Tepid Passion in Stage Kiss

Despite what the timeless song says, sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss. Sometimes a kiss stirs up memories, emotions, and things that have no place coming to light again. That’s the heart of Stage Kiss, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company now to April 24.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s examination of what happens when lips lock is one of those farcical “plays within a play” where actors are playing actors and then they act out. In this case, He (Guy Balotine) and She (Tracie Lane) are ex-lovers who – after a lengthy interval – find themselves playing lovers onstage in a stilted 1930s revival of a show called “The Last Kiss.” She had left the boards to raise her daughter. He is a rather hapless sort who hasn’t figured out how to grow as an actor or a person. Their stage kiss leads them back into each other’s orbit to the shock of She’s husband (Rolando Gomez) and the dismay of their teen daughter (Christine Turturro). He has a partner, too, sweetly played by Marisa Caruso who briefly tumbles into the arms of She’s jilted husband. The only one who appears to be winning is the Director of “The Last Kiss” (Greg Howze) who moves on to write a play that’s perfect for He and She’s encore performance far off in Detroit. The twist is that this production proves their stage kiss is just a folly and – as in all good rom-coms – true love will prevail.

I didn’t enjoy this production nearly as much as I did the Shaw Festival’s production of it back in 2018. Even under Fortunato Pezzimenti’s skillful direction, the story dragged and felt sloggy. Paul Bostaph’s set captured “The Last Kiss” low budget ethos well enough, as well as He’s grungy apartment. Lane and Balotine – fine and accomplished actors as they are – didn’t seem to connect convincingly in their roles and their conversations felt stilted and over-articulated.  Two bright spots were Gomez as the husband: he was charming and cunning in a good way, and Turturro as She and Husband’s daughter Angela. Turturro’s Angela was the perfect specimen of teen wisdom (not unlike her 2019 role in Road Less Traveled Productions’ The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.) In one breath she is expounding her thoughts on real love and commitment and in one moment she’s content to munch a PB&J sandwich.

I did enjoy that little bit of whimsy that closed the show: in a nod to Fox sitcom Call Me Kat, the cast danced their curtain call to the iconic Prince tune “Kiss,” performed lounge-act-style by…wait for it…Tom Jones, I think. I seriously loved Gomez’s jubilant bell kick as he leapt from the stage.

Stage Kiss runs an interminable two hours with a 10-minute intermission. I love that ICTC still has a mask and vax policy in place. Thank them when you order your tickets at www.irishclassical.com.

Irish Classical Live Season Opens With Waiting for Godot

Ah, Waiting for Godot, a mainstay in high school English classes. The source of plenty of teen angst on the night before the paper is due (Is it an allegory? A series of metaphors? A prayer because it anagrams to To God?) while delving deep into playwright Samuel Beckett’s psyche.

Now on stage at the Andrews Theatre, this skillful production by Irish Classical Theatre Company is a charmingly ironic choice for the launch of a new season. Indeed we were all waiting for the day we could return to live theatre, and this was the show – more than 30 years ago –that launched ICTC in Buffalo. For that, we are most fortunate.

This production features ICTC founder Vincent O’Neill as Vladimir and Brian Mysliwy as Estragon as they wait for the mysterious Godot. They’re funny, they’re poignant, they’re introspective, and most of all….they are patient as they wait. Even their impatience has a languid sort of urgency to it. They’re waiting because they have no place else to go, but they’re frantic because Godot the divine cannot be missed. Their wait is interrupted in act one when the lofty Pozzo (Todd Benzin) arrives with manservant Lucky (Ben Michael Moran). Moran steals the first act by his very presence. He’s damaged in spirit and in body, yet he’s the quietly loyal man in service.  Pozzo and Lucky intrude on act two as well; this time the passage of time has taken Pozzo’s sight and Lucky’s voice. The only other actor – Jackson Snodgrass as The Boy – delivers the same message twice: Godot is not coming today, perhaps tomorrow. And still we wait. Because sometimes a story is just a story, no other agenda.

I am fond of the Andrews house and the versatility and utility of the stage. Set designer Paul Bostaph makes clever use of the space with the focal point tree, missing its midsection so the audience has sightlines. Drab in color, like the disheveled wardrobe on Vladimir and Estragon and the snappiness of Pozzo, the set is the perfectly plain backdrop for words that banter and provoke.

Director and Dialect coach Josephine Hogan had the gold standard cast for this. She kept the patter on point, perhaps a bit too well. My plebian ears struggled at times.

It was a grand way to launch a live season again in a venerable house that never disappoints. Waiting for Godot runs two hours with a brief intermission and is onstage until February 13. Visit www.irishclassical.com for details and tickets.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

The Onion Game at Irish Classical Theatre

 Stan Klimecko as Onion and Louie Visone as Ogie.  Photo is by Gene Witkowski. 

A World Premiere by an award winning playwright has settled in for a run at The Irish Classical Theatre Company. “The Onion Game,” which is billed as a hilarious black comedy, was written by Bryan Delaney who flew in from Ireland to attend the opening night performance.

“The Onion Game” centers around an extremely dysfunctional family – each member of which has their own passions and eccentricities. Actually, “dysfunctional” is putting it mildly.  Think “You Can’t Take It With You” gone horribly horribly wrong. 

At the risk of sounding old fashioned and plebeian, I prefer plays where there is at least one character who I can identify with or at least care about. In “The Onion Game” each character is wilder and stranger than the next. “The Onion Game” reminded me of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” which also features a collection of off-center characters and also moves from dark humor to the macabre. Somehow, however, with Blue Leaves, the ending is strangely poignant and weirdly beautiful. There is nothing redeeming about the ending of “The Onion Game.” Act I is amusing in an audacious, “I can’t believe he said that” way, but Act II becomes just plain horrific.  Act II also felt over long. There are some surprising plot twists, but then the play continues for another grim 20 minutes or so. I found myself thinking, “Oh, destroy each other already and let’s get out of here.” It reminded me of a tedious production of Anthony and Cleopatra that I once saw where, by Act 5, I kept thinking, “Give her the asp!”

This was a solid production.  Greg Natale has the always difficult task at the Irish Classical Theatre of directing in the round and it can be frustrating for audience members to miss significant facial expressions and even dialogue because of this challenge. Some plays just don’t lend themselves to this theatrical set up as well as other pieces do. The one quibble I have with the direction is that Natale let some of the minor characters go way over the top with their performances so that, instead of human beings, we saw interpretations akin to Tim Conway’s sketch characters on the old Carol Burnett show. In the program notes, the playwright indicates that the style of the play is heightened realism but, with these characters, any small semblance of realism was lost. The actors who played the roles are usually terrific but here their performances, although funny, felt indulgent.  Mr. Natale did a wonderful job of directing the central actors playing the family, however, and these are very demanding and provocative roles.

Stan Klimecko, one of the best actors in Buffalo, turns in another masterful performance in the meaty and difficult role of the father. He is superb throughout the play, but I especially enjoyed his lighter moments when he pranced and capered around the stage – sometimes on tiptoes and other times in demi plie. 

Kelly Meg Brennan is also fine as his formidable, tough as nails wife and Louie Viscone gives an equally strong performance in the extremely distasteful role of their nasty and hedonistic son. 

Rounding out the unhappy family circle is Ava Schara as their seriously neglected young daughter — appropriately intense, off beat, and wan. She makes Wednesday from The Addams Family look normal!

Technically, the production is of consistently high quality with special kudos to sound designer Tom Maker and a filmmaker for the quirky music and videos played during the scene changes.

The production runs three hours with one 10 minute intermission.
“The Onion Game” runs until March 29, 2020. For more information, click here.

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Review: ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kelli Bocock-Natale as Kath, Stan Klimecko as Ed and Anthony J. Grande as Mr. Sloane. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

This is one dysfunctional family with a weird twist on sibling rivalry.

Brother and sister are love-starved and have a history of being attracted to the same men. DaDa has diminished vision and keen insights…when they’re to be believed. And the opportunist  boarder killed a man. And they live happily ever after?

Playwright Joe Orton occupies some weird space with ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane,’ presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, now to June 30.

The plot is pretty twisted: Mr. Sloane is the young boarder in the home Kath (played by Kelli Bocock-Natale) shares with her DaDa Kemp (Gerry Maher).  The relationship quickly escalates to an intimate one as Mr. Sloane (Anthony J. Grande) ingratiates himself to Kath…or gloms on to her neediness…or acquiesces to her advances. Bocock-Natale is sweetly adorable in this sad role: one minute she’s coy and flirtatious, then she’s aggressive in seeking Mr. Sloane’s, ahem, attentions, and then she’s in a flight of fancy where  she’s his doting mother who also desires him. Jocasta, your complex is calling.

Enter Ed, Kath’s brother. He’s the businessman of the family, the fixer, the problem solver. Alas, he’s also in a pretty tightly closed closet and only seems to desire men when Kath is after them, too.

And then there’s the enigma Mr. Sloane. Is he really who he says he is, someone in need of lodging?  Or is he a grifter, a tease, a miscreant in search of another bad deed?

After two and half hours, I just didn’t get it.

I did love the casting, and the set…the two best parts of every ICTC show. Bocock-Natale celebrates the innocent/nefarious moods of Kath, with a lilt in her voice and a flash in her eyes. You believe that she believes she is the caring mum Mr. Sloane misses and the femme fatale he desires. Stan Klimecko as Ed  is the model of a slightly slimy stalker: he controls his family’s household without being in it and feels entitled to do so. Maher’s Dada is dotty enough and sharp, too: he’s the one – the only one – suspecting that Mr. Sloane is not who he says he is. Grande’s Mr. Sloane is one dimensional. Somehow director Greg Natale didn’t bring out any real fire or passion from Grande’s performance. Yes, Mr. S looked appropriately shocked when Kath put the moves on him, and he played up to Ed’s attentions, too, but there was something “phoned in” about his performance that didn’t help a sagging, dragging plot come to life.

Natale did, however, take full advantage of ICTC’s stage and Bocock-Natale’s range of expressions and nuances. The Natale family is very functional and beloved in this theater community for good reason. Vivian DelBello’s costumes were fine: Kath slipped from motherly muumuu to satin lingerie to a girlish floral frock that fit Kath’s fluctuating self-perceptions. Amanda Lytle Sharpe kept everyone’s accent consistent and level. David Dwyer’s set had the right look and feel  for a fine home that maybe isn’t aging as graciously as it should.

The ending left me wondering, too. The whole script was at a weak simmer below the surface. Nothing really bubbled up to be exciting or provocative (hey, even in the early 1960s, May-December romances happen, people were cruel and siblings rivaled), and the ending was pretty flat. I didn’t want “more” of this story after two and half hours, I did want it to end with more gumption. Regrettably, ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ didn’t entertain me.

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

‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ is onstage until June 30, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Irish Classical Theatre

The cast of ‘Hamlet’ at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

As the audience around me affirmed, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet overflows with quotes we use every day. Maybe that’s why Irish Classical has picked this piece to foray into Shakespeare, and it certainly seems like they should stick to it. Kate LoConti Alcocer, recently named the successor to ICTC Founding Member and current Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill, helms this streamlined production running through May 19th. The adaptation is expertly done, clear and concise in its presentation, and entertaining to the last. If you’re one of 4 people who hasn’t seen, read, heard of, accidentally come up with the plot of, haven’t seen The Lion King, or otherwise don’t know the plot of Hamlet, “spoilers” ahead.

. . .[a] well oiled machine. . .

As the damaged prince Hamlet, Anthony Alcocer begins in earnest mourning. He has just lost his father, after all. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s madness takes him over, making it hard to tell when he’s in his right mind. Alcocer finds the honesty in Hamlet, equal parts vengeful and calculated. He’s best in the final scene, as he shows range of honest emotion most actors would be jealous of. It’s a breakthrough performance for him.

The entire rest of the cast deserves to be individually commended. As Claudius, the usurper of the late Hamlet’s throne, Matt Witten is terrific. He carries himself with regal authority, and yet allows us a window into a guilty conscience rather effectively. His counterpart is Kristen Tripp Kelley, as Queen Gertrude. She’s commanded the ICTC stage before, but this is a role she’s almost born to play. She brings strength to Gertrude, a quiet dignity. She’s written to command and obey her second husband, but LoConti Alcocer and Tripp Kelley have obviously coordinated to strengthen her resolve. It’s a 2019 take without being in your face about it. Another pillar of female Shakespearean resolve comes in the form of Anna Krempholtz as Hamlet’s one-time lover Ophelia. The language comes easily to Krempholtz, and so it lets her work wonders in little stage time. It makes for an even more heartbreaking “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Expect continued big things from Krempholtz in the future. As Horatio, Adam Yellen’s performance might just steal the show. There aren’t many people Hamlet can count on, and so Yellen’s performance is expertly crafted; he’s the model of a true friend, protecting his dear Hamlet to the end. As Hamlet’s light dims, and “all the rest is silence,” we see Horatio clutching his lifeless friend. We believe Yellen’s Horatio would drink the poisoned cup.

In supporting roles, Chris Kelly is a simple and elegant Pelonius. He’s another that very easily functions with the heightened language. He also serves as the Gravedigger, a rather hilarious modern take. Ever the face of versatility, Kelly is up to the task. Jake Hayes and Peter S. Raimondo show a similar versatility; they play six characters among themselves, most notably Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively.  Rolando Martin Gomez is a stoic and troubled Ghost, with a very corporeal feel. It’s an interesting take by LoConti Alcocer, and it certainly adds to the hurt Alcocer’s Hamlet must feel. Finally, Patrick Cameron is well suited for his role as Laertes, a man who is always sure of what he wants and with an excellent sense of right and wrong.

The entire artistic team on this production is to be commended for aiding this well-oiled machine, but Costume and Set Designer Jessica Wegrzyn’s work stands out, especially when it comes to costumes. I’m a bit of a Shakespeare enthusiast, but it appears so is LoConti Alcocer. It’s a good thing, too, because what says “classical” better than the Bard?

Run time 2:45 with a 10 minute intermission.   

“Hamlet” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Frost/Nixon’ at Irish Classical Theatre

His party was trying to re-elect him as President. Then there was a break in. A secret informant. Lies. The power of the press. A landmark resignation.

A work of fine fiction? No. Welcome to the United States of America, circa 1972-74, when the Committee to Re-elect the President orchestrated the break in of the Democratic National Committee office and kicked off the Watergate scandal. Two Washington Post reporters broke the news to an incredulous country still healing over its involvement in the Vietnam war. President Richard M. Nixon declared that he wasn’t at fault, yet he resigned and withdrew from public life for a couple years. It took a British talk show host (and a checkbook) to put him in front of the TV cameras again to clear the air. Or did he?

This is the story behind Frost/Nixon, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company on stage at The Andrews Theatre March 1 to 24.

It’s a production that was a couple years in the making. “I proposed this to ICTC two years ago,” says director Brian Cavanagh. “It’s very relevant to the world we live in today.”

The story is based on the series of interviews that David Frost did with former U.S. President Richard Nixon three years after President Nixon resigned and – not ironically – in advance of the release of Nixon’s autobiography. Playwright Peter Morgan did significant research on these four  interviews that were aired in syndication on TV and also on radio, and while he took some liberties to condense four hours of programming into a two-hour play, Cavanagh says “This history behind the news of it is still there. It’s a play, it’s not a documentary, and the author is making a statement.”

Authenticity is important. Cavanagh says, “A good portion of the audience will have lived through these years, including the actor playing Nixon. There’s a whole new audience that doesn’t know a lot about Nixon or Watergate, but what is happening in our country now is a mirror.”

The need for authenticity transcends the script, too: “It’s all the in the casting, “ Cavanagh says. “Nixon – we know his face immediately. I felt I needed to find someone who could portray Nixon and give him his due. And Frost has a quirky accent.”

To fill these important roles, Cavanagh cast Jack Hunter as Nixon and Adriano Gatto as Frost. “They are both excited to play these roles. They have the talent, looks, and attitude.” Cavanagh and his cast watched the actual interviews so – particularly – the leads could see the posture and gestures of the men they’re portraying. He also made plenty of reading recommendations about the final days of Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal in general. Re-reading history and seeing the men in the interview element are fine points that will help the leads get closer to their portrayals. “We’ve been sharing a lot of information about these men, Cavanagh says.

Frost hired a team of experts to help him prepare to interview a fallen American president. Similarly, Cavanagh cast a stellar supporting cast. In the role of Lord John Birt, the BBC manager and the producer of actual interviews, Cavanagh cast David Lundy. Birt is not well-known to the American public, but he was a high-profile British broadcaster who had a background in engineering. Lundy will bring the methodical, organized temperament of an engineer to his portrayal. He says these subtle nuances are important when portraying a historical figure. Lundy says, “The folks who see the play won’t say ‘hey I bet that guy is an engineer!’, but they will see something different from what another actor who pays no attention to that does.”

Peter Palmisano was cast as Nixon’s former chief of staff Jack Brennon who, with others on Team Nixon, saw the interview as an opportunity to rebuild his statesman image with the American public. Palmisano was drawn to the role because he remembers this era in American political history so well.  Part of his preparation will include learning more about Brennon’s appearance and patterns of speech. While he’s careful not to impersonate the man, this baseline knowledge helps ground his performance. “I find it an important challenge to portray these real people as just that: real.” The audience takeaway, though, is in the script. He says, “For me the creativity in this ‘art’ comes from the creation of a character from the words in the script. You take what the playwright gives you and goes from there. In a well written play, everything you need is in the words.”

Rounding out the cast are Adam Yellen as Jim Reston, Frost’s Watergate advisor, Matt Witten as news producer Bob Zelnick, Renee Landrigan as British socialite Caroline Cushing, Ray Voucher as publicist Swifty Lazar, and Jamie O’Neill as the technician.

Frost/Nixon runs from March 1-24. Visit www.irishclassical.com for tickets and details.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Sense & Sensibility’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kristen Tripp Kelley as Elinor Dashwood, Renee Landrigan as Marianne Dashwood and Ben Michael Moran as Edward Ferrars. Photo is by Gene Witkowski

Gossipy, back-biting, smugly superior…yup, sounds like life in the British countryside, late 18th century style. This was the proverbial fodder for Jane Austen’s mill.  Kind hearted sisters stripped of their place in society, weak-willed men who don’t deserve them, and lots of smart, witty repartee make Austen’s novels a divine read and a delight on screen. Playwright Kate Hamill took the best of what we love about Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Irish Classical Theatre Company put it on stage in its WNY premiere.

Classic literature, dynamic cast, terrific staging, perfect costumes make this show shine.

Not a Jane-ite you say, gentle reader?  Pray, do see this inventive, feisty, fun romp of a novel-on-stage anyway, and with haste. Director Chris Kelly and this rambunctious ensemble create stage magic with elegantly simple set pieces, handmade sound effects, and deliciously delivered dialogue.

The opening scene is reminiscent of the ‘Tower of Babel’ opening of “Godspell” and ‘The Telephone Hour’ from “Bye Bye Birdie,” but instead of dishing about Hugo and Kim, we’re introduced to the Dashwood sisters and the fate they’ll suffer because of their father’s death and their half-sister-in-law’s machinations. Hang on to your reticule, things are about to start spinning. Literally. The white-painted set pieces are on wheels and besides delivering Miss Austen’s good words, the actors are constantly moving, circling, scooting about on either tables, chairs, benches or mobilizing them. Then there are gilt frames that magically appear at propitious times, sometimes as cottage windows or carriage windows or other portals of adventure. And don’t be confused when actors flip into multiple roles which include prancing horses and rambunctious dogs. Anthony Alcocer’s one sleeve on/one sleeve off over the shoulder dual role is particularly charming.

The cast is clearly enjoying this romp and roll, too. Kristen Tripp Kelly and Renee Landrigan embrace their roles as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the sense and sensibility of the title respectively.  They are everything a Dashwood daughter should be: Elinor is the pragmatic one who delivers the best Jane line of the novel: “I am calm. I am my own mistress.” Landrigan is the perfect Marianne, collapsing for wont of honor and true love in one scene, and playing a mean air pianoforte in several other scenes. Listen to the music and watch her fingers: she’s really playing along with the music. Impressive.

While the rest of the cast don multiple roles, they are the constants. At time their mom is Jennifer Stafford and younger sister Margaret is winsomely played by Brittany Bassett in her ICTC debut. Kate LoConti Alcocer is despicable as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood. Josephine Hogan embraces her role as the supportive Mrs. Jennings. The menfolk of the ensemble have some of the best moments. David Lundy’s main role is John Middleton, and yes, that’s him again donning a lace shawl in other moments. Ben Michael Moran plays it all from Edward Ferrars to one proud stallion and frisky pup. Brendan Didio is John Willoughby, another ICTC debut.

When they aren’t rolling chairs and tables across stage, the troupe is the soundtrack, too. From perfectly choreographed finger snaps, thigh slaps, and palm rubbing form thunderstorms. A burst of pop tune sets a new scene, repetitive words – like chants – create the metaphoric inner turmoil. Director Kelly wrung every bit of energy from this cast for sure.

The pace on stage was constant motion, fresh and bright. If the first act dragged a bit, blame dear Miss Austen’s original script for wanting to pack in every detail where a modern author would have settled for more nuance.

“Sense and Sensibility” takes the chill off a nasty winter night. Classic literature, dynamic cast, terrific staging, perfect costumes make this show shine.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission.

“Sense and Sensibility” is onstage until February 10. For more information, click here.