“Indecent” is Sublime at Kavinoky

In 1906, Warsaw was a city in revolution. The Imperial Russian Army was terrorizing workers.  The city was in recession, a harbinger of things to come. Despite this grim reality, its Jewish community was creating art and celebrating its culture. Playwright  Sholem Asch was staring taboos  in the face with a provocative play of love, defiance, and unbridled sensuality. His ‘God of Vengeance’ told  the story of illicit love between a prostitute and the virginal young daughter of a brothel owner. It shocked the establishment, and enthralled a tailor who made it his life’s work to bring the production to the great capitals of Europe and then to New York where it met its demise.

This is the story within the story of “Indecent,” beautifully constructed by Paula Vogel and elegantly staged at Kavinoky Theatre now to March 29. Presented in collaboration with the Jewish Repertory of WNY, this marks the first theatre company partnership for the Kavinoky, and this is a perfect match stylistically and metaphorically, too.

In brief, this performance is stunning. The cast of 12 takes on multiple roles that make the experience even more robust than it is. Each character carries his own dignity in humbling, strong ways throughout the story that spans more than 50 years and many locations. In a blink, lives change as society struggles along.

Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses every inch of Kavinoky’s space, from the wings to the house itself; the audience is literally wrapped in this performance. Set designer extraordinaire David King created a multi-layered canvas that transformed the Kav’s stage to the worn and weary European stage houses and war-torn buildings where Jewish culture was kept in secret.  Diane Almeter Jones did magical things with simple props; suitcases were vessels for travel that also became table supports and sign holders. The metaphors aren’t lost, they’re center stage. She dressed the set with scarves that wrapped, concealed, and transformed the actors. Brian Milbrand’s projections used a timeline in English and Yiddish that helped the audience keep pace with change in venue and the span of time. The silent movie-style narration on the projection is engaging, too. All these elements worked silently and seamlessly.

But it’s the cast constantly moving (carefully choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato) cast against a vintage screen backdrop that was tasked to tell Vogel’s intense adaptation. Jordan Levin (last seen as Leo Frank in “Parade”last season at ART of WNY, another intense performance) is on fire as Lemml, the tailor-turned stage manager. His cast mates shine in their multiple roles. Arin Lee Dandes, Aleks Malejs, Adam Yellen, Peter Palmisano, Debbie Pappas Sham, Saul Elkin, and Matt Witten flex as ‘Vengeance’ cast members and others who  are both beguiled and outraged by immorality and expressions of love. The musicians are on stage, too, and weave into the cast as well. Watch the arch of violinist Maggie Zindle’s brow as the works her way around the stage, and the playfulness Megan Callahan has in toodling  klezmer tunes on her clarinet. Musical director Joseph Donohue III doubles as the accordionist, and Bassist Benjamin Levitt rounds out the sound.

There are some gorgeous moments here; some repeat for effect, like when fine ash falls from under actors’ coat sleeves in key sequences, and a soft fall of rain welcomes spring and a new day.

Good things happen when the right partners come together in strength and shared vision. The Kav and and JRT prove this, on stage and off. The Kav’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell and JRT’s founder Saul Elkin set the bar a little higher for theatre company collaboration with this one.

Before the show, O’Donnell previewed the Kav’s 41st season. Two musicals (“Something Rotten” and “Rock of Ages” ) light up the season. The British mystery “The Woman in Black” returns to this stage. The classic “Pride and Prejudice” will take a new spin (if you liked Irish Classical Theatre Company’s treatment of “Sense and Sensibility” last season, this adaptation was penned by the same playwright), and “People, Places, and Things, a powerful story about addiction closes out the 2021 season. O’Donnell knows how to keep an audience engaged while taking some calculated chances, too. All good.

“Indecent” runs 95 minutes without intermission and is onstage until March 29. Find tickets and details here.

“The Bridges of Madison County” Cross Love and Infidelity

Pamela Mangus, Karen Harty, Arin Dandes, Robert Cooke, Chris Guilmet, Michele Marie Roberts, Ian Hayes, Kelly Copps, Paul Maisano, Ben Moran, Laryssa Petryshyn. Photo by Gene Witkowski

“The Bridges of Madison County,” making its regional premiere at the Kavinoky Theatre now until February 2, is lush with outstanding vocal performance and imagery. It will also spark some interesting conversation with your theatre companion of choice…and maybe some self-reflection, too.  Infidelity is wrong, but where is your heart’s desire? Friends who keep your secrets and spouses who button up their feelings: are they loving and loyal or living a lie? Yup, it’s an interesting night at the theatre.

Full disclosure: when “The Bridges of Madison County” was the novella everyone  was reading in 1992, I wasn’t impressed.  A decade-ish later, when it was made into a movie, I had to see it because of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, but once again…nothin’. When I heard it was being made into a musical, I may have rolled me eyes in a ‘not again’ moment. And then I heard Jason Robert Brown’s haunting, elegant score. Gorgeous.

 Kav’s production completely swept away me across that Iowa plain. This production is the epitome of romance, conflict, love, and loss, anchored by that stunning score and the incredible artistry of our local actors.

In an Midwestern corn kernel, this is a love story between Francesca, a World War II war bride from Italy who married American soldier Bud and moved to his Iowa farm, and Robert, a no-rest-in-his-soul traveling photographer from National Geographic magazine. He’s passing through town on assignment to photograph those ironic covered bridges.  In a “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to come in to mine” sort of moment, Robert ambles up Francesca’s driveway for directions. Sparks fly: Francesca’s husband and two kids are away showing cattle at a competition (spoiler alert, Stevie the steer nails it), and with only two nosy neighbors to spy and speculate, Francesca and Robert share stories, meals, a bed, their secret passions.

Yes, we’ve seen this plot before in several variations. “Same Time, Next Year” is appointment infidelity. “Brief Encounter” (or “Still Life” on stage) is love on a train. But “Bridges” has a different feel, deeper nuance. What if the stranger holds some clandestine key to pure happiness?

Michele Marie Roberts is stunning as Francesca. She opens the show with her brave anticipation in “To Build a Home,” leaving war-torn Naples, familial competition with her sister, and the broken dreams of lost love, to journey to America.  Husband Bud is Christopher Guilmet,  a soldier turned farmer who knew Francesca was “Something From a Dream” the moment he saw her.  SUNY Fredonia junior Ian Hayes is son Michael (so good when college students stretch into professional roles with a cast of new mentors), and everyone’s favorite child-adult actor Arin Dandes grows into teen-hood as daughter Carolyn. Steve Copps is the lanky, sexy, man with the camera, Robert Kincaid. A loner, a vegetarian where meat-eaters roam freely, he’s recently returned from Italy and has stories to share with Francesca as they drive to the bridge he couldn’t find on a map. And share an impromptu dinner. And grow into a four-day intensity they didn’t expect.

Roberts and Copps capture something here. Their voices in their duets are impeccably matched – note for note – with clarity, with passion, with wonder. The audience feels this, too: the moment of their first kiss, the sold-out theatre on opening night was absolutely quiet.  Even in my seat, in the back of the balcony…you heard their kiss.

It’s the music that makes this production. Allan Paglia is the lead pianist and conductor of Brown’s signature keyboard/violin/viola/cello ensemble.  Brown’s style (“Parade” and “The Last Five Years”) manages to be spare and lush at the same time. With voices as rich as Roberts’ and Copps’ the cello and viola in particular support their sound beautifully. I’ve heard both actors in their many roles through the years, but Paglia (and vocal coach Michael Hooker) brought out something in their voices. Powerful, wistful, hard to describe, as accomplished singer/actors, Roberts and Copps found something new here.

The show is more than romance between two: there’s plenty of funny scenes with Pamela Rose Mangus and Paul Maisano as the neighbor couple.  They both get their turn at song, too, Mangus with “Get Closer,” a perfect ‘60s slow dance tune, and  Maisano with the good ol’ country gospel “When I’m Gone.”

Another showstopper is ensemble member/choreographer Kelly Copps’ flashback appearance as Robert’s first wife. “Another Life” applies Brown’s style to a Joni Mitchell-esque story song. This Copps is in magnificent voice in this quick moment.

Like we’ve seen in other Kav musicals, the ensemble is full of some of the region’s finest actors, moving set pieces and adding voice and movement to key moments.

The other ‘star’ is the video and photos captured by Brian Milbrand: he and director Loraine O’Donnell with S. Copps and Roberts traveled to Iowa to pose at the storied bridge and other locations. This element that the Kav is elevating to higher art form grows on me each time I see it so artfully done on this stage. It complemented Dyan Burlingame’s set nicely.

Director O’Donnell and her team has a stellar cast and fabulous music here. If the script and story are still only so-so, the Kav cast and crew soar above it to create a great escape to a place where time can stand still for a moment and where “love is always better.”

Tickets will fly for this one: visit kavinokytheatre.com to secure your tickets. Running time is a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission to fan yourself and splash cold water on your face. (Yes, the show is that hot.) For more information, click here.

State Grant Supports Kavinoky Improvements

The Kavinoky Theatre received a special 40th anniversary present:  a $145,000 grant awarded from New York state’s Regional Economic Development Council (REDC).

The grant will fund some capital improvements for the theatre, including a Broadway-style covered entryway, new theatre seats, and an updated projection system.

“We are thrilled to receive this award,” said Loraine O’Donnell, executive artistic director of the

theatre. “This grant will breathe new life into the theatre and provide our audience with an

even more enjoyable experience. The awning will make our guests feel like they are taking in a show in New York City and the projection equipment will enhance future productions.”

Senator Tim Kennedy, a D’Youville College alumnus (Kavinoky is the 250-seat jewel of D’Youville’s urban campus) said, “This state investment will support Kavinoky Theatre’s mission to foster creativity and offer Western New Yorkers immersive experiences into all genre of theatre. By supporting the Theatre’s efforts to preserve the Kavinoky’s charm, we’re ensuring that this City of Buffalo icon will continue to inspire future artists, actors, and writers for generations to come.”

Senator Kennedy’s family is no stranger to the Kav: his cousin, Kevin Kennedy is a local actor who most recently in the Kav’s production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Of the 54 grants awarded to Erie County organizations in this funding cycle, this was one of two in the arts and cultural facilities improvement program. All told,  $67.3 million was awarded to 109 different projects in Western New York.

REDC grants support organizations and programs that help boost our regional economy and began in 2011 as a centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s s strategy to jumpstart the economy and create jobs.

The state’s investment in the Kav is another demonstration of the power of the arts to be an economic driver. In The Arts and Economic Prosperity Report “The Arts Mean Business” prepared by ASI of WNY, it showed arts and culture sector is a$352.1 million industry and generates$40.3 million in local and state government revenue.

 “This grant from the Regional Economic Development Council will allow The Kavinoky Theatre to continue to play an essential role in Buffalo’s vibrant arts community, as it has for the past 40 years,” said Pamela Say, vice president of institutional advancement at D’Youville.

The Kav’s next production – “The Bridges of Madison County” – opens Friday, January 10. Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, it was adapted for the screen and later for the stage in 2014 with a sumptuous score by Jason Robert Brown. The Kav’s production features Michele Marie Roberts, Steve Copps. Tickets and details at http://www.kavionkytheatre.com.

At long last: To Kill a Mockingbird at Kavinoky Theatre

“To Kill A Mockingbird” plays at The Kavinoky Theatre until December 8.

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Some may think it’s also a sin to script-tamper with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel’s oft-staged theatrical adaptation, but that’s exactly what Aaron Sorkin did in his 2018 adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s currently playing on Broadway and in a unique twist of fate, it’s also on stage at Kavinoky Theatre to December 8.

. . . this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest.

If you missed the story last season, the Kav was all set to stage the 1963 Harper Lee-approved adaptation. Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell had what she thought was the iron-clad permission to open the show, despite the opening of its new Broadway adaptation. Due to some legal squabbling between Lee’s estate and the Broadway producer, O’Donnell received a ‘cease and desist’ order within days of opening night, which even made it to the front page of The New York Times. Because, as the adage decrees, ”the show must go on” O’Donnell, Production Stage Manager Norm Sham, and Director Kyle LoConti and the cast quickly, agilely and expertly mounted a stunning version of George Orwell’s 1984 in just 19 days. Within a couple weeks, the Broadway producer had a change of heart and offered O’Donnell the opportunity to add the Sorkin adaptation to the theatre’s 40th anniversary season.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong story, beloved space in American literature, and compelling messages prevail. Sorkin’s staging is different from the ‘original’ stage version that closed Studio Arena Theatre’s 2008 (and final) season.  There’s an adjusted point of view here that actually brings even more relevance to 2019 audiences in a sad and compelling way. It’s very worthy, and the Kavinoky cast  members– mostly the same as last season, minus the children – are powerful in their roles.

Sorkin gives a stronger voice to some key characters which add new depth to the story. The family housekeeper Calpurnia is –in the 1930s southern tradition – a black woman who has served this family for decades. Because Lee wrote this in the late 1950s, (before the Civil Rights Movement) her head would have bowed and her comments were to herself. This Calpurnia shares her point of view clearly and it’s not lost on her employer Atticus Finch. Sorkin brings a different sensibility to Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black man, too.  Sorkin has nuanced Atticus; he’s still his children’s hero but his very human flaws reflect other conflicts.

Under LoConti’s direction, this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest. While this reviewer is not a fan of adult actors portraying children, Aleks Malejs as Scout, Michael Seitz as Jem, and Jacob Albarella as Dill are feisty and fidgety perfection. Malejs in particular dug deep into her inner child to surface the body language and affectations of a six-year-old tomboy. Albarella is charmingly irritating as Dill, the neighbor’s nephew. Watch his expressive face as he admits some painful truths of his childhood. Chris Avery as Atticus Finch is stalwart, kind, and seeks the justice that needs to be served from a world that hasn’t quite gotten over the Civil War, 70 years prior. Sorkin/Avery’s Finch isn’t an ideologue, per se, although you sense from him a yearning for something more. He has his match in Shanntina Moore as Calpurnia. Moore’s Calpurnia has a dignity that makes me want to know more about this character’s story than anyone else. When Scout’s later monologue talks about law school, who was her exemplar?: her father and his law career or Calpurnia and her need for social justice? Robyn Baun’s performance as Mayella Ewell was captivating; she turned from defensive, to fearful, to ‘don’t tread on me’ daughter of the true south effortlessly. She was the teenage victim of abuse whose hand was forced to lie about what happened in her home. She nails it.

There are wonderful pops of Sorkin dialogue sprinkled throughout, particularly some of Judge Taylor’s waggish remarks expertly delivered by Peter Palmisano. Kevin Kennedy as the southern sheriff Heck Tate and Xavier Harris as the accused Tom Robinson, David Lundy has landowner Link Dees, and John Profeta as Boo Radley delivered solid performances. It was Patrick Moltrane as Mayella’s drunk and angry pappy that makes you remember what a scared and scarred society this small southern town really was.

My one disappointment was the constant movement of set pieces. Last season’s set looked solid and stunning in the style of the Kav’s resident set designer David King. King also is credited with this set design of elements moved about by the actors themselves on a fully lit stage; this was loud and at times frenetic.

O’Donnell said on opening night that ticket sales are very brisk with several shows approaching sell out status. Get online now and book your seats: you won’t be disappointed.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs a little over two hours with a 15 minute intermission until December  8. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘Hairspray’ at The Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “Hairspray” at The Kavinoky Theatre.

“Hairspray” was the first musical I saved my money to see when it came to Shea’s on the first National Tour. I remember being enthralled by the experience. The music, the story, the fun the actors appeared to be having on stage. I was out of breath for the actors on stage. It was a rush. I hold that experience in high regard, and because “Hairspray” is one of my favorites, I am very protective of it. Walking in, I told my girlfriend that if I didn’t hear a tenor saxophone wail in the opening of “Good Morning Baltimore” I was out. If Edna didn’t make me laugh and ham it up during “Timeless To Me” I was out. If “You Can’t Stop The Beat” didn’t excite me, I was out. After witnessing the Kav’s production of one of my absolute favorite musicals, I can honestly say, that this production rivals the first national tour of the show. Get your tickets now, because they will be hard to come by!

. . .this production rivals the first national tour. . .

“Hairspray,” the 2002 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (Maeghan McDonald) a girl who is a bit larger than a size 4, and who has bigger dreams and more heart than anyone else. Tracy dreams to be on a local afternoon television dance program, The Corny Collins Show, and when it is announced that there are open auditions, Tracy sprints into action. Her mother Edna (Billy Lovern) tells her that she shouldn’t audition because of her size, but that doesn’t stop Tracy for chasing her dream. Tracy and her best friend Penny (Arin Lee Dandes) go to the television station and audition, but they are not welcomed with the open arms they were hoping.

This musical was a hit right from the beginning and rightfully so. The topics of segregation in the 60’s, self esteem, body image, breaking the societal norms, and doing the right thing, all are included in this great adaption of the 1988 film by John Waters. The score is catchy and fun, and the Kavinoky production does a impeccable job bringing the songs to life and making sure that no expense is spared.

“Hairspray” made headlines back in 2002 because the show ends with a very fast tempo, heavily choreographed, high energy song, “You Can’t Stop The Beat” where the entire cast appears on stage in a huge spectacle. This is one thing that I looked for in this show, and was very relieved that Director Carlos A. Jones made sure to keep the energy flowing and made this finale to the show fresh and new. You will jump to your feet when this song concludes. I guarantee it.

Having reviewed shows in Buffalo for the last six seasons, it is common to see the same faces playing roles at the same theaters time and time again. Sometimes it gets a little old seeing the same faces doing everything. This production has a huge talented cast, many of whom are gracing the boards at the Kav for the first time. I hope that we get to see these faces more often in the community because the talent that is possessed in this city is so great! Kudos to Director Jones for taking a chance on new faces. I hope this is the new standard.

Leading the show as Tracy is Maeghan McDonald. She’s new! Her energy is fresh, her voice is marvelous, and she truly captivates the persona of Tracy to a tee. She has heart and attitude, and together the two create a fantastic portrayal. She does not disappoint.

Arin Lee Dandes is perfect for Penny. Her innocence is a trait that goes far with this character. She gets a load of laughs and earns every one.

Billy Lovern plays Edna, sticking with the tradition of a male playing the role of Tracy’s mom. Lovern does a wonderful job playing the larger than life Edna in this production. Together with John Fredo’s Wilbur, the two bring the house down in their performance of “Timeless To Me” in the second act.

Marc Sacco plays tv host, Corny Collins. Sacco is wonderful in this role. His performance of “It’s Hairspray” is very entertaining.

Natalie Slipko and Cassidy Kreuzer play Velma and Amber Von Tussell, respectfully. They have a wonderful chemistry as the evil mother and daughter duo. We love to hate them, and hate to the love them. 

Lorenzo Shawn Parnell plays Motormouth Maybelle, and he is a powerhouse. Having just seen him in “Sister Act” at the Lancaster Opera House, it is mind boggling that he played both Sweaty Eddie and now Motormouth Maybelle. This just shows the range that he possesses. He is a brilliant addition to the cast. His performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” brings a tear to your eye.

There is so much talent in this show that I could go on for days, but it wouldn’t do the show justice. This is the best show I have seen at The Kavinoky in some time, and I suggest you get down there to see it right away, you don’t want to miss the fun!

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

“Hairspray” runs until October 6, 2019 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Equivocation’ at Kavinoky Theatre

Arianne Davidow, Darryl Semira, Chris Avery, Adriano Gatto, Chris Guilmet, Guy Balotine. Photo by Diane Almeter Jones.

Those 17th Century British Catholics: in an attempt to overthrow the (Protestant) government and monarch, they thought if they could just pack the Parliament with gunpowder and blow the dickens out of the place, the faith could rule. King James I was not amused.  He also knew he wanted to control the spin. Since social media was 400 years in the offing, perhaps the most eloquent commentator of the day – William Shakespeare – could be commissioned to write a play that would (pardon the pun) blow the lid off this conspiracy and make Great Britain Safe Again.

. . . a worthy night of theatre. 

But the King and his minions had one script in mind, while the Bard and his social conscience wanted to depict something with more authentic with fewer alternative facts.  When your head (literally) is at stake, what’s a Bard to do?

That’s the gist of Equivocation, the drama that’s closing this season at Kavinoky Theatre. I’ll be blunt: I struggled with playwright Bill Cain’s script. Most roles – except for the Bard himself (played by Guy Balotine) and his daughter Judith (Arianne Davidow) – were double cast, and this added to my confusion with the storyline that jumped from backstage, onstage, and offstage.

That’s not to say the production wasn’t well executed. David King’s set was – as usual – evocative and eye-attracting. Hearty hewn faux stonework on the Kav’s luscious Edwardian stage was just right, and using two levels of staging kept the action brisk. I loved how director Katie Mallinson used the whole house to create a surround-sound setting. Actors entered from the back of the house, jumped down off the stage for some scenes, and even used the sideboxes. This is a great effect in smaller houses and puts the audience in the middle of the story. It’s just the story itself was so nonlinear and disjointed, it was a challenge to stay focused.

There were plenty of good moments: hearing Shag (as Shakespeare is called by his peeps) reference his other works – so familiar to us – the same way we might talk about the daily grind of our own workplaces is a hoot. When the King’s staffer says His Maj wants something “with witches,” there were plenty of knowing snickers from the audience. There were some “Hamlet” references, too, and other familiar moments that made the audience engage. It’s Judith who gets her father on track with fulfilling (some) of the King’s wishes when she saves a discarded script the Bard intended to chucked away.

The ensemble has lot going on with this show. Christopher Avery, Christopher Guilmet, Adriano Gatto, and Darryl Semira are changing tunics, crowns, skirts, and wigs to keep up with the flow of characters. Gatto pulls extra duty as the fight director, too, as plenty of punches were thrown, and a there was a pretty good sword fight, too. They handled the fluctuations of their roles well, often doffing robes and tunics on stage as their personae changed.

The two most used words were equivocation (yes, there’s plenty of evasiveness spoken here) and soliloquy which Judith says she hates, but she delivers a couple fine ones. As the only woman on stage, Davidow commands her scenes easily. It’s so good to see her in a straight acting role again, after several (exceptionally fine) musical performances in “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” on this stage and most recently in “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710.

Brian Cavanagh’s lighting got to catch glints of steel off those dueling swords, and even got to create a couple pretty impressive lightning storms, too.

Before you head out to the Kav, take Cole Porter’s advice and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”  to get the most out of this one. It’s a worthy night of theatre, but be prepared to give it all of  your attention.

The Kavinoky took its share of licks this season, and had some pretty grand moments, too. Next season – its 40th – is packed with promise, drama, and two musicals, too. I can’t wait.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes-with a 15-minute intermission.

“Equivocation” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘1984’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “1984” at Kavinoky Theatre.

19 days.

That’s how long the creative team at Kavinoky Theatre had to select and stage “1984” as the replacement for “To Kill a Mockingbird” when it was forced pulled the show from the season schedule.

. . .a powerful onstage drama. . .

Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell couldn’t quell the tremor in her voice as she recapped the whirlwind timeline from the day she received the cease and desist email to Friday’s opening night. She credited the cast and crew – particularly director Kyle LoConti – for making theatre magic happen. The production trajectory is usually significantly longer (think months, not days) and it takes a special level of commitment and craft to create the experience that is “1984.”

I’ll be blunt: Chris Avery (Winston) and Patrick Moltane (O’Brien) deserve Artie Awards this year for their stunning and powerful performances. The entire cast did the proverbial yeoman’s job on a short timeline with some heavy material, but these two performances were intense.  These two particular roles were dialogue-heavy and not the typical conversational give-and-take between characters. Some of their scenes were brutal, almost hard to watch, and boy, did they play it.

“1984” is based on George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel where he projected a world filled with newspeak under the watchful eye of big brother where thought police made short work of individualism and independent thought. Global war has divided the world. The “Party” meant fear…yet everyone had to be a party worker. Love was forbidden. Propaganda was prevalent.  Civilization was bleak.

This production was created by another two Brits (Orwell was British), Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, who worked most of the content through improvisation with a London cast.  It’s a clever set up: the story begins when a book club in the year 2050 is reading a book that looks back on this cruel world. As they discuss and reflect, this imagined world comes to life on stage and on dazzling, dizzying LED screen across the stage. This is where the propaganda flows freely, from chocorat (think chocolate),  and thick skinned oranges, and lots of off the wall political ramblings. O’Donnell and LoConti wisely and kindly found a place for everyone in the large “Mockingbird” production by casting them on stage or on this screen, even the youngest actors. Video designer Brian Milband made extraordinary use of the LED panels, sometimes pixelating and distorting the images to add extra creepiness. There are times when the images go dark, and the panels are bare: this is when they are at their eeriest, actually.  That feeling of the stark barrenness behind the imagery is compelling. The set itself is a black box with a few tables, industrial-looking stools, and minimal props: often simplicity is the hardest to pull off and set designer David King and prop manager/set dresser Diane Almeter Jones won this round. Brian Cavanagh had lights flashing and dimming and the house lights up and down at precise moments, again contributing to the “we’re all being watched” ethos. There’s a moment when the house lights were up that Winston implores the audience to help him and accuses us of just sitting there….a powerful, silent, poignant moment.

Alexs Malejs gives a well controlled performance as Julia, another Party member who wins Winston heart. She’s sturdy soldier and passionate lover. Costume designer Jessica Wegryzn dressed her in a drab khaki dress, with pops of bright red when needed. Similarly O’Brien is black-suited with crisp accents: he’s all business all the time.

It’s Kyle LoConti ‘s superb direction, risk taking, and energy that pulled all these elements together – in just 19 days – that created a dynamic work of theatre art. Brava to her bold vision and tenacity.  

More blunt talk: this show won’t be for everyone. It’s fierce and strong with some disturbing moments that will linger with you (do yourself a favor and book some free time when you leave, talk to friends, have a beverage, empty your mind for a spell). As Kavinoky embraces its new mission statement to broaden its reach across genre and bring a wider variety of shows to its audience, audience members need to remain open to new experiences on this venerable stage. O’Donnell has it right: a mix of classic drama, musicals, comedies that blend new and familiar offerings should build a strong and diverse audience base with something for everyone.  This is a production that deserves to be seen: give yourself that opportunity. Embrace something bold and different. Use this experience to create an important dialogue about the value of personal opinion, our freedoms as Americans, and how incredibly blessed we are in Western New York to have bold theatre choices and talented professionals available to us.

“1984” is a powerful onstage drama that was the result of a just as powerful off-stage drama. Team Kavinoky handled both initiatives with inimitable style. The tour de force dystopian drama onstage and the sophisticated and reasonable way O’Donnell et al managed the Mockingbird interruption are both extraordinary examples of how to manage quality theatre and a public relations crisis. And all it took was just 19 days.

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

“1984”  is onstage to April 7. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.