Saturday, June 24, 2006


"Amadeus," continuting at Stockbridge's Berkshire Theater Festival through July 8, is impressive. It's also quite, quite lengthy. The elements of theater are in splendid array: leading men Jonathan Epstein (Salieri) and Randy Harrison (Mozart) are superb. Karl Eigsti creates a vivid period piece set. Nathan Leigh delivers Mozart's music in fine style. Eric Hill, with assistance from Isadora Wolfe, moves the actors around with purpose and specificity. This show, running for more than three hours, could be trimmed. Its expansive scope would not suffer were the running time a bit shorter.

The youthful Mozart is brash, foul-mouthed, impetuous, and brilliantly talented. Salieri, also a composer, cannot hold a musical candle to his foe, but the older man must acknowledge Wolfgang Amadeus' musical virtuosity. Salieri (as all of this is told in flashback) cannot believe that God has created a creature like Mozart -- who is a genious but who is, to Salieri, like a shifty gnat -- elusive enough to avoid swatting.

Salieri cannot control his jealousy and envy and is hellbent upon Mozart's destruction. To Salieri, Mozart is a boor. Yes, Wolfgang's music is elegant but the man, God's favorite, should be destroyed and Salieri is the man to accomplish that task. As the play evolves, Salieri pretends to find Mozart, when they are face-to-face, appealing.

Twenty-five years ago, "Amadeus" won the Tony Award for Best Play. Four years later, it snared a slew of Academy Awards. If anything, however, Peter Shaffer's script could use an edit. It is strong but not continually compelling.

Catching Epstein on stage is reason enough to go to the theater. His Shylock in Shakespeare & Company's "Merchant of Venice" (some years ago) lives on in my memory. A theatergoer does not escape Epstein. His versatility is surprising, I suppose, since his physical presence is that strong. Credit him with developing effective modulation.

Harrison, known for his work on and off Broadway and television roles such as Justin on "Queer as Folk," is wonderfully expressive, uninhibited, and energized. He and Epstein, physical opposites, are wisely cast.

Shaffer based the play, to a degree, upon the relationship the actual Mozart and Salieri evidenced. There's signficant debate here relative to dramatic license and so forth.

The Hill/Epstein combination intrigues. Hill's method of training, based upon that of Tadashi Suzuki, works: check out all of the fine actors who have reaped the benefits. One, E. Gray Simons, III, is now a BTF director. Another, John Cariani (Tony nominated actor and gifted playwright) came to Stockbridge to observe his mentor, Hill, as Eric rehearsed this play. Epstein trained at Shakespeare&Company where he "dropped in" lines. So, for that matter, did Kate Maguire, Executive Director of the Berkshire Theater Festival.

Conclusion: good theater begets good theater, no? "Amadeus" offers a great deal but I would not call it a must-see.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune

"Frankie and Johnny" is familiar. Many of us saw the movie version starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino during the 1980s. When Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci starred in a revival of Terrence McNally's play a few years ago, many more of us wished we had witnessed that performance. Count me in. Tucci has been a favorite of mine since his days at New Haven's Yale Repertory. Anyone who has watched an episode of "The Sopranos" would be intrigued to see Falco in another role.

But, let's talk about the compelling Hartford Stage production which concludes on June 18th. McNally's script, first of all, is splendid. It's decipherable, recognizable but complex. She is a waitresses in a greasy spoon where he's a short order cook. She is black, bold, and brassy. He is white, bold, and brassy. Each has suffered misforunte. These are seasoned warriors. Neither, during a couple of hours which bids actors disrobe, demonstrates what "Vogue" might describe as a flawless body.

Director Jeremy B. Cohen has made wise choices. Casting people of different races enriches the production. These individuals are comfortable with: one another, nudity, cavorting about the bedroom, traipsing into the kitchen while half-naked, tangling on the double bed..... They are believable and sympathetic -- great stuff.

Portia, who plays Frankie, and Robert Clohessy, as Johnny, make it seem like they've been involved for months. Yet, this evening is their first one together.

Unfortunately, Portia (and this is most apparent during the early moments) tends to over-enunciate. Yes, everyone hears her quite clearly. But, her effort to specify and project (important, to be sure) lessens the intimacy. The actor needs to balance vocals with the scene -- which is touching, comic, and signficant.

Neither Clohessy nor Portia demonstrate the slightest degree of self-consciousness. The sexuality inherent within "Frankie and Johnny" is natural. Given the cluttered, reality-based settings furnished by Takeshi Kata, theaterviewers feel close to the action rather than distanced.

The opening segment of the Hartford Stage production immediately hooks you through Lindsay Jones' original music. And Jaymi Lee Smith, throught the show, provides deft strokes of lighting. It's dingy but moonlight casts its glow upon the interior of Portia's place.

Clohessy and Portia invite the audience to participate, vicariously, as they insult one another, examine one another's body parts, trade sarcastic barbs.....begin to forge a relationship that might survive.

"Frankie and Johnny," juxtaposed against Debussy's lovely "Clair de Lune," is open, honest, inviting theater. Yes, it's imperfect -- so is life.