Curtain Call 2003/2004 Season

Curtain Call is a featured section of ArtsEditor® that interprets theater as a chance to learn something about oneself, about the world, or about theater itself. We will consider Boston’s theatrical season in this light, providing readers with a reaction to each show that is part-review, part-reflection.

Zeitgeist Stage Company, May 14 – June 5

05.18.04: Ben Elton’s comedic satire, Popcorn, presented by the Zeitgeist Stage Company (ZSC) at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater through June 5th, enters the ongoing public debate over the media’s influence on violence and personal responsibility. The play’s satiric social commentary fits with ZSC’s desire to produce “provocative” work “reflective of the spirit of our times.” The first act wonderfully juxtaposes director Bruce Delamitri’s (Stephen Epstein) rants about artistic integrity and his films’ use of gratuitous violence with the Mall Murderers—senseless killers Scout (Susan Gross) and Wayne Hudson (Jesse Soursourian)—which the media associate with Bruce’s movies. The actors play their characters beautifully. Epstein entertains as a pompous director discussing his art and criticizing popular press but relishing his Oscar victory, while Gross and Soursourian play interesting, passionate delinquents. The link between Bruce and the Mall Murderers, combined with the first act’s naturally flowing dialogue, makes the themes apparent and effective but not overpowering. The satire begins to fall flat in the second act when the Mall Murderers bring violence into Bruce’s home. Scout and Wayne take Bruce, his materialistic estranged wife Farrah (Jennifer Huth), his daughter Velvet (Caryn Andrea Lindsey), and a Playboy-Bunny-turned-actress Brooke Daniels (Naeemah A. White-Peppers) hostage and demand that Bruce accept blame for their murders on national television. Again, the actors play their roles well, but the introduction of television and public confession make the theme of personal responsibility more heavy-handed than in the first act. The play ends with Bruce debating Wayne on television, a police shootout, and each character narrating his or her fate, all of which involve litigation that absolves them of blame. While amusing, the conclusion feels needlessly absurd as it repeats a cliché theme that the play explores too overtly in the second act, making the satire less biting and ineffective.  — Eric J. Carlson

Turtle Lane Playhouse, April 23 – May 30

05.01.04: Nine, a musical inspired by Fellini’s film 8 1/2, follows a filmmaker, Guido (Ben DiScipio), as he confronts his failing marriage and career at a Venetian spa. We meet the 23-member, female dominated cast during the “Overture.” During this introduction, the performers assume positions that they retake in later musical scenes, making them a chorus that performs many of the play’s important numbers. During these choral segments, we experience the physical immensity of the cast and the fullness of the performers’ voices, which soar through the play’s score. Since the play emphasizes the narrative and singing, it does not include much movement, except for an unnecessary audience participation/dance scene from Lillian, played by Linda Goetz, during “Folies Bergeres,” and some intricate, unsynchronized arm movements by the minor characters during “The Grand Canal.” Because of their paucity, these dance routines become awkward scenes rather than glaring errors. Although the play focuses on Guido, the largely female cast allows the women to acquire greater significance in the narrative. The interaction between Guido, his wife Luisa (Tracy Nygard), the sensual Carla (Heather Hannon), and his lover/protégé Claudia (Kate DeLima) generates much of the play’s tension. These performers sing and act with passion and vigor—DeLima’s voice in dialogue does seem thin and awkward, but throughout the play she sings with power and elegance. Other women further complicate the plot. Lillian, her silent gun-toting companion Stephanie Necrophorus (Shannon Muhs), and the film critic Lina Darling (Jessica Linquata) constantly threaten to professionally emasculate Guido, while Guido’s mother (Karen Fanale) acts as Guido’s supportive, life-affirming force. Nine, a delightful, entertaining musical, will continue its run at the Turtle Lane Playhouse in Newton throughout the month.  — Eric J. Carlson

Flanagan’s Wake
Jimmy Tingle’s Off-Broadway Theater, January 29 – May 2

01.31.04: Flanagan’s Wake, a combination of improvisational comedy and traditional narrative comedy, involves heavy audience participation. The actors create a sense of community with the audience from the beginning of the production by combining the audience members’ names with traditional Irish names (Patrick for the men’s second names, Mary for the women’s first names) and milling about the audience while drinking Guinness, asking how well we knew Flanagan. At the beginning, the actors take suggestions from the audience, such as how Flanagan died and what his lifelong dream was, to create the base of the story. The actors do a wonderful job working these elements into the play. The characters consist of Flanagan’s friend Brian; his fiancée Fiona; Fiona’s brother Mickey; Grapplin’s mayor; Father Damon; Kathleen Mooney (a villager); and Flanagan’s mother. These characters create the humor from the usual Irish cultural jokes: drinking, heavy Catholicism, fighting, singing “Toora Loora Loora” and “Danny Boy,” keening at the wake, and heavy sexual innuendo which oftentimes involves the audience. These jokes come off as stereotypical, but very funny. Because of its combination with a scripted story, the play’s improvised parts do not become overdone as they could in a strictly improvisational piece. The actors incorporate elements of current cultural events—in this instance, the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscars—into songs and stories. The actors do a good job of improvising the sometimes very disparate elements; at one point, Mickey created a song combining “Get Jiggy with It,” about a corrections officer, a sour pickle, and Howard Dean firing his campaign manager. Although the improvised digressions can sometimes get a little long, they remain entertaining, and the actors demonstrate skill making them work within the loose setting of the wake. Flanagan’s Wake combines many comic elements to create a funny, entertaining experience.  — Eric J. Carlson

Private Lives
Lyric Stage Company of Boston, January 2 – 31

01.07.04: The news in the Lyric Stage Company’s uneven but pleasant mounting of Noel Coward’s Private Lives is the sterling performance of Paula Plum. Of course, it should no longer come as news that Plum can work wonders in anything from Chekhov to Coward; she is one of Boston’s finest leading ladies. As Amanda, Plum bites deeply and deliciously into a character that is both charming sophisticate and bewitching hellcat. Plum is provided with a more than adequate sparring partner in the form of Michael Hammond. His Elyot is just the right sort of cad, and the performance deepens nicely across the three acts. Scott Edmiston contributes assured direction, and the collaboration between Edmiston and his stars on occasion comes close to fully realizing the delirious whimsy of Coward’s script. Unfortunately, Private Lives is too often amusing when it should be hysterical and simmering when it should ignite. Over the course of the run, Plum and Hammond’s chemistry may grow to make up some of the difference, but it is the rest of the production that is more problematic. While Mandy Fox is fine if a touch long-in-the-tooth to tackle the role of Elyot’s new mate, Barlow Adamson is a disaster as Amanda’s. It’s impossible to think any woman would fall for a man who persists in such self-conscious foppery. And though all the performers are elegantly dressed by Gail Astrid Buckley, Janie Howland’s scenic design fails to lend the requisite lushness to the proceedings. The second act of Private Lives concludes with an inspired row between Elyot and Amanda. As the two exchange escalating blows, one senses the fierce passion that these two characters have for each other—and for fighting. If this production doesn’t possess quite enough moments of that caliber, it does boast fine leading performances.  — Adam R. Perlman

Snow in June
American Repertory Theatre, November 29 – December 28

12.10.03: The plot of Snow in June is simple, if perhaps too slight. The Girl (Qian Yi) confesses to a crime she did not commit to spare the Widow (David Patrick Kelly), her innocent master/adoptive mother. After her execution, the Girl takes revenge upon all those who wronged her. The play is told with a linearity that makes the story easy to follow, yet undercuts its effect by spending too much time on exposition. Following the Girl’s revenge is far more interesting than her degradation. Snow‘s real triumph is the extended sequence that begins with Rob Campbell’s Judge promising obscene torture while gliding across the stage on a translucent snowmobile, complete with built-in goldfish bowl. His dynamic song leads directly to the Girl’s execution, which is accompanied by a geyser of blood-red snow that stands as the most impressive of the play’s many stunning visual effects. The entire flavor of the show turns at the Girl’s execution. When she rises from the grave, she sings in traditional Chinese opera style, fluttering around the stage in appropriately spectral fashion. As she promised on the chopping block, she is avenged and—in a coup to end the evening—incites a blinding blizzard in the middle of summer. The violence of the Girl’s retribution unsettles an audience, as she claims not only the lives of the Judge and her accuser, but of the Widow as well. Something vital portends in the story of an outsider, forced into service, who will only endure so much injustice. Contained within Snow in June is an implicit admonition, for revenge can be more than bloody. It can be beautiful.  — Adam R. Perlman

The Creation of the World and Other Business
Theatre Cooperative, November 14 – December 13

11.18.03: For America’s greatest living playwright, the last thirty years have been curious to say the least. While Arthur Miller’s acknowledged masterworks endure both in the classroom and in major New York revivals, his more recent and, in many ways, more daring works have received little praise and even less visibility. This is a shame. Miller’s latter plays are frequently comic, and almost always chilling. Such is the case with The Creation of the World and Other Business, a retelling of the Book of Genesis, currently running at the Theatre Cooperative in a production that would leave one with the mistaken impression that Miller’s more recent works deserve their relative obscurity. Creation is a tricky bit of business to be sure. It’s a Biblical parable, told before and after the fall, that posits knowledge as equally wondrous and perilous. God loves man because he has made him in his own image. If man learns about God’s plan, he will become more Godlike but also more independent. The question is, then: does God love man enough to let him go? Conversely, is man ready to go it alone in the universe, devoid of constant heavenly love? Though the answers Miller hints at are grim, his writing is not. Yet fancifully stylized dialogue often trips too glibly off the tongue, and does so here in Fred Robbins’ wildly inconsistent staging. Throughout the evening, the comedy is consistently overplayed and the more simple moments are clumsily backed into. The blocking also sorely lacks specificity; scenes of rage are accompanied by destruction of set pieces that make painful watching for the wrong reasons. All of the design elements—set, lighting, sound, and costumes—are far too pedestrian for the proceedings and fail to carve out a unified sense of style. This is particularly frustrating because, with the exception of Marc Harpin’s cloying Adam, the cast is solid. Audiences can rest assured, though, that post-1970 Arthur Miller has not lost his touch. But to enjoy his latter works, they’re probably better off resting at home.  — Adam R. Perlman

Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, October 30 – November 16

11.04.03: In the pantheon of American injustices, the Haymarket trial has a prime spot. Eight anarchists were convicted of the murder of a police officer despite no solid evidence that any of them had lifted a hand, and with ample evidence that several of them had no direct involvement in the riots. One of those defendants, newspaper editor Albert Parsons, takes center stage in the new drama Haymarket, and asks the simple but effective question, “Are we not allowed to speak?” Though Parsons ultimately paid with his life for his discourse, speak he does, and with great eloquence in Zayd Dohrn’s play. In fact, when Parsons (played with conviction but a bit too much pathos by Wesley Savick) is allowed to orate, the play builds with intensity towards a satisfying if unsurprising conclusion. Unfortunately, for much of its running time, Haymarket lacks the degree of structural focus necessary to drive home its strong ideas. The mysterious score, isolated lighting, and intercutting of monologues that dominate the first act suggest the play plans an investigation of the true circumstances of the bomb that detonated more than a riot in 1886. But Haymarket doesn’t sufficiently develop those strands, and when they recur intermittently in the more sweeping and traditional second act, they clash with the meatier material. Amidst serious courtroom business, a fragile romantic subplot, as well as a vaguely racist prison sequence, feels stylistically out of place. The talented Dohrn simply casts his net too wide, never quite blending all the colors on his palette. Yet the production at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University boasts uniformly strong acting and a deceptively simple scenic design that does much not only to suggest the different dramatic locations but the interplay of institutions with the fringe beyond. If Haymarket never finds such a clean expression within its text or ascends to the public hysteria/courtroom thriller mixture of The Crucible, of which Dohrn’s play displays heavy overtones, it serves to advertise a burgeoning playwright of solid dramatic instincts.  — Adam R. Perlman

Dinner with Friends
Chelsea Theatre Works, October 10 – November 1

10.27.03: With a title like Dinner with Friends, a play offers itself up as either a bland sitcom or a subversive work that picks apart the conventions of such fare. Donald Margulies, striving for the latter, falls into the traps of the former too frequently to create a work that stands out from the ranks of mediocre recent Pulitzer Prize winners. Margulies’ play, which examines marital fears from within the institution, follows two middle-aged couples, one dissolving, the other “clinging.” Though the writing is often insightful, it takes a top-notch cast to bring out the richness of dense speeches on food preparation. This is where the production by TheatreZone, a Boston area theater company, comes up well short. Though Larry Jay Tish hits the right, unforced notes as Tom, and co-director Danielle Fauteux Jacques is more than adequate as his estranged wife Beth, in the pivotal roles of Karen and Gabe, Tori Davis and Tom Lawlor are in way over their heads. Lawlor seems to understand where the emphasis should be but lacks both the chops and the polish to create a vivid character. Davis, meanwhile, seems to have decided Beth is boring and plays the judgment rather than the character’s interests—the result is dramatic inertia. “Inert” is the word of the evening, though, as the direction seems to caution against delivering any important line as though it has a shred of importance to the person saying it. The staging is also stupefyingly static and refuses to explore space, levels, or motion. Aid is not provided by the design elements. The lighting is fuzzy and never properly localized, the sound is muddy and frequently truncated, and the costumes are slightly inappropriate, from Tom and Gabe’s initial outfits to the bedwear in the final scene. Dinner with Friends is the inaugural production in Chelsea Theatre Works’ new home. It’s a solid space—here’s hoping they find a more fleshed-out project for their next go-around.  — Adam R. Perlman

The Credeaux Canvas
Black Box Theater, October 3 – 25

10.09.03: In describing the brilliance of fictional artist Jean-Paul Credeaux, playwright Keith Bunin praises “each gesture is essential,” “nothing is squandered,” and Credeaux works “like he’s running out of paint.” Bunin would do well to incorporate such succinct expression in his own work. As it stands, The Credeaux Canvas, which marks the first play in the Zeitgeist Stage Company season, is a rambling hodgepodge of creation clichés that could use a massive revision. Ostensibly about an art forgery, the play concentrates on plodding lines like “I don’t want to be wrecked by what I become.” Though somehow Credeaux has already appeared in major New York and Los Angeles productions, nothing in the play suggests that it has anything to contribute to the far-reaching dialogue on bohemian artists and the struggle to find one’s own voice. Credeaux deserves no metatheatrical boost, either, for the fact that the misery of the failure to find a distinct personal voice is mirrored by the play’s own miserable mediocrity. It is quite fitting that the soundtrack is filled with inferior song covers including “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the Sondheim anthem “Finishing the Hat.” But in service of this unremarkable play, Zeitgeist has mounted a solid production. Artistic Director David J. Miller handles the action with a confident hand and creates a set design that provides a wonderfully abstract backdrop within the Boston Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater. Though the less said about Chris Loftus’ embarrassingly amateurish performance the better, Joshua Rollins manages to make the platitudes almost palatable with a central portrayal that captures both the artist’s vulnerability and his obsession. A miscast Naeemah White-Peppers struggles to make the best out of a simp that she’s far too self-assured to play. Though Credeaux is a tedious evening, burgeoning Zeitgeist ultimately deploys enough weapons in service of a futile play to raise serious curiosity about its next production, the Caryl Churchill gem, Far Away— Adam R. Perlman

North Shore Music Theatre, September 23 – October 12

09.30.03: Warring within Memphis, the new rock musical from Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, are not only two cultures but two musicals. The first is conventional—a story of bridging gaps and the power of music; the second is the tale of a self-destructive man who “made the world change and refused to change with it.” It’s not surprising that Memphis generally opts to follow the more traditional route. But it’s in those moments when the show takes the road less traveled that Memphis reaches elevated ground. The story of a DJ who helped bring “race music” to the mainstream and ignored cultural stereotypes, though sufficiently uplifting and inspirational, is a sight far less specific—and therefore less universal—than a portrait of a man whose own fault it is that the world left him behind. As it stands, Memphis‘ most consistent asset is its leading man. Chad Kimball, a Boston Conservatory graduate whose Milky White was the best thing in James Lapine’s misguided Broadway revival of Into the Woods, offers a performance high on star quality and genuine chops. His Huey Calhoun is the most genuine youthful rebel I have encountered on a stage. Kimball’s performance, highlighted by a sterling multi-colored tenor that easily segues between pop and legit, is a testament to the thin line between rebel and rebel without a cause. The production is buoyed by director Gabriel Barre’s clean, efficient staging and the able support of actors Wayne Pretlow and Montego Glover—though one wonders if the latter’s voice can hold up with the amount of tension she exhibits. While Memphis is a musical that could benefit from further development, it already reigns as the best experience I’ve yet had at North Shore Music Theatre—and an engaging portrait of a forgotten figure who earns the distinction, “Dick Clark with a firecracker up his ass.”  — Adam R. Perlman

When Pigs Fly
Lyric Stage Company of Boston, September 12 – October 18

09.24.03: How seriously can you take a show that refuses to take itself seriously? When Pigs Fly, the first offering in Lyric Stage Company’s 30th Anniversary Season, breezes through its 110-minute running time with a smile preternaturally on its face and a joke on its lips. If it’s a bit low on thought development and high on banality, When Pigs Fly possesses enough charm and inspired flights of fancy to provide the sort of gleeful entertainment towards which its creators clearly aspire. Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly offers a large clue to its priorities in its title. The titular Mr. Crabtree wrote neither the music nor libretto for this musical—he designed the costumes. But, oh, what fabulous costumes they are! Crabtree’s designs, reproduced here by Tina Marie Green-Heinze, are the principal set pieces and truly dazzling creations. The show stumbles, though, in its attempts to create a somewhat narrative framework for the main character. Howard, a somewhat autobiographical creation, is a vacuum, handed the show’s clumsy high school flashbacks as well as its weakest musical number, “Hawaiian Wedding Day.” That inelegant song, along with “Sam and Me” and the first act finale, typify the show’s tendency towards numbers that are too clever for their own good—and not actually clever at all. But against this inoffensive, relatively hummable musical backdrop are set enough well-crafted numbers and talented performers to elevate the entire evening. Particularly outstanding is a vaudevillian dance piece, “Light in the Loafers,” and the three torch songs handed to Pigs‘ true luminary, Lyric regular Peter A. Carey. Effortlessly embodying melodramatic longing and stroking an ever-lengthening fuchsia scarf, Carey turns on a dime to magnificently land his 11 o’clock number—and the show’s highpoint—”Laughing Matters.” Don’t see this show expecting an evening of serious drama or even camp with teeth—this isn’t Ruthless! But When Pigs Fly is a beguiling evening of theater with much laughter that is genuinely earned. And as Mark Waldrop’s lyric reminds, “It’s times like these that laughing matters most of all.”  — Adam R. Perlman

Curtain Call is a featured section of ArtsEditor® that interprets theater as a chance to learn something about oneself, about the world, or about theater itself. We will consider Boston’s theatrical season in this light, providing readers with a reaction to each show that is part-review, part-reflection.