Friday, February 13, 2015

AGREEING TO DISAGREE: A Response To The Outrage Sparked By Artistic Decisions Made At A Celebrated NH Theatre Company


A Response To The Outrage Sparked By Artistic Decisions Made At A Celebrated NH Theatre Company

Published in the Nashua Telegraph, Wednesday, February 11, 2015. Click this link:

Theater group should rethink production

My response:

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dear Ms. Connelly,

I want to speak to your recent decision to publicly voice your dismay at the Peacock Players’ staging of a same-sex union in their current production  of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM,  and the Telegraph’s sponsorship of the show.  

To start: well done.  To make public your principles in this age of snap judgments- and the stinging backlash they are capable of generating- is an act of bravery, and demonstrates the courage of your convictions.

Your letter provides an excellent opportunity to teach pluralism;  whether a parent, teacher or contributor to the overall welfare of our children, it’s incumbent upon each of us to teach our kids that we can't arrive at common ground until every voice is heard from.  

Sometimes those voices say things we don't like, but it's important to hear every opinion; it's only when we sift through the all of the voices in a conversation about the things that matter do we learn how to stand for what's right, and figure out what's best not just for ourselves, but for the larger community of man. 

I’d like to respond by touching upon three points of concern in your letter.

First: same-sex unions. 

We’re not going to debate that, you and I; same-sex unions are the law of the land,  here and (as of this writing) 36 other states. It’s part of our changing sociopolitical landscape, so let’s get past it by acknowledging that each of us comes at the subject with our own sets of beliefs and convictions, and agree to disagree. 

Second: “wholesomeness” in theatre.

Any attempt to quantify that which constitutes “wholesomeness” within the context of theatre would be a deeply personal undertaking; like same-sex unions, each person comes at the subject with their own deeply-held belief system based on vastly different experiences and ideologies. 

We could each make lists of shows we believe to be “wholesome”, argue their merits, and we’d each have compelling arguments for or against any number of works in the theatrical canon, and still fail to convince one another which shows on our lists met the necessary criteria for “wholesomeness”- so, again, as with same-sex unions, we must agree to disagree.  

Third:   Peacock Players’ Artistic Director Keith Weirich’s “political agenda” as it pertains to Peacock Players’ productions.  

Keith Weirich doesn’t need me to defend him, so I won’t.  I’ll merely point out what I know to be true after years of watching the man work and being a direct beneficiary of his expertise, his contributions to the theatrical community, and his friendship.

Keith Weirich is many things:  an actor, an educator, an artist driven by a prodigious creative spirit, a husband and a father.  He is both a scholar of theatre and an ardent practitioner of it. In an age where it’s acceptable to jump from career to career, Keith is a rarity: a man whose avocation and vocation are one and the same. 

Amidst all these good things, in his capacity as Artistic Director of The Peacock Players, Keith Weirich is a nurturing counselor and trusted mentor- a gentle giant upon whose broad shoulders the children in his charge stand, the better for them to reach for their dreams. 

He is not only supremely concerned with who those children are, but who they will become; he makes it his mission to ensure that those who come under his tutelage are given the tools they need not to be better actors, designers or technicians within the purview of theatre, but better humans, and to go out from his charge equipped to be better citizens of the world.   The numerous awards won by Peacock and the wondrous career paths many of his graduates have embarked upon bear this mission out, and prove conclusively that Keith is on the right track. 

Based on what I know to be true about Keith, the excellent staff with which he surrounds himself, and the Peacock Players' organization, I know that his and their concerns are less about politics, and more about the teachable moments with which he endows all of the productions Peacock does in the course of a given year.

Some of these moments are about small but essential pieces of theatre: basic blocking, character development, stagecraft, and how all the elements of a production come together to tell a story.  

Some of them are concepts writ exceeding large: how to make a show relate to what the kids of today are thinking about, how to start and sustain a dialogue about the elements of this production and how they’re relevant today, or how to inspire these kids to get inside the characters, the story they’re playing out, what they want and what changes when they get it. 

I assure you, Keith’s decision to stage MIDSUMMER within the context of a same-sex union was not to bowdlerize Shakespeare’s original story-  which, if you've seen it, you know portrays the events surrounding a marriage and follows the structure of "a play within a play"-  or to indulge an otherwise unsustainable theatrical vision, and it was definitely not predicated upon how much political blowback such a depiction would generate.

Keith made the decision to update MIDSUMMER because doing so doesn't change the essential plot, and the idea of a same-sex union is relevant not only to the story, but to the characters who move through it.  It helps to inform who the characters are, and and their disparate objectives, by making all of the elements of the story relevant to the young company performing this time-honored piece of theatre.   

Staging a same-sex union within MIDSUMMER’s storyline doesn’t detract from the themes within the story; the celebration of love, the concern with identity, the worrisome passage of time, and yes, aspects of sexuality which some may find less savory than others, but are no less important for what they are or what they represent.   

All of these things- and more- matter: they impact us us in who we are in every stage of our own development, and they certainly impact the kids putting on this play.  Adding a same-sex union to MIDSUMMER gives the play a contemporary spin, giving the audience and the company putting on the play the opportunity to examine yet another facet of the prism of possibility through which we view Shakespeare’s plays, and all plays. 

It is the responsibility of every theatre educator to acknowledge the fundamental changes which affect the world in which we live, as well as the theatre that we create to mark those changes. 

In this, Keith Weirich has consistently demonstrated his willingness  to accept that responsibility, and to find ways to excel within the mandate he has taken upon himself.  

No matter what’s said pro or con about the current production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, this much is true: the show will go on, and audiences will take away from it that which they choose as important to take.  

Ms. Connelly, I urge you rethink your position on MIDSUMMER and actually attend the play. Bring your children/grandchildren, if you have them: as members of a generation to whom the concept of a same-sex relationship is prosaic, they're apt to get quite a bit out of the production, and like as not be able to explain some of the more difficult parts to you. 

Witness for yourself what is possible from a lifetime of tireless work and inspiration, as a bunch of children inspired by Keith Weirich’s exemplary teaching take to the stage and bring a timeless story to life in a way that is deeply personal to them, and therefore infinitely more precious.  

That ability to use theatre to light an undying flame in the heart and soul of a young person? That’s Keith’s Weirich’s raison d'être- or, as you would have it, his “political agenda”. Nothing more, nothing less. 

The arguments about this production of MIDSUMMER may rage on, but in the interim, Keith Weirich’s stellar record as director, educator, humanitarian and mentor stands on its own.

His selfless efforts over the years have benefited and enriched a generation of lucky kids, and is proof enough that he has always had the best of intentions for them- as actors, as lovers of theatre, and as human beings. 

Inspired by Keith, everyone who comes within The Peacock Players' orbit have restored our faith in the power and magic of theatre-  not in just this production, and not just for the kids Keith shepherds with love and care through his programs year after year- but for everyone, always.  

For the gifts he brings to this show, this company, this community and this state- and doubtless will continue to bring for many more years- we, his supporters and friends, will all have his back.

As pertains to Keith's methods, motivations or how he chooses to inspire others- you and I will have to continue to agree to disagree.


Michael J. Curtiss
Administrator, THE GRANITE STAGE/Freelance Theatre Critic, CAUGHT IN THE ACT!

Keith Weirich
Artistic Director of The Peacock Players 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Stephen Fry Wants To Get Married, And That Means The World Is Going To End. Or, You Know.... Not.

Stephen Fry Wants To Get Married, And 

That Means The World Is Going To End.  

Or, You Know.... Not.

Stephen Fry, the very erudite and popular British actor, director, and author, announced today that he intends to marry his boyfriend, Elliot Spencer.
Spencer is 27. Fry is 57.
Upon learning of the couple's plans, the internet went indiscriminately crazy, essentially breaking the land-speed record in their haste to post the first, best, most pithy kind of snark they could muster to weigh in on the announcement.
We'll put aside the cruel remarks about two men marrying; the ignorant have been rending their garments and availing themselves of every bully pulpit available, advocating against single-sex unions since time out of mind, and since gay marriage is legal in Great Britain, where Fry and Spencer reside, the ignorant don't get a vote as to when, where or how they consecrate their union.
But equally cruel- and equally ignorant, in my opinion- are the remarks that linger on the salubrious details of the age gap, and the rampant "ick" factor associated with it- and that somehow, these two men are not only somehow lesser for wanting to be together, they're at the very least somehow suspect, and at the worst, some kind of monsters or social outcasts, just for declaring their love and intention to marry.
This bothers me as much as the strident homophobia does- whether real, implied, or accidental.
If Stephen Fry were the same age as the man he loves everyone'd be "oh, how lovely, how cute, those two young gay boys getting married, how sweet".
But because there's a 30 year age difference, all of a sudden these two people are being judged on how old they are. Or aren't. And how "gross" Fry is, and what a "gold-digger" his fiance must be.
To repeat: Fry is 57. Spencer, his soon to be husband, is 27. Neither babe in the basket or slavering senile senior here; just two human beings at different points on the chronological spectrum. Both coming to a common union the same way everyone else does- from a wealth of disparate life experiences unique to themselves.
Really? Is this what we choose to focus our collective wrath on today? REALLY?
The horrible truth is that with every snarky remark about "cradle-robbing" or "he's in it for the money", be it public or private, the slim chance these two have at happiness grows ever slimmer, and it's not right.
They're not doing anything immoral, or evil, or even wrong- and yet we feel we have the right to make horrible comments about them being brave enough to express their love and desire to be together, based on a a disparity in their ages.
That collective negative judgment implies that because the idea of them being a couple makes us squirm, Fry and Spencer should be denied their happiness- and THAT is DEFINITELY not right.
What constitutes a palatable marriage, gay, straight or otherwise? Is is Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka with their photogenic twins and slick cosmopolitan lives? Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi? Prince William and Kate Middleton?
Why do we have a hard time accepting anything but the premise that couples only get to be couples when the age gap between them is so narrow that you can't see daylight through it?
It bothers me because I'm not far off from Stephen Fry's age, and I don't know what I'd do if I were alone, but I do know that I would not want to be subjected to the scorn and disgust that's been heaped upon him and the man he loves. EVER.
I'd rather kill myself than live in a world that treats me like a monster, when all I want is to be with the person who loves me, and wants to be with me. With the ADULT who loves me, and wants to be with me.
Stephen Fry’s and Elliott Spencer’s happiness threatens no one.  It takes nothing away from you, me, those we love or our way of life.  
There's nothing wrong with Stephen Fry, or Elliott Spencer, or the fact that they want to be together.
What is wrong is how we have chosen to react to it; our demons have once more succeeded in shouting down our better angels. And we seem to be okay with that.
It is a plague upon all of our houses. And I am ashamed.

Michael J. Curtiss
Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Saturday, January 3, 2015

RUSH- Soul In The Sea Productions/The Players' Ring

Image courtesy of Jasmine Hunter Photography 


written by Callie Kimball

produced by Soul In The Sea Productions at The Players' Ring 

directed by Jasmine Hunter

It's safer on the outskirts.
-Alice, to Belinda 

In 1899, the Yukon was but a year old as a self-contained Canadian federal territory, and the Yukon's Klondike region was seeing the tail end of the epic migration of over 100,000 men and women who had traveled there in search of the riches which lay under the permafrost of the gold fields within. 

The stories of those who made their way to spartan territorial outposts with lyrical names like Watson Lake, Haynes Junction and Dawson City, pans and picks tucked into the government-mandated ton of provisions each was required to bring, are hundredfold, and are inextricably woven into the busy fabric of the region's history.  

Many came; many died there. Others left when claims yielded little more than dirt.  A select few stayed and managed to thrive with varying degrees of success, despite the odds against them. 

Still others came not for the lure of riches, but instead fled the comforts of familiar surroundings for the promise of a new life.  It's the story of two of these people with whom RUSH, as penned by local playwright Callie Kimball, concerns itself.  
Belinda and her brother Frank have left Chicago to travel northwest to Dawson City, a mining town on the edge of the Canadian frontier; she to take on the role of a domestic worker, he to make his fortune in the nascent field of photography.  

Of course, no sane person abandons the comforts of home to embark on a perilous journey without good reason, or at least a compelling one; it becomes clear that Belinda and Frank aren't in Dawson City merely to seek their fortunes, and that the actions of their shared past are as important as what transpires in their stormy present, and what it portends for their future. 

Director Jasmine Hunter first seeks to have the audience establish empathy with the characters in RUSH, then goes further by illustrating the play's singular geometry and physics.  

Hunter uses her skills as a director in an intuitive manner; she wants her audience to understand that the women in RUSH are all caught up in trajectories which fling them to the outskirts of a world ruled by men, and that this aspect of their lives is beyond their control.   

Using the sere and icebound environs of Dawson City as the backdrop, Hunter shows us the infinite capability of those women; they thrive in the places they are flung to, rather than trying to emulate men, who exhaust themselves to the point of death attempting to drill to the center of things and change them- whether it be the communities in which they live, the empires they seek to establish, or even, as it happens, women themselves, in their quest to hold dominion over all that they see as part of the patriarchal "natural order" which was the style of thinking in the year of our Lord 1899.  

In her treatment of RUSH, Hunter demonstrates that while women find safety and shelter on the outskirts of things, they also find their own power, having the ability to adapt and to ground themselves, establishing their own gravitational fields and putting themselves at the center of the universes they create, in the places to which they have been flung due to the follies and base desires of men.  

Not only that, but because women were largely expected to perform the menial tasks integral to life in the late 1800s, they are able apply those skills to their new surroundings, thriving and growing to the point where men are no longer necessary to the worlds the women create.

 At the dawn of the 20th century in the civilized centers of the world, men sat at the apex of the social pyramid, and women and children populated the bottom. 

However, in the largely chaotic fringes of the Canadian frontier, the weight of women flung to the odd corners of life, and the capabilities awakened within them, tips the balance; the pyramid tilts, placing women at the top.  

What Hunter achieves foremost in her direction of RUSH is to illustrate the dual trajectory of both Belinda's and Frank's destinies- Belinda's, ever rising, and Frank's as it falters and tumbles to earth, and this helps to paint a larger picture of the impact that a shift of power between the genders has.  

Belinda, flung into her own odd corner by the machinations of men, begins to gather her power unto herself; she flounders at first, but then, guided and encouraged by the women who surround her, achieves the weight of authority, becoming the center of her own budding world in the midst of bleak deprivation. 

Conversely, as Belinda's star rises, Frank's falls; constrained as he is by the strict delineations of what men are "supposed" to do, he battles a frozen, alien world, and is ultimately undone by both it, and his own narrow view of what he believes is his birthright.       

There's far more to the story than merely where Belinda and Frank come from, or where they're going; that we'll leave for the audience to discover, except to say that the men and women who orbit Belinda and Frank are at least as worthy of the audience's attention as the two protagonists, and director Hunter has assembled a cast of unparalleled talent to bring the men and women of RUSH to The Players' Ring stage. 

The Players' Ring is an incubator for ensemble pieces, and RUSH is no exception; the actors in this production are skilled midwives who step in to contribute their part to the birth of each performance, yet who are wise enough to step out of its way and let it find its footing.  

Kate Gilbert is Belinda, who traces an utterly absorbing arc first as a woman resigned to being little more than chattel among the men who hold sway over her, but who finds in herself an exceptional ability to transcend her assigned role and craft a purpose from it.  Kyle Milner plays her brother Frank, who is equally compelling, first as Belinda's protector, then as a man who sacrifices all that he knows to ensure her survival.  

Whitney Smith endows Alice, the proprietress of Dawson City's leading "flute parlor" with an endearing, matronly slyness, and Liz Locke charts a grimly humorous course as Alice's no-nonsense châtelaine, Rosie.  

Todd Hunter rounds out the cast as the portentous Detective Garrison, and Michael Towle (Jeb), Grady O'Neil (Neighbor) and Linda Chase (Doctor) support well in their roles. 

As a play, RUSH's single flaw is that Belinda's and Frank's provenance- both who they are as a couple and as individuals- lacks clarity.

The playwright relies on a leitmotif of internal jumps to recall bits and pieces of scenes that have already occurred, and while these jumps don't take anything away from the play's narrative through-line, their inclusion muddies the waters of that which motivates the characters to do what they do, and go where they go.  

In the larger context, these internal jumps are little more than interesting intellectual exercises; they don't distract, but neither do they add any narrative value to the story, and ultimately can be chalked up as an effort on the playwright's part to add weight or layers to places where neither are necessary. 

Indeed, RUSH succeeds best when it strikes to the heart of the story with a ruthless, almost surgical simplicity, and in every other scene, Kimball's writing is austere, elegant, and keeps RUSH's focus unswerving and constant, from its bleak opening to its unsettling, provocative, yet wholly understandable, close. 

Molly Dowd Sullivan's set design is dominated by an intriguing pastiche of forms and textures splashed across one wall of the acting space, complimented by modest, functional set pieces and a detailed, representational panorama painted across the floor.  

Bretton Reis completes the mise-en-scène with an iridescent, richly patterned light plot that at times mimics the luminous, starkly ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights.  Barbara Newton costumes the characters in elegant outfits grown worn and tatty, or layered in utilitarian restraint, recalling that which was worn by dint of necessity in the time and place these characters occupy.  Todd Hunter provides the play with an understated soundscape, one which accentuates key moments without overshadowing them. 

Stripped of its arguably unnecessary elements, Callie Kimball has, with RUSH, crafted a beautifully structured piece for the stage, one which achieves the goals paramount to a good play: find a good story.  Tell it well.  

Director Jasmin Hunter takes the play to the next level by infusing it with an able acting corps and creative team, and staging it all in just the right place.  

Whether RUSH is a treatise on gender equality, a snapshot of the improbable becoming possible in a time and place long passed into the shadows of history, or both, or neither,  is for those who see it to decide. 

Works like RUSH must have their day; to let them pass through our hands with barely a glance is an opportunity wasted. We need more plays like RUSH, and more companies to bring them to us. 

In the interim, we can be grateful that this play, and this company, are here for us to enjoy, and take from them what we may.  

This is a good story, and it is well told.  See it. 

RUSH runs through January at The Players Ring.  Click the logo below  for more information. 

Michael J. Curtiss
is a writer and playwright residing in Southern NH.  When not acting as a freelance theatre critic, he oversees online marketing and social media for Costumes of Nashua LLC & Creative Costuming, based in Hudson, NH, and administers THE GRANITE STAGE page on Facebook.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Most importantly, have fun."

Lowell Williams shares the eulogy he wrote for Kevin Riley:

 I have had a few requests for this, so I thought I would just post it:

I apologize to Kevin for not being off-book.

Listen carefully. Richard Rogers. Helen Hayes. Rita Moreno. Anyone sensing a pattern yet? John Gielgud. Audrey Hepburn. Marvin Hamlisch. How about now? Anything? I'll give you some more help. Jonathan Tunick. Mel Brooks. Scott Rudin. Robert Lopez. Who's got it now? Because the last one is going to give it away: Whoopi Goldberg. Who sees the pattern here? 

Kevin would know. Kevin would have noted this way back at Helen Hayes. This is the EGOT list. Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. These are the only members of that club. There are only twelve of them on the list. Robert Lopez got his this year, so I forgive you if you didn't know that one. 

Marvin Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers have also won the Pulitzer. Kevin would know that, too.  It was a gift. And it made each and every one of us crazy at one time or another for fifty something years. I don't know how his poor Mother held out.  

It was an endearing quality. The way he used his gift. And, it could make him laugh out loud if you would try and stump him. It could startle me into next week when he would laugh like that.

I had the pleasure of getting to know his Mom and his sisters and nieces and nephews the past couple days. We had a great time sharing our stories about Kevin. He never complained about anything. Even if he probably should have. His Mom told me when he was three or four, he broke his arm, and then came inside to watch TV.  It'll be all right. I'm fine. Flesh wound. 

Just recently, Kevin got to go to his first Patriots game and he had a great time, an amazing time. VIP, the whole thing. Kevin was not that into sports but he had just a fabulous time. 

And I found out that he had tickets to go again. He gave those tickets away. That's the kind of guy that he was. And that's a tribute to how he was raised. That's a tribute to his family.

Many of us here today are part of Kevin's theater family. Over such a long time, Kevin had a chance to have a pretty big one. He worked backstage and on stage in many capacities and he would do whatever it took to see that the show would go on.

He was skilled and reliable and everyone appreciated what he did and how he did it. 

Just the sheer energy he brought with him shaped our community in such a way that it will be undoubtedly changed in his absence.

While Kevin is gone, his story lives on in us all; in how he shaped our lives in ways both subtle and large. All of us hope to have that kind of affect in our communities - to have accomplished something of permanence. You wouldn't think such a fleeting thing as theater could do that. But, Kevin did that, without any real intention.

It was just what he loved to do. This is just a bit of an unexpected twist in the plot.

As you know, it is the director’s privilege to send the cast on to the stage with a short speech. 

So, let me do that for Kevin, who would tell you to: 

Do your best. Watch your diction.  Keep your volume up.

Most importantly, have fun.

-Lowell Williams 
Monday, December 22, 2014
Church of St. John The Evangelist, Hudson, NH

Thursday, December 18, 2014

For Life Is But A Trick Of Light, Dancing In The Universe

Our dear friend, colleague and role model, Kevin Riley, passed away suddenly in his sleep early Tuesday morning, December 16, 2014.  That he will leave a very large hole in the fabric of NH theatre is the understatement of the century.  

A reflection of Kevin's life can be found here.

Kevin's friend, NH playwright Lowell Williams, has this remembrance.  

For Life is but a trick of light, dancing in the universe.

Kevin Riley“This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad.”
– Wm Shakespeare, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream
If you attended the recent production of “Kiss Me Kate” in Nashua, you undoubtedly saw the familiar face of Kevin Riley at the concession table, selling snacks and chatting with the many people he knew. You would have exchanged small talk about the local theater arts community and maybe asked him something like, “Aren’t you usually working a show for Nashua Theater Guild? What are you doing here?” Kevin would have shrugged and uttered some non-descript reply like, “I was happy to help out.” Maybe a silly question to ask, because seeing Kevin involved in a show, any show, was a routine and comfortably familiar occurrence.
“Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
It’s no secret at all that Kevin Riley carried the Nashua Theatre Guild on his back for the last few years. I’m told that some time ago, when this company, perhaps the state’s oldest continuously operating community theater company had but twenty dollars in the bank, Kevin paid the theater rental out of his own pocket. In this dicey business, there would be doubt that he might be reimbursed. I’m sure that this thought might have crossed his mind as he carefully placed his signature on the check and then slid it into city’s coffers. The show must go on.
“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
- Wm Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii
There’s no family like a group of actors. They are bolted together by the precarious notion of theater. A strange idea, when you think about it: Standing on a stage and reciting centuries old lines heard tens of thousands of times. Yet, still hopefully to an audience that for a portion, these words are new.  Somehow, the language transcends time and makes you part of its history. You’ve played the role. You’ve sung those songs. You have woven a little art today and someone’s memory of that great literature was shaped by your work. It’s no wonder that the quickly formed friendships endure long after the show is over. The play itself is fleeting, and once the set is struck, only memories, photos and the shared bond of a cast and crew remains. There’s nothing quite like it. Kevin Riley brought Shakespeare to Greely Park in Nashua on many a warm summer’s day. The sweat laid cold when the day was done but nothing felt quite as satisfying.  It’s good to know that there’s something enduring in the hearts of friends who played the same play.
“Love Him as much as they want, no one really wants a painting of Jesus in the living room. You’re having a few people over, having a few drinks, and there’s Jesus over the sofa. Somehow it doesn’t work.” - Sagot, Picasso at the Lapine Agile.
Kevin was a director. Not an actor very often. When I had the opportunity to direct the modern classic, Picasso at the Lapine Agile, Kevin was an obvious choice to play the art dealer, Sagot. When I asked him, an honest glow emerged, and then was swiped away by actor uncertainty. “You sure you want me?”  There’s nothing more heartfelt than the blessings of another artist and it might happen very rarely from someone you respect. My reply was “of course, you idiot.” And, so the role was cast and those who saw it will remember Kevin, resplendent in black, being just who you would imagine saying these lines as he did, as they were meant to be said. And then, as is the way, the show was over.
“You are the obstetrician. You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm.” - Frank Hauser, Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair
Being a director is a daunting task.  You must have a vision. You must see the play as both the actor and the audience. Unlike those lucky professionals, the community theater director rarely has designers of all ilk to call upon. He may  design his own set, drive a hundred miles for a special prop, and plead someone to help paint. Before all that, he’ll stand and watch auditions, and judge you, and think about you, and finally, ask you to play a part. So many local artists owe their acting careers to Kevin Riley. He cast his net widely, and prodded those who thought they could not, to do their best.
“Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”
- Konstantin Stanislavski, My Life In Art
Four times, Kevin won American Association of Community Theater (AACT) awards for directing. In 2005, he received the NH Theatre Award’s “Vision and Tenacity” honor. He was the “go to guy.” He would paint the floor, direct the show, and, as we’ve seen, sell cookies at intermission. I never saw him hang lights. But, if someone asked him to, I know he would have given it his best. Because there was nothing he loved more. And we loved him because of that.
“Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service.”
- Wm Shakespeare, The Tempest
It’s a tribute to the role he played, and both fitting and proper that we do this. His language now lies in molecules in the darkness, its spirit evaporated to misty worlds we only imagine. For life is but a trick of light, furtively dancing in the universe.  Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Posted by Lowell Williams Wednesday, December 17, 2014 10:51:00 AM * 

*  Originally posted at the NH Theatre Awards website.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

MISSING: WYNTER-The Players' Ring


presented by The Players' Ring

produced by StopTime Productions & New Theatre Works 

written, directed and musically directed by Billy Butler

MISSING: WYNTER, composer/lyricist/author Billy Butler's first major work for the stage since GAY BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is a poignant rumination on those who are impacted by an unthinkable loss, and an unflinching look at the detritus which gets sucked into the irrevocably changed orbit of their lives following that loss.      

MISSING: WYNTER is a metaphorical snapshot of an awful event which should never be part of any family's history, but all too often is- every parent's worst nightmare, the disappearance of a child.  

The play chronicles how that disappearance first consumes, then transforms those tasked with recovering the child-  what their worlds will be like, and how they will move through those worlds, once it becomes clear that the child is never, ever going to be found.

This aspect of the story is, in fact, what sets the play apart: Wynter, the eponymous young subject of the play, not only disappears mere moments after the play starts, she informs the audience that she's going to be forever gone in an adroit shifting of actor perspective- in one instant Wynter is part of a scene, relating to the other characters, and in the next she's a prepositional character, existing somewhere near, above, or next to what's unfolding on stage, somehow a part, yet not.   

Butler, who not only penned MISSING: WYNTER but acts as its director and musical director, first centers attention on Wynter's disappearance, then shifts the focus onto what happens after she goes missing.  

Wynter becomes a constant presence, both within and outside of the action.  Her comings and goings are the heart of this new work, and it's both brilliant and uncanny- Wynter's not quite a ghost, yet she haunts both the waking lives and the memories of those who knew her.  She's neither dead nor alive, yet somehow she occupies space and time in a manner which defies both life and death.  

As with all of the missing who disappear without reason or explanation, and who never come back, there are no words sufficient to describe the what, where, how or why of her, in whatever existence Wynter occupies; she is unquantifiable, yet still very much a part of the physical world. 

MISSING: WYNTER returns again and again to the metaphors of loss, and of the actions associated with loss- disappearance, abduction, the supernatural among others.  These aren't presented as overdone tropes groaning with hyperbole and meant to incite fear, but rather as an amalgam of imagery, much like one would frame a conversation with a child- frame the story you want to tell with mental pictures stripped of pretense, and you capture the essence of this play.   

Both Butler's script and his direction capture the essence of what it means to be the missing and those that search for the missing; what is lost and what is gained; what remains the same and what changes forever.  While these are discomfiting concepts to ponder, they are also astute and starkly honest.  It is Butler's ability as playwright and director to tell the story of Wynter simply, clearly, and coherently which gives it the play its power; everyone can, and will, understand it.

Despite Wynter being the central character of the play, it's structured as an ensemble piece, and each of the five actors brings a host of abilities to their characters.

Abby Kaye is Wynter, at turns cute and recalcitrant, much like any kid her age is; her Wynter is bright and funny and droll and just a little bit of a pain in the ass, and Kaye fully occupies the role with refreshing energy. 

Ben Hart plays her father, Paul; he's the cool hipster/slacker dad who's fluid about rules with his daughter, but Hart also provides Paul with another level of pathos as a conflicted writer dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce and the bleak, guilt-ridden life he struggles to cope with, both prior to and in the wake of Wynter's disappearance, living over and over in his head his worst fears of what may have been done- or is possibly still being done- to his precious little girl. It's a lot of heavy emotional lifting, but Hart is equal to the task. 

Jennifer Sue Mallard is all sharp edges and dented emotional armor as Wynter's mother Mary, providing a nice contrast to her ex, Paul; she enters every scene like a boss and takes charge, not because she wants to but because she can't help herself; a long series of disappointments trails behind her and weighs her down like Jacob Marley's chains.  Ironically, it's Mary's past which makes her the one most capable of handling what happens to Wynter; we know that she will shed bitter tears for the daughter she loses, but that she will find a way to move on from the loss.  Mallard is superbly equipped to show us all that Mary is, and then some. 

Jennifer Henry and Marc Willis round out the cast as police detectives Jones and Reid respectively, as well as assuming other characters within the narrative.  As Jones and Reid, both Henry and Willis lift their characters above being mere secondary players in the unfolding drama of a child gone missing; they both show the patina of stern professionalism when it's called for, but there are times when the unforgiving light they shine on both the circumstances of Wynter's inexplicable vanishing act and the agonized people who search the spaces she once occupied is reflected back at them, and we see the rips in their souls inflicted by a lifetime of engaging in searches which are all too hauntingly familiar, and which never get easier. It's a superb study in contrasts, which Henry and Willis manage beautifully. 

MISSING: WYNTER is generously infused with a diverse and inventive musical score, one which runs the gamut from plaintive ballads to anthem-like rock numbers- there's even a sly little tango number slipped in.  Butler and his percussionist Dave Hamilton manage to serve up all of the selections in a way which makes it hard to believe it's just a two-man pit navigating the score.  

Despite the somber subject matter, the songs aren't all dirges; they're bright and uptempo and, much like the free-ranging childlike mind, touch upon everything from the prosaic to the fanciful- monsters under the bed, talking rats, even a way to cheat death.  Of particular note are "Step On a Crack",  part of an adorable father-daughter ritual that starts every school day; the daydreamy "Second Story Door" about a troll in the sky; Wynter's optimistic plan to stave off mortality in the prayerful "Hold Onto The Snow", and the poetic canticle "But For The Grace of God, Go I" which, once heard, needs no explanation. 

The unit set is surprisingly elaborate, given the constraints of the Ring's acting space- a cozy den complete with a desk and a wall of books and knickknacks takes up one end, and the remainder of the space serves as a variety of locations- a police interrogation room, a snowy field, a bedroom.  Everything is spaced so that there's no feeling of being cramped; actors move freely and scene changes are brisk and efficient.  All other technical elements are understated and basic. 

This is a new play; as a consequence, there are parts that call for shaping once the initial run ends. In particular is the search for Wynter; while Paul,  Mary, and the two detectives present the appearance of people consumed in the search for the girl, we see little actual searching on their part- rather, we see them acting upon, or reacting to, one another, or a casual reference to places they've been, but that's about it.  

It's a minor hiccup in an otherwise decent first run of a work-in progress; doubtless future revisions will sharpen and clarify the manner in which the characters physically engage in the hunt for Wynter, and raise the arc of the story to a place where the conflict and tension are more evident. 

MISSING: WYNTER makes its debut at a time and in a place when the disappearance of a young person, and the wreckage left behind in the wake of what was done to her, still lies fresh and unannealed in the minds, hearts and souls of those who knew and loved her, as well as the community at large.

But make no mistake; this play in no way takes advantage of the recent sad events writ large upon the fabric of life on the Seacoast, except in the form of a simple sentence in the program: "Dedicated To Lizzi".  This production does not try to capitalize upon past events, but instead endeavors to capture the echo of the collective experience, and leaves it at that.

That MISSING: WYNTER is a play of grim subject matter is not to be denied- but that's not all it's about. It's also about the enduring power of hope, and love, all of the positive things which bond us together as families, and what those bonds drive us to do for those whom we love. 

Above all, MISSING: WYNTER should be seen for its most enduring qualities- how it celebrates the humanity which connects us all, one to another, and how it it insists that we honor each person for who they are- whether they are with us, have gone on to whatever is next, or, like our sweet, beautiful Wynter, only.... missing.  

MISSING: WYNTER runs through October 5 at the Players Ring.  Click the logo below for more information and tickets.  

Michael J. Curtiss
 is a writer and playwright residing in Southern NH.  When not acting as a freelance theatre critic, he oversees online marketing and social media for Costumes of Nashua LLC & Creative Costuming, based in Hudson, NH, and administers THE GRANITE STAGE page on Facebook.