Sunday, November 19, 2006

Hartford's TheaterWorks Scores With "Take Me Out"

Rob Ruggiero has to be a helluva director. Most plays he touches work - as in the performances congeal. It's impossible for theatergoers to discern just how dictatorial is the facilitator of a production. Hence, it's tough to assign percentages -- to divy up accolades. As you watch the valuable "Take Me Out" at TheaterWorks (the run has just been extended until Dec. 10th), note the pacing as Ruggiero maximizes playwright Richard Greenberg's award winning script. The cast is, for the most part, splendid. Thematically, the subject matter is instantly compelling: What happens when a sterling baseball player, a five tool baseball player in the Major Leagues, admits he is gay?

Greenberg neither provides answers nor has he crafted the perfect script. That said, an already fine production gathers momentum as it reaches for a second act crescendo.

Darren Lemming (graceful, poised, handsome young actor Schuyler Yancey) makes it known that he is gay while doing a television interview. He misjudges impact. Lemming hasn't anticipated that scruffy, bigoted relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (Michael Balsley) might have issues......Veteran ballplayer Kippy Sunderstrom (Tim Altmeyer) narrates from time to time and attempts to defuse the situation. Kippy, a fence riding moderate/liberal, hopes that he will remain everyone's friend. He also serves as a translator for players who do not speak fluent English.

Actor Nat DeWolf plays Mason Marzac who, as fiscal advisor to Darren, speaks for a long, long time (too long) about playing baseball, democracy, and so on and so forth. Edit? Still, the character, something of a clown, is essential. DeWolf seems compelled to exaggerate with flamboyance. Marzac, the unathletic, philosophical geek is pivotal. Marzac tells us that someone must lose and that statement represents a great deal. I wonder whether the enthusiastic Marzac has fallen not only for baseball but for Lemming as well.

The shift from single to multi-dimension occurs as Greenberg's play unfolds. It touches upon bias, integrity, sexuality, sports.....and includes a scene as baseball players, fully nude next to one another, shower.

There's a most intense exchange between Lemming and his very good friend, Davey Battle (Shawn T. Andrew), who plays for another ballclub. It's head to head and heart to heart.

While I appreciate the incisive, engaging "Take Me Out," I felt out of place as (seemingly) one of two theatergoers who did not leap to his feet before all the actors took final bows. Give the actors a moment to catch collective breaths, please, before the requisite standing ovation. Greenberg has said, in interview, that he loves baseball. The actual baseball sequences in "Take Me Out" amplify and enrich the show. I would bid for just a little more baseball and less Marzac. Yes, he provides keys but he expounds and expounds. Too much, even if this is a relatively minor quibble.

Greenberg has noted that he was influenced when Billy Bean, a former big leaguer, came out six years ago and suggested that only a wonderfully talented player could admit his homosexuality and remain in the game. This play which is written by a man who has a gift for creating excellent dialogue.; (860) 527-7838

Monday, November 13, 2006

Enchanted Circle's "Leah" - Rich, Poignant, Educational

"Leah Enters Late: A New Page in the Story of Yiddish" graced the stage at the National Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, MA a number of times during the past two weeks. As I apologize for not having seen the production earlier (which eliminates the opportunity for you to see the play), let me voice a wish that the presentation return, in the future, for a follow-up engagement. Thanks to Enchanted Circle Theater artists for actualizing the concept.

The collaborative effort, which included co-producer Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA), features a carefully written script by Priscilla Kane Hellweg and Rachel Kuhn Daviau which is fully realized by a talented trio of actors. Josh Perlstein as Sam Zamler, Jeannine Haas as his wife Ruth, and Laurel Butler as their granddaughter Leah, are credible and convincing as they inhabit characters within an emotive family scene.

Hellweg and Daviau wrote the script at the behest of Nora Gerard of the Book Center. The ninety minute piece, filled with echoes of the past, effectively explains the moving and purposeful work accomplished within that essential and beautiful building. It was founded by Hampshire College alumnus, Aaron Lansky.

Leah, a seventeen year old caught in the midst of a quarrel with her mother, arrives on a rainy day at the Bronx home of her grandparents, the Zamlers. The older couple, collectors of Yiddish volumes who are about to move to Florida, read many a story aloud to the audience. It is a time to share and explain. The set, effectively depicted by Vanessa James, brings us to the confines of a warm living room, evocative of the past.....

As the actors recite, they approach the audience with tales of "Mendele The Book Peddler," "Tevye the Dairyman" and others. Meanwhile, Leah, every so often, speaks of her confusion and inability to "fit in."

Surely, for Hellweg and Daviau, the process of writing included resonant reflection. Their play is both touching and instructive. The interface is obvious since Hellweg directs. It's all quite personal, valuable, and audience-interactive.

That said, Leah's character would benefit from further development. Her importance is paramount and she could use more lines. Correspondingly, the readings might be shortened just a tad. This would enhance this effective and heartfelt play's balance.

Finally, this is a play, with an intrinsic message. No one would argue that Yiddish books, language, and culture must be saved..... Some assimilationists might wish to engage in a dialogue about the thematic implications.

"Leah Enters Late" is affecting, absorbing theater and the play, I hope, will be presented here or elsewhere.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Goodspeed's Excellent "Pirates of Penzance"

With a little help from his friends, Gordon Greenberg has taken Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" and sets it spinning with innovation, imagination, spin, invention, and pizzazz. The result is a dashing musical comedy designed to please theatergoers of all ages. The original 1880 operetta (a gem in itself) evolves into a Caribbean flavored treat at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Early on, charismatic Pirate King (Andrew Varela) and crew arrive in the West Indies. Youthful Frederic (Jason Michael Snow) is finally freed from his period as an indentured servant but he must now deal with a curse: he must "befriend" a lovely virgin and marry.

That is just the beginning of a ribald and, given this upbeat take, enthusiastic and lively production. Rob Bissinger's trappings enhance throughout.

Leading a not-terribly-threatening brigade of pirates is the Pirate King (Andrew Varela). Two women sitting nearby agreed that Varela was Depp-like which cannot detract but it could, possibly, distract. Varela has presence, voice, and command.

A first act highlight included Ed Dixon's stout (forgive the pun) rendering of, you know this one -- "A Modern Major-General!" Dixon perfectly perfonifies that character.

After intermission, the scene shifts from outside exterior waterside to Major General's abode (he seems to have about him, at all times, an incredibly luscious collection of young women).....David Woolard's wardrobe finds the maidens amid restrictive skirts and pantaloons which yield to unyielding corsets. Bright eyed, plastic smiles adorning their faces, the girls are camp and fun and alluring all at once.

Greenberg's aforementioned colleagues include book writer and lyricist Nell Benjamin and musical arranger, John McDaniel. All deserve not simply kudos but A + for not merely adapting but injecting an already splendid G&S script with twenty-first century adrenaline.

In terms of plot, as in the original, somewhat naive Frederic is surrounded by Major General's daughters. He chooses Mabel (Farah Alvin) as his future bride. By the way, Frederic was born during leap year; thus he is five years of age. The Pirate King, in parallel, finds his match in Ruth (Joanna Blushak) who has been around the block or the harbor - whatever.

During the second act, Reggae influenced Sergeant and his police charges join in the festivities. They sing "A Policeman's not a happy one." Having played a much more conventional version of the police leader when I was approximately fourteen, I happily anticipated the moment when a traditional-looking sergeant would appear. Imagine my surprise!

It seems as if another version of "Pirates" will open this coming Thursday in Australia. Here's a small wager that it cannot possibly hold a candle to the amusing, diverting, upper quality presentation at the Goodspeed. That show continues through Dec. 10th.; (860) 873-8668.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Long Wharf's "Rocket to the Moon"

As an avowed Clifford Odets fan, I very much looked forward to Long Wharf's production of a great play oftentimes overlooked. Daniel Fish directs this stylish and period-accurate presentation but this play (albeit virtuous in some ways) is stuck within the late 1930s in claustrophobic mode. Hence, its universal message might be lost.

Andrew Lieberman's set, which depicts a suite of dental offices, is wonderfully inviting as it immediately transports theaterviewers to another era. It rotates every so slightly during the course of the nearly three hour running time. Complete with windows and frames, the scenic effect absolutely enhances the show. Problem: slightlines occasionally suffer as patrons might need to crane in order to catch full view of a performer.

Ben Stark (David Chandler), almost forty, is caught. His father-in-law, Mr. Prince (the superb David Margulies) wants to help the younger man move on up and expand the dental practice. Ben's wife, Belle (Christina Kirk), is satisfied with her husband's financial contribution. But, she correctly senses that Ben has eyes for his sweet, delectable, redhaired assistant Cleo Singer (a terrific Louisa Krause). In fact, pretty much every one of the male characters Odets offers has the same reaction to Cleo -- romancing her is the ultimate purpose.

Cleo symbolizes possibility at a time in when reality was dominant: it was tough to make a buck in New York City (locale for "Rocket"); and in Germany Hitler stripped Jewish physicians of licenses. Odets surrounds his pivotal personnel with essential supporting players. Phil Cooper (Andrew Weems) is a fellow dentist while Frenchy (Henry Stram) is a foot doctor down on his luck. Actor Danny Mastrogiorgio plays Willy Wax who, in the entertainment biz, promises he could do great things for Cleo.

Chandler is stilted as Ben Stark. The character is ridden with anxiety and Chandler makes that evident. But, I am not certain that he fully inhabits this character. The performance begs for fuller, less rigid interpretation.

Clifford Odets, the legendary drama critic and director (who knew and worked with Odets) said, "What crushes Odets' people - those who allow themselves to be crushed - is not simply the economic situation, the Depression, but the temper of the society as a whoile, of which the Depression of the thirties was only an episode, a wounding symptom. It is our humanity which is in constant danger of being destroyed. That has not changed; we are still under mortal pressure of every sort...."

We need a Ben Stark who is far more credibly emotive. Chandler, director Fish, or both men create a character who is internally torn asunder but who does not visibly wear his emotional toll. I believe that this actor (who has previously demonstrated range and talent on stage and screen) could adjust his current performance for the betterment of the Long Wharf production.

The show runs through Nov. 19th.; (800) 782-8497.