That Was The Week That Was, 5 - 23 January 2005"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


That Was
The Week
That Was

4 - 15 February '05

5 feb THE SOUND OF MUSIC Wheelock Family Theatre
5 feb MISS SAIGON Turtle Lane Playhouse
10 feb VOICES IN THE DARK (Beckett Plays) Devanaughn Theatre 12

I automatically changed the title of this column to "These Were The Weeks That Was --- until I realized that it does indeed cover Only ONE Week!
It's been a Busy week for me, what with doing the typing both for the renewed Listings Pages AND The final-cut Ballot for this year's IRNE Awards. I think I felt a Lot of Time had elapsed because most of this was just re-typing, during which I continually found myself trying to keep my thoughts about several fine productions alive enough Long enough to say anything useful about them when I got the time free ... i.e. Now. (I wonder if I actually have!)


This period began and ended with shows that re-united me with friends I have known for thirty or forty years --- so there's much more to talk about here than the usual "But what did you think of the PLAY, Mrs. Lincoln?"
And let me take the last first:

Ron and Polly Have Left The Theatre

The specific event here was a script-in-hand Reading of a fascinatingly expressionist but sadly unfinished play. Jerry Bisantz arranged for Hovey's cozy Abbott Memorial space, and briefly directed a glittering crew of actors --- a pair of whom asked for the reading as a memorial to their playwright-friend, dead these three years, who was a major supporter of theater here in Boston.

It was even more important to me as the last time Polly Hogan and Ron Ritchell could be seen on a stage in America. They are moving to Canada --- trailing with them their tireless landmark work promoting and creating the small-theatre milieu here in Boston. They have been "The Lundt's of Boston" ever since they took a second-floor space on Charles Street and turned it into THE LYRIC STAGE. The Charles Playhouse, The Theatre Company of Boston, The Atma, The Rose Coffeehouse, The People's Theatre, The Proposition --- all of them went out of business, but The Lyric endured, and not only ednured but grew, prospered, and even expanded under their leadership. They ARE theater in Boston during my lifetime.

After the reading, people sat around in the lobby upstairs and it became a very quiet, warm little party. From idea to opinion to observation to example the conversation remained insightful, respectful, and informed by years of experience, and everyone took part. What an experience!

In one quiet moment Polly told me their new house has several bedrooms, and it's strategically situated close to Three major theater-centers not far from Buffalo. I hope I can manage to accept her invitation to visit. That would probably result in Days of conversation with these two Theatrical Legends instead of the all too brief hours I have managed to share with them. And as we broke, I managed to tell him "Go TOWARD, Ron; and when you look back, Smile!"


What a trip!
First of all, Lee VanderLaan --- the cornerstone and guru of The Theater Mirror --- offered to drive from Ipswich to Portsmouth, and Geralyn Horton decided to come along. Lee is a computer-consultant who rarely gets a chance to see plays (He lives in Essex), and since "G.L." stopped reviewing in order to write another couple dozen plays I haven't been able to enjoy her conversations much --- so talking first with Geralyn on the train-ride and then with she and Lee on the road was a delight!

Then there was Portsmouth --- a comfortably not-Big city wrapped around an inlet. The Players' Ring Theatre is in a tall, square red-brick building not far from the port that someone off-handedly identified as an old house of prostitution serving the saliors and stevedors in days past! We arbitrarily chose a big Italian restaurant (called The Rosa by actors who said they usually ate there after rehearsals) and ate huge, delightful meals! In fact, they were too big to finish and I doggie-bagged them back home. Lee's flounder with pimento and my seafood medly with capers turned out to provide several delicious left-over meals over the next week!

When we got to the theatre I found it a little like The Devanaughn: a fairly tall, straight-walled, bare-brick play-space with at least 68 seats wrapped around three sides --- and, with no backstage at all, a plain wood staircase to the second floor that served for entrances and set. David Mauriello (an ex-Bostonian whose new play "A Passage of Time" will open in the Ring on 25 February) said The Ring (like Devanaughn) both produces plays and hosts other companies. The emphasis is on New Work, and "StarCrossed" --- produced by Soul Soup --- was a world premier.

The cast seemed as young as the play --- one intense actress admitted in the talk-back to a surprising Fifteen! --- but that reflected the playwright's awareness that back in the Italy of the 1500s "women" married around exactly that age, to men chosen by family rather than heart, and thereafter often gave hearts and sometimes bodies to "true" loves that might not have been their spouses.

This is Verona a generation before Romeo Montague met Juliet Capulet --- And Sharyn Shipley (nee Abramhoff, right here in Brookline) has told the story of a trio of young women and their suitors whose choice of bed-mates bring on "ancient grudge" enough to "star-cross" the very babies new-born in her second act. And that same Nurse and Friar show up, prominently, in both plays!

And if that were all, this would be a cute little satire on an immortal classic. But the truth is that Shipley's characters have a vigorous originality that brings them alive in their own right, with the excitement of their youthful discoveries of life exploding in all directions. And there is vividly original poetry here as well. Since speech is mostly iambic pentameter even today, the rhythmic text rings with music, scenes end with rhymed couplets, and I'm told there are a couple of sonnets thrown in --- though that's a fact for Shipley-scholars yet to come to explore; the sense rather than the form blazes out of them.

It is true that a smitten but poor lover goes away to earn his bride and returns to find her in a marriage of convenience and his son with someone else's name. There are sharp swords an unintended blood and ominous enmities making a murky future fraught with dogmatic detestations. And an Act Three for Shipley's show was written by an English actor about four hundred and eleven years ago.

"StarCrossed" is getting a second production out on the Left Coast of America (L.A.?), but I doubt it has frozen into final form. And that is because I once knew a girl who grew up to be Playwright Sharyn Shipley; I know how her restless mind still writes and cuts and rewrites and is Never satisfied. I know that Act One has let her revisit that teen-ager I first met, and to see Shakespeare's Italy through those eyes. I saw in this play someone who brought us cookies at the bookstore I managed, and lunched in Boston Common talking about why she'd never let Playboy make her a centerfold-girl, only to become one of the first six Bunnies hired when they built a Club in Boston, putting herself through Northeastern with that job. She's a little rounder now, teaching as a day-job, and cannot stop writing. I must write her a letter saying Act Two has, to my taste, too much juggling with structure and too little Sharyn Shipley in it. She won't take my advice; she never did, and she Shouldn't --- but her play ignites its actors and excites its directors and will grow into something better. That girl named Sharyn Abramhoff did exactly that, so why not?

5 feb THE SOUND OF MUSIC Wheelock Family Theatre
5 feb MISS SAIGON Turtle Lane Playhouse

Seeing two musicals, one at 3:00 another at 8:00, first in Boston then in Newton, is a stretch! And I had friends involved in both...

I am, I think, the only person in America who had never seen "The Sound of Music" (No, not even the movie) until last week. I could whistle some of the songs but some others, and the book by Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse, were new. Sort of new.
Now, I have learned that before Hitler took it over, Austria was haven for lots of anti-Nazi thinkers, but I found that part of this show simply "quaint" --- probably because when it was originally written and New it was laying down methods that lots of other people copied, until the original feels like a cliche --- much the way a great many of Shakespeare's best phrases now sound overworked and familiar. In that part of the plot, the only interesting surprise for me was that the young Nazi, meeting the family of the girl he loves, chooses his love rather than his party and lets them escape.
The central love-plot between Angela Williams' Maria and Christopher Chew's Captain VonTrapp simply bothered me, because the poor actors have nothing much to use but off-stage sub-text to verify the truth of their change in affection.
I think everyone was doing good work, but I really remained unmoved. And I was sorry I had to rush off to a McDonald's fishwich to get to Turtle Lane without telling Chris or Liz Robbins or Eileen Nugent how good it was to see these thorough professionals working on a Really Big Stage.
[But that Big Audience full of indulgent parents and self-absorbed children (especially several right behind me) was NOT one in which I felt comfortable at all! Maybe that's the good reason I don't review Children's or Family Theater very often! SESAME STREET really did horrible things to the American attention-span, didn't it?]

Okay, I saw "Miss Saigon" on the big round stage out at North Shore Music Circus a couple years ago, and couldn't relate to it at all. It was a big spectacle indeed, with lots of sexy chorines, and probably excellent operatic voices that, to my ears, did songs that went on repeating and repeating much too long, while the people seemed muffled somewhere inside all the flash.
But Michelle Aguillon's production out on the much smaller Turtle Lane stage turned that idea on its head. Jeff Gardiner's peripatetic sets kept even the Saigon sex-bar inside a finite enclosure, and everywhere the focus was on particular People, not fancy stage-machinery --- and on Patricia Strauss' dancers during the chorus numbers.

I know only two of the cast by name, and the cast-list identifies few of the characters adequately; but I must point out that the love-duet couple --- a tall White American and a tiny Asian --- were made even more contrasted by the fact that she always wore flat slippers or was barefoot, while he neraly always sported combat boots. Even in the spike-heeled chorus, she stood out by being small --- and that did a lot to establish, quite subliminally, her victim status. The advantage of working Small was that it concentrated attention on these two actors and their all too predictable, all too familiar story.

No, there was no Cadillac (If you've never seen the show ignore this; you won't miss it at all!) but Jeff Gardiner and the cast Did have a helicopter, which came down at the back of the stage in swirls of stage-smoke and lifted off, whereupon the entire crowd around the American Embassy watched, pointing, as it circled to stage-left and took out over the audience. So it was really more the actions of the cast than the machine itself that made this effect work.

At the top of Act Two, there are two numbers I never noticed in the other production. The men we saw in uniform appear in suits, introducing the real center of the show --- the Dust of War --- "Bui-Doi" --- half-bred children left behind by their Army fathers. The lovers may have been torn apart, but their little boy is still there --- moved to Bangkok like many Vietnamese, but unrecognized. (The tiny kids playing Kim are adorably, minimally motionless yet the center of attention!)

Another surprise, though, is the handling here of the victorious VietCong. They are represented as disciplined ranks of uniformed, dedicated Communists, small, shiny machine-guns at identical angles across their crisp new uniforms, with a leader sternly dancing his authority with an occasional spring into the air like a Noh lion-dancer. They make a stern enemy, and provide a subtext for Justin Budinoff as the girl's original fiance from her village childhood trying to force her to go through with a marriage her parents arranged before poverty and war forced her into the city and the only paying job a woman in war can find. The little playlet of their story is a tragedy all its own.

And then there's the Engineer --- proprietor --- entrepreneur --- pimp --- whose harsh, clear-eyed hunger for "The American Dream" indicts us all. The night I saw it, Peter Adams* ripped every shred of pretense from American greed and hipocrisy with this song, while visions of dollar-bills and American flags flitted across Gardiner's bare stage leaving us no place to hide.
[ * I intend to see the understudy-cast just as soon as I can arrange to; it's a good show! ]

Perhaps one reason why Aguillon directed this show so well is that she is from The Phillipines and her American father died flying helicopter rescues at the very end of that war that's depicted in the end of act one.
And I say this because a group protesting the stereotyping of Asians(Boston Progress will give a one-night performance of something called "Missed Sigh Gone" at the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center (85 West Newton St.) 7:30 onThursday, 24 February. I don't quite know their position, but I plan to attend even though it means I'll miss the after-opening party thrown by Boston Theatre Works on the same night --- press-night for "Homebody/Kabul"!
(And you thought reviewing plays here in Boston meant never having to say you're sorry, didn't you? HAH!)

10 feb VOICES IN THE DARK (Beckett Plays) Devanaughn Theatre

And here we are, back in the straight, tall, bare-brick walls I started the week with!

Every time I see a production of "Krapp's Last Tape" I'm astonished to find there's More to it than I had thought. I mean more lines, more words. More. And as the experience fades, memory again insists that "so little happens" and the play as remembered re-asserts itself as a minimal classic.
At The Devanaughn, young George Saulnier III was so well made-up (by Elizabeth Mojica) and so well into character that half the play was gone before I recognized the familiar actor. He starts the show, semi-shaven, staring implacably into himself through the slitted eyes of a grumpy frown. His many long silences are enigmatically intriguing: Something is being thought in there, but we don't know what it is, do we Mr. Jones?
This time, before Saulnier broke his silence --- not with words, but with action --- I had the impression I might be staring into a ghost of my grandfather --- or a mirror of my own face. Beckett is like that: those prolonged pauses by an actor obviously Thinking make the Observer think, while waiting, in the pregnant silence, for something to happen. Half of a Beckett play takes place inside the mind of the audience.
Here George is playing a man twice his real age, one superbly indifferent (as I am) to dusty trash, one ready to laugh in astonishment at the tape-recorded pomposities of his youth --- of his assertion back at Saulier's Real Age that he (Krapp) had said it all and the rest is silence. And what the old man does focus and re-focus on is a remembered memory of maybe sex or just physical closeness, echoing out of the mostly irrelevent past.
By grennies, those young snipperwhappers, Saulnier and Beckett, sure knew a hell of a lot about being old, didn't they!

The plays "Cascando" and "Ohio Impromptu" --- both done by Jason Myatt and Brian Quint, or sometimes by Brian Quint and Jason Myatt --- deal less with movement and more on words. They deal with beginning and trying and failing and beginning, and with reading and listening, and with pausing to repeat phrases. In the "Impromptu" the reader and the listener look as identical as possible, as though each is the mirror-image of the other even though one reads, the other listens.

The one thing true about these plays is that if you like that sort of thing, you'll like This sort of thing. If you don't, you won't. "No symbols where none intended," Sam Beckett once insisted, and who am I to say he lies?
One of the lovely surprises for me here was the music --- programmed and cello played by Joyce Rooks and slinky and ass's jaw bone played by David J --- which provided background (once) and between-acts music. The slow, laconic, ritually repeating phrase, slowly and oh so subtly changing, perfectly matched Beckett's less-is-more attitude, and I have never heard such richly minimalistic material since my first encounter with Reilly and Glass. It's reassuring to learn their tree is not picked clean of possibility.
(Maybe I should try to listen to Bauhaus or Love & Rockets, where David J learned how. Maybe not.)
The evening was directed by David J Dowling, probably by sandpapering everything down to essentials. Since I like that sort of thing, I liked this sort of thing, and so I assume it must have been well directed.
Go see for yourself.

Or not.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide