Friday, September 29, 2006

Ruhl's "Eurydice" Masterful

Sarah Ruhl, a couple of weeks ago, became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. It's the so-called "genius" award. Two years ago she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play "The Clean House" which enjoyed a wondrous world premiere at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven. Another production of that play opens at Lincoln Center in October. Now, Yale Rep opens its season with Ruhl's "Eurydice," her take on the ancient myth, "Orpheus and Eurydice." Running for ninety minutes without intermission through Oct. 14th in New Haven, the production is absolutely mesmerizing.

As a graduate student at Brown three years ago, Ruhl wrote this play. The Rep production honors her viewpoint while highlighting metaphor through stunning, stylized visuals.

She tells the story from Eurydice's perspective and, throughout, the lovely young woman's father is pivotal. Here, one imagines, the plotline is drawn, to an extent, through Ruhl's life experience. She lost her own father when she was twenty -- and a college student.

Les Waters (director), Scott Bradley (set designer), Russell H. Champa (lighting effects), and Bray Poor (sound) provide unusally vivid dimension which makes this particular production fully distinctive. By raking the stage toward the actors' right, the creative team is able to simulate torrents of water (or, is this the real thing?)......Since the action moves, on the same plane, from symbolic overworld to underworld, high quality production elements are a must. The same individuals who invented Berkeley Repertory's acclaimed production stun Yale's audiences exactly two years later. They've provided the water-strewn elevator and a ride via the River Styx to Hades.

The myth tells the tale of the beautiful Eurydice (Maria Dizzia) who, dies -- and who is pursued beneath the ground by the musical Orpheus (Joseph Parks). He is determined to find her, live with her, and is singleminded in his quest.

Eurydice, beneath ground level, meets her Father (Charles Shaw Robinson), who passed away and has, since then, attempted to reach and find his daughter. Father has actually rehearsed walking his daughter down the aisle as he imagined her wedding.

Ruhl injects other characters such as Little, Big, and Loud Stone (respectively Carla Harting, Ramiz Monsef, and Gian-Murray Gianino). Actor Mark Zeisler doubles as Nasty Interesting Man (also seeking Eurydice) and Lord of the Underworld. He rides an audacious tricycle.
Ruhl brings in music: "I Got Rhythm," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," a Guns 'N Roses number, and more.

The Stones are a wild trip. Fully uninhibited, they are cartoon-like and totally engaging. Wildly comic and delightfully unreal, the creations provide a counter to the poignant, gripping, oh-so-romantic love story which is at the crux of "Eurydice."

I feel the echo, at times, of Eric Hill's "Visions of an Ancient Dreamer," presented at Springfield's StageWest during the fall of 1990. Hill, then, and Ruhl, currently, move away from the dry and literal while involving theatergoers through imaginative/intellectually stimulating work.

Ruhl's play is sometimes "Father and Eurydice" and, at other moments, "Orpheus and Eurydice." It is heartbreaking to hear Father musing about the marriage of his daugther, even if he is unable to bear witness. Ruhl is forever touching, not maudlin, and her touch includes moments of comedy, too. Yale's rendering features excellent, spirited acting -- by the entire cast.

The symbolic colors within this "Eurydice" include a multitude of shades. Thus, it is delectably impossible to stereotype this particular show. Its singularity bears the imprint of a splendid playwright.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Durango" - Almost There

Julia Cho, the young playwright, deserves the positive recognition she has received. Her characters, whom she seems to know quite well, live and breathe. These Asian/American people are so, so real and the issues with which they grapple are upsetting to: them -- and a theater audience. "Durango" opened in world premiere at Long Wharf's Second Stage in New Haven Wednesday evening. It continues through October 15th and then moves on to The Public Theater in Manhattan.

Director Chay Yew makes the wise decision not to break the continuity by injecting an intermission. Yet, with a running time of one hour and forty-five minutes or so, the play could use trimming. Cho's script could very well retain all of its vitality were it ten to fifteen minutes shorter.

Boo-Seng Lee (James Saito) has lost his job, just four years shy of a tenure which would have enabled him to keep his benefits as he retired. Without employment, he dictatorially decides that he will drive his sons, Isaac (James Yaegashi) and Jimmy (Jon Norman Schneider) from their home in Arizona to Durango, Colorado -- where they will board a famous train.....

Isaac, on the other side of his undergraduate years, hasn't any desire to go. Jimmy, a highschooler, is thrilled about the excursion. Isaac capitulates and while en route, he and Jimmy, sharing close quarters, have many an in-depth discussion/encounter.

Their mother and Boo-Seng's wife died years before. Isaac knew and loved her while Jimmy was little when she passed on. Now, the younger brother is unable to recall his mother. Isaac and Jimmy's parents did not enjoy a smooth and blissful relationship.

An image of the once beautiful woman, through Paul Whitaker's lighting, appears, at times, downstage. The characters take on voices as they listen to her hopes, dreams, yearnings, and regrets. Actors Ross Bickell (as Ned and Jerry) and Jay Sullivan (playing The Red Angel) provide depth and dimension.

There are not any huge problems to delineate within "Durango." Nor is it a masterpiece and this, perhaps, indicates the quandary surrounding Cho: expectations. She has already garnered a slew of awards and the advance billing precedes her.

"Durango" is good but not great. The opening sequence, however, is quite special. Yaegashi sits on stage with his acoustic guitar and plays a song Cho wrote. The moment is soulful and distinctive. It's one of the highlights of the production. That mini-scene is brilliant. It is totally unfair of us to anticipate that the entire play will approach it. We do just that.

"Durango" yields pain -- and anger, heartbreak, emotional anxiety. The dialogue is honest. We watch talented actors whose timing is commendable.

Some of the theatrical conventions are predictable. For example, the three principals sit in automobile seats during the journey. The storyline, for the most part, is familiar. The terrain (across desert) might prove foreign for those who have not often departed the Northeast.

"Durango" demonstrates Cho's considerable abilities. I would be surprised if this is her best work.

Monday, September 11, 2006

"Make Me a Song" - A Composite Hit

This time around, TheaterWorks of Hartford achieves what many thought impossible -- staging a musical revue which is enlightening, bold, fun, adept, and thoughtful. "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn," blazing brightly on all burners, demonstrates the positive power of collaborative theater.

There's little madness associated with the method of Rob Ruggiero, who created and directed this show. Longtime Associate Artistic Director at TheaterWorks, Rob, for several years, has been directing shows for Julie Boyd, who founded and energizes the wonderful Barrington Stage Company, which has relocated in Pittsfield, MA. Boyd has a fine eye for talent -- both on stage and off. A couple of years ago, she brought Finn and others to Sheffield. The musician and writer Rachel Sheinkin came up with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" which moved to Broadway. During August, 2005, Boyd highlighted Finn's "Elegies." This past summer, Finn was curator of BSC's Musical Theatre Lab. Ruggiero gets around as he drives from Hartford to the Berkshires (and also finds himself flying away to guest-direct at various theaters elsewhere). Credit Rob for bringing Finn's music to TheaterWorks.

Yes, but what about the performers? All have been cast in plays either in Hartford or the Berkshires? Get it? Sandy Binion appeared in BSC shows "Elegies," "Falsettos," and "No Way to Treat a Lady." Joe Cassidy starred in "The Last Five Years" and "Master Class" at TheaterWorks. Adam Heller, in TheaterWorks' "Art" and "No Way to Treat a Lady," was part of the brilliant ensemble acting and production team which brought Finn's "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland" to Hartford Stage years ago. Sally Wilfert was superb in both "The Last Five Years" and "Goblin Market" at TheaterWorks. Further stirring this creative drink is musical director Michael Morris. Based at the Hartt School Theater, he directed "The Last Five Years" at TheaterWorks. John DiPinto is at the piano and I've yet to discover John's previous linkage to either TheaterWorks or Barrington Stage. Trust me: he, too, is an asset.

Finn's musical numbers feature "Passover" or "Why We Like Spelling" or "I Went Fishing With My Dad" or "Republicans" or "Heart and Music." He looks into the AIDS epidemic, sailing, the joys, sorrows, and difficulties of teaching, breakfast.....Finn is soulful, funny, philosophical, light-hearted. He writes ballads, love songs, parodies, and spiritual melodies. He's emotional one moment, laughint the next.

Alejo Vietti, wardrober, allows the actors to dress casually -- in jeans or cargo pants, with shirts that are comfortable and appropriate. It is, as Heller (the comedian) once notes a living room atmosphere. At times, the audience is enouraged to join in song. Luke Hegel-Cantarella opens up the stage and thrusts it a bit forward so that there isn't a hint of a fourth wall separating performers from patrons.

"Make Me a Song," filled with vitality, gives one inklings of shows for which Finn has written. At the beginning of the second act, nine tunes from the "Falsetto" plays are featured. Titles like "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" (complete with doors that open and shut), "The Baseball Game" and "Unlikely Lovers" mark this sequence as an unforgettable highlight.

This one closes in two weeks and I highly recommend, dear reader, that you find your way to the basement theater in Hartford. This is terrific stuff.