eighth black and is, therefore, the titular octoroon.

During the prologue, the playwright BJJ (an unstoppable André Sills), explains how his therapist encouraged him to explore writing this play and offers commentary on what the audience can expect. For instance, Sills blasts modern rap music following his monologue and sits at a makeup table to plaster his face in white makeup as he prepares for his roles as George and M’Closky (noting that all the white actors quit the production). He is joined by a playwright and his assistant, both white, who begin covering their faces in red and black makeup to play a Native American character and the other slaves, respectively.

There is a lot to unpack in this production, finely directed by Peter Hinton and designed by Gillian Gallow.  For this, I’d encourage every audience member to spend the pre-show reading the background pieces offered in the program. It’s not as simple as having a few moments in the present and performing a play within a play. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t waste his time with subtext, most pointedly when a certain stage direction is projected across the screen, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”

Sills is simply a powerhouse leader of this production. He is hilarious and grounded as BJJ and perfectly moves between that character and those of M’Closky and George. His energy and commitment never waver.

Additionally, Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster as a pair of house slaves, Dido and Minnie, are a perfect duet. Their timing is impeccable and they easily steal the show. Vanessa Sears also charms as the lovely Zoe. But it is Diana Donnelly as Dora, a woman after George’s affections, that masters the true art of melodrama often relied upon in this production.. Her choices are hilarious and well-balanced.

Rounding out the ensemble are Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Starr Domingue and Samantha Walkes.

Gallow’s soundtrack is impossible to ignore. Her work stands out as its own character and adds a thrilling interpretive edge to an already interesting piece.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take an extra moment to emphasize the content warning for this show. The language and content is intense enough that certain audience members may not return after intermission. BJJ comments it is hard for theater to shock audiences anymore, but this production does and is worth every one of its 150 minutes.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission.

Advisory: This show contains mature content and strong language.

“An Octoroon” runs until October 14, 2017 and is presented at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Macbeth’ at Shakespeare in Delaware Park

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Lady Macbeth: Lisa Vitrano Macbeth: Matt Witten Photo by Christopher Scinta

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are,” the biblical book of Numbers warns, “for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”

Witches, prophesies, moving woods, and Cesarean sections are secondary: this is the plot of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “That Scottish Play.”

Or, as our titular villain says in Act II, Scene IV, “blood will have blood.” Director Saul Elkin understands this much, and doesn’t need to dump buckets of the stuff to put on a fine production, one that Western New Yorkers should make every effort to see.

“. . .finely conceived and finely executed. . .

Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s mounting of “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s shortest works, is happily a swift and bracing follow-up to the unwatchable “Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which an outmatched cast under dubious direction acted at half-speed the dullest game of Mousetrap ever played — a family game night complete with missing cheese pieces, forced laughs, and the malfunction of that infernal diving board man. By contrast, this season’s “Macbeth” is very good Shakespeare, with everything one expects from very good Shakespeare: leads capable of leading (in the sturdy Matt Witten and the confident Lisa Vitrano), delightful dialogue, and even a Shakespearean scene-stealing fool (Gerry Maher in perfect pitch as our porter).

In the play, the valiant (or just lucky) Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, returns from a successful battle and encounters three witches who offering a rhyming prophecy: He will be Thane of Cawdor, then king. In a classic expression of Scottish FOMO, Macbeth’s friend Banquo demands a prophecy for himself, and the sisters say he will not be king, but will beget a line of kings. When kind King Duncan comes under Macbeth’s roof and names him Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is sufficiently convinced (with some urging from his wife) to complete the prophecy, violating loyalty, honor, and the duty of hospitality by killing his king and taking the crown. Thus “fair is foul and foul is fair”: We see the reversal or total abandonment of of gender, husband-wife, king-thane, guest-host, and other relationships. Our Macbeth rules poorly, killing friends and innocents, succumbing to paranoid visions, shoring his self-confidence up with scraps of prophecy he does not understand, and finally falling under the blade of a more loyal thane, who willingly hands power over to Duncan’s son, an Anglophile posh-boy who restores order, modernizing and anglicizing those wild Scots, to boot.

Attention to detail pays dividends in this production. We can forgive one or two minor players for the distraction of grasping their swords by the blades; we can forgive an army in contemporary camouflage fatigues; a man in a kilt and a see-through mesh tank that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Funky Monkey “Gaelic” night; and witches in Cirque du Soleil outfits, high-stepping to music you might hear in an internet cafe in Garden City, N.J., if North Korea wins the next great war. On the whole, the costuming is fine, the music is unintrusive, and Steve Vaughan’s fight choreography is riveting, both when making full use of the large cast and when our attention is fixed on only two or four players. The moment when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth grasp each other’s bloody hands is well-played and immensely satisfying. And the scene in which Macbeth’s hired murderers (Brett Klaczyk and Ben Caldwell) kill Lady Macduff and her child (Jamie Nablo and Joel Fesmire or Brady Sadkin, alternating), the mother flailing on the floor and scraping toward her son as if unaware of the cloth around her neck, is physical theater every bit on par with Shakespeare’s words, and an illustration of the truism that productions live or die by their minor characters.

There is something unsettling about the play — besides its brutality. It is the absence of any motive sufficient for the the villains’ crime, or their later guilt and madness. Something in us resists believing Lady Macbeth’s immediate ecstasy of ambition on hearing — secondhand — of the witches’ prophecy. And there is something off about Witten’s muted performance in the first half, in which he hears the prophecy of his kingship, contemplates murder, and enacts it.

But so too was there something off in Sir Ian McKellan’s turn as Macbeth in 1978, as in nearly every other actor’s attempt. The fault is not (entirely) Witten’s, McKellan’s, or any other actor’s. Even if, as some have theorized, our “Macbeth” is an incomplete version of an undiscovered whole, Macbeth the man remains an incomplete villain: not as charming as the deformed and exuberant King Richard, not as provokingly ambiguous as Shylock, and not as fascinating an incarnation of evil as Iago. Moving amidst a cast of dimensionless characters — including his wife, whose desire to be “unsexed” and give full play is never fully developed, and whose descent into the madness of guilt comes on too quickly — Macbeth, who bears none of the marks of a truly ambitious man, calmly weighs the cons of killing his king and decides to go through with it — as if he “might as well.” We are willing to move past this once the energetic third, fourth, and fifth acts begin to sweep us along, but the lack of proper set-up in the beginning makes Macbeth’s eventual fall less (immediately) powerful.

Similarly, the poet-critic T.S. Eliot complained in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (which will someday, I hope, be the title of a puppet version of the play), that “Hamlet” is an “artistic failure,” because the title character is gripped by emotions that are not justified by the circumstances of the plot. Hamlet, he argues, is less trapped in his puns and plays and equivocations than is the author, who has not mastered his materials, attempting to express an inexpressible emotion.

As was the case with many things immediately beneath his very sensitive nose, Eliot missed the point (or more precisely the success) of “Hamlet,” as we may easily miss the success of “Macbeth.” Without realizing what he is saying, Eliot writes of Hamlet that “The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known.” And Shakespeare’s characters, like Dostoevsky’s, know and live these feelings more powerfully than the rest of us.

Romeo and Juliet’s hasty love and hastier suicides, Hamlet’s disgust and equivocation, Iago’s jealousy, and Shylock’s stubbornness — all are examples of “intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible,” that lack or exceed an object. So too Macbeth’s ambition, guilt, and paranoia — and finally his face-off with fate. His every action and reaction is not only irrational, but drawing on an unplumbable hot spring at the bottom of the pool of human emotions, a force that has no correlative.

So, Vitrano’s 180-degree turn from harpy-wife to guilt-stricken suicide may not be supportable or believable; but she plays both turns with unimpeachable conviction. And Witten might have struck different notes in the first half of the production, making Macbeth’s arc steeper and more interesting; but when he is raving we will believe anything he says. By the final act, we have abandoned any need for “complete” characters whose every action is really a reaction, in perfect proportion to some element cleverly revealed in a bit of backstory. We believe — no, we feel,  as Macbeth has told us — that

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

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.

Only thus can we understand Macbeth’s murder, his guilt, and his final decision — straining against a heavy chain of choices tied to total belief in an incontrovertible fate — to fight fate, to fight though Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane Hill, to fight against a man not born of woman. To “try the last.” We cannot explain why he has staked everything on “fate” and why he now denies it, “beard to beard” — and we cannot help but understand it.

“Macbeth” is timeless, and not just because it is so obviously an influence on “Game of Thrones.” It spans cultural paradigms from the medieval social system to the “absurd” of Albert Camus.

It is also worth mentioning that “Macbeth” is a work aware of and shaped by the political currents of Shakespeare’s day. We see Banquo, widely believed to be the ancestor of Shakespeare’s king and patron James I, turned from a traitor and fellow regicide into a morally ambiguous foil to Macbeth. Contemporary audiences would have heard echoes of the Gunpowder Plot (for American readers: the one that made Guy Fawkes famous), giving rise to an interpretation of Macbeth as deeply conservative, a play reaffirming the existing social and political order. Even the witches (and their cauldron) are borrowed more or less whole from the Berwick witch trials stirring up fears across the country at the time of writing (for comparison, imagine a playwright today turning to Buzzfeed or the MSN homepage to see what the “Florida man” has been up to, and adding the news story in as a plot device). And the play still has a particularly local contemporary resonance. When Ross, a thane, bemoans his “poor country! / Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot / Be call’d our mother, but our grave,” he might as well be Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting.”

These connections, both dated and timelessly Scottish, will pass without notice for most watching the Delaware Park production — minds might instead skip across the centuries to our present, American circumstances. Thankfully, Saul Elkin didn’t opt to dress his leads in a power suit and red Ralph Lauren dress, like the controversial Shakespeare in Central Park production of Julius Caesar, which put Donald Trump, basically, in the title role. As much fun as it might have been to imagine Melania as Lady Macbeth crying to the demons to be “unsexed,” the play wouldn’t survive such a grafting. Far better to let the timeless characters let their timeless passions propel them into a timely tale: that of a man without a personality; a man intoxicated by the gross promise of a prophecy; a man who surprises all, even himself, by fulfilling it; a man who holding power hasn’t a clue what to do with it, cutting down all his closest allies, gripped by the twinned and paradoxical beliefs that he is invincible and that everyone is out to get him.

This “Macbeth” is finely conceived and finely executed. There are many reasons to see it. But, above all of these, if this summer you have even for a moment succumbed to the feeling that life is “a tale, told by an idiot … signifying nothing,” you might need to see this play. Bringing wine won’t hurt.

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

“Macbeth” runs until August 20, 2017 and is presented in Delaware Park in Buffalo as part of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Pretty/Funny’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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You’ve seen it before: the lonely girl, an outcast, worrying her way through life until something happens to help her come out of her shell and realize her worth… but not told like this. Through musical comedy, dance, and modern media, Marisa Guida (conceiver, Book, co-lyrics) takes us on a predictable coming of age journey for Genny (Arin Lee Dandes), with a unique and fun twist… encouraging us to clown around and shine in your own light.

“. . .the perfect feel good show. . .”

Meet Genny, a lovable girl entering the unknown horrors of middle school with her parents, Mom (Amy Jakiel) and Dad (Louis Colaiacovo), totally stoked and eager to support their little princess. However, Genny’s excitement soon turns sour after she meets up with her best friend (Leah Berst) who’s just returned from camp, smart phone in hand and a new clique to bond with. Life only goes downhill from there. With the current day media telling girls how to look and behave, unfair behavior at school both from students and a teacher, Genny’s mother working for a beauty campaign across the country, and her father being fired from his job, Genny starts to crumble under the pressure.

Then, as fate would have it, Genny accidentally finds solace in Imogene Coca, the pioneering female comedian that no one’s heard of. In an attempt to cheer his daughter up, Dad suggests that Genny write her term paper on Coca, explaining in great detail (and song) all about the wondrous woman from the black and white era.

This is where “Pretty/Funny” shines, in it’s ability to recreate not only a real-life Imogene Coca (Nicole Marrale Cimato), but to dim the lights and reveal demonstrations of how early 1900’s vaudevilles performed on stage. Kudos to producer/director Randall Kramer for effortless transitions/combinations between reality and daydreams. Constantly during a musical explanation of something requiring visual aid, actors would dance in and out of the scene without disruption or confusion, purely there for comedic effect or just a fun dance number.

The entire cast works so well together, the enjoyment each actor exudes on stage beams to the audience and sets the mood for the duration of the show. Doug Weyand’s tasteful choreography includes hip hop, tap, ballet, and physical comedy routines that adds that little something extra to every musical number or scene. Of course the music, composed by Philip Farugia, combined with toe-tapping dance numbers, creates annoyingly catchy tunes that you’ll be humming days later.

“Pretty/Funny” is the perfect feel good show that will inspire you, educate you (right after the performance I went home and Googled Imogene Coca, what a legend), and make you reflect on the social expectations forced upon little girls today, which could be the main, underlying focus of this show. Why is society so glued to the media? Why do we need that product that promises us to look younger? Why listen to what a magazine says you should look like? Don’t conform to today’s “beauty” standards, don’t let anyone try to put you in a box. “Pretty/Funny” insists you can do better; you can stand out and be the most wonderful version of you, be yourself despite anything.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.

“Pretty/Funny” runs until August 13, 2017 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.