Sunday, July 27, 2014

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER- The Winnipesaukee Playhouse

presented by The Winnipesaukee Playhouse

adapted by Laura Eason from the novel by Mark Twain

directed by Bryan Halperin

"It is the tale, not he who tells it."

There are readers who'd consider the above quote axiomatic; that it's universally accepted some stories are so gripping in the details they reveal as each page is turned, it doesn't matter who first birthed that story.

They'd argue that some stories are so compelling in their narrative, should they not be credited with a specific author, doubtless they would end up attributed to another, falling as they do under the canon of "if it isn't true, it ought to be."

 Happily, most stories boast their own well-known progenitor, and we can counter with confidence that it is not only the tale which is told, but, when it comes to weaving the disparate threads of drama, pathos, suspense, whimsy and caprice into one legendary yarn about one Midwestern boy, his compatriots, and their adventures, it is the story, and the writer who sired it, which are universally known and loved.     

Indeed, who but a writer of Mark Twain's prodigious writing ability could speak of prosaic things like schoolyards and swimming holes, corncob pipes and whitewashed fences, spice them up with love, greed and murder, then  take us on a dizzying whirlwind trip through a small Missouri town, a graveyard at midnight, a jail, a courtroom, a haunted house, an island in the Mississippi River, and a cave, and do so in such a way that while we have not once left our cozy reading spot, we believe we have been, like the heroes of our story, on a great and wondrous journey? 

It's both the content and character of Twain's classic tale of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER which Laura Eason wisely retains and leaves largely unchanged in her adaptation; however, what sets Eason's treatment of Twain's original novel apart is that she adds another element to the story- that of theatre, while paying tribute to Twain's time-honored saga.  By adding theatrical magic- actors, sets, lights, costumes, props, and even music- the story of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher and the good people of St. Petersburg, Missouri takes on a fresh, exciting  life, renewed in its vibrant, engaging qualities, and ultimately endowed with a poignant humanity.  

Director Bryan Halperin expertly balances Twain's story, Eason's adaptation, and the challenges of mounting this unique work for the stage by blending the scenic and technical elements together in an understated and seamless manner, preferring to focus on the human side of the story, rather than that which supports it.  

Instead of relying on stage magic, Halperin stresses the ensemble aspect of the piece, tasking eight actors with playing multiple roles,  having them animate the many people who populate the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, sleepily spinning out its days on the banks of the Mississippi River in the halcyon days of 1840s America, before the nation was swept up in the privations and calumny brought about by the Civil War. 

Small ensemble pieces which provide actors with opportunities to take on multiple characters and then make them unforgettable are a Winnipesaukee Playhouse trademark- and TOM SAWYER takes its place right alongside gems like SHERLOCK HOMES, THE COMPLETE HISTORY of AMERICA, SHIPWRECKED and a host of others which have played a large part in helping the Playhouse become a Lakes Region staple since its inception in 2004.

The principle reason that these shows have become a Winni P tradition: the actors themselves:
TOM SAWYER's cast, made up of Playhouse veterans and newcomers alike, expand on the tradition of the multiple-role ensemble piece, adding their own signature to it with a host of superb performances.

William Vaughn and Rebecca Tucker, at the forefront of this groundswell of talent, turn in fun performances as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher respectively, playing up the exuberant innocence and childlike sense of wonder which drives their characters. 
The always reliable A. J. Ditty occupies his role as Huckleberry Finn with aplomb, and so, too, do John C. Nagy III, Nicholas Wilder, Bryn Austin, and Toby Miller as they bring a host of characters to life on the stage.  Adam Kee rounds out the cast as a fussy, strap-happy schoolmaster and several other townsfolk, then does a menacing turn as TOM SAWYER's principal villain, Injun Joe.   All of the characters are manifested with crisp, clean interpretations, wholly dependent on the expertise of the actors playing them, with a minimum of props and costumes.     

Scenic elements as executed by David Towlun mimic the actors, in that certain aspects of the set are first one thing, then another: a fence becomes the inside of a schoolhouse, or the embankment on a river.  The floor transforms into water, a graveyard, then a cave filled with pitfalls and buried treasure.  And so on.  Matt Guminski's lighting is, as usual, intuitively faithful to the storyline, making use of both light and shadow to support the many settings that make up the environs in and around St. Petersburg. Live music, composed by Joel Mercier and often played by the actors themselves, augments the action and accentuates the mood.  A special shout goes out to technical director Joshua Jansen, whose tireless work on this production makes possible a few fascinating special effects, which have to be seen to be fully appreciated. 

Adults in particular might find themselves filled with nostalgia upon seeing THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER play out on the Winni P stage, and that's a good thing: it's a work which serves to remind us of the uncomplicated lives we ourselves may have led when we were once children, when everything was new and gleaming with promise and nothing seemed impossible.  Or it may remind us what a wonderful book Tom Sawyer was, and is, and perhaps spur us into re-reading it- or, even better, re-reading it out loud to our own children.

In play form, THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER isn't just for the adults- by all means, bring the kids.  The content and language is safe for everyone, and the scary parts aren't so scary that you'll have to take the younger ones out of the theatre.  Children will not only love the play, they'll identify with it, and so will the grownups. It's a great experience for audiences of all ages, and a perfect way to introduce kids to a piece of classic American literature.  

To return to the quote at the top of this review: it is certainly the tale, in its timeless charm and the sweetly poignant lessons of childhood, which is of enduring value here. 

But we are fortunate in that those who tell the tale, tell it very well, much like the great Mark Twain did nearly 140 years ago- which only makes THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER that much more of a treasure.  Go see it.  

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER plays through August 2. 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse.  Click the logo to go to their website for tickets and information. 

Michael J. Curtiss is a writer, playwright, and theatre critic.  He administers THE GRANITE STAGE page and resides in southern New Hampshire. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

THE FOREIGNER- Winnipesaukee Playhouse

written by Larry Shue 

produced by The Winnipesaukee Playhouse

directed by Keith Weirich 

The premise of Larry Shue's THE FOREIGNER is deceptively simple: Charlie, a shrinking-violet British science fiction magazine editor, is brought by his friend, Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur, to Betty Meeks' Fishing Lodge Resort in rural Georgia to recover from the serial infidelities of the wife he continues to adore, who now lies ill back in England.  

Prostrated by his wife's slatternly exertions, coupled with her impending demise, Charlie has retreated into himself, finding it nearly impossible to even speak.  

Ever the boon companion, Froggy arranges it so that Charlie doesn't have to talk to anyone during his stay, telling Lodge owner Betty and her guests that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't speak a lick of English.  As a consequence, everyone around Charlie conducts themselves as if he wasn't there, revealing not only their most closely-kept secrets, but setting the stage for an evening of nonstop, unbridled entertainment. 

Director Keith Weirich spends the bulk of his professional life as the artistic director of The Peacock Players, the popular and award-winning youth theatre company based in Nashua, NH, so it's easy to see where the freshness and the sense of imagination which threads through THE FOREIGNER comes from.  

Weirich has his actors play up all of the silly and ridiculous aspects of the situations which befall their characters in a way which accentuates the humor, but he also gives the cast focus, so that they remember why they're there.  Weirich has his cast touch upon the more serious aspects of the plot without getting bogged down in them.  As a result, the action is tight and disciplined, but generously seasoned with incidences of humor ranging from the cerebral to the slapstick. 

THE FOREIGNER is a star vehicle for the actor taking on  the role of  Charlie Baker, and  A. J. Ditty, who delighted audiences last year in the Winni P productions of NOISES OFF, SHERLOCK HOLMES, and THE 39 STEPS, consistently demonstrates why he's the man for the job.  

An actor of slim and angular proportions, Ditty is perfect for, and in, the role; he first shows us Charlie as a nervously mordant schmuck caught up in a litany of personal woes, and it isn't until Act 1 is well underway that Ditty demonstrates his git for transformation, pulling Charlie up from the pit of despair in which he's mired and completely making him over. 

As Charlie, Ditty takes the character on a physical and vocal train ride of epic speed and scope.  At the beginning, he reluctantly goes along with the ruse Froggy sets up, quietly and politely miming his way through his first few hours at the Lodge when he comes in contact with the other guests and visitors there.  As time passes, Ditty's Charlie embraces his new persona and ramps it up with exponentially increasing enthusiasm, throwing himself into it physically as well as mentally.  

As the characters around him begin to reveal themselves and what they're really about, Charlie is transformed once again, from a childlike foreigner to a hero and a champion- not only to those with whom he comes into contact, but the bucolic and unspoiled lifestyle which they, and the Lodge, represent.  

Ditty takes on the multifaceted role of Charlie with a consummate dexterity, it's a delight to watch him grow the part and bring Charlie into his own.  Ditty's nervy mannerisms endow Charlie with an endearing, clownish physicality, and the mother tongue he makes up as an ersatz foreigner is a delicious panoply of mashups, borrowing liberally from Russian, French, German, Yiddish, a trove of onomatopoeia, Shakespearean soliloquies, even passages from the sci-fi stories he edits. The manner in which Ditty frames his dialogue it makes it sound like it's all off the top of his head, so it doesn't matter if it's scripted or improvised- it's all absurd and whimsical, and in perfect keeping with the play's ludicrous storyline.  

Because he's almost never offstage, Ditty is charged with bringing an unflagging physical and vocal energy to the role without sending it off on unnecessary tangents.  This he does, making Charlie fresher and more endearingly playful with every passing moment.  Ditty doesn't merely resort to reaching into a grab-bag of actor tricks, but grounds Charlie by having him live in the moment, reacting to what the other actors give him and generously bouncing it back to them so that they, too, are as much a part of the unfolding moments as he himself is.  It takes a superb actor to be able to both command and share the stage, and it's clear from his performance as Charlie that A. J. Ditty is that actor. Well done.    

Conversely, 9-season Winni P veteran Adam Kee gets the least amount of stage time as Froggy LeSueur, Charlie's longtime pal, and the person responsible for bringing Charlie to the Lodge.  Lest one worry that Froggy exists merely to be the show's occasional comic foil, never fear. 

Kee, as is his modus operandi, thoroughly occupies every fiber of the character; his Froggy is expansive and convivial, blessed with a plummy British accent and a host of sweeping mannerisms, and yet his reactions to what happens around Charlie are hilariously understated. Kee is an expert at finding the perfect comedic level and timing it out, which means that every action he undertakes as his character only serves to punch up each moment which calls for Froggy's presence.  Kee may not be inside the action for all that long, but when he is, you'll love every moment he's there.

William Vaughn turns in a brilliant performance as THE FOREIGNER's designated dullard, Ellard Simms. Vaughn gives us an Ellard content to languish in his designated role as a perennial underachiever because his contemporaries all consider him mentally slow at best, thus expecting nothing from him.  However, when Ellard and Charlie meet, that's when Vaughn shows us the hidden gifts within Ellard, just waiting for the right moment to bloom:  

Ellard recognizes in Charlie not merely a kindred spirit, but one who's been cast adrift in a hostile sea- one which Ellard knows well, because it's a sea he navigates every day. Consequently, Vaughn transforms Ellard, having him step outside of himself to take change of Charlie, and he does so masterfully.  Ellard's objective becomes not only to help Charlie find his way, but also to give him the tools necessary to negotiate the world he occupies: Of course, the pairing results in a plethora of hilarious moments as the pair struggle to find common ground, but it's also poignant; for all of the humor that comes of his dealings with Charlie,  Vaughn's evolution as Ellard is beautifully nuanced, and a treat to witness.  

Winni P alum Donna Schilke provides a variety of broad comedic moments as the Lodge's eternally upbeat proprietress, Betty Meeks; Nicholas Wilder returns from the 2013 season to distinguish himself this time around as Owen Musser, a menacing racist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.  Nicole Soriano and John C Nagy III are spot on with their characterizations of Catherine, a former Southern debutante and David, her duplicitous fiance, respectively.   Each actor gifts this ensemble with their presence, and each in his own way is a pleasure to watch. 

Dan Daly's scenic design is a gem: the unit set consists of a great room with two smaller anterooms, all nestled within one another like a Russian doll, each room decorated in its own distinctive style- kitschy, cozy and welcoming.  Lighting design by Becky Marsh provides not just atmosphere but a variety of effects such as lightning, headlights, even explosions. Lori McGinley's costumes faithfully recall early 1980s fashions, and Neil Pankhurst's sound design helps to underscore place and time as well as accentuate mood and theme. 

While it may be argued that THE FOREIGNER is dated, hackneyed and easy on the eyes, ears and brain  in terms of its plot and comedic sensibility, it's also a very sweet play that gently reminds us of the enduring duality of the human spirit: that from deceit comes truth, and out of despair, hope. 

THE FOREIGNER also holds within itself a tiny little jewel of a secret: that the only way to be a better person is to put your own miseries to one side, gather up the courage to step outside of your comfort zone, and do whatever it takes to help others feel better about themselves.

That's really not such a bad premise for a play, is it?  It's one of the many worthy ideas which the talented crew at the Winni Playhouse would have you take away from this production, and it's to their credit that they do. 

There is one thing wrong with this show: it's not going to be on stage nearly long enough for all the people who would appreciate how The Winnipesaukee Playhouse distills a new vintage from an old bottle to benefit from seeing it.  I strongly suggest that you catch THE FOREIGNER while it's still around.  

THE FOREIGNER runs June 25- July 5 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse.  Please visit their website for more information and tickets.  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN- StageCoach Productions

I have a great deal of respect for StageCoach Productions, and am fortunate to count among of my theatre experiences some unparalleled shows by this company.  .

At a time when other stage companies in the same neck of the woods were either languishing in the creative doldrums, or ceasing operations altogether, StageCoach brought to audiences shows like  SWEENEY TODD, A CHORUS LINE, and PARADE, to name but three- shows which not only garnered critical acclaim for StageCoach, but set the bar for excellence in musical theatre, and established the company as a serious contender.  

I'm sorry to say that CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is not one of those shows- or at least it wasn't at the final dress I attended. The production labored under what can only be categorized as "the curse of tech week",  when acting, staging, and technical issues which needed to be addressed earlier in the production process were left to the last minute, or passed over in order to run the show.   

Part of it's due to the company only having access to the performance space for a limited time, where certain challenges can't be addressed until they could physically be in the building, but some of it was due to choices made in the rehearsal process and either left to be cleaned up, or missed altogether.       

Happily, the malaise which suffuses CATCH ME IF YOU CAN doesn't completely cut the legs out from under it.  While the show does stumble over itself more than it ought, the professionalism of StageCoach's core group, coupled with a cast that knows how to pick itself up and keep on going, salvages CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and makes it a show worthy of the StageCoach imprimatur. 

Granted, it's not going to be as high up in the pantheon of StageCoach productions that it could be, but trust me- there's the makings of a solid show here, and no one's going to ask for their money back when the curtain goes down.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is a musical treatment of the true story of con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., chronicling his rise from petty thief to a master criminal in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

So impeccable was Abagnale, Jr. in the swindles and impersonations he engineered, the FBI-  which was tasked with catching him- ended up hiring him as a consultant upon his release from prison.  

Stagecoach  brings to the stage an accomplished corps of actors, many of whom have worked with the company in the past, and whose level of expertise is often called on to save the show from collapsing in upon itself. 

Joe Paoni is Frank Abagnale, Jr.  Paoni sings beautifully and brings a charismatic quality to the role, but once the songs end, Paoni has trouble maintaining character; he doesn't fully take on Frank Jr.'s powerful sense of confidence, or his insouciance in the face of authority, and this makes his Frank come across as undecided and intimidated, rather than focused and courageous. Paoni also rushes his lines, and a lot of his dialogue is lost because of it. 

That being said, it's possible that Paoni was having an off night, and will hit his stride as the show goes forward- he certainly has the chops to make Frank, Jr. more compelling. 

Stuart Harmon once more demonstrates why he's a staple of the Stagecoach acting corps- indeed, many companies throughout southern NH have come to know him as a theatrical favorite son, and with good reason.  Harmon's blessed with a genuine love for theatre, and it shines through in the characters he plays.  As Hanratty, the hapless FBI agent charged with tracking down Abagnale, Jr. and bringing him to justice, Harmon endows his character with a plain-spoken gravitas; he's all business, and Harmon is unswerving in his mission to keep Hanratty as understated as possible.  That is, until the pressure builds and Hanratty simply has to burst out, which Harmon lets Hanratty do with a jolting hilarity, sending Hanratty off on comic tangents until he manages once more to get himself- and whatever situation set him off- under control. 

As an added treat, we get to hear Harmon's rendition of "The Man Behind The Clues", a torchy lament delivered in a mournful tenor reminiscent of Chet Baker, and infused with the indigo cool sensibility of Miles Davis. Were Harmon not so in demand as an actor, he could easily hold his own as a jazz vocalist.  

Emma Benson scores an absolute 10 on the winsomeness scale in her role as Frank, Jr.'s girlfriend, Brenda Strong.  Benson is adorable, but not saccharine- she balances out the cutesy aspects of her personality with a capable femininity- she's a woman who knows what she wants, and, like Frank, Jr., isn't afraid to go out and try for it. Benson plays Brenda as a mirror image of Frank- not merely reflecting back the best parts of himself , but also showing him an unflinchingly accurate portrait of all that he has done and what will come of the choices he has made. Benson gives an impressively grounded performance as Brenda, also making her Frank's moral compass, and Benson is equal to the task of manifesting a woman as complex as Frank, Jr., is as a man. 

Benson also provides CATCH ME IF YOU CAN with a gorgeous singing voice; she shines in the gospel-inspired solo "Fly, Fly Away", managing to evoke a quietly prayerful sense of hope in her yearning to make a life with the man she loves.  

Donna O'Bryant Metzger and Bob Frasca chart a regretful course as Frank, Jr.'s parents, and Lynda Aramento and Matt Kiser provide a brassy, sassy aesthetic as Brenda's southern mom and dad.  Mike Martin is a puppyish FBI agent  whose love of comics provides integral clues to the case against Frank Abagnale, Jr., and Cam Morin and Nathan Schwartzberg provide comic relief as a couple of dimbulb FBI toolbags whose gleeful devotion to slacking off slows Hanratty's trajectory toward resolving the case, much to Hanratty's eternal chagrin.   

Julie Shea, Jen Stanley, Liz Krahenbuhl, Toan Nguyen, Scott Forrest-Allen, Patrick Regan, Sheree Owens and Elliot Owens all acquit themselves admirably in a variety of supporting roles.

Director Jennifer Mallard also designed the set, and it would have been far better for her to have consulted with designers with a deeper understanding of what a set can and can't do. 

This show's set is an overbuilt, poorly-placed boondoggle of platforms, legs, stairs and masking cloth, all of which combine to bedevil the production from start to finish.  The set sits squarely in the middle of the acting area, dominating it completely, which might be excusable if the set functioned as anything more than a means to provide levels higher than the stage floor, but it doesn't; it squats there like a soporific toad, getting in the way of the actors more than it facilitates them.  

The band for CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is  parked on the highest level of the set, adding to the distraction; stand lamps diffuse the show's light changes, and the constant moving around pulls the eye away from the onstage action.  It would have been far better to situate the band on either side of the stage, perhaps in one of the left or right seating areas, or behind the proscenium.  In this age of sound augmentation, there's no need to have a band dead-bang in the center of the action when they're clearly not part of it.  

Unfortunately, Mallard also elected not to make the set practical other than for actors to stand, sit or dance on, which means that the cast, their props, and other set pieces have to move through narrow openings on either side of the set, or from the two voms, to get on or off. Unfortunately everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown onto the stage: beds, couches, tables, bars, chairs and what have you whirl on and off, often banging into the too-small access points, slowing down the show's tempo and adding an unnecessary level of slapstick to the goings-on. Why the set wasn't fabricated so that the larger pieces could live underneath, out of the way and yet near to hand is a mystery; there's a lot of space wasted, and with it the opportunity to keep this show moving along as smoothly as it could. 

Given the challenges of this ambitious musical and the constraints of the space in which it's performed, a wiser and more experienced director would have simplified as many of the technical and scenic elements as possible, lessening the burden on a group of people already tasked to move the story along with a consistent level of energy, rather than adding to it. 

The bad set aside, other technical and scenic elements mesh smoothly and support without detracting from the story; sound by Dan Richards and lights by Craig Brennan are handled well and intuitively, anticipating the needs of the cast and the story they're telling.  

Beth Schwartz' costumes are true to the period and are a sterling example of attention to detail; hemlines, accessories and even fabric patterns are appropriate to the period,  helping to set both mood and theme as well as place and time. A shout goes out to props mistress Kate Gaudet for stepping in on short notice and deftly handling the sea of sheer "stuff" called for in this show; well done. 

Jen Sassak's choreography is one of this show's true delights; it's crisp, clean, yet crackling with a kinetic electricity, reminiscent of the ebullient gyrations which some of the dance crazes in the 1960s call for, often literally dragging the show's tempo up from places where the energy levels stall and putting the production back on track. Sassak is keenly aware of the space her actors occupy, designing numbers not only to fit, but to be vibrant and alive within that space. We need to see more of Sassak's inventiveness and dedication on area stages; she's clearly an asset to be treasured. Hire that girl and put her to work; she WILL make your show better. 

As music director, Judy Hayward does her usual impeccable job of leading a superb, disciplined band, as well as bringing out the best in the actors and their singing.  CATCH ME IF YOU CAN calls for a variety of styles, from uptempo group numbers to cool, noirish jazz riffs, from gospel-flavored solos to duets with humorous bossa nova overtones.  Hayward and her crew are more than up to the challenge, showcasing how integral songs are to a musical's narrative by paying attention not to what is merely being sung or played, but what's being expressed behind and under the notes as well. 

To be fair, StageCoach Productions took on a lot of heavy lifting when they added CATCH ME IF YOU CAN to their season- it's a show which demands a consistently high level of accomplishment from everyone who comes on board to see the play through.  

As evidenced by the stellar roster of musicals under their belt, it's clear that they're not afraid of stepping up to the challenges of a difficult show, and they certainly do meet the demands of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN squarely on.  

This is not going to be one of those "knock it out of the park" productions, but it's certainly not due to lack of talent or hard work; as with every new show, there's a learning curve, and with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, the curve proves steep enough in places to derail StageCoach's objective.

No matter: StageCoach may tumble off the track, but they get right back up, dust themselves off, and get back to the business of bringing to its audience what is, in the end, a damn fine story.  

And, as they have always done, Stagecoach pulls out all the stops to lift the production off the ground and bring to the theatre-going faithful a show that does what it's supposed to- entertain.

Catch it, if you can.  

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN runs June 20-22 at the Janice B Streeter Theatre, Court St., Nashua.  See the StageCoach website for details. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

WOYZECK- Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England


presented by Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England

directed by Dylan Gamblin

I'm going to depart from the usual review a little bit, and not identify the actors who make up the WOYZECK ensemble.  

Don't get me wrong- they're a good bunch- but  I'm withholding names as an homage to one of the more intriguing concepts of the play as staged by Ghostlight.  

If you need to know who's who, you can either go to the show and read the biographies- which I enthusiastically suggest you do- or you can cheat yourself out of a unique theatrical experience and look them up at Ghostlight's website.   

That's all I'm going to say about that.  

WOYZECK is a fragmentary play authored by German dramatist  Georg B├╝chner.  He got about 16 pages into it before he died, and in the years since, the play has the distinction of having been "finished" by a number of authors; it's been kicking around in one form or another for nearly two centuries.   

 It's also based on a true story, chronicling the travails of a provincial German soldier cursed with mental instability- which, as it turns out, is likely the least of his problems, and which helps propel him down a series of progressively darker paths. 

Ghostlight's incarnation takes WOYZECK's dolorous narrative and wraps it within the context of an arcane sideshow atmosphere- ostensibly collaborating with a traveling circus of twisted storytellers, if you will, who style themselves as "die Karnival von Wahnsinn".   

However, these narrators aren't cut from the same glittering, cheerful cloth as the gaily-bedecked  circus performers with which we're familiar.  No indeed.

What cloaks this particular troupe is of an otherworldly diminution; t
his unnerving carnival of souls seems to have emerged whole and breathing from some other place, a place not quite known to us- a place of shadows, whispers and smothered screams, where twisted shapes writhe and grasp and can only be seen out of the corner of the eye.  

With the exception of a disturbingly androgynous, gleefully vulpine Ringmaster, the costuming and makeup of this peculiar company is stark and homologous, cut from the penumbra of otherworldly cloth. They each have their tasks to perform, and they do so adroitly, adding their own Stygian fillip to an already diabolical tale; they dance, cavort, and tumble, each becoming part of a larger storytelling machine, then whirling off to form something else, and something else again.  

Make no mistake, though- they are there to entertain you.  And you WILL be entertained- no matter what. 

The play begins with a jolt, and those jolts just keep on coming; in the time-honored tradition of Grand Guignol, the jolts are served up with a fusion of humor and horror,  For every smirk this play generates, a gasp follows; for every belly laugh, a shriek.  

Dylan Gamblin functions not so much as WOYZECK's director as its thoughtful, intuitive midwife- he shepherds this play from open to close with a loving attention to the details and mechanics of that which compels his characters to act as they do, and that which compels an audience to stay and witness what those characters do.  It's a directorial technique which keeps both the play and the audience off-balance, and it works beautifully.  

An astute disciple of the horror genre, Gamblin endows the play and his acting ensemble with a sense of precision, having them dispense the pleasantries and atrocities visited upon Woyzeck and his companions in such a way that the audience's reaction to whatever is visited upon the characters is maximized in its potency.

There is sweetness, and there is barbarity; Gamblin and his cast dole out both, as well as everything else on the emotional spectrum with the deftness and expertise of those who know their craft, to the great good fortune of both the story and those who have assembled to take it in.  

As the titular character, Woyzeck himself isn't merely a rubric upon which a story is built.  He's an amalgam, a composite- a distillation, if you will, of the elements which power a tale and make it worth attending-  its obstacles which must be overcome or circumvented, its characters and their desires, and the arc which lifts the story up, gives it the room and the oxygen it needs to thrive, then and gently brings it to its earthly conclusion.   

The actor playing Woyzeck proves himself to be a most able  translator of the tale; he is not merely done unto and left to react, but instead takes Woyzeck where he needs to go by endowing him with not only an awareness of his place in the larger scheme of things, but with a keen sense of destiny.  He is where he is because of the events which conspired to place him where he is, but he is still largely his own master, and is this sense of both individuality as well as that of fate which spurs Woyzeck on his journey from lowly soldier to being an instrument of whatever grim gods chance to look down upon him. 

Where that journey ends- well, you'll have to go see the play to find that out. Fortunately, all of the actors are adept in their roles as those integral to Woyzeck- soldiers, a prostitute, a child, a foppish captain, a brutal drum major and a sadistic doctor among them- and you will not be disappointed at the manner in which they bring this strange and somber story to you.  

Another note: WOYZECK's setting is kept deliberately amorphous.  It is not clear that the events and places which play out are real, or a product of Woyzeck's damaged mind- or, perhaps an aspect of the afterlife that one must endure as penance for the life that came before.  Whether it's Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, or something else entirely is left to the audience to decide.

Or maybe it's just a bunch of scary carnies telling a story about a madman.  In the end, the who, what, where, when and why are left up to you to decide.

Scenic elements are kept to an austere minimum; it's the tale which matters here, not the manner in which it's told, through certainly there are enough of the standard frills and furbelows to remind you that you are, after all, at the theatre.  

Which is good.  Because though  you could swear that all you did was walk from one well-lit room to one ruled by murk and miasma, and while it seems that, after all, it's only a bunch of actors playing out an odd dumb-show...   with the lights just so, and the shapes lurking just beyond your field of vision seem to be as earthbound and as human as you are, you just.... aren't... quite... sure. 

As it moves into its second decade, Ghostlight stays faithful to its mission to present offbeat and provocative works.  WOYZECK follows the tradition of past Ghostlight productions  like TRAINSPOTTING, BUG, and THE PILLOWMAN- shows which have the power to disturb and titillate, but which were picked for their ability to tell a story in a superb and compelling manner- one which draws the audience in and keeps them riveted, until the very last word of the tale is uttered, and the stage goes dark.  

WOYZECK is one of those shows, and even though it only runs the one weekend, you should make every effort to see it. 

WOYZECK runs through April 26 at the Janice B. Streeter Theatre in Nashua NH.  See the Ghostlight website for details.

Michael J. Curtiss is a writer, playwright, and theatre critic.  He administers THE GRANITE STAGE page and resides in southern New Hampshire. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

BEYOND THERAPY- Milford Area Players


presented by the Milford Area Players

directed by Vick Bennison

Reviewed by guest blogger 
Lowell Williams 

BEYOND THERAPY, a comedy by Christopher Durang,  is now in production courtesy of the Milford Area Players (MAP).  

The play premiered off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre in New York on January 1, 1981, starring Stephen Collins and Sigourney Weaver in the lead roles. MAP’s production opened this past Friday, March 21st, 2014, featuring Kevin Linkroum (Bruce) and Sara Fagan (Prudence).

BT is a period piece; the leads meet one other through personal ads, published in the local newspaper- technology has pushed us to the internet for such things today. As our characters explain more than once: "it’s so difficult to meet people." In those days, ads in the paper is what those desperate for love and companionship did to meet.  

But their meeting does not go well.  As Prudence exclaims to her therapist, Bruce “mentioned my breasts!” and “his male lover!”  The comedy for the most part still works in 2014, though the many period pop culture references (Three’s Company, Gary Gilmore, etc.) may sail over the heads of those under a certain age.

Despite its dated premise, MAP's version of BT is a keenly executed production. The set is deftly constructed on a turn-table; this gizmo would turn a little bit to reveal the next set, and just when you thought it was out of tricks, another new set popped out.  Very clever, if a bit slow. A little music would have been nice to fill the time. Lighting was good, although cues designed to begin a scene were late at times.

Kevin Linkroum’s bare-chested character embodies what used to be the stereotype for a gay man named “Bruce.” Kevin pulls this off rather well, as does Sara Fagan as Prudence. Neatly costumed, Prudence is delightfully feminine and strong against Bruce’s confused sexuality. 

Therapists Gary Trahan and Amy Agostino don’t appear until later in the play, but they arrive with a bang. These absurd characters steal the show, especially Amy’s scene with Bruce’s boyfriend Bob, portrayed by Tim Lord. Amy’s over-the-top portrayal of Charlotte is spot on for laughs and steals the show. The late arrival of the waiter (Mitch Fortier), reveals more than bare chests. When he whispers “I get off in five minutes,” he’s not bragging about being quick.

Opening night tempo lagged and there were issues with volume, but director feedback should fix that by the time you get the chance to see this. I hope you will.

BEYOND THERAPY runs through March 30, 2014. See the MAP website for details.   

Lowell Williams is an acclaimed playwright and a prominent member of the NH theatre community.  A graduate of the MFA program at Goddard College, his plays SIX NIGHTS IN THE BLACK BELT, THE WARMTH OF THE COLD,  and others have been widely produced throughout the region and the US. .

Saturday, March 8, 2014

OTHELLO- Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England


presented by Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England

adapted by John Kneeland

directed by Ozan Haksever

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Duplicity, class warfare, racism, political intrigue.  Ruined love, envy, betrayal and death: the elements for an absorbing night out at the theatre?  

Really?  Who wants to see that? 

The answer is: you do, especially if the play is Shakespeare's provocative tragedy OTHELLO, and and the company producing it is the Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England.  
I'll say straight out that Ghostlight's version of OTHELLO has its flaws, most notably in how it's staged.  Its pacing is uneven, at times lugubrious.  Scene changes add to its running time.   While some actors rise to the challenge of translating the intent of the text, others fall short. Stage combat is tentative at best. Opportunities to lift the show to a potentially fascinating level are missed.   

That being said, there's enough about OTHELLO that's praiseworthy. This version, adapted and directed by longtime Ghostlight members John Kneeland and Ozan Haksever respectively, brings updated, thoughtfully crafted concepts to an enduring stage work  while still honoring its power to move an audience with resonating themes of deception, prejudice, and alienation. 

Director Ozan Haksever partners well with adaptor John Kneeland in this updated OTHELLO;  the pair give the play a gritty, urban look and the dynamics of a latter-day gang rivalry, allowing Shakespeare's original text to frame the story.    

This may seem on the surface an odd juxtaposition of styles; however, Haksever's  and Kneeland's cerebral approach to the material gives the narrative more intrigue and dimension.  The story that Shakespeare intended to tell is unchanged by the revisions, giving it an appearance and a style upon which contemporary audiences can hang a hook.  The language retains its poetic efficacy and becomes almost incidental- we understand what drives the characters, and the circumstances under which they labor, regardless of how they speak.  

Many members of the cast hand in solid, consistent performances.  Of particular note is Nathan Johnson as a fiery, impassioned Othello; Jenna Forrestal (Desdemona), Kasey McNulty (Emelia), Michael Lavimoniere (Cassio) and Danny Audette (Montano) are also inventive with their characterizations. 

Without question, Kyle Gregory as Iago is OTHELLO's most compelling character; the actor makes a host of excellent choices, both in articulating what Iago wants and showing us how he aspires to achieve his aims.  Iago is both pivotal and integral to the events in the play as they unfold; through his own diabolical machinations in pitting white against black or setting kinsmen at odds against one another, Iago's imprimatur is on nearly everything that transpires on stage. 

Gregory's Iago is a creature possessed of a dual nature: one where both covetousness and ambition rule equally. Whether he's putting his own Machiavellian mind or his physical body to the task, Gregory's Iago isn't afraid to use what's at hand to aid him in his schemes.  In his plotting against Othello directly or manipulating others to do his bidding, Iago becomes a prosopopoeia- the living incarnation of that eternal idiom "a means to an end".  Gregory endows Iago's nature, and his duality, with a sensual, elegant brilliance; his energy and investment in the role rules this production. 

Design and technical elements by Thomas Morgan and Craig Brennan are wisely kept to a minimum, with the exception of an excess of set pieces brought on to denote different settings- repeated placing and striking adds unnecessary time to an already long show.  A graphics screen is incorporated into the set but is woefully underused. 

Fight scenes lack energy and are unconvincing.  A slyly humorous music score adds depth and color to many of the scenes, and the costumes by Jillian McNamara cleverly span fashion eras from the mid-20th century onward.   

This isn't going to be the best OTHELLO you'll see, but there's enough substance in what Ghostlight brings to their incarnation of the show to warrant a look.  The company has a reputation for taking familiar material and looking for ways to tell a story in a fresh, engaging manner.  

They've certainly accomplished that with OTHELLO; this is by no stretch of the imagination "safe" theatre, and for their efforts and willingness to take risks, both OTHELLO and the company which brings it to the stage are worth your patronage.  Check them out.   

OTHELLO runs through March 15 at Club Lafayette, 465 Fletcher St., Lowell, MA.  See the GLTNE website for information. 

Michael J. Curtiss is a writer, playwright, and theatre critic.  He administers THE GRANITE STAGE page and resides in southern New Hampshire. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014



produced by theatre KAPOW

directed by Matt Cahoon

Review by guest blogger Lowell Williams

The classic Greek tale of Odysseus, in the epic poem by Homer, tells the story of our hero’s ten year trek home from the Trojan war.  Due to Odysseus' long absence, his wife believes him to be dead, and suitors begin to line up to compete for her hand. Odysseus returns, stunning the men,  and then kills them all.

This is the background helpful to know before seeing the play “Penelope,” now underway on the main stage at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, produced by Theater Kapow (tKapow). 

The suitors number four: Burns (Colby Morgan), Quinn (Wayne Asbury),  Dunne (Peter Josephson),  and Fitz (Neal Blaiklock).  The elusive Penelope is portrayed by Gina Carballo.

The ancient story has been modernized by playwright Enda Walsh, and this production is directed by tKapow co-founder Matt Cahoon.

tKapow has created an amazing world where these characters live.  The set is an empty swimming pool where the four men have been staying for an extended, unspecified period of time. It looks it. It’s a mess. There’s food and garbage scattered everywhere. The walls of the empty pool are stained with what turns out to be blood. The place is an achievement for designer Dan Bilodeau. 

There are surprises in store, too; more details of the place are revealed as the play goes on. The audience is up close to the players, as tKapow keeps to their practice of limited seating directly on the stage. Lighting and special effects were deftly handled as designed by Tayva Young. Congratulations go out to the crew for a flawless opening night performance.

Since our players are in a swimming pool, they are dressed for it, stepping out in tight Speedo- type swimsuits that leave little to the imagination. Much consideration for the impact they would have must have gone into these costumes by designer tKapow co-founder, Carey Cahoon.

But we’re not here to stare at those “packages”.  Let’s look away from this distraction and get into the performances,  and discuss what is happening;  the playwright has taken the original story and twisted it up a little.

As is often done with modern Shakespeare, tKapow has employed their immense talent to show us what the sometimes hard-to-follow language is describing. And the language is daunting.  This play demands much of the suitors in performance of complex and demanding monologues. To make sense of it all, you will find yourself playing close attention to expressions and reactions in the actors' faces. It can be a struggle to keep up.

The skills employed by the troupe are up to the challenge. In this true ensemble play, there are no weak links. The dialogue flows, the meaning is clear, and the pace is deliberate and true.  These guys do a great job keeping this monster running.

The downfall of this play is the script.  While there are many clever and witty moments in this play, the climax seems abrupt because we know, more or less, what the inevitable ending will be.  It takes a little too long to set up, and it’s not quite clear what we’re waiting for before the final moments play out. It can be difficult to sort out just who wants what.

But don't let that deter you from seeing this show. This company is showing off their best stuff to pull off “Penelope,” in a brilliant, quality production which you won’t find any better elsewhere. 

tKapow has earned, through amazing dedication and hard work, a reputation for taking on the most challenging of projects; plays that would easily scare off other regional New England companies who don’t have the skills and wherewithal to even approach a play like “Penelope.”  A nearly full opening night audience bears this out.

Come to Derry and support this uniquely talented company. You’ll be the richer for it.

PENELOPE runs through March 2 at the Stockbridge Theatre (on the Pinkerton Academy campus) in Derry, NH.  Please visit the theatre KAPOW website for more information. 

Lowell Williams is an acclaimed playwright and a prominent member of the NH theatre community.  A graduate of the MFA program at Goddard College, his plays SIX NIGHTS IN THE BLACK BELT, THE WARMTH OF THE COLD,  and others have been widely produced throughout the region and the US. We are pleased to welcome him as a guest blogger for CAUGHT IN THE ACT.