Friday, October 27, 2006

Precious: Performance Project -- "A Warning for the King"

Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA) and American International College were so, so wise to provide space that enabled the inspiring Performance Project to present its most recent piece, "A Warning for the King." This evening, at 7:00 pm, the run concludes at AIC's Griswold Theater (corner of State and Homer Streets in Springfield).

The Performance Project encourages those recently incarcerated to express themselves through theater (inclusive of acting, script writing, staging and all other live stage elements). It's an undeniably valuable, essential mission. Moreover, the work's quality demonstrates the best possibilities associated with artistic promise. The production, itself, is multi-dimensional and oftentimes sterling.

The focal point of "A Warning" is a king, adorned with crown and cloak. He happens to be a white man. After some time, he sits and examines rocks......which are symbolic? worthless? vital? You be the judge.

Other than the king, this cast is comprised of people of color who, through dialogue, verse, rap, monologue, poetry express themselves so beautifully. Certainly, the talent level varies. It's my pleasure to report that some of these amateur actors have vast potential and not one seems out of place on stage.

Credit, then, to directors Lesley Farlow and Julie Lichtenberg who have been developing this evening (along with Elsa Menendez, Billy Spivey and others) since last spring. The actors (Clive Brown, Richard Carden, Court Dorsey, James Hall, Paris Holmes, and Frances Smith) are poised, articulate, and spirited. The performers, reflecting upon their own lives, have collectively scripted "A Warning for the King."

Towards the end of the presentation, one of the actors begins a lengthy exposition with "Anger is a black god. " He concludes with "Yes, anger is a black god - a god that is black like me." This is riveting.

The Performance Project (based in western Massachusetts) combines acting, music, words, mime and production with enhanced lighting and sound to great advantage. The work is vivid, persuasive, and affecting.

The suggested donation is $10 and tickets are available at the door.

Friday, October 13, 2006

"Mr. Dooley's America" - Exquisite Delivery

The success of "Mr. Dooley's America," which continues through Sunday at The Chester Theater Company at the base of the Berkshire hills in western Massachusetts, relies upon graceful, knowing delivery furnished by a pair of poised, seasoned performers. Vincent Dowling and Des Keough might double as veteran hardball pitchers who control a ballgame's flow with guile and precision. These actors, demonstrating the value of perfect timing, serve up a delicious tiny gem of a play.

As the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth, the Chicago journalist Peter Finley Dunne created the fictional bartending Mr. Dooley, via The Chicago Post, to present views of these United States. Vincent Dowling (actor, artistic director, playwright, educator....) plays Dooley with deliberation and charm. At times, he appears ready to wink at the audience; the joke is more on Hennessy, his friend who regularly drinks/chats with him at the tavern.

Dooley was a fictional presence journalist Dunne created in order to speak of education, politics, relationships. Given governmental circumstances within Massachusetts and, soon enough, in greater America, the banter, more than a century later, seems all too appropriate.

The play runs, with intermission, for one hour and forty minutes. If you attend and fear you haven't caught the plotline, worry not. There isn't any. No matter. It's an evening filled with one and two liners: "Business was better when vice was rampant." "Going out on strike is replacing baseball as our national pastime." "A new woman will be freed from the oppression of men." "The kid will talk in his sleep. He'll be a fine lawyer." "I'm afraid the Democratic Party isn't on speaking terms with itself." "The sooner you get old, the longer you'll be old."

The opening moments of the play feature Dunne (Keogh taking on this role as well) speaking from the stage while Dooley appears at the left audience aisle. Moments later, conversations begin. The piece was written by Philip Dunne and Martin Blaine; Charlotte Moore directs. Those seeking over-the-top theater will be very much disappointment. Instead, "Mr. Dooley's America" is delightfully understated.

Dowling is at home on stage. When he pours drinks for his friend and himself, he does so gracefully, as if he might as well be entertaining in his living room. Keogh moves seamlessly from Hennessey to Dunne without missing a beat. And, the trappings within the saloon itself are inviting: well-worn wooden bar, stools, and tables. Photographs on the wall appear to have been hung decades earlier.

The actors are comfortable with one another and that relaxation allows them to concentrate upon detail. The play begs that each moment be fully realized and that is clearly the case.

Youthful attendees will appreciate the quality within "Mr. Dooley" but might find it a tad slow. Others will most assuredly appreciate the unhurried pacing.

Ticket information: (413) 354-7771 or via

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"Spelling Bee" Equals B-E-S-T

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was a smashing success in Sheffield, Massachusetts where Barrington Stage Company developed the musical play a few summers ago. And Off-Broadway, then at Circle in the Square Theatre in Manhattan. The First National tour of the rollicking comedy hit Hartford's Bushnell Theater Tuesday evening and drew round after round of much deserved raucous applause.

You gotta love this show. Six teenagers compete to become the Spelling Bee Champ. Marcy Park (Katie Boren) is soldier-like in her approach. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Stiles) struggles with: her lisp, her background, and her expectations. Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes) has the hots for someone in the audience and corresponding hormonal rage undoes him. Olive Ostrovsky (Lauren Worsham) and Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler) are sympathetic contestants whom one admires. Oversized William Barfee (Eric Petersen) is beset with a lifelong mucus problem but counters with his magic foot approach to spelling. Ultimately, he has the goods to become a winner.

Those running this particular Bee display their own adolescent tendencies. Rona Lisa Peretti (Jennifer Simard) won the contest twenty-two years earlier. Douglas Panch (James Kall), as the moderator, is nothing more than a hardly grown-up teenager. Still a nerd, he responds to the contingent before him. Mitch Mahoney (Alan H. Green) is a sweet singing person of color who lends a shoulder to persons from the audience who also had the opportunity to become actual participants.

Segue: At the outset of the performance, several theater patrons take to the stage. They have either volunteered, been selected or combination of the above and join in the fray. Remember: this is live theater, not a film -- and anything might occur.
One of the selected spellers on opening night, Aaron Hayes (forgive the possible spelling gaffe here), showed more than a tad of mettle as he nailed a couple of four star words, the final one being "catterjunes." At this juncture, facilitator Doug Panch and ensemble players, according to script, were obviously primed to moved forward. But, Hayes kept hanging around. Panch then came up with a word which sent Hayes back to his orchestra seat. As he left, however, the cast members mugged and jostled with him, affectionately, before permitting him to leave the stage. You had to be there and you have to love it -- such a precious, spirited moment distinguishes live theater!

The actors were terrific. Accommodating to time and place, they improvised yet retained disclipline within the structure, and, if anything, elevated the level of energy within the house.

"Spelling Bee," conceived by Rebecca Feldman and written by Rachel Sheinkin, was directed by James Lapine. It boasts versatile, catchy music and lyrics by William Finn. Yes, the same guy who has been celebrated a few blocks away, in Hartford, at TheaterWorks with "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn."

A few summers back, I was wandering around Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, as I awaited opening curtain of a Barrington Stage presentation. Meandering, I poked my head in a room and saw a group of people (clearly having a grand time) as they sang and jumped about while struggling and straining to spell words correctly. To this day, I'm not certain if I caught glimpses of rehearsal or actual performance of "Spelling Bee." My priorities askew, I never made a point of attending a full run-through.

Don't make the same mistake! "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is, as advertised, cute, clever, hilarious, and moving, too. Having garnered Tony and Drama Desk Awards, it will enjoy a long life on many a stage. Very cool, indeed.

The show continues at the Bushnell through Sunday, Oct. 8th. See: