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Body Awareness Brings a Modern Family’s Struggles to the Surface

The darkness that accompanies a scene change in a play forgives many sins. On stage, silhouettes break character and move, settings are rearranged, and costumes changed. In the audience, programs are consulted, stifled coughs are let free, and critics scribble furiously in low light, hoping their witticisms will be legible the next morning. Every so often, however, the brief respite between scenes is a pregnant pause; we are on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what happens next without extraneous motion or chatter. This is the case with Wilbury’s superb rendering of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, where each scene’s end is the promise of an even better scene to follow.

To call this production “delightful” is to perhaps render it a disservice, for that word fails to convey much of the gravity bubbling underneath what, on its surface, is a humorous glimpse at a modern family’s struggle with love, sex, and child rearing. The plot is fairly straightforward: Joyce and Phyllis share a domestic partnership and live with Joyce’s adult son, Jared, who shows increasing signs of Asperger’s. A photographer, Frank, comes to town (the fictional Shirley, Vermont) as one of the visiting artists participating in “Body Awareness Week” at Shirley State, curated and hosted by Phyllis. Frank’s presence shakes up the household and causes all to question their relationships to each other and themselves. Questions of sex and sexuality, political correctness, and societal expectation follow. Heady stuff, but in the hands of director Wendy Overly and a monumentally facile cast, also supremely amusing.

Of course, the etymology of “facile,” like “delightful,” highlights several meanings of those words, some of which have surprising connotations. Body Awareness, as much as anything, is about the meanings behind our communication and how that reflects our self-image and the way we perceive others.  Jared (played with an expertly judicious blend of comedic timing and pathos by Samuel Appleman), is a 21 year old living at home with Mom and her lover and takes solace in the dictionary since communication with actual people tends not to work out so well. He chooses to label others as “imbeciles,” which he explains once meant “weak and stupid” as a way to shield himself from suspicions of his own frailties. His relationship with his mother, Joyce (a knockout performance by Clare Blackmer), is complex but loving and although Phyllis (a star turn by Karen Carpenter , particularly in her final monologue) is more objective about her assertions that Jared needs professional care, she is ultimately protective of him as well.

The family dynamic is shaken as Frank Bonitatibus (one of the best surnames ever, the origin of which translates roughly to “kindness, benevolence, and/or blamelessness”) comes to stay with them. His photography, it seems, is suspicious in that it only entails nude females. Frank’s answers to direct challenges toward his intentions boils down to, “If Michelangelo masturbated to the Sistine Chapel, would it make the work any less profound?” Kerry Callery portrays Frank with quiet, yet towering strength. Callery conveys more with a silent stare and the blinking of his eyes than entire monologues can. His own humorous moments are understated, such as his insistence on a Tuesday evening Shabbos to bring meaning to the family dinner (one of many moments when pounds of uneaten food get served and then cleared away) and he delivers one of the few wild recorder solos you’ll see this side of a Waldorf school. Frank brings a new awakening to Joyce and Jared, and the other meanings of “delight” pleasure and sexual desire – come to the forefront with mixed results.

The production has been mounted in the original home of Trinity Rep at the Southside Cultural Center on Broad Street in Providence. There is a whiff of history in the aged space and, while somewhat bare, the hall has been imbued with just enough production value by the artistic team to enhance rather than obscure the lean surroundings. I strongly recommend sitting center or house right as many of those perfect, silent moments can be lost on those seated toward the left of the audience. Those moments speak volumes in a production that is awash in poignantly hilarious sound and language. The buzz of an electric toothbrush elicits laughter without a word being said, but it is the silence that speaks loudest. In the end, we are ultimately pleased, charmed and confronted with questions of self and sexuality that are awkward yet highly comical and often comforting. Delightful, indeed.




Rent Delivers … but Isn’t for Everyone

Jonathan Larson’s Rent has become something of a sacred cow in modern musical theater. Its opening in 1996 was almost eclipsed by its author’s death, and Rent cemented its place in the American Musical canon regardless of its objective merits. Easily dismissed as a reboot of Hair, Rent was actually a logical culmination of Larson’s previous, often stellar work, and Puccini’s La bohème was fertile ground for modern allegories concerning all of the things that concern struggling artists and struggling lovers and artists who struggle to love each other. The primary focus of Rent, however, is often lost in the throughline of HIV/AIDS and how these characters trudge through life while anticipating death. In the waning years of the 20th Century, Rent picked up the gauntlet tossed down by Angels in America and became untouchable.

Over the years, however, the social context of Rent has a little more perspective and we’re left to distance ourselves from the importance of the work and focus more on the musical itself. Everyone who writes about the show prefaces their comments with “Rent is not for everyone …” But that’s no longer true because the show is not in any way controversial. What many do not like about Rent is the blandness of many of the musical numbers and the often huge leap that one needs to make in order to care anything at all about these characters. Yes, Rent is very much like Hair, but, in some crucial areas, lacks the soul and the killer songs that make the original tribal love rock musical both dated and timeless. In fact, the real residing theme that comes out of Ocean State Theatre Company’s current production is not the struggle with death in the face of poverty, but of the Bohemian principles of love and art over hatred and commerce. Worthy principles and clearly defined, but even Moulin Rouge managed to nail that theme without dividing audiences so cleanly. Even the most jaded 1-percenter can step into that theater in Warwick and decide to adopt this entitlement-riddled ragtag family for three hours, but try as we may, it’s very hard to truly care.

That is not to say that this particular production of Rent is not enjoyable in most places. The cast is mostly stellar and the overall ensemble work is tight. Esther Zabinski’s musical direction is crisp, and as bland as some of the material may be, the orchestra delivers with energy and precision, making the few bright moments shine clearly. Weston Wilkerson’s lighting design is judicious and clean where he could have been mired in flashy rock-musical trappings. His use of moving lights and special effects was discrete and appropriate. Kimberly Powers’ urban playground of a set, complete with strategic graffiti and a burned out muscle car that everyone was hoping would actually move, skirt the edges of 80s music video, but in a way that seems appropriate rather than misguided. Lastly, Ryan McGinty handles the thankless chore or reinforcing a rock musical with aplomb. Minor feedback and the occasional muddy vocal aside, the sound is clean, although less dialogue reinforcement may have allowed us to see these characters as real people rather than projected images.

The cast has been carefully plucked to do justice to what fans of the show would expect. Dan McInerney is perfectly matched to the almost cartoonishly nebbish Mark Cohen and has all of the requisite vocal prowess. Janet McWilliams’ Maureen is a delight and her show-stopping “Over the Moon” captured the perfect dichotomy of bad art and political passion. Her chemistry with the similarly excellent Kendra Payne (Joanne) helped bring some warmth to the proceedings, but the truly standout pair of this ensemble is Antonio Tillman’s Angel and Damron Armstrong’s Tom Collins. “You Ok, Honey” and “I’ll Cover You” are perfect in their tenderness and simplicity, in contrast to numbers such as Mimi’s “Out Tonight,” which are embarrassing in their reach and delivery (Nora Fox’s Mimi fares better in more vulnerable outings such as “Without You,“ but her costuming still left her somewhere between movie prostitute and 80s costume party).

There are many other numbers that work well – “Take Me or Leave Me” showcases not only great performances by McWilliams and Payne, but some excellent choreography by MK Lawson. “La Vie Boheme” best utilizes the considerable talents of this cast while the show’s mainstay, “Seasons of Love,” flounders around the periphery. It’s nobody’s fault but Larson’s, as unpopular as it may be to say that. In the end, for this all to work, we must engage with and truly care about these people, but, with a few small exceptions, we don’t. To paraphrase Larson himself, we can buy a ticket and rent some emotion for a few hours, but we won’t own it.




Anne Boleyn at The Gamm

Many Americans have a sense of British history that comes from a smattering of watered down school lessons and reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Royals are a fetish for some and costume dramas have been dominating the airwaves lately, but for us non-Anglophiles, our grasp of The Tudors is hazy at best. Anne Boleyn, in particular, has been glorified and iconized, but grossly misunderstood and relegated to not much more than a three-nippled, 11-fingered witch whose head fell out of favor with the permanently corpulent Henry VIII.

Leave it British playwright Howard Brenton, then, to retool the Boleyn saga and shake up our misperceptions. Brenton excels in reverently skewering his subjects while still keeping their place on a well-lit pedestal. This ability to serve saucy nuggets to the groundlings while delivering pithy, philosophical meanderings on religion and politics is Shakespearean in scope, and intentionally so. What could have been bloated and pompous is instead a hilarious and enlightening pocket epic that shows The Gamm firing on all cylinders.

Director Rachel Walshe focuses on the idea that Anne Boleyn “is more about who we are than who she is” and delicately stages matters to both showcase Madeleine Lambert’s forcefully potent performance and the revolutionary ideas that her character forces upon her immediate environment – and ultimately, Western religious culture. To say that Boleyn is a feminist script would be shortsighted. Anne’s ambitions were not about the role of women in the court but about the freedom of all to practice religion without domineering influence by political or papist concerns.

This ambition is what made her feared and admired by her contemporaries. Even her oppressors, Thomas Cromwell (played with a magnificent slow burn by Jim O’Brien) and Simpkin (a wonderful Richard Noble) say, “We were all in love with her.” They state that Anne’s chief danger was that she was not afraid of them. “What man can deal with that? Fear is the great leveler.”

That sentiment about fear is the crux of the drama and the ghost-hunter mystery that propels her story into the future court of King James I, played by Tony Estrella (who is subtly billed as co-director). Estrella turns in one the most lovingly scenery-chewing performances I’ve witnessed. In a cloud of powder, his preening monarch sucks in everything and everyone around him until they are mere specks in the black hole of his lasciviousness. (I’m still muttering a brogue-enhanced “Steamy!” many days after the fact).

While the bawdy revels of James are a reminder that we are an audience to be entertained, the true character is an intelligently focused man, newly entrusted with a key to a mystery of the court and determined to piece together the fragments of a kingdom’s religious past and future. The symbolism of James thrusting his head up the skirts of Boleyn’s old wedding dress in order to catch a whiff of past sins encapsulates both the low humor and historical mission of the play.

The entire cast manages to keep up with Estrella’s rampages. Casey Seymour Kim, a Gamm stalwart known for more quirky, somewhat fidgety portrayals, is stately perfection here and Steve Kidd’s Henry VIII is an engaging, almost boyish raconteur as opposed to the overfed, murderous tyrant one expects to see. Joe Short, as both the pivotal author of what would become the King James Bible (William Tyndale) and the somewhat unwilling object of James’ affections (George Villiers), delivers two solid, concretely different performances. Sam Babbitt and Tom Gleadow are predictably pompous and equally hilarious.

 

Jessica Hill’s open set is awash in greens, golds and browns with David T. Howard’s brilliant period costuming playing off of the same palette. This is a lush piece set on a sparse stage. While the entire theater is used to great effect (fancy dresses hang from the ceiling above our heads while ornate chandeliers dangle over the aisles), Walshe has eschewed most of the usual trappings to allow the words to do most of the work. Even the lack of pre-recorded music at any point shows the desire to keep things elegantly simple. There is plenty of music, however, deftly served up by David Rabinow and David Tessier who also serve as utility players with their own moments to shine.

So, whether viewing Anne Boleyn as a History major with a thirst for a new take on the religious upheavals of 16th and 17th century England or someone who loves scatological humor in any context, this play is large slice of both. The show runs through February 17. Gammtheatre.org.

 




Over the “Edge”

Now that the holiday season is over, we can safely put aside the family fare and turn from heartwarming messages of hope to emotional destruction and collapse. Not that Epic Theatre Company was ever going to follow seasonal trends: last month’s RI Premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s dark and twisted Passion Play, as well as the overly disturbing yet wildly humorous Mr. Marmalade, proved that Epic is far more interested in challenging our hearts than warming them. They continue their streak of premieres by bringing Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Adam Rapp’s acclaimed and controversial The Edge of Our Bodies to its studio space at Hope Artiste Village from January 11th through the 19th.

Edge is a one-woman show, but inhabits a world of experience and characters through the eyes of its 16-year-old protagonist, Bernadette, a New England prep school student trapped in a morass of teen pregnancy, exploitation, horrifying encounters, and a burning desire to make her voice heard in a vacuum of attention and affection. In the tradition of films like Kids, and the reality series 16 and Pregnant, Edge challenges parents and peers alike to look closely at the young women near them and wonder what they may actually be going through in their seemingly perfect adolescence.

We find Bernadette narrating from her journal in what may or may not be creative license on her part, but if even half of the stories she relates are true, then this is a young woman in need of help, love, and a large amount of intensive therapy. Director Cassie Alley describes Bernadette as a “16-year-old who has experienced more than most 30-year-olds.” Or has she? The setting of Edge is the set of a school production of Jean Genet’s Absurdist chestnut, The Maids. Why a high school would be presenting a piece of this kind is never explored, but we’re left to decide for ourselves if the darkly destructive urges that inhabit Genet’s play affect Bernadette or were tailor made for her budding sensibilities. Alley’s intent is to focus actress Allison Crews on leading the audience through a rollercoaster of lies and truth. “We should never be quite sure if she’s lying or not … she’s a compulsive liar … but she’s forced into this situation by her parents at a boarding school where she’s living alone and not ready to grow up.” Alley feels that many of today’s teenagers are in similar straits. Oversexualized, overstimulated, and burdened with too much independence, it’s shocking, but sadly not surprising that Bernadette represents something and someone all too real. Edge presents questions of birth control and abortion for minors without preaching, but in a frank way that forces us to admit that these things are happening right now and possibly to people we know and love.

The intimate Zabinski Studio space is ideal for such a chamber piece and Alley’s approach will be to immerse the audience in Bernadette’s narrative through live sound effects and close interaction. “I didn’t want to present an actress reading from a book,” as many previous productions of Edge have done, says Alley. “I want to use the audience as part of the show every night. I want them to go away from this show, and I know it sounds like a cliché, but I really want them to think about this. We may not want to believe these things can happen to a girl like this, but they do … and they are.”

Epic is once again bringing challenging, provocative theater to Rhode Island audiences at a fraction of the budget of the larger theaters. Challenge yourself and see.




A Lust for Life’s Big Topics: Passion Play at Epic Theatre

One might expect to see the Rhode Island premiere of a Sarah Ruhl piece at one of the state’s larger, more established venues. Her In The Next Room was a smash at 2nd Story, as was Trinity’s run of her Dead Man’s Cell Phone. However, audiences first experienced the sublime Eurydice at a high school in South Kingstown, courtesy of Contemporary Theater Company, so it is not entirely without precedent that one of our burgeoning new independents, Epic Theatre Company, would grab first shot at presenting Ruhl’s grandly ambitious but deceptively simple opus, Passion Play.

Epic Theatre works out of the Zabinski Studio in Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village complex, a white-walled black box that nonetheless works despite its lack of technical finesse. Regardless of their constrained space, Epic is interested in theatre writ large and, certainly, Passion Play is concerned about the largest topics – God, religion, politics, faith, love and, of course, theatre itself. How all of the former combine and become distilled into the latter gives Ruhl ample material to explore what could be three hours of sprawling platitudes but is actually a neat little triptych of encapsulated soap operas.

Each act concerns a group of well-intentioned thespians who live and breathe their local presentation of the New Testament climax, striving for the favor of the local audiences and, ultimately, of God. Seen over the course of several centuries, with appearances by Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan (all played with an understated wink and nod by Epic founder Kevin Broccoli), the three troupes share episodes of passion mirroring and informed by the Biblical struggles they seek to portray on their stages.

Charles Lafond is subtle, yet beatific as he carries the part of the actor who earnestly tries to bring Christ to life (and death). The natural backstage affairs ensue, reflecting and perverting the Jesus-Magdalene-Mother Mary triangle, taking the questions of historical Jesus’ human passions to new heights. Elizabeth Labrecque’s Mary is forever struggling with lust and reputation while Sarah Barlow (coming straight off of Epic’s essential Mr. Marmalade) shines as the world-weary Magdalene figure, always wiser than the virgin and given many of the play’s ultimate truths.

The true pivot, however, is the Pontius Pilate/Satan character who must forever live in jealously of Jesus both onstage and off. Patrick Cullen drives the entire cast, bringing a visceral ferocity to each of the three men he portrays. The playwright is careful to distinguish that the Pontius character is, in life, a fish gutter, while Lafond’s “John,” as Jesus, simply catches them. As the Biblical Jesus was a “fisher of men,” Cullen must live throughout each act with his fate as one who must destroy men even as he gazes heavenward. As the second act explores Nazi-era Germany and Jesus’ Jewish heritage is downplayed, Cullen channels Inglourious Bastards’ Christoph Waltz and tempts Jesus into a wilderness of forbidden love.

Also of note is Meghan Rose Donnelly as the choric village idiot/child who remains untainted by the blindness and prejudices around her. Donnelly’s ability to conjure wonder, pathos and simple love is the perfect counterpoint to Cullen’s powerful assault on the stage.

In the end, this is a big play on a small stage and it works wonderfully despite that limitation. Attempts at lighting cues and some of the staging elements are not fully baked enough to work well in such a basic setting. However, the production will move from Zabinski to the Contemporary Theater Co. in Wakefield for January 18 and 19, perhaps allowing this essential production to shine even brighter.

The production can be seen at Epic through December 16. Email epictheatrecompanyri@gmail.com for reservations. $12-$15. Epic Theatre Company, 999 Main Street, Pawtucket.




Family Meeting: The Brothers Marx Comes to Daydream Theatre

Daydream Theatre, fuelled by the always unique creations of playwright Lenny Schwartz, stands alone in the crowded field of Rhode Island independents. Whether presenting bizarre glimpses of post-apocalyptic shopping frenzies or skillfully crafted narrative biographies, Daydream has carved out a niche at the Bell Street Chapel. Free of the shackles of subscriber concerns, audience demographics, or production royalties, Schwartz and Company are free to explore whatever fancy they wish and we’re all the better for it. Daydream’s current offering, The Brothers Marx, follows in the tradition of their superb Buster Keaton biography and offers a skillfully presented, yet charmingly ramshackle, account of the lives and careers of Groucho and his siblings.

A quick glance at any Marx Brothers history will sum up the essential plot points, but in Schwartz’s hands, it’s not merely a rehash of events, but a nicely developed interweaving of first-, second-, and third-person narrative combined with re-imaginings of classic bits and performances. A dizzying display  of ex-wives, agents, and internecine squabbling allows us to glimpse the Marx Brothers as people caught up in the usual struggles of love, money, and addiction, even as they climb off the vaudeville stage onto the big screen. We lose a little of the why as we race through the story, but what comes through it all is the struggle of a Jewish family in an era when global politics and entertainment gave them every reason not to succeed. What could be a touchy subject is handled with self-deprecating humor often bordering on the absurd, as when Groucho observes that brother Chico is in danger of “losing the Italian accent and sounding Jewish again.” More in line with Schwartz’s style is the observation that the entertainment industry was becoming “a cornucopia of Jews … a Jew-ucopia!”

Any Daydream performance features a dizzying array of performers and Marx is no exception. The five titular brothers are mostly exceptional with Ryan Hanley’s Groucho not only a spot-on impersonation, but a driving force for both the original humor of the script and the classic asides we expect to hear. In strong competition for focus is Beatriz Lopez as the loudly mute Harpo. The cross-gender aspect of Lopez’s portrayal of everyone’s favorite Marx is irrelevant here: she owns the physicality and the manic, yet melancholy, persona of the man who quietly charmed the world while maintaining his privacy. Geoffrey David Monti is a maelstrom of libido as Chico, and John Robert Faiola’s Gummo Marx is commanding for his brief time on stage. It is Mat Clerrico as Zeppo who has to walk the line between obligatory straight man and overshadowed bit player. The abuse he took from his brothers in real life is palpable onstage and Clerrico struggles, as did the real Zeppo, to find his place among such dynamic personalities, which in turn, makes his performance all the more effective. And, of all the Marx brothers, Schwartz writes Zeppo as something more than two-dimensional. The cast of supporting characters who come and go throughout serve as nicely defined foils for the vagaries of the clan, and Kathleen Seagriff’s over-the-top caricature of Marx mainstay Margaret Dumont is amusing and appropriate. Missy Marine, a Daydream regular, handles Groucho’s first wife Ruth with grace.

Schwartz directs his own work, which serves to streamline the process, but also ensures that, for better or worse, enough goofy humor filters through whatever seriousness may be embedded in the subject matter. The Brothers Marx ventures into serious territory, but as Schwartz writes, “There should be dancing in the streets when a clown comes to town.”

Performances will run through November 17 at the Bell Street Chapel in Providence. For ticket information, call 401-644-2293 or visit www.smarttix.com.




Family Meeting: The Brothers Marx Comes to Daydream Theatre

Daydream Theatre, fuelled by the always unique creations of playwright Lenny Schwartz, stands alone in the crowded field of Rhode Island independents. Whether presenting bizarre glimpses of post-apocalyptic shopping frenzies or skillfully crafted narrative biographies, Daydream has carved out a niche at the Bell Street Chapel. Free of the shackles of subscriber concerns, audience demographics, or production royalties, Schwartz and Company are free to explore whatever fancy they wish and we’re all the better for it. Daydream’s current offering, The Brothers Marx, follows in the tradition of their superb Buster Keaton biography and offers a skillfully presented, yet charmingly ramshackle, account of the lives and careers of Groucho and his siblings.

A quick glance at any Marx Brothers history will sum up the essential plot points, but in Schwartz’s hands, it’s not merely a rehash of events, but a nicely developed interweaving of first-, second-, and third-person narrative combined with re-imaginings of classic bits and performances. A dizzying display  of ex-wives, agents, and internecine squabbling allows us to glimpse the Marx Brothers as people caught up in the usual struggles of love, money, and addiction, even as they climb off the vaudeville stage onto the big screen. We lose a little of the why as we race through the story, but what comes through it all is the struggle of a Jewish family in an era when global politics and entertainment gave them every reason not to succeed. What could be a touchy subject is handled with self-deprecating humor often bordering on the absurd, as when Groucho observes that brother Chico is in danger of “losing the Italian accent and sounding Jewish again.” More in line with Schwartz’s style is the observation that the entertainment industry was becoming “a cornucopia of Jews … a Jew-ucopia!”

Any Daydream performance features a dizzying array of performers and Marx is no exception. The five titular brothers are mostly exceptional with Ryan Hanley’s Groucho not only a spot-on impersonation, but a driving force for both the original humor of the script and the classic asides we expect to hear. In strong competition for focus is Beatriz Lopez as the loudly mute Harpo. The cross-gender aspect of Lopez’s portrayal of everyone’s favorite Marx is irrelevant here: she owns the physicality and the manic, yet melancholy, persona of the man who quietly charmed the world while maintaining his privacy. Geoffrey David Monti is a maelstrom of libido as Chico, and John Robert Faiola’s Gummo Marx is commanding for his brief time on stage. It is Mat Clerrico as Zeppo who has to walk the line between obligatory straight man and overshadowed bit player. The abuse he took from his brothers in real life is palpable onstage and Clerrico struggles, as did the real Zeppo, to find his place among such dynamic personalities, which in turn, makes his performance all the more effective. And, of all the Marx brothers, Schwartz writes Zeppo as something more than two-dimensional. The cast of supporting characters who come and go throughout serve as nicely defined foils for the vagaries of the clan, and Kathleen Seagriff’s over-the-top caricature of Marx mainstay Margaret Dumont is amusing and appropriate. Missy Marine, a Daydream regular, handles Groucho’s first wife Ruth with grace.

Schwartz directs his own work, which serves to streamline the process, but also ensures that, for better or worse, enough goofy humor filters through whatever seriousness may be embedded in the subject matter. The Brothers Marx ventures into serious territory, but as Schwartz writes, “There should be dancing in the streets when a clown comes to town.”

Performances will run through November 17 at the Bell Street Chapel in Providence. For ticket information, call 401-644-2293 or visit www.smarttix.com.