Tina through the times: Motif reviews Tina, the musical at PPAC

Okee dokee folks; I am from the generation that watched Ike & Tina Turner on TV and heard them on the radio back in the 60’s and 70’s. I also remember the comeback of Tina Turner in the early 80’s. I saw the What’s Love Got to Do With It biopic film in the early ’90s and recently watched the 2021 Tina documentary. Unfortunately I never saw her in concert. When I learned about the Tina musical I figured that this would be the next best thing, and it was!

Last night, Wednesday, September 14, I was in the audience for the fourth night of the Tina musical which made its tour debut in Providence at the Providence Performing Arts Center this past Sunday. So far the crowds have been large, energetic, welcoming and overwhelmingly appreciative.

The easy thing for me to say about the show is that it’s “Simply The Best,” but that would be an oversimplification. The show is very good and will have you run the gamut of emotions. For some it may be tough witnessing the domestic violence of Anna Mae’s (Tina) father, Floyd Richard Bullock, and her partner/husband Ike Turner or hearing a racial epithet such as when Tina is initially rejected by a record company with the utterance by the president, “no way in hell Capital is going to give this old nigger broad a deal!” Even though you may endure a couple of triggering moments, the ultimate reward is the performance and what a performance it was.

The show opens when a curtain adorned with the eyes of Tina Turner rises and Turner is standing in silhouette about to take the stairs to the stage. She then drops to the floor and begins a Buddhist chant. This scene transitions to her beginnings as the child Anna Mae Bullock, played by Ayvah Johnson, in Tennessee. This child will reappear many times throughout the show. We watch as she meets and first sings with Ike Turner, played by Garret Turner, and when she ultimately marries him. We see the evolution of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and the downfall of their marriage and the group. Finally, we witness her resurrection as the solo artist, Tina Turner, that most are familiar with today. When posed with the issue of trying to make a record for her comeback she exclaims, “I may be jumping at the sun but I have long legs!”

This is a jukebox musical chock full of Turner hits cleverly inserted into appropriate situational portrayals of her life. Some of the songs may be placed in times before they were actually released, but that is ok, it works! Numbers from her early days right up to her mega-hits are all included— “Nutbush City Limits” all the way to “The Best” and even “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

This show rests squarely on the hit songs and the talent of the lead role. For this performance, Tina was played by Naomi Rodgers. Evidently she will be alternating performances with Zurin Villanueva who will also portray Tina. They are not understudies for each other, they have others who are. 

As I said, the success of the show rests on the music as well as the talent of the lead role, and Naomi Rodgers handled it with ease and comfort. She tackled teenage Tina all the way through Turner’s renaissance. Her voice was impeccable and she effortlessly emulated Turner’s growl-like vocal style.

The best parts of the show are the ensemble songs when it mimicked more of a concert feel than a musical. “I Want To Take You Higher,” “Proud Mary” and “Disco Inferno” are all good examples of this. Tina’s trademark dance style was channeled through all the dance routines. The one duet that worked particularly well was “Let’s Stay Together” between Tina and saxophonist Raymond Hill, a bandmate with whom she’d had an affair and become pregnant with her first child, Craig.

The scenery is mostly electronic. The rear wall screen was illuminated by flashing lights, miscellaneous background scenes, and good old 60’s psychedelic flashes. Physical scenery is sparse. Stage props came and went with the help of cast members and stage hands. The one piece that showed up many times was a simple door. This show focused on the music and talent.

The show ends as it began with Tina about to take the stage at a concert with the rousing closing number.

Tina clocks in with a performance time of about two hours and 30 minutes not counting the 15 minute intermission. A couple of times I felt a slight drag but it was immediately perked up by another rocking tune. Just when you think it is over they have just a little more for you, and this is the cherry on top of an already sweet cake! 

Though Tina may get slapped during this show there’s no touching this performance and Turner’s legacy of music. It’s a story of hope, escape, redemption, and success. 

Tina, the musical was at Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, September 18. See it next time it’s in town. At the end of this show my girlfriend’s first words were, “I loved it, I want to see it again!“

For more about this show, go to PPACRI.org

That’s it for now. Please check my other Motif offerings at: MotifRI.com/RootsReportPodcast I also have a new web link where you can find my concert photographs- MotifRI.com/FuzeksFotos. Thanks for reading. JohnFuzek.com

Photo courtesy of PPAC

Oh, those Russians: The Gamm’s “Describe the Night” walks us through 100 years of Russian history

Michael Liebhauser as Isaac, Donnla Hughes as Yevgenia. Photo by Cat Laine.

Deception has a way of weaving a complex, strangling web that changes lives and the course of history, a theme that basically defines life in Russia, historically and today.

That culture of suspicion and fear permeates Describe the Night, the Gamm Theatre season opener. Moving between three distinct times – 1920 during Russia’s invasion of Poland, 1989 as a KGB agent woos a woman he’s spying upon, and 2010 after a plane crash that killed most of the Polish government – the show is epic.

While epic translates into long – and this is just under three hours – the flow is smooth as liberties taken by playwright Rajiv Joseph interweave story lines tighter and tighter.

On a basic two-part stage consisting of a pair of stands at the front and, behind a curtain, a brick wall of compartments to portray homes, offices and the Berlin Wall, Describe the Night moves across 90 years with a flip of a screen, each of which details location and year.

It opens as Russian writer Isaac Babel struggles to capture life on the battlefield as a correspondent in the Polish-Russian War, then as he and a soldier pal assimilate back into civilian life, clashing over morality as the Cold War ensues. Babel’s diary passes down through the decades, drawing strangers together to honor its messages.

Joseph explores suppression under Stalin, the softer Glasnost introduced by Mikael Gorbachev and the brutality of newcomer Vladimir “Vova” Putin. His words are often chilling and prescient, given the current war Putin is waging against Ukraine. Words like “subversive” and statements that the black marker is the “most useful tool in Russian government” underscore the mystery.

“If you say it’s true, it becomes true. If you say it’s false, it becomes false,” one character says.

Director Tony Estrella’s interpretation of Describe the Night is as important as Joseph’s script. Through subtle touches like a faint fog permeating every scene, or the coaching of his cast, he crafts an almost immersive historic experience.

Moments such as when actor Jeff Church, as Vova, thrashes about under the influence of a truth serum, are riveting. The audience, despite the three-hour length of the show, is spellbound. Church visibly transforms from low-level thug to slick, still thuggish, world leader, with a palpable haughtiness.

The show’s other startling transformation comes from Donnla Hughes, who plays Yevgenia, the woman Babel loves, when she marries his friend Nikolai. While her character ages, and Hughes skillfully transitions from nubile to elderly, that isn’t her most startling work. She is sent to an asylum, where subversive ideas are grounds for death, where Hughes transforms her character to a shell of her former self. She seems emaciated and shrunken, physically and emotionally, a visible reminder of oppression’s toll.

Describe the Night is, indeed, epic. It leaves audiences wondering “what if” about points in history, it prompts deepened concern over the machinations of communism and it questions the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil. It moves viewers in ways great and small, which is the power of theater. The show continues at Gamm through October 9. For more information, go to www.gammtheatre.org.

‘Inheritance’ examines the gay man experience in America with sweeping insight, passion

Epic might seem a fitting word to describe the season opener at Trinity Repertory Company because it implies grandiosity, but while Inheritance, Part 1 is certainly grand, it is so much more.

An astonishing three and a half hours – and Part 2 opening later this month to run in rep – this is an immense undertaking for cast, crew and audience. From constructing the widest stage possible, using both wings, to relaying the lives, loves and losses of three generations of gay men, the show is painful enough to elicit sobs from the audience and joyous enough to generate belly laughs.

No, epic doesn’t even begin to describe this one.

Inheritance, by Matthew López, is a raw look at the marginalization of gays, the loss of life due to AIDS and the buoyancy of men who survive because they have their “families of choice.”

The production then introduces a character representing British author E.M. Foster, whose early 20th-century book Howard’s End is said to have inspired López. Foster joins a crew of gay friends struggling to write their story, becoming their coach, prompting plot twists and guiding story development, injecting his old-fashioned, completely British humor along the way.

The story to be told is Toby’s semi-autobiographical story about a young gay man. While he struggles to get the concept written and staged, he relies on his partner, Eric and his rent-controlled apartment. Toby is egotistical, while Eric is sweet if undermotivated. Their relationship is challenged by a chance meeting with a young wealthy man, Adam.

As Foster, played exquisitely by Stephen Thorne, moves the animated crew through the story, a third generation of gay men is introduced, bonding with Eric while Toby heads to Chicago to produce his play.

Through the tumult of the AIDS epidemic, the fight for gay marriage and what seems to be a somewhat lackluster aftermath, the emphasis is on what, if anything, people glean or inherit from human interactions. What can the older men teach the younger? How does it feel when a younger man realizes he is the older mentor? What does the sum of it all mean for them?

Directed by Joe Wilson Jr., Inheritance Part 1 is honest, provocative and memorable. He and the cast use humor and riveting monologues to impress the depth of these experiences on the audience in ways that leave them forever changed.

The cast meshes organically with simultaneous chatter and laughter feeling like invitations to their private party. Sex is handled in edgy ways, with body motions and props like long white sheets simulating stimulation, as Foster narrates with lines like, “Release the hounds!”

The friends represent all backgrounds and experiences. The older Walter, given a wonderfully awkward persona by Mauro Hantman, recalls his father calling him a “feathery, delicate boy.” Toby, played to fiery perfection by Taavon Gamble, is quiet about his childhood, hinting at trauma. One married couple is adopting. Another claims he will never marry.

The ensemble offers breath-taking moments and monologues with a passion that is unparalleled. Chingwe Padraig Sullivan makes his Trinity debut as Adam, infusing the character with sharp contrast that shifts with the company he keeps. Jack Dwyer embodies the uncertainty and insecurity of Eric beautifully.

Together, the men persevere, asking each other at one point how to preserve “gay markers” special to their community. It is at that point that the show, which stretches over three acts, could potentially be tightened. One segment feels slightly preachy and repetitive, perhaps better suited for post-show talk-back sessions. Some salient messages – the need, for example, to protect gays from vengeful fanatics – get overshadowed by the verbosity.

Even with this observation, Inheritance Part 1 proves a treasure to educate some, comfort others and deepen the larger sense of community we desire. The show runs through November 5, with Part 2 running from September 22 to November 6. *For more information, go to www.trinityrep.org.  

Superstar, Schmuperstar: Musical about the son of God falls short

Okee dokee folks… I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I fall somewhere between atheist and agnostic but more towards atheism every day. I don’t believe in Bible stories any more than I believe in the Marvel Universe. I honestly think that religions were all created by primitive cultures because they lacked the understanding of the surrounding world and it has simply carried on as a means of control. That all being said, one of my favorite musicals of all time is Jesus Christ Superstar. Go figure.

My mother took us to see the film Jesus Christ Superstar when we were kids. It was 1973 and I was just twelve years old. Back then I was clueless about religion and had already lapsed in catechism attendance but I loved the movie and many of the songs stuck in my head. Since that time I have seen JCS on stage many, many times. Besides the Broadway productions, two of the best JCS shows I experienced were by local theatre groups. One was about ten years ago and included locals such as David Tessier, Ava Callery and the late Sarah Good. Another was at a theatre in Westerly and not surprising David Tessier was part of that one as well and Jesus was portrayed by the lead singer of the local band, The Merchants of Cool. I cannot remember his name but he nailed Jesus! Oops, was that wrong to say?

The Providence Performing Arts Center has hosted many runs of JCS over the years and I have been fortunate to be in the audience for most of them. I was thrilled to have seen the stars of the ’73 film, Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas, reprise their roles in a couple of productions. Now there is a new cast and the fiftieth-anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar pulled into Providence last week for several superstar shows.

The audience at PPAC applauded excitedly as the lights went down and the JCS logo-emblazoned curtain parted exposing a dark stage, save a single spotlight on a hooded guitar player picking the first notes of the JCS overture. A fog machine was hazing the multi-tiered girder-like scenery on stage. I felt a WHOOSH as the cast of the show ran past my seat and down the aisles. They jumped onto the stage and began their dancing. This was not a typical JCS production. It was somewhere between a concert and a musical. 

The JCS overture and the first song, “Heaven On Their Minds” are two of my favorite pieces from the musical. The band, who were spread out across one of the levels of the stage structure, flawlessly and effortlessly tackled the score. “Heaven On Their Minds” by Judas unfortunately didn’t have the raw vocal power and emotion that it needed and the performer who played Judas didn’t seem to fit the role. He seemed too American Idol-ish and clean cut. Happily, halfway through the night, his voice gained more power and edge.

Jesus. Well, Jesus, what can I say? I didn’t care for Jesus at all. The pseudo hipster, man bun, guitar playing Jesus just didn’t work. Certain things are sacred and Jesus shouldn’t be messed with. If a change was going to be made maybe they should have gone with a more ethnically accurate Jesus. One of color? I was mostly disappointed by his weak performance but surprisingly he did rally once and manage to knock “Gethsemane” out of the park. Other than that, the local singer from The Merchants of Cool put him to shame.

I was glad that the rest of the ensemble managed to elevate the show in spite of Jesus. This was generally a high-energy, fast-paced performance that clocked in at 90 minutes with no intermission. There was a lot of dance and movement. When “The Temple” was performed they danced in low light with illuminated crosses as glitter fell from the ceiling. Unfortunately, the ensemble was costumed in grey sweat pants, sneakers, hoodies and some even wore drop crotch, MC Hammer-style pants. This strange, drab attire didn’t detract too much, though it was puzzling. 

The priests were very well cast and Caiaphas’ deep, rich, bass voice contrasted with Annas’ higher tenor range made their presence on stage one of the evening’s stand-out group performances. Their simple, drape costumes and sceptre-like microphone stands were all they needed for their contribution.   

Mary Magdelene was one of the better performers in this production. Her renditions of “Everything’s Alright”, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, and “Could We Start Again” were immaculate. The latter was sung as a duet with Peter accompanying on guitar. My only criticism of Mary was her costume. Why was she, like most of the cast, trapped in an unflattering grey sweatsuit?     

Simon, Pilot, Peter, and Herod all presented their parts with power and polish. I actually thought the actor who played Simon would have been better in the role of Judas. They all had outstanding voices and presence. Not unexpectedly Herod had the most outlandish entrance and costume of the night. He was decked out in a long gold robe, long eyelashes, and gold headpieces that resembled something Adam Lambert would wear when he sings with Queen. “Herod’s Song” was predictably over the top campy and added a little humor to offset the heavier bits of JCS.   

By the time the BIG song of the night came along, “Superstar,” Judas’ voice was better and meeting expectations though visually he still wasn’t. He was clad in an all-black biker-esque outfit that didn’t quite match the music nor the image of Judas. The ensemble whirled about in white robes, over the sweats, and three soul singers backed Judas from level 3 of the staging. This is always a “bring down the house number” and it didn’t disappoint.

I went into this show with skepticism. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had read about this version and saw snippets of a commercial for it. I tend to be a JCS purest. In general, I like productions to stick to the original vision without modernization. The original JCS is a product of the times – 33AD and the late 1960’s/early 1970’s AD. If a producer wants to present a modernized version of something they should find something new and leave the classics alone. I have attended other modernized versions of JCS and they worked but mostly because they stuck with the popular Jesus archetype. This one did not. Overall I would have to give this production a B-. I enjoyed it but when the character of Jesus is weak and given a man bun it is he that betrays, not Judas. Thank goodness for the Apostles.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. www.JohnFuzek.com

Dicing with Death: A Review of Everybody at the Burbage

Dying is a lonely pursuit, but what if you had the chance to invite a plus one on your journey to the afterlife? Would anyone come along for the ultimate one-way ride? They say you can’t take it with you, but what exactly CAN you take?

Prolific contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody takes a 15th century English morality play titled The Somonyng of Everyman [sic](a play based on a Dutch play, which itself was based on a Buddhist fable) and brings it into the 21st century. It’s no wonder this story has permeated across cultures and centuries given its universal (if heavy) subject of mortality, nor that Jacobs-Jenkins would be up to the challenge of tackling the subject, given the lofty themes of his previous plays. While the 15th century iteration existed to scare audiences into moral behavior as dictated by the church, Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to take a more lighthearted, if necessarily existential, approach: The former focuses more on death while the latter makes it about life.

Burbage Theater Company’s production, directed by Logan Serabian, marks the first time Everybody has been performed in Rhode Island, as well as Burbage’s first in-person production in 18 months.

The title Everybody highlights the simple fact that what the audience is witnessing will happen to each and every one of us – that death does in fact come for, well, everybody. This is further illustrated by randomizing the cast. Five members of the cast (Tabi Baez-Bradway, Michael Greene, Jessie March, Mary Mullane and Michael Thibeault) begin the show each night not knowing who they will be playing – a nightmare every actor has had at some point or another. Their roles are determined by a roll of the dice. One ends up playing Everybody, the sorry sap who will be shuffling off this mortal coil. The others are assigned multiple supporting roles along Everybody’s journey. In total, there are 120 possible variations, so no two shows will be exactly the same. This means that each actor has done the equivalent of five actors’ rehearsal, but in the performance we saw, they all seemed as secure in their parts as they would if not randomly assigned. 

The show begins with your standard pre-show announcements from a charismatic and engaging  usher (James Lucey) about silencing your phones and locating  the fire exits. But in another moment, we realize that The Usher is more than just a mere mortal usher; this is actually God – an usher of sorts, given that he ushered in existence. 

While not a vengeful God, he is a disappointed God. Looking to understand what went wrong with humanity, God sends his jaded, overworked assistant, Death (Margaret Melozzi), to get Everybody so they can answer for how they lived their life. And so it is that Death comes for Everybody. Everybody is, understandably, apprehensive about their situation and requests the chance to invite a companion to accompany them. Death agrees to give Everybody the chance to ask around while she gets changed for the journey, doubtful that they will be able to find anyone willing to tag along.

Sure enough, Everybody is forsaken by Friendship, Kinship and even their precious Stuff. In the end, it is Love (Vey Taylor) who, though miffed at having been forgotten for so long and requiring Everybody to abandon some dignity first, accompanies Everybody to the grave.

The show is weakest in the voiceover that weaves between scenes, providing a meta context for the rest of the show as a dying Everybody describes a dream to their friends. The voiceover breaks the allegorical nature of the play and isn’t particularly engaging: the issues this monologue raises end up feeling like a footnote that most of the audience is bound to forget amidst the more prominent themes of the play.

There is something profoundly fitting about the timing of this production – a play about mortality on the heels of a pandemic. Everybody encourages its audience to reflect on their lives and evaluate what matters. In the final moments, the Usher poses the question of why, when we talk about death, we really end up talking about life. Perhaps it is because life is what gives death meaning, and, in turn, love is what gives life meaning. The meaning of life may be a question too big to be answered by one 90-minute play, but the answer proposed in Everybody seems like a lovely place to start.

Burbage Theatre Company’s production of Everybody runs through Dec 5. For tickets, visit burbagetheatreco.org

Granite Theatre’s “Hill House” is Sure to Spook: Theater Review

An old house with a tragic backstory. A doctor studying supernatural phenomena. A pair of psychically receptive research assistants. 

What could go wrong? 

Pictured from right to left:  Theodora (Caitlyn Robert), Mrs. Dudley  (Katherine Kimmel) and Eleanor (Wylette Sylvedio).

John Cillino’s immersive theatrical production The Haunting of Hill House is certain to impress. Attendees are first captured by Katherine Kimmel’s Mrs. Dudley, who is quite specific about what she will and will not do for the guests of Hill House: she will not wait on people, for example, and she insists on leaving before sundown. As Mrs. Dudley tells the guests about Hill House, the audience can quickly discern that it is not a place that one should like to spend much time—but the cast laughs gently at Mrs. Dudley’s eccentricities, and theatregoers are also lulled into a fleeting sense of joviality. 

That all changes once Wylette Selvideo’s Elanor Vance and Caitlin Robert’s Theodora begin to experience supernatural occurrences. How can we explain the aggressive banging on Elanor’s door, for example, when Dr. Montaque (Ralph Stokes) and Luke (Tristan Cole) were out on the house grounds? Do we believe the electric Mrs. Montaque (Irene Handren) when she insists that she has been able to contact the beyond? What is the ghostly apparition that visits Elanor’s room while she sleeps? 

Tensions rise, relationships are tested and pandemonium ensues, especially after Dr. Montaque’s contrarian wife arrives with her driver Arthur (George Sanchez) in the second act. As the seemingly sentient house begins to seize on Elanor’s own troubled past, the audience must begin to question where the house ends and its houseguests begin. 

The Haunting of Hill House is a chilling Halloween tale that is sure to please.

The Haunting of Hill House runs October 8 – 31 at The Granite Theatre, 1 Granite Street, Westerly, RI. 

Fly Away: A myth for the moment

Actor Charlie Thurston is a deep thinker, overlaying emotions with reality and connecting thoughts and actions through metaphors, making him perhaps the most likely to pen a “modern meditation” on the ancient Greek tale of a boy who flies wax wings too close to the sun and dies.

His 80-minute play, “Lifted,” opens October 21 as a Wilbury Theatre Group production outdoors at WaterFire Arts Center in Providence. Set in a dystopian, environmentally ravaged near future, the story might not seem any more relatable to modern audiences than the ancient myth of Icarus, but the themes and emotions it conjures could prove timeless.

“A lot of this will resonate right now,” Thurston explains. “Audiences can’t help but wrestle with large systemic issues like climate change, gun violence and the opioid epidemic.”.

Jim O’Brien from Lifted. Credit: Erin X. Smithers

Written in 2011, “Lifted” arose from Thurston’s disappointment over the demise of the hope that marked President Barack Obama’s first term in office.

“I was all excited for Obama’s first term and the theme was ‘Hope.’ By 2011, we saw how effective the opposition was in squashing that,” he says.

The feeling reminded him of Icarus, who held onto hope that he could fly out of Crete but was dismantled by forces greater than he.

“I look for a central image when I’m writing, and the Icarus tale always captivated me,” Thurston mused. “The wings are a metaphor for the lengths to which we will go to escape.”

“Lifted” is not an adaptation of the myth, but Thurston’s transference of similar themes to a family drama he dubs “theatrical fantasia,” as characters struggle after witnessing a 16-year-old boy carried away by birds.

“This is not your high school English class interpretation of Icarus. We were taught that it’s a tale about hubris, but I’m not interested in perpetuating that theme. The point is to push against things, and to understand that tragedy often happens to the most innocent among us,” Thurston explains.

Thurston’s characters — including the boy’s twin brother, girlfriend and father — face wide-ranging emotions after the boy is taken and the mounting tension comes in waves broken by singing chorus scenes that rouse the audience.

“The three remaining characters deal with their different responses to loss – should they rebel? seek out the birds? – sending them on different trajectories for moving forward,” Thurston said. The father grapples with the guilt of parental failure. “The teenagers [respond by]  trying to be adults but they’re still children.”

Throughout, there are threads of humor, which the playwright believes is necessary to heighten the impact of sadness and heartache on the audience.

“I’m hoping the audience will interpret the liftings in ways unique to their experiences,” Thurston says.

The outdoor performance also lends an expansiveness to the experience of “Lifted,” as city sounds play in the background and stars shine overhead.

“It’s so exciting to do it outside, because the entire play takes place in a backyard, and the sky offers the feeling of freedom, like Icarus sought,” Thurston says.

“Lifted” plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 through November 13. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and are available at www.wilburytheatregroup.org

Truth in the Time of Covid: A Lie Agreed Upon at the Gamm

One walks into A Lie Agreed Upon with a premise – reactions to devastating news – and walks out with unanswered questions, both moral and humane, muddled in your brain.

Jonathan Higginbotham (Peter Stockman), Sean McConaghy (Dr. Thomas Stockman). Photo by Peter Goldberg

The play, on stage now at The Gamm Theatre, is Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century play, An Enemy of the People. The title borrows from a Friedrich Nietzsche quote “What is the truth but a lie agreed upon?”and centers on a doctor who uncovers poison in the waters of a new spa billed as an economic boon for his small town. Estrella overlays the fear, divisiveness and meanness marking the pandemic for a provocative show that feels far briefer than its two and a half hours.

When Dr. Thomas Stockman receives water testing results, he wants to warn the town and demand new conduit be installed to funnel clean water to the spa. Stockman, played by Sean McConaghy, meets with opposition from almost everyone – his brother the mayor and town businessmen who see lost revenue and staggering infrastructure repair bills, former allies at the newspaper threatened with lost ad revenue and even a wife concerned about the family’s safety and income.

Like Ibsen, Estrella stokes flames of righteousness to the point of conflagration before easing up to allow seeds of doubt and counter-arguments to embed in the audience’s collective mind.

The characters debate everything from whether spa patrons are consumers saving the town or citizens needing protection, whether the press should interpret news because “very few facts can tell their own story,” and how telling the truth brands one an agitator. The phrase “We had no other choice” keeps surfacing.

While quips like “if people want lies, then the truth is their enemy” and “the only consistency is inconsistency” are dangerously close to preaching, “A Lie Agreed Upon” is more than that. It’s easy to imagine wanting to protect people, but the angst of a bedraggled town facing economic uncertainty is equally distressing. What does one do?

That question, of course, is never answered. Gamm likes to scratch the social conscience and send audiences off to ponder potential actions and reactions. But the telling of this story, with the cast Estrella, as director, assembled, leaves deep, even lasting, indentations on the soul.

McConaghy is an explosion of emotion, playing Stockman with unbelievable range – playful with his daughter at the beginning, passionate about righting a wrong and teetering toward mental breakdown after unsuccessfully battling the town. When his wife says, “somebody has to think about us,” he visibly unravels, his wild hair on end and face lined with grief for a gripping transformation.

Other bright spots in the ensemble cast include Jonathan Higginbotham who, as mayor, demonstrates the prowess to appear both evil and innocent simultaneously, Fred Sullivan Jr. as business association leader who paints the character with quirky charm early, then summons rage fueled by fear and ignorance and Nora Eschenheimer as the fresh-faced reporter who breaks the first rule of journalism by taking a side.

A Lie Agreed Upon, on stage through October 24, is topical and touchy, poignant and pointed. It wraps you up in a message, but leaves you to write your own ending. That is the mark of great theatre. For tickets, go to www.gammtheatre.org

Theatre Review: All That Glitters

By Susan McDonald

Somewhere between the mermaid’s invitation to descend to the bottom of the sea and boos from the audience and cast for a Muppet-like effigy of Esek Hopkins, you realized this outdoor adventure was not a page from history books.

But, it was certainly an adventure.

The Wilbury Theatre Group opened its season with “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins,” an original activist dance opera cultivated and performed by The Haus of Glitter Dance Company.

After living in Hopkins’ historic Providence home for a year, the company and Wilbury’s team transformed its grounds into a multi-stage set for the cast to expose Hopkins’ connections to the slave trade, superimposing conjured tales of what life might look like here had colonization never happened.

Photo by Erin X Smithers

The result was a fabulous fabulation extending beyond the trips Hopkins took to Africa to include the effects of colonization on Native Americans, Laotians and Hispanics. Further, it probed challenges facing women and the LGBTQ+ community. The goal was to push people to address and, eventually, abandon racism.

“We are not going to think our way out of racism,” said one character. “We are going to feel our way out of racism.”

While the objective may seem too all-encompassing, the Haus of Glitter team created an experience that made valuable points without preaching, instead using their beautiful voices to relay native stories and songs, and invigorating choreography to entertain.

During Act One, the audience moved around the grounds of the historic home through six mini stages and seven immigrant stories. Each unfurled like a fairy tale, with prose that was alternately chilling and poetic.

Standing before ribbons and flower garlands blowing on the September breeze, Matt Garza sang in Spanish about a Mexican woman drowning her child in the Rio Grande. His powerful voice rose with words that needed no translation to relay pain. Stories from a West African village were relayed in the audiobook-worthy voice of Assitan Coulibaly, a fairy tale with an unhappy ending.

On another stage, spotlights illuminated the lithe bodies of Trent Lee and Steven Choummalaithong as they offer traditional Native American and Laotian dances juxtaposed artfully with more modern break dancing, and a narrator talking of “the constant grief of colonization.”

“Have you ever seen a person explode? My family has,” the narrator said as Choummalaithong rubbed a haunting sound from a metal bowl. “We didn’t ask to be saved.”

The show took jabs at the White society invading foreign lands, then criminalizing immigrants for not conforming to their rules and branding them savage for resisting the changes.

“We were in pain. We were grieving. Most of all, we were angry,” said a narrator in Act Two, a time when all of those stories blended into vibrant dance and steel pan music on a larger, glittery stage.

Company members employed all of the outdoor space, using a stand of pine trees behind the stage as a screen for an original rap video about decolonization. Another narrator introduced dance numbers with folklore wisdom, such as the Malian expression “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”

Anger, resentment and even violence has resulted from the oppression and colonization of foreign lands by White Americans like Hopkins, and while the cast inserts terms like “cishetero patriarchy” into “The Historical Fantasy,” this is not a hate-filled show. It’s positive and glows – or glitters – with hope.

Or, as the Latinx expression notes, “Se hace el camino al andar.” “We make the road by walking.”

The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins ran September 9-17 by The Haus of Glitter Dance Company + Performance Lab, The Wilbury Theatre Group, PRONK! Fest, and PVDFest, with support from Partnership for Providence Parks, & The RI Foundation at the former home of Esek Hopkins.