Miss You Like Hell: Erin McKeown discusses her RI premiere

Erin McKeown; photo credit: Jo Chattman

The Wilbury Theatre Group continues its groundbreaking 2019/20 Main Series season with a Rhode Island premiere. From Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (In The Heights) and folk-rock star Erin McKeown comes Miss You Like Hell, running March 5 -29. An intimate story of parenthood, immigration politics, and a classic road trip scenario, Miss You Like Hell tells the tale of Beatriz, facing imminent deportation to Mexico, and her attempt to reconnect with her estranged teenage daughter, Olivia, while encountering an eclectic group of characters on their way to the west coast. The show opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2018 and was nominated for three Outer Critics Circle Awards (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score), five Drama Desk Awards (including Best Music, Best Lyrics, Best Orchestrations), and named Best Musical of 2018 by The Wall Street Journal.

Now playing at Wilbury, directed by Don Mays (Hype Man: a break-beat play) and musical direction by Matt Requintina (Spring Awakening, Pirates of Penzance), Miss You Like Hell has a closer Rhode Island connection based largely on the geography of its composer and lyricist, Erin McKeown. Over the last 20 years, she has performed around the world, released 10 full-length albums, and had her work placed in numerous television shows and films. A graduate of Brown University, McKeown was also a resident artist at AS220 and is currently back in Providence as the 2020 Professor of the Practice at Brown. Motif caught up with her this week on the eve of the opening of the genre-defying Miss You Like Hell and discussed theater, collaboration and her secret guilty pleasure.

Motif: Miss You Like Hell seems to be enjoying many successful runs across the country — I see them listed on your tour date schedule. How are the various productions being coordinated? I see listings for Missouri and California among others. Are you making appearances at all of these, like you are with Wilbury? 

Erin McKeown: There’s no real coordination; [these theaters] just chose to produce it and I like to list them on my website for visibility. Anyone can do the show if they want to. The rights became available in 2019…so, about year in from when it all started. Whenever possible, though, I try to do a local concert in the area while the show is still open. Best case scenario, I’m able to perform at the theater itself. I’ll be performing locally at The Goodwill Engine Company (formally Firehouse 13) on March 14 and at Brown on the 16th (McKeown will also be giving a talkback after the play’s performance at Wilbury on the 13th). 

Motif: The show gains a lot of notice simply because of the collaboration between a more traditional playwright, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and a “rock star.” Do you find that to be unique?

EM: Miss You is unique in a number of ways because I’m not primarily a piano player, I’m a guitar player and you don’t normally see scores written that are not piano-based. There are a few out there…Roseanne Cash is working on one, and of course there’s Duncan Sheik, but a woman playing guitar within the musical theater construct is definitely unique.

Motif: And now you have another play in the works. Tell us about Terrarium Behaviour.

EM:  Yes…well, during the Terrifying Boredom that is technical rehearsals, during Miss You, I came up with this singular image and took it as a personal challenge to write a musical around that image. I’ve been working on the book and the music and lyrics in between things for two or three years and now I’m looking for collaborators. I’m looking at this notion of a utopian world where anyone can be any gender. Then an individual comes along who upsets that ecology. It’s sort of sci-fi with vaudeville songs — so, basically a Venn diagram of my sweet spots!

Motif: Have you always had a connection with theater? 

EM: Just as a fan, as a hobby. I grew up in a small town where there wasn’t a lot to do but there was community theater, and a small college that did crazy plays. I look back on seeing things like Cloud Nine (by the incongruous, revolutionary playwright Caryl Churchill) and can’t believe that happened. So, I’ve always been a fan…whenever I had a day off, I would go see some theater. 

Motif: So, with no formal connection to the theater world, how did you get involved working with Quiara Alegría Hudes?

EM: It happened because of my 2009 album, Hundreds of Lions. She heard the record and thought it sounded like something she wanted to work with. And then she just cold emailed me, one of the most important emails I’ve ever received (“Lions” is a dizzying blend of acoustic, electronic, and orchestral elements that marks a seminal moment in McKeown’s recording career). 

Motif: You live in Western Mass now, but the connection to Brown and Rhode Island is strong. What brought you to Brown from Virginia?

EM: Well, I was hungry to go far away from my roots when I was thinking of colleges and a student a little older than me got recruited to Brown for soccer. And they were athletic and artistic and a free thinker, so that seemed like a thing to do. I thought Brown would be a place for people like that (laughs). So, that’s how I ended up in Rhode Island. And then I lived at AS220 as a resident artist and that was just a wonderful experience. I’ve always kept a foot in at Brown and AS220. In fall of 2018 I did a concert for the Master Class initiative and then was asked to be Professor of Practice for 2020.

Motif: And what got you connected with Wilbury?

EM: Just a synergy of events. Wilbury chose the show. There are productions at all levels — community theater, student, and professional. This just happens to be one of those. 

Motif: What’s your favorite play? 

EM: Oh, god. It sounds embarrassing, but I’d have to say Guys and Dolls. I first saw it in high school at 13 or 14. It’s…troublesome today, but the music is so good. A blend of pleasure and bad politics. I talk a lot with my students about older “classic” shows that have not aged well in this climate…and I always tell them to call me “Coach”, not “Professor”…because it’s worth being sort of guided and advised that there can still be good music and good elements of a show that has less than ideal ingredients in it. Miss You like Hell exists in an interesting place…with a story of two brown women in the center of this climate and fighting for a place in the current musical theater landscape.

Motif: What has been your most unique collaborative experience as a musical artist, whether it’s theater or not?

EM:  Collaboration with Quiara has been singular, over the course of seven years. She’s a much more accomplished playwright and I’m new but we approached this as equals, which is an incredible gift. There’s music that she’s been responsible for, dialogue I’ve been responsible for. Collaboration on lyrics opened up a whole different world, and she would feel free to say, “That melody could go this way.” It’s wonderful. 

I have a number of musicians that have been important to me. David Chalfant, who produced “Distillation” (her first studio album from 2000) …that was an incredibly important collaboration. Singular both in length and the generosity we were able to show each other.

Motif: Who do you listen to now? What entertains you?

EM: Podcasts and prestige cable. Enjoying soundtracks to TV shows I love. It makes me think, “Is that something I want to try?”  

Motif: Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer.

EM: (Laughs)I love to play tennis! It’s a deep obsession and joy of mine.

Motif: Erin, thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s been an honor. 

EM: Thank you, it was a pleasure. I’ll see you at the show, hopefully!

Wilbury Theatre Group presents the RI Premiere of Miss You Like Hell, book & lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music & lyrics by Erin McKeown, directed by ​Don Mays, music direction by ​Matt Requintina. Mar 5 – 29, 40 Sonoma Court, PVD. For tickets and more info visit thewilburygroup.org and erinmckeown.com. There will be a talkback with Erin McKeown and members of the cast and creative team, Fri, Mar 13 post-performance.

Base Instincts: Burbage’s Edward II turns Marlowe on its head

“All live to die, and rise to fall.” – Christopher Marlowe, Edward II

Photo credit: Maggie Hall

Jeff Church, artistic director of Burbage Theatre Company is quick to explain the context of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II as a “16th Century playwright” writing a “psychosexual thriller about a gay 14th Century king.” Fans of the intrigues of Game of Thrones and “The Crown,” he says, will be drawn to this “Elizabethan take on the powder keg that is the intersection of sex, politics and religion.” All of which goes to say that, like Marlowe’s better-known contemporary Shakespeare, contemporary relevance can be mined from these ancient intrigues and florid prose. He’s right, of course, and by gender-bending the majority of the roles (only three cast members of the 18 are men, and none of the three are principal characters), the nature of the forbidden love that is central to Edward’s undoing takes on tones not possible in a “merely” male homosexual context. This Edward is revealing, bloody, visceral and willing to poke the bear at every turn. 

Edward II is a curious choice for any company, as it is rarely done – the story tends to drag and get weighed down by its own complexities, while offering scant comic relief. However, the history of the piece makes it an obvious one for BTC as its namesake, Richard Burbage, was initially associated with the title role. The script seems more likely to be produced by Rebecca Maxfield’s period-piece showcase, Head Trick Theatre, but upon inspection, Maxfield herself is credited as assistant director, so all bases are covered. This production (running through February 16th) had all of the ingredients to be a wild ride, given the unique casting using a stellar array of RI’s finest younger actors, and those expectations have come to fruition in Church’s relentless, yet sympathetic treatment of a reluctant king beset by tragedy on all sides. 

Of all the intrigues available, the central one here comes down to class and privilege. Gabrielle McCauley’s Edward is thrust upon the throne following the death of his father, Edward “Longshanks” the First (Andrew Stigler). With a prologue of sorts, we are set up for the opening as Edward II’s confidante, comrade … and perhaps more, Gaveston (played by Catia in a wonderfully grounded and intense performance) is exiled. The play proper opens with Gaveston rejoicing, daydreaming and planning his return to Edward’s side. From here, the duration of the play is a series of reversals and plots, most of which involve removing Gaveston from Edward’s sphere of influence (and vice versa). Where the subtext is and continues to be the purported homosexual nature of the relationship, what comes through in the text is issues of class and birth; the term “base” is bandied about almost as many times as characters spit on the ground in disgust (which is to say – a lot). In this particular setting, though, the insults to Gaveston’s origins take on the added weight of not just prejudice against perceived homosexuality, but overt racism. McCauley’s tortured to and fro as these intrigues play out (and later, as he struggles to stay alive) is heartbreaking. This is where Church’s directing and the actors breathe life into a script that could come across as just another second-rate history play. Church’s direction is bold yet crisp, and the subtle color choices (in an otherwise all-black palette) by costume designer Abigail Dufresne give the audience a clear sense of progression. 

It’s a mighty ensemble with several standouts, including the always-intriguing Valerie Westgate as Queen Isabel, leaping at the opportunity to spurn her husband and his questionable loyalties and take up with Alison Russo’s Mortimer. Russo does a fine job as the slow burn of arrogance and ambition culminates in haughty defiance. Ari Kassabian delights as the young Edward III, at once the child caught in the middle of two feuding parents as well as the heir to the throne, quickly realizing that his destiny is truly in his own hands. Daniel Greene’s Lightborne (the name a not-too-subtle pun, akin to Lucifer) is one of the story’s purely fictional characters, but his main purpose is to serve as an almost detached counterpoint to the pitiful anguish of a suffering Edward and the play’s ugliest metaphor comes to vivid light in a dungeon scene that brings all of the play’s design elements to fruition (hint: the program’s only graphic has dread significance). 

Burbage’s new space in Pawtucket has served them well and with Edward, they’ve lived up to the promise of a stellar season that the previous Hand to God offered. Catch this one before it closes on the 16th and get a glimpse of what happens when a skilled company and director get a hold of a dusty text and give it new life. And, if you’re daring enough to sit in the first few rows, you may remain forever stained by the experience. This one is not for the meek. 

Burbage Theatre Company presents Marlowe’s Edward II through Feb 16. 59 Blackstone Ave, Pawtucket. For more details visit burbagetheatre.org.

Admission Is Free, but Guilt Costs Everything: The Gamm delivers another biting look at who we think we are

L to R: Deb Martin as Sherri Rosen-Mason, Jacob Osborne as Charlie Mason, Jim O’Brien as Bill Mason;
Photo credit: Peter Goldberg

A close friend of mine who was once head of admissions for an elite prep school in Massachusetts would often tell the story of the moment he decided that his mission to cultivate diversity within the incoming student body was not panning out. The school is nestled in an ethnically homogenous environment (read: white) and is known more for its Division One hockey program and its canoe-building courses than its appeal to a broad cultural range of students. On one particular campus tour, my friend was interviewing an African American family who clearly expressed skepticism about the diversity of the campus. After several attempts to point out particular students of color and a scattering of cultural events, the mother of this family was nonplussed. Eventually, she turned to my friend and said, “Cut to the chase … just tell me, how white is this campus?” With a sigh of resignation, he answered, “Pretty damn white, ma’am.” He resigned not long afterward. 

This anecdote dates to the early 2000’s, but it would appear that not much has changed in the last two decades as Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, now running at The Gamm through February 9, attests. A hornets’ nest of societal and cultural diversity issues, Admissions tackles the question of liberal white guilt and social justice and their resolve in the face of personal advancement. It’s a play that not only faces these issues head on, but doesn’t tie everything up in a nice neat bow. No matter how well-intentioned some of the characters may be, everyone’s personal truths and proclivities eventually surface, and the results can be messy. 

Directed with skill and sincerity by Bryn Boice (making her Gamm debut), Admissions concerns a privileged white family at Hillcrest prep school coming to grips with their white son losing a coveted acceptance to Yale while his friend and fellow student, a biracial boy of similar but reportedly somewhat lesser academic achievement, gets in. Sherri Rosen-Mason (played with an arch sincerity by Deb Martin whose intensity and comic timing is powerfully on display throughout) heads up the admissions office at Hillcrest bent on hitting quotas of diversity that not only prove her commitment to liberal values, but serve as a feather in the cap of the school itself. Her opening scene is a wicked dissection of the word salad inherent in much of our liberal jargon concerning proactive diversity measures. She calls Roberta, the development director (Wendy Overly in a deceptively flighty performance that ultimately serves as a quite profound devil’s advocate chorus) to the carpet for not creating a brochure that reflects the 18% – 19% diversity level that Hillcrest touts. Sherri screws herself up in politically correct linguistic gymnastics in an attempt to get the plain-speaking Roberta to understand that she wants overt portrayals of obviously ethnic students in the catalog. When Roberta points out one student she included, the blunt response finally comes out – “but he doesn’t *read* black.”

At first, Boice’s direction seems to lean toward an outward-facing presentational physical comedy, but as the language of the scene sinks in, we realize that the style works perfectly. Subsequent scenes with every character maintain this high-energy, fast-paced approach that serves the comedy, while the impact of the words and the script serve their own purpose. Think “All In The Family” – if those episodes wallowed too deep into the serious issues they explored, the show would have been a drag, preachy and ultimately overbearing, but a brisk, comedic approach allowed the serious moments to land that much harder – and so it is with Admissions. This first scene is where Sherri’s modus operandi is established; we already question her underlying intentions due to her inability to simply say what she means, for fear of sounding as if she’s simply looking for the next great minority applicant to prop up her own resume. The interplay between her and Roberta serves as a standalone capsule of author intent and, as one rather vocal audience member on press night blurted out mid-scene, “This play is good! It shows what complex hypocrites we are!” 

All this before we even reach the main conflict of the story. Sherri and Bill (her husband, played by Jim O’Brien in the kind of understated, simmering performance that is his forte) learn that their son Charlie has been merely deferred, not accepted, for Yale and immediately go into damage-control mode, thinking about who they can call and what strings they can pull. It is at this point that Jacob Osborne, as Charlie, launches into one of the most notorious and controversial monologues in modern theater. Osborne (who ironically did attend Yale, according to his bio), was clearly drafted in for his ability to capture not only the appearance of a 17-year-old, but his ability to capture a beautiful balance between the popped-collar Chad of a prep school student and a socially conscious teenager struggling to make an active attempt at change in the world. In a dizzying display of brute-force memorization and verbal alacrity, Osborne’s Charlie launches into a diatribe about race, privilege, sexism and reverse discrimination that elicited applause for both its delivery and its ability to slap our brains around and make us briefly question our own perceived notions and ideals concerning race and equanimity. Often referred to as the “Penelope Cruz” monologue, Charlie’s rant questions who gets to be considered “of color” and who gets to “pass” as white all based on seemingly arbitrary and prejudiced attitudes about nationality on a country by country basis, regardless of actual genetics and geography. However, just as we think we’re applauding Charlie’s precocious insights, O’Brien steps in with perfect deadpan comedic timing to declare his son a “spoiled brat,” followed by, “well, we successfully raised a Republican.”

From here on in, the tortured divide of what Charlie calls “liberal white guilty bullshit” and ingrained support for a child is allowed to play out, resulting in Sherri’s most perfect utterance, “Some of my best friends are white men.” Even family friend Ginnie, mom to the biracial son who was accepted to Yale, falls victim to the bickering. In the hands of Gamm veteran Karen Carpenter, this potential thowaway role serves as a critical foil to Sherrie’s unraveling tiger mom, serving as the first palpable fallout of what may be Sherri’s racial hypocrisy, but also potentially delivering the key twist to the play’s ending. Charlie is the only character (well, besides the long-suffering Roberta) who actually makes an attempt to put principled action to words, declaring to his parents, “If you could make change without *doing* anything, then there would be change by now.” It’s a call to arms for anyone hearing these words. The ending, while untidy and unsatisfying, is utterly realistic and underscores that “complex hypocrisy” about which our fellow audience member enthused. 

Admissions boasts an elegant and intriguing scenic design by Patrick Lynch that utilizes a sliding brick wall to take us into and out of the Mason’s (presumably on-campus) apartment. White, sparse and reeking of a Crate and Barrel catalog, the privilege embodied is delicious, even down to the display logs nestled in a kitchen nook. Charles Cofone’s sound design relies on a percussive motif that almost signifies suspense thrillers while not being overbearing. Amanda Downing Carney’s costuming is spot on, capturing the essence of upper middle-class prep school denizens, from the ever-present athletic casual of Ginnie and Charlie, to the tweediness of Bill Mason’s school administrator. 

Admissions is not only a “good play,” it’s important work. While calling up the ghosts of the socially conscious sitcoms of the 1970s, it entertains while challenging us to ask questions that “good white people” thought were already answered. Harmon reminds us here that the questions need to keep coming as our attitudes evolve and progress. The double meaning of the title asks us not only to keep digging into our motives, but confess where we just don’t quite know what we truly want. Sacrifice to a cause is noble, but let the other guy do it. Is anyone’s conscience on that front truly clear?

The Gamm presents Joshua Harmon’s Admissions through Feb 9, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. For tickets and more information, call 401-723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org

Magic, Music and Merriment: Wilbury kicks the year off with a Rhody premiere

Scottish border ballads, rhyming couplets and site-specific performances at local bars make Wilbury’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart seem more like an offering better suited for the annual FringePVD festival than their first mainstage offering of 2020. Fitting, as David Greig’s acclaimed play about an academic’s somewhat supernatural journey of self-discovery eschews traditional stage sensibilities for moments of magic, music and merriment that rely on interaction with an audience drinking and immersing themselves in this Celtic experimental stew. 

Wilbury Theatre Group’s artistic director, Josh Short, says that Prudencia Hart is among the most “wild, whimsical and flat-out most fun shows that I have ever read.” He notes that director Brien Lang has been campaigning for years to have Wilbury mount a production. “Every year we’d make a request for the performance rights and every year we’d be told to wait until the National Theatre of Scotland’s seemingly never-ending worldwide tour was over. At last, though, we were thrilled to receive the permission to give Prudencia the rollicking Wilbury treatment we’ve been waiting for. It’s an incredibly exciting blend of cutting-edge theatrical techniques and deep-rooted storytelling, making it easily among the most unique shows we’ve ever produced here at The Wilbury Group. We couldn’t be more excited to finally get the opportunity to share it with our audiences.”

Hart concerns a collector of traditional Scottish border ballads, who feels that she has a duty to preserve and protect this native art form. However, a late-night encounter with the sketchy Nick challenges Prudencia’s notions of the meaning behind these ballads and their function in society. The storyline is often blurred, involving the audience in the transformative nature of this almost ritualistic lyric storytelling. 

Lang spoke with Motif about his deep love for this script and his approach toward staging it for Wilbury. 

Terry Shea (Motif): What drew you to this play and why have you fought so hard for Wilbury to produce it?

Brien Lang: I first read Prudencia about five years ago and have been lobbying hard for a Wilbury production ever since. We tried for several seasons to get permission to do the show, but between the continued success of the National Theatre of Scotland’s world tour of the show and a recent New York production, it took until now to finally get the performance rights. 

TS: Was it just this script you loved? Are you a fan of Grieg’s other work? 

BL: David Greig has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. All of his work is incredibly imaginative and unique and contains all of those elements that make for great theater — comedy, suspense, innovative storytelling and, quite often, music that weaves seamlessly into the performance.

TS: A large number of these performances will be in the Wilbury space (40 Sonoma Court, PVD), but you have the show happening in local bars on selected dates as well. How will you reconcile that difference?

BL: The show itself is meant to be performed in a bar setting. The audience will walk into the theater, which will be transformed into a cozy pub for what appears to be a traditional session or ‘ceilidh’ which then turns into the cast sharing a story that becomes part epic poem, part heroic ballad, part group trip to hell and back. But, in the spirit of the show — and the National Theatre tour — we’ll be bringing the show out into the community as well. We currently have shows booked at our neighbors in Olneyville (Troop, RiffRaff) and Providence (The Wild Colonial Tavern) with more to be announced. There are some unique challenges to traveling with the show, but we’re sure that the combination of friendly pubs, inventive staging and, more than likely, a bit of alcoholic lubrication will lead to some wild, memorable theater!

TS: In a show that sometimes gets compared to Once, where the main performers are also required to be musicians and singers — sort of pseudo-musical — what was your approach to putting together the creative team?

Lang: We’ve assembled a wonderful group of actors, musicians and designers and we’re all thrilled at the idea of getting this up in front of an audience both at Wilbury and at pubs around Rhode Island. We’re especially lucky that our music director, Jeff Kerr, has studied both Scottish Gaelic and the bagpipes so the soundtrack of the show will be based in traditional Scottish folk with more than a few Wilbury twists thrown in!

The Wilbury Theatre Group continues its 2019/20 Main Series season into the new year with the RI premiere of David Greig’s global hit play, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. Jan 16 – Feb 2 at The Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Ct, PVD. For the complete performance schedule, visit The Wilbury Theatre Group online at thewilburygroup.org

* Select performances will take place at these locations: Sun, Jan 26, 6pm at TROOP; Sun, Feb 2, 6pm at Riffraff Bookstore/Bar; Sun, Feb 9, The Wild Colonial (time TBA)

GAMM’s Wonderful Life Is Simply Charming

Christmas plays can be a quick and easy way for a theater to grab some cash and provide an easy holiday junket for folks who want to revel in the season. Rarely, however, can these efforts stand alone as a piece of theater that is compelling enough in, say, April or October. Trinity’s current take on A Christmas Carol may be one of their best yet, with just enough dark, brooding topicality and production value to launch it above and beyond the sea of Dickens currently washing over Rhode Island, but even it would be hard-pressed to sell well beyond early January. An oddity is currently enjoying a short run at The Gamm, however, and that oddity is not only a Christmas play, but one that could easily be staged in any other month and still be a thoroughly charming event. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is not a new show, by any means, but The Gamm has made it theirs with local touches and an effortless ensemble-driven performance that provides good cheer without belaboring the point. 

R: Richard Noble (Joseph/Billy Bailey/Others),  Tony Estrella (George Bailey), Madeleine Lambert (Mary Hatch, Rose Bailey), Lynsey Ford (Violet Bick/Janie Bailey/Others), Jeff Church (Harry Bailey, Ernie Bishop/Others), Emily Turtle (Announcer/Zuzu Bailey); Photo credit: Peter Goldberg

Directed by Damon Kiely (making his Gamm debut), this Joe Landry-adapted version of the classic screenplay follows the redemptive arc of George Bailey as a light-hearted, but ambitious scoundrel who charms everyone in Bedford Falls while single-handedly keeping the town’s Building and Loan business afloat and out of the clutches of the evil Mr. Potter – until he doesn’t, causing him to flame out in a fit of assholery and seek his own demise. Clarence, the loveable schlub of an angel who is simply trying to earn his wings after 200 years of heavenly internship, takes on the task of showing George what life would have been like without him ever being born, and tears flow like wine (and that’s just in the audience) when all is revealed that Bedford Falls would have been a far less joyful place without George. 

It’s a classic tale, despite Bailey’s rakishness, because the simple power of the story is about “decency and selflessness…and that a community is only as strong as its most vulnerable members,” according to artistic director Tony Estrella (who also voices the part of George). The period touches, the warmth of the set design with just a touch of oversized Christmas bulbs and a lone tree off to the side of a lived-in radio studio (WGAM, in this case) welcome the “studio audience” as they enter. Cast members (all using their actual names) greet showcomers and solicit them to write down personal messages to be read “on air” during the “broadcast.” Aside from Michael McGarty’s smart scenic touches (the stage manager is visible behind the studio glass for the duration, while practical microphones are dressed in period casings), it is Jessie Darrell Jarbadan’s costumes and hairstyling for the ensemble that complete the picture. Even the assistant stage manager (Jessica Winward) is done up to match the ensemble, leaving no detail untouched. These production elements, alongside such tight ensemble work, lend verisimilitude to the entire engagement, allowing us to be drawn into this familiar story with fresh ears. 

The beauty of Kiely’s direction here is that he does not attempt to create a backstory behind the characters at the microphone. Too often in staged radio plays there is a play-behind-the-play, a la Noises Off, where the story is often an afterthought to some intrigue among the cast. In this case, we get a simple, but honest involvement as actors who are not at the mic (and no one gets to rest for long, often switching characters mid-sentence with a verbal acuity that is not only difficult to pull off with precision but can often result in a pained look of concentration) are listening with a relaxed joy. The cast is just as immersed as we are, sympathetic as young George saves Richard Noble’s pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a customer, or rooting for Madeleine Lambert’s Mary Hatch to finally convince George to drop his walls and confess his attraction. It’s a nimble and well-rehearsed cast (who, admittedly have scripts in their hands for the duration, allowing for an ease of mind that may not otherwise be as forthcoming in a memorized performance) whose charm and wit is infectious. 

While everyone has several chances to shine here, the vocal standouts (aside from Noble’s rich-as-molasses baritone) tend to be the women; Lambert’s shifts from pouty schoolgirl to world-weary mother prompt one to see the show again and listen with eyes closed.

Announcer/Accompanist Emily Turtle juggles several tasks, but her vocal renditions of the youngest Bailey child are adorable enough to give Baby Yoda a run for the cutest thing we’ve seen in December 2019. Lynsey Ford’s Violet is a treat and her energy makes her a joy to watch as well as hear. 

Jeff Church looks as if he were born in this era and slots in so perfectly that it’s easy to overlook his vocal gymnastics. Church also shines during the customized radio jingles, performed live in between acts of the story. Aside from Greenwood Credit Union, the highlight commercial is for Rhode Island College, where Church affably flubs the name of the institution several times to great effect. Fred Sullivan, Jr. shows off his considerable experience, bouncing between Clarence the angel, Henry Potter, and a hard-bitten policeman at the turn of a dime. And while Estrella gets the star turn here as George, eliciting our sympathies even when he’s at his worst, one cannot give enough credit to Foley artist DJ Potter, whose octopus-like performance of the sound effects from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” sets the pace for the entire production. Without these homemade, jerry-rigged sounds, radio would have no life beyond the recitation of words, and seeing this craft played out live is always a wonderful treat. 

It’s a most difficult task to make hard work look not only easy, but joyful, and this production welcomes us in with open arms and a cup of good cheer without coming across as smarmy or ingratiating. It’s a simple show with a simple message – be a good neighbor, be a good person – but the afterglow is as powerful as any Dickens or Messiah can deliver this season. It’s a wonderful show.

The Gamm Theatre presents It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, through Dec 22. 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. For tickets and more information, call 401-723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org.

CCRI’s Guest Artist Series Provides New Opportunities for Students and Loads of Entertainment

Working in college theater can be fantastically educational and rewarding; however, there are some inherent limitations, specifically for designers and technical engineers who are only exposed to their own school’s inner resources and programming. In order to gain experience, many students need to dabble in summerstock or regional theater work, schedules and policies permitting. To that end, CCRI’s theater department established the Guest Artist series, specifically designed to serve as a learning opportunity for technical theater students, allowing them to develop the skills they’ll need in the real world, to work at touring venues (eg, PPAC, VETS) and theaters that have quick turnover in programming. By serving as hosts to visiting companies, the intention is that these students develop practical skills that will be vital to their careers as professional theater technicians. 

Motif spoke to CCRI theater professor, Theodore Clement, and his next visiting artist, Kira Hawkridge (artistic director of OUT LOUD). OUT LOUD visits CCRI starting November 14 at the Bobby Hackett Theatre for what is being called Creature Double Feature, a return of OUT LOUD’s critically acclaimed works from last season. Billed as a “Devised Tour,” Creature Double Feature brings together OUT LOUD’s original and wholly devised monster/horror productions, CREATION X and IMMORTAL THIRST. OUT LOUD will also present a series of “collective breath” process-oriented workshops that engage with how these pieces were conceptualized, created and experienced, alongside a double-feature limited run of both plays. As opposed to simply being spectators at these performances, students will immerse themselves in the creative process and take part along the way. 

We asked Clement how this series started and why OUT LOUD got the nod. “The Guest Artist series was created as a practical learning journey for our students, particularly our technical theater students,” says Clement. “It began last spring when we hosted Seed and Ivy Theatre Company in conjunction with the Office of Student Life and produced their original work, Bedtime Stories, as a part of CCRI’s Sexual Assault Awareness programming.” After hosting Seed and Ivy, which proved extremely rewarding for their students, the CCRI faculty and staff agreed that the model was worth pursuing. 

“We want to teach the students how to promote and produce touring shows,” says Clement, drawing a distinction between productions that are more traditionally “one and done” and not meant for re-creation elsewhere. They have scheduled Epic Theatre Company’s two-hander, Marshall to take residency in the spring, but OUT LOUD was in high demand from both CCRI students and faculty. “The work that OUT LOUD Theatre is creating is groundbreaking. We’re thrilled to have them in residence,” says Clement. “Each company we bring in will be asked to present an educational component that will be open to the CCRI community and the public at large. We hope to continue to feature productions from the Rhode Island theater community, particularly focused on original works.”

OUT LOUD’s artistic director, Hawkridge, says, “After seeing CREATION X, Ted immediately approached us and expressed interest in collaborating on this model. After we created IMMORTAL THIRST, Ted brought the concept of the Creature Double Feature (a nod to the Boston-based monster movie series that used to captivate viewers in the ’70s and ’80s) to our collaborative and we absolutely loved it. We are passionate about creating space for student artists and providing a multitude of opportunities to engage with different types of work and processes. This felt like a perfect fit.” 

We asked Hawkridge what about the Guest Artist series drew them in besides just an opportunity to present these works again in a different setting. “Participating in [the series] is an exciting opportunity for OUT LOUD to fully engage with one of our expanding goals as a collaborative: To continue to explore our original and devised work through devised touring models that also have a strong focus on an educational component,” says Hawkridge. “In revisiting the original work from our Season 7 in a new context, we have been able to also use these processes and final products to expand upon our unique ensemble-building methodology, and figure out how to articulate that process to students and/or interested collaborators. In doing this, we’re able to support their initiative to teach their students how to promote and produce touring shows.” 

Asked how this residency will address the specifics germane to technical theater, Hawkridge says, “We have a unique way of approaching a tech process that is highly and often radically collaborative. It has been a wonderful experience working with the CCRI students on putting up this double feature and we hope it has been an exciting learning environment for all involved!” 

The CCRI Players Proudly Present OUT LOUD Theatre in CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE: A presentation of Devised Theater. Featuring:

CREATION X, co-directed by Siobhan LaPorte-Cauley & Kira Hawkridge. Thursday, November 14 at 7:30pm and Saturday, November 16 at 2pm

Wrestling with the lines we draw between observation, active study and reckless experimentation, Creation X explores the internal and external consequences that our actions have when we begin to slip past the laws of nature, morality, and reason. 


IMMORTAL THIRST, directed by Kira Hawkridge. Friday, November 15 at 7:30pm and Saturday, November 16 at 7:30pm

IMMORTAL THIRST follows a family of aristocrats — a father (The Lord), his two sons (The Heir and The Spare) and his daughter (The Daughter) — who are invited to attend an elusive and coveted gala held by the illustrious Contesă. It is revealed that only an elite set of families who meet the Contesă’s highly specific and utterly unknown criteria are hand- picked to attend this particular event and that it is an astonishing honor to be invited. Upon arrival, the family realizes they are the only guests worthy of an invitation and the Contesă’s true motivations are yet to be revealed.

To reserve tickets, call 401-825-2219. All performances at The Bobby Hackett Theater, Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), 400 East Ave, Warwick.

No Humbugs Here: Holiday theater moves in to the Ocean State

A certain cynicism creeps in during the holidays as an evolutionary response to all of the unmitigated cheer that surrounds us before the gunmetal grey stoicism of the new year sets in. Christmas, for the most part, gets first billing, and our entertainment often reflects those segments of society who are either too disaffected or too cool to jump into the pool of cheer with both feet. 

Theater is not immune to this phenomenon, and, in previous years, there have been a fair amount of “alternative” holiday offerings in RI beyond the umpteenth version of A Christmas Carol. However, 2019 has gone back to a mostly all-in joyfest, with even more Dickens than ever. But there are a few surprises among the Wonderful Carols. From storefronts to moving trains, Christmas is on the move in RI Theater. Here’s a brief listing of what’s out there to see as you attempt to stave off the winter blues and get in the spirit of the season. 

A Christmas Carol

“Trinity Repertory Company’s version has lasted for over 40 years, in large part because we reimagine it every year from the ground up, returning to the great source material in order to find something fresh and unexpected. The story also has the remarkable ability to respond to new sources of delight and wonder, taking them in and making them a part of the annual telling.” – Curt Columbus, artistic director, Trinity Rep. 

The gold standard of the Carols is always Trinity Rep’s annual deep dive into Dickens, and this year promises to be no different. Jude Sandy stars as Scrooge this time around with all your company favorites popping in in various roles. 

Trinity’s version runs through Dec 29 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater. For reservations, call the Trinity Rep box office at 401-351-4242.

In addition to Trinity, ambitious versions of Carol are being offered up by The Granite in Westerly (Nov 20 – Dec 22) and Artists’ Exchange presents their 16th annual take Dec 12 -22. The Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket promises a “fresh adaptation … brimming with extravagant scenery, lavish costumes, dramatic lighting, fog and flying spirits!” (Dec 13-22) and CTC in Wakefield brings us Matthew Fraza’s adaptation Dec 5 -22. 

Flying spirits aside, perhaps the most unique take on Dickens out there this season will be on a moving train, delivered by Marley Bridges Theatre Company out on Aquidneck island. On Saturdays, from November 30 to December 21st, the group features afternoon and evening trips from Portsmouth Junction Station complete with an “interactive retelling of the Charles Dickens classic…Music, laughter, food and spirits [all puns intended, one supposes]” and “a dining journey along the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad in our custom-designed theater car featuring special tables for two all facing the center stage.” Not an all-ages experience, Marley Bridges stresses the “festive”atmosphere of these events and recommends that the little ones stay at home. Tickets are pricey, but those looking for a unique way to experience Scrooge’s dilemma may want to jump on this train now. 

The usual alternative to Dickens is George Bailey’s Christmas agonies, and The Gamm delivers with It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Dec 5 – 22. Call 401-723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org for more info. Another flavor in that vein is A Miracle on 34th Street, and RISE Playhouse in Woonsocket serves up some belief Dec 6 – 15. And what else screams Christmas Eve besides A Visit from St. Nicholas – aka ’Twas the Night Before Christmas? On Nov 30, PPAC presents the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and Channel 12’s Patrick Little as guest narrator. 

Newport Playhouse keeps the farces flying with A Christmas Cactus from Nov 21 – Dec 31. Directed by Tony Annicone, Cactus is a not-so-subtle homage to both Dickens and romantic comedy. Epic Theatre Co. offers up Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever from Dec 6 – 15 at The James and Gloria Maron Cultural Arts Center (Academy Players’ home space) in Providence. Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick serves up a double helping of something different with The Gift of the Magi (developed from the O. Henry short story) and Balls by George Cameron Grant, a tale of talking ornaments from Dec 5 – 20.

Those looking for something a little more skewed can take themselves to Providence Place Mall Nov 29 – Dec 22 and see a storefront performance of David Sedaris’ irreverent The Santaland Diaries, with a rotating cast (including Epic’s Kevin Broccoli) produced by Spectrum Theatre Ensemble. It’s an adults-only left-of-center nugget that was a niche piece on NPR for years until adapted for the stage. If you were looking for a ray of snark among the sea of joy listed above, here’s your beam, sunshine. 

And finally, Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story is reenactedby Living Literature (livingliterature.org) at the Cranston Public Library on Dec 14.  This group has been around since 1996 without much fanfare, so take the kids (and the adults) to Cranston for a perfect blend of tradition and modern angst. 

Seduction of the Innocent: How one man set out to destroy comics

“Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”

                – Fredric Wertham

The now defunct Comic Code, established in 1954 as a measure of self-censorship by many of the major comic book publishers of the time, served as both a stamp of reassurance for retailers and the death knell for entire genres of comic storytelling. Horror comics became a rare breed and storylines were required to ensure that “in every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” 

The impetus for this code was largely due to the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, a highly subjective work that used mostly anecdotal evidence as well as Wertham’s own particular responses to titles that he felt portrayed prurient and overtly gruesome content that contributed directly to juvenile delinquency. The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers had previously enacted a largely unenforced code in 1948, but after Seduction hit the shelves, what had been scattered public opposition to some of the edgier comic fare hit a fever pitch, Comic Code resulting.  

Playwright Lenny Schwartz has been dealing head-on with injustices within the comic industry for years now, most notably with his exposes of the short shrift given to Batman and Spiderman co-creators Bill Finger and Steve Ditko, respectively. A notable presence at each year’s major Comic Cons, Schwartz and comics (for many people) are synonymous and his newest work takes a look at Dr. Wertham and the torturous journey towards the Code. A Seduction of the Innocent, opening November 14 at the RISE Playhouse in Woonsocket, is the true story of Wertham and the good he did in the world — at first. As events unfold, Schwartz’s drama portrays Wertham’s campaign against comics, as early as the late 1940s and then on into the 1950s, culminating with the publication of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent. Schwartz explores the effect that the book had on the world, pop culture and Wertham himself. It’s a look at a dark time in American history and how that period relates to current events.

Motif was able to speak with Schwartz and get some insight into why he chose Wertham as his next comic-related enterprise. Our first question was how Seduction differed, if at all, from his other comics-based adventures. 

“This is the third part of the ‘comic book trilogy’ if you can call it that. The first one was Co-Creator, a story about Bill Finger and the creation of Batman…which I am ironically redoing…I now have a much better script on the one. That was followed by Ditko, which we just brought to New York City in time for New York Comic Con, which was a pretty cool experience.”

While Ditko and Co-Creator had similar themes, Schwartz is quick to point out that Seduction of the Innocent stands somewhat apart. “The other two were about creation … Batman, Spider-man … while this one is about something completely different. This is about how somebody tried to destroy the comic book industry. And he nearly succeeded. The effects of what he did changed pop culture forever. This is a story of how one man who has done good in the world makes decisions that are opportunistic. He falsifies research. He turns America into a mob against comics. It’s about his rise to prominence. It’s about the results of the hysteria he created … people burning comics in school yards, kids holding mock trials and finding comics ‘guilty’ and burning them … most of this only three years after the Second World War! It has many themes to it … but it is a dark look at not just a horrifying time in comics, but in America as well.”

Schwartz also points out how his new work is acutely aware of modern parallels. “Seduction of the Innocent is also about somebody who fired people up,” says Schwartz. “He fired them up and he used that to his benefit. It is like the old saying — no matter how much things change, they remain the same. When you look at this play, it is very much like America currently. There is humor in the play … but a lot of it comes from a Disbelief, with a capital D. There is a disbelief that these things were said and a disbelief that this actually happened.”

Not unlike the Parental Advisory stickers that the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) managed to get slapped on recordings in the 1980s (resulting in nothing but higher record sales for stickered items), the Code had mixed results, with disgruntled publishers turning to underground distributors, like head shops, or retooling their efforts into magazine formats, which were exempt from the code. As a result, we lost Tales From the Crypt, but gained Mad Magazine. The Code’s power lessened over the decades until it finally becoming extinct after 2011 and Wertham’s legacy was tarnished. However, he was a fascinating character, and fascinating characters are Schwartz’s stock in trade. Just in time for another Comic Con, A Seduction of the Innocent reminds us of the power of free speech and the perils of following the herd. 

Daydream Theatre Company is proud to present A Seduction of the Innocent a world premiere play written and directed by Lenny Schwartz. The production is showing November 14, 15,16, 21, 22, 23 2019 at 8pm. For tickets, go to ristage.org. All shows are at the Rise Playhouse, 142 Clinton St Woonsocket RI.

The Prince of Providence: Rebecca Gibel discusses playing the woman behind the man

Everybody (in Rhode Island) of a certain age has a Buddy Cianci story. For me, Buddy threw out the first pitch at my Little League Opening Day games and posed for a pic with us when we won the championship in 1982. I have clear memories of scrawling “Cianci Sucks” in the wet cement that appeared after his administration gutted the trees on my street and did some seemingly unneeded curb repairs (even when he was cleaning up Providence, we still loved to hate him). Plunderdome, fireplace logs, toupees and marinara…all of these became catchwords and clichés when discussing the on again/off again felon of a mayor Providence endured for what seemed forever. It was only a matter of time before his legend became novelized and now, besides the talk of a film treatment, we have a stage adaptation of Mike Stanton’s book, The Prince of Providence. Brown/Trinity MFA graduate Taibi Magar directs George Brant’s (Grounded) treatment on Trinity’s Dowling stage September 12 – October 27.

photo credit: David Noles

Is Cianci proper dramatic fodder, or are we just cashing in on some tarnished nostalgia? Perhaps a bit of both, given the popularity of the subject in the Crimetown podcast. Portraying the man himself is not one of Trinity’s own, but a ringer, Scott Aiello, best known for his four episodes of Showtime’s Billions. What is passed over in most of the press surrounding this production, however, is the portrayal of Cianci’s long-suffering ex-wife, Sheila, who was married to Buddy right up until things started to get … interesting … for our titular Prince. She went on to marry former state rep and attorney Keven A. McKenna, who would be a key factor in a 1984 recall drive against Cianci. Her life has been part Goodfellas part Alice in Wonderland, and she is no less interesting a character than the former mayor. Portraying Sheila is Trinity’s own Rebecca Gibel, who was kind enough to answer a few questions from Motif on her preparation for the role and what it’s like to portray not only a living character, but someone who may very well be in attendance at the show. 

Terry Shea (Motif): What have you found to be the most interesting and/or surprising thing you’ve learned about Buddy Cianci through your time spent with the actual Sheila Cianci?

Rebecca Gibel: Spending time with and getting to know Sheila Bentley (formerly Cianci) has been one of my favorite parts of taking on this role.  She is smart, quick-witted…she has surgeon-like precision with a punchline…and a delight to be around.  Our conversations have ranged over many topics beyond her years with Buddy. I admire the strong relationships she’s forged with her family and friends. She’s a resilient survivor with a strong dose of optimism. In terms of what I learned about Buddy, I was surprised by the amount of control he sought to wield within their marriage. I don’t want to violate Sheila’s trust by revealing the specifics of our conversations. I realized through talking with Sheila that I had allowed myself to make some of the more disturbing stories about Buddy almost kitschy or funny in my mind. Speaking with Sheila helped me connect with how truly intimidating he must have been at times in their relationship, and what an iron will it must have taken to survive those years.

TS: You’re portraying a person not only still alive but known by many of the people who will be seeing the play. Does that carry any extra pressure?

RG: I feel incredible pressure portraying Sheila! I’ve never played a role based on a person who will actually be IN THE AUDIENCE! As with any play based on real events, some things get edited out, some combined or hybridized, some smoothed to make the narrative arc more complete. George Brant has done a truly masterful job of covering decades of time in the span of an evening, and keeping the play focused on the complexities surrounding Buddy’s legacy, and the questions he’d like the audience to ponder long after their night at the theater. Within that, I feel an inevitable tension between what I’ve learned about Sheila’s experience during that time, and what is ultimately on the page of the script, since no piece of art can contain every complex perspective within a human relationship. Ultimately, I hope I can imbue the nuances and kernels of Sheila’s experience into my portrayal of her in a way that feels true and epic, both of which are words I’d use to describe not only Sheila’s personality, but George’s play, and Taibi Magar’s direction.

TS: Have you heard any opposition to Trinity producing this piece?

RG: EVERYBODY I’ve talked to has a strong opinion about Buddy, a personal story about him, and thoughts and questions about the play. I find that thrilling! 

Trinity Rep presents the world premiere of The Prince of Providence, by George Brant, based on the book The Prince of Providence by Mike Stanton, Directed by Taibi Magar. Sarah and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater, 201 Washington St, Providence. Ticket lottery info (winners pay $49/ticket) can be found at: trinityrep.com/the-prince-of-providence-lottery/ . For ticket purchase and other info, visit trinityrep.com/show/the-prince-of-providence/ or call 401-351-4242.


Hercule Poirot fans looking to see their favorite detective onstage in the dramatic interpretation of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow may be disappointed. Christie removed the character from the stage adaptation, having tired of him (she felt his appearance “ruined” the 1946 novel). The leadup to the play’s 1951 opening was circuitous, but the eventual success of The Hollow spurred Christie on to bigger and better things, most notably, The Mousetrap.

The Granite Theatre in Westerly takes a shot at The Hollow with its first post-David/Beth Jepson production, starting September 6. Secret romances, devious deceptions, a dying utterance and multiple motives for murder feature, of course. There are no shortages of red herrings, suspects and potential victims – in other words, it’s pretty much like every Agatha Christie story, with several white people trapped in a spacious house figuring out how not to die. With names like “Midge Hardcastle” that can only be delivered in crisp, British tones, it’s no wonder that Christie’s work tends to be rather homogenous, but everyone loves a good murder mystery and, before the advent of Serial and other true crime media, there was Agatha Christie, paving the way for every improv whodunit and, of course, Murder, She Wrote. Early September begs for some suspenseful fare, and a trip to The Granite may be just the thing to kick off your fall. 

Renaissance City Theatre Inc. at The Granite Theatre presents Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Sep 6 – 29, 1 Granite St, Westerly. For tickets and more information, visit granitetheatre.com or call 401-596-2341.