Monday, May 28, 2007

"On The Verge" - Edgy Explorers: Women on the Eclectic Move

First: Locate WOW Cafe Theatre in the East Village. The trip is worth it> You will discover four vigorous, animated actors who spark and sparkle with a vigorous rendering of "On the Verge," by Eric Overmyer. The script, itself, fully cranks it up during the second act. The performers, however, get it right ( with enthusiasm, eccentricity, energy) from the outset.

It is 1899 and three intrepid Victorian women (explorers by trade) peer into the future. What's ahead? Terra Incognita. And Ike Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, newfangled TV, the Jacuzzi...... Wrestling with and conquering Overmyer's tricky, atypical dialogue, actors Nina Morrison as Alexandra, Johanna Weller-Fahy playing Fanny, and Julie Baber cast as Mary hit the boards with great zest and more than a fair measure of skill. This isn't an easy play. These women are on the march, they're bold, delightful, and comic. According to script, they traverse time, space, and the unknown. They smile rather easily and this is most helpful.

There's a man, too, here. Actor Cliff Campbell, taking on various roles, is delectably versatile and successful. He sings in a nightclub; he is a married man; he is an adolescent during the golden 1950s. And so on.

The play, a delight for any wordsmith, hits its stride after intermission. During the first portion, we hear about the dirigible, eggbeater, cheese and so forth. The women, individually and collectively, are excellent. Where, though, is this all headed?

Morrison, so intuitively physical and splendid with facial gesture, catapults the action forward with musical contributions.

It requires navigation of four flights of stairs to reach this production of "On the Verge." Not so curiously, the trek fits in with the theme of the play. To experience the show, one must sacrifice. BYO water bottle, I was soundly advised -- all to the good.

Portia Krieger, directing, deserves more than a few affirmative nods. "On the Verge" requires specificity in terms of actor movement. Krieger provides that while allowing each performer the freedom to create. Costumer Denise Malroney furnishes period outfits. The smart wardrobe is terrific but, one would imagine, a bit on the humid side for the actors.

In all, "On the Verge," provided by WOW (Women's One World) Cafe, is pretty nifty.

Tickets at $15 each: (212) 777-4280 ; or email:
Performances: May 31, June 2, 7, and 8 all at 8:00 p.m.
WOW Cafe Theatre: 59 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery.

Friday, May 25, 2007

BSC "A Picasso" - Tense, Terrific

Barrington Stage Company transforms a tiny, downstairs space into a cellar, a chamber. It is October, 1941 yet, within the claustrophobic confines of this basement locale, one would be hard pressed to guess that this scene occurs beneath a Parisian street. BSC triumphs with Jeffrey Hatcher's "A Picasso," which boasts: splendid performance (Thom Christopher and Gretchen Egolf), direction (Tyler Marchant), and set design (Brian Prather). The run of this taut drama has been extended through June 10.

Picasso (Christopher) has been led to the room against his will. He will spend ninety minutes (the duration of the two person play) in conflict with the alluring Miss Fischer (Egolf). The young, slim woman, is outfitted by Guy Lee Bailey in drab business garb. Her conventional suit has been chosen to match the personality of this investigator who also shows keen knowledge and intrigue with art. She is tough, matter-of-fact, and very much to the point.

Prather supplies a well-worn wooden table and a few chairs. Theatergoers sit on all sides to watch. Jeff Davis' lights are dim. Tone and atmosphere speak volumes.

"A Picasso" features match of acumen and wit between the dogged Miss Fischer and blunt, caustic, straight-ahead Picasso. He is easily angered and wears his emotions throughout. Show it or tell it? Christopher, as Picasso, accomplishes both.

The dramatic question behind Hatcher's insightful play is posed early. The playwright weaves in the complexity through layering. Rather than pronounce, this play implies. The text becomes personal as these two, trapped within this vault, seek individual leverage.

There is also a good deal of peripheral information which is helpful to the viewer. For example, Picasso, from Spain, has elected to live in France. He is exceptionally proud, strong-willed, and egomaniacal. He boasts of "Guernica." He has been asked, by Miss Fischer, to comment on the authenticity of three supposedly Picasso pieces she presents. She is German, an art critic, and sexy.

It would not surprise if someone critiques "A Picasso" as being traditionally formulaic. While I disagree, I would respect the argument. What's vital, however, is that a creative team has envisioned a performance and two top actors, demonstrating enviable timing, deliver moment after moment after moment.

Given the confining situation, pacing is crucial. Credit Marchant for give-and-take as the play evolves. Christopher and Egolf are ever convincing. Check this one out.
(413) 236-8888 - at the Berkshire Athenaeum (1 Wendell Ave, Pittsfield, MA)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Uncle Vanya" - Characters' Psyches Revealed - At Long Wharf

Forty-five years ago, the great theater director/writer Harold Clurman, providing an introduction for a collection of Chekhov plays and speaking of the Russian dramatist's pursuit of life as is, said "Life as it is lacks the direction, the causality, the cathartic effect of completed events. Like so many painters, composers, poets, novelists and.....playwrights, Chekhov was aware that the crises which are so neatly resolved by the linear form of drama are not so neatly resolved in life......The structure of a Chekhovian play is epiphanic; its purpose is to reveal-literally, to 'show forth'-the inner lives of his characters."

All of which points toward what some have dubbed Chekhov's "dramas of indirection." Theatergoers, at times, have complained that his characters talk and talk and talk but that little occurs. Nothing happens. A man who was on a personal quest for love, Chekhov, in an essay wrote, "One has to face the fact that man is a failure.....His conscience, which belongs to the spirit, will probably never be brought into harmony with his nature, his reality, his social condition....."

Conclusion: Chekhov perceived hopelessness as a human condition and was troubled that he saw little promise as men and women attempted to communicate with one another.

Taking all of this in perspective, one views Long Wharf's production of "Uncle Vanya." It is adapted and directed, with specificity, by Gordon Edelstein who has been studying and thinking about the play for two decades. The presentation is: beautiful, thoughtful, and sometimes richly comic. At the end, one still believes Chekhov, who said, "Life is an insoluble problem."

Welcome, at the end of the nineteenth century, to the estate of Serebryakov (William Biff McGuire) who is now married to Yelena (Elisabeth Waterston). Uncle Vanya (Mark Blum) and the brother of the Professor Serebryakov's first wife, used to run the place. Now, he is tired, negative, exasperated.....Vanya is sick of the retired Professor. Besides, Vanya pines for Yelena who seems totally uninterested. Sonya (Jennifer Dundas) is Serebryakov's daughter by his first wife and it is she who attempts to bring order to the estate. She happens to adore Astrov, a local physician. But, he is disspirited and not at all eager to love. Serebryakov details a plan to sell but Yelena convinces him to leave the area. And so on.

Starkly depicted by set maestro Michael Yeargan who utilizes wooden floor boards and expands the performance space (creating a most open feeling), the estate includes: a number of carefully positioned chairs, a piano, an eventual table.....

Music is auxilliary and assists in creating tone and mood -- at the very beginning of the play -- and, during intervals, too.

Blum and Biff McGuire, seasoned actors, are excellent, demonstrating perception, mastery of both text and character. Dundas, special in Long Wharf's "Aphrodisiac," brings a delightful versatility as she plays Sonya, who draws sympathy. Waterston, a tall, slender actress, smiles genuinely and often; she bestows great warmth as Yelena.

Symmetry within "Uncle Vanya?"
Try this: Waterston's father, Sam, arriving just before the show began, watched from a center orchestra seat. At the final curtain, he was first on his feet to applaud the entire cast.
(203) 787-4282

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Unmentionables" at Yale Rep - Provocative, Dramatic, Comedic

The East Coast premiere of Bruce Norris's "The Unmentionables" sizzles, quite literally, from the opening moment of the production. Developed at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, it was directed there and, here again, by Anna D. Shapiro. Good move by the Rep's Artistic Director, James Bundy, and Managing Director, Victoria Nolan, to bring this hot two hour piece to New Haven through May 26th.

The play is set in western Africa. The upscale, inviting home of Don (Paul Vincent O'Connor) and Nancy (Lisa Emery) has been designed, quite beautifully and in great detail, by Todd Rosenthal. (Rosenthal grew up, by the way, in Longmeadow.) He has created a villa which expands across the stage, adorned with curled, silver razor-like wire along top sides of the roof.....The building, however, feels like an American split-level job.

The show begins as Etienne (Jon Hill) roams down the theater aisles, moves on stage all the while advising theategoers that the imminent presentation is not at all worth retrieve money spent on tickets, etc. He withholds nothing. Etienne is pivotal as the action unfolds.

Further participants include Jane (Kelly Hutchinson) who seems to be ill - what's the problem? She and her fiance Dave (Brian Hutchison) are taking an overnight in Don and Nancy's guest room since a fire has left Jane and Dave without room. Jane is an American TV actress who has had enough of celebrity and Dave is a missionary (from Indiana) trying to help local kids in Africa. Don is a wealthy, large American who owns a factory while his bright, all-too-verbal, hovering, insistent wife Nancy cannot stay out of anyone's business. A dope-smoking physician (Kenn E. Head) offers Jane advice concerning her ailment, even if he isn't quite certain that she is actually sick. Actress Ora Jones plays Aunty Mimi, a politico who looks into accusations which ultimately surround Etienne. A couple of strong African military men (Chike Johnson and Sam Gordon) play prominent roles as Norris's script unfolds.

Thematically, morality is at the center of "The Unmentionables." What is the value of generosity? See Dave. What is a do-gooder? See Dave. Self-righteous? See...... Is Don perceptive or a prototypical aging American man looking for something on the side? Could it be that Nancy possesses a more accurate self-awareness than any one else on stage? Just how brutal are conditions in the Third World? Is Etienne a victim? If so - of what -- colonialism?

Norris takes shots at virtually every character yet one feels sympathy for several. Thus, the playwright provides drama with multi-dimension. Just when one has a character fully typed and pigeon-holed, he/she demonstrates further depth. "The Unmentionables" is exceptionally well written.

And, it's funny through its absurdity as Norris stretches characters to extremes. Just one example: Nancy wants, needs, and misses sex; intrigued? Emery's precise timing is most impressive. Norris exaggerates the people he creates and the amplification feeds the show's humor.

Additionally, "The Unmentionables " (why, exactly, this title?) is truly an ensemble work which features excellent acting. No leading men or women. There's a thoughtful to the symmetry of the play which begins and ends with Etienne -- and is oh so contemporary -- cell phones galore. Here's a guarantee: You will not be able to sit through the performance and keep a straight face during Emery's mini-monologues, Head's passionate tendency to light up......See for yourself.
(203) 432-1234