Saturday, May 23, 2015

A riveting story of life, love and friendship, told through the lost art of letter-writing: LOVE LETTERS, produced by the Community Players of Concord, NH





LOVE LETTERS

produced by the Community Players of Concord, NH

directed by Wayland Bunnell


If you can, attend the final performance tonight of Community Players of Concord, NH's production of A. R. Gurney's seminal play, LOVE LETTERS.

Starring Kathy Pohlman Somssich and Kevin Owen Gardner, LOVE LETTERS traces the twin arcs of the lives of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd II as each addresses the challenges of their radically disparate lives, linked together by the exchange of almost fifty years' worth of letters, notes and cards.

LOVE LETTERS isn't a traditional play about love or the evolution of two characters as they move through their lives. There's no scenery to denote setting or the passage of time. No elaborate costumes. No music or animated light plot. All you get is two actors seated at a table, reading from scripts.


But what a reading it is. Somssich and Gardner distill LOVE LETTERS to its essence in their interpretations of Melissa and Andrew, manifesting a rich palette of emotions as they take us through the highs and lows of each character's existence, painting an exquisitely rendered portrait in the words they lift from the page and share with an increasingly rapt audience.

It's a gripping story, and, like real life, full of moments that run the scale between poignancy and humor. Somssich and Gardner are perfectly matched as a couple who manage to keep in touch through five decades of all of the busy little things which consume the waking lives of humans, and who, through their letters, manage to keep the link forged between them substantial and enduring, even when disagreement and tragedy chip away at it.

By all means, go, and be captured by this lovely, evocative work, brought to vivid life by two superb actors. What a treat it is.

LOVE LETTERS runs May 22 & 23 at the Concord City Auditorium, 2 Prince St., Concord, NH.   Visit the CPC website for tickets and information.  





Wednesday, May 6, 2015

TIME STANDS STILL- theatre KAPOW

Photo by Matthew Lommano/Amoskeag Studio



TIME STANDS STILL


written by Donald Margulies

presented by theatre KAPOW

directed by Matthew Cahoon



They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn.


- Aeschylus, Agamemnon


The pictures are there, and you just take them.
Robert Capa



I shouldn't be here.  I should be dead a thousand times, the things I've been through.  That’s why I’m just waitin’  for it.  Death is chasing me.  It’ll catch up to me.  Nobody could survive what I did and still be alive.  Sometimes I’m convinced I’m not.

- recollections of a soldier to author Robert TickWar and the Soul



Donald Margulies' play TIME STANDS STILL charts the evolution of people seduced by the repercussions of power;  the inchoate force that's born of deliberate conflict between hostile nations, and the wholesale destructive power of natural disaster.  

The play's most riveting commentary rises from what happens when its characters are swept up into the awful wave of carnage, and left forever marked by the detritus left in the wake of these monumental clashes, be they natural or man-made. 

Sarah, a photojournalist, returns to New York following a near-death experience with a roadside bomb while covering the Iraq War; her Iraqi "fixer", or translator, does not survive the attack.  

James, her partner, struggles in his job as a writer, grappling with PTSD as well as contending with the guilt of leaving Sarah alone and going home after witnessing a separate explosion that also resulted in the deaths of civilians. 

Together with their friends Richard and Mandy, they take a break and take stock, working out how what happened defines their lives, and what they want from this point going forward: do they return to the dangerous occupations which afforded them a measure of success, or is that part of their lives over? Can they separate their essential selves from the events which took them out of their careers, or do they,  by virtue of the ambitions which drive them, return to jobs which nearly killed them, and which may very well still? 

The ensemble is fine, well-matched for the heavy lifting which this play requires and for the truths each character is tasked to bring in order to move the story forward.  

Carey Cahoon as Sarah provides the pivotal engine upon which TIME STANDS STILL turns. Her Sarah is driven and laser-focused on the life she has crafted, both professionally and personally; though grievously injured, Cahoon manifests a woman of steely resolve with Sarah, but contrasts that resolve with doubt: yes, she will survive, and go on, but are the essential components  that makes her who she is still intact, and if not, what must she put in their place in order to have the life she wants? It's a powerful character study, and Cahoon is definitely up to the challenge.

As James, John Decareau ably sketches out a young man transformed by what he has witnessed in the field.  His James is softer around the edges than is Sarah; Decareau keeps James outside of himself, seeking redemption through caring for Sarah even as he struggles to reinvigorate his stalled writing career and come to terms with what he himself wants. James is negotiating an ocean of vulnerabilities, recently risen in the wake of terrible events, as well as contending with a partner who has emotionally closed herself off from him; Decareau adroitly charts those vulnerabilities without appearing overly diminished or weak. 

Peter Josephson and Gina Carballo provide exemplary support as friends Richard and Mandy. They're polar opposites: Richard professorial and blustery, Mandy maternal and low-key.  Both come at the problem of Sarah and James each in their own way, but also united as a team to manifest their love and concern for the couple.  Josephson and Carballo also lighten the play's mood at key moments with gentle bickering and comedic tangents; both lend individual strengths to the play, but by and large serve it best as a pair, playing up the marked differences in their characters' ages and backgrounds.   

TSS' set by Jim Webber is rendered in exquisite detail; quite possibly the finest scenic design theatre KAPOW can boast to date, or certainly ranking right up there with the designs for their past productions of PENELOPE and BURIED CHILD. 

It's certainly a set which makes best use of the Derry Opera House's economical dimensions; recalling an upscale Brooklyn apartment, it's an open-concept unit set made up of an expansive high-ceilinged living room, a kitchen/dining/work area and bathroom, all on orchestra level, backed up against the Opera House's southern wall and balcony.  The actual stage is transformed into a cozy sleeping area, and the entire set is framed in faux brick reminiscent of old industrial buildings, furnished with clever creations of re-purposed wood and metal, lit by factory scoop light pendants and decorated with funky bricabrac.   

The audience is situated on risers opposite the set; one feels as if one is a fly on the brick wall, listening in on the things which unfold in the privacy of someone else's home.  In and of itself, the set adds an unparalleled level of realism to the goings-on; it's a treat to watch the actors take full advantage of its generously appointed proportions.  Well done.   

Tayva Young provides a well-paced light plot which helps define the changing moods in each scene as well as delineating the passage of time.  Of special note is the excellent scarring effects as executed by Carey Cahoon for the character of Sarah; it's not often that a local production gets to utilize this level of disturbing realism, and to see it close up is to underscore the fact that the wounds of those hurt in conflict zones or through the haphazard instance of an earthquake, flood or fire go far deeper than what's on the surface. 

As well-crafted a story as TIME STANDS STILL is, it's possessed of a distracting element; stripped of its airy references to moral imperative and the consequences of colonialism,  the play focuses largely on the pain that one-percenters feel when they bow to the pressures of noblesse oblige.  Frankly, as a theme, it's not very sincere.  

Sarah and James get to return to their shabby-chic loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to recuperate, and while they do, they retain their glossy literati-magazine jobs and a host of options: book deals, articles, and pretty much the ability to pick up the threads of their lives in a rarefied bohemian existence of artists with family connections, cocooned and cosseted by the professional coterie of society dogsbodies they pay to soften the blows and provide a buffer between them and the harsher aspects of life while they ponder man's inhumanity to man. 

This isn't to imply that trust-fund babies are less susceptible to falling victim to the horrors of life in conflict zones, but this play would have been completely different in tone if Sarah and James lacked the convenience of being being able to hide behind the bulwark of comfort which money and privilege afford.  Were this play stripped of its New York cachet, and its characters from less pedigreed backgrounds, it would essentially be THE HURT LOCKER, written for the stage.  

Only no one aspires to be a blue-collar schmo who doesn't get to come home from a war on his own time and his own dime; those guys tend to come home in ice-filled aluminum boxes, their fractured remains crated up in dignified coffins and hustled into a hero's grave in the cemetery next to the factory they joined the service to get away from.  


That's really not the message you want to go for in a play; it's a downer, and not nearly as romantic as, say, recuperating in a converted brick warehouse handy to Manhattan and sipping single-malt whisky while you ponder what to do with your life. In that respect, TIME STANDS STILL's message rings just a bit hollow. 
  
To be fair, Margulies couldn't tell the story he wanted to tell with characters who didn't occupy the kinds of lives which Sarah and James do- the audience for that story exists, but it's smaller and harder to connect to.  We all love the idea of being successful, and we love the idea of living among the trappings of success.  It's for that audience- arguably a much larger one- for whom Margulies is writing.     

TIME STANDS STILL is still a story told well, and it's still a story of substance.  While it does touch upon privilege more than a little, it's also a sobering treatise on the consequences of choice, both within battle zone and outside of it.  In fact, one of its most prominent themes is how the battle zone is with you wherever you go, and how you're never rid of it.  

This is especially true of Sarah and James; having been touched on an elemental level by war, their lives are colored by it, even when they're well away from it and in the relative safety of their own home, in their own country, amidst their own people. The events leading up to Sarah's being wounded inform the couple's waking life from that point on, every minute, every hour, every day, without end.

Their wounds become as fundamentally a part of them as their own beating hearts.  While some of what they physically or emotionally suffer can be assuaged by surgery or drugs, the hurt and the damage goes far deeper; they are the wounds of the soul.  Their spirits are marred by the ruin of what is left in the wake of the choices they've made.  There is no chance of healing.     


Sarah and James are first seduced by the encompassing power of war, conflict and disaster, then immobilized by it; their lives become a sequence of moments made static, much like the moments Sarah strives to capture through her lens, and James in his writing. 

Try as they may, there is no moving away from it, or past it.  Time, indeed, is standing still. There is only learning to live within its claustrophobic confines, and to make sense of it as best they can; through images, and words, and choices, be they good or ill.  

Director Matt Cahoon, assisted by Susanne Tartarilla, succeeds with TIME STAND STILL by framing its story within the context of the quiet, small moments that make up our common existence; there are no huge climactic interstices, nor does the play's tempo ratchet up to a fevered pitch, only to ebb into resolution.  

Instead, Cahoon and Tartarilla keep things level and recognizable: events unfold in a meditative manner, and the characters move deliberately within those moments.  The audience gets to chew and savor the play's meaty themes without being rushed, and things move along smoothly so that there's no sense of ponderous, overblown import.

Despite its elitist bent, TIME STANDS STILL is a captivating narrative, filled with gripping abstracts contrasted by stark realities and the play moves between tenses: this is who we were. This happened then.  This is happening now.  This is how we are changed.  This is who we hope to become.     

Audiences will take away a great deal from the concepts which run through TIME STANDS STILL; some are overt, others implied, but all speak to the things which concern us; the random madness of events which have the power to not only change the world in which we live, but the manner in which we move through that world.  The gentle fictions we program into our rational mind about how we are in control, and what we do to cope when it's revealed to us how little control we actually have.  And more.

In this, TIME STANDS STILL is a play well-executed by a superb company, and is very much worth seeing.  I suggest that you do so. 

   

   

TIME STANDS STILL runs through May 9th.  Click the theatre KAPOW logo 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.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

RED BIRD: A Gothic Tale For The 21st Century




RED BIRD



conceptualized and written by Brian Booth

presented by Amoskeag Studio 




This thing: what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what is its causal nature (or form)? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist? 

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8



Every year we die a little and the world keeps on spinning.  Red Bird, are you listening?  Are you there?  

Once we were rich;
Now we eat our dead.

-Brian Booth, RED BIRD




Theatre relies on the convergence of any number of components and circumstances in order to be successful.  

Above all, there must be a story: a well-crafted thematic arc which gives rise to credible, sympathetic characters, and which allows those characters to move from initial conflict to rising action to resolution. 

Not just "a" story: THE story; an accounting so compelling that it draws you in, keeps you for as long as it needs to, and only then releases you, sending you back out into the world with the knowledge that you have not merely borne witness to a tale, but that the very hearing of it has changed you, to the very marrow in your bones.  

That's the story we're talking about with RED BIRD, Brian Booth's brilliantly dark theatre piece, a one-man play with music which will be performed at the Amoskeag Studio May 8-16.  

An invitation-only audience was in the house on April 29 for a performance of the work, which was followed by a talkback session. Booth intends to take the feedback he received and use it to sharpen and clarify RED BIRD prior to its inaugural launch.  

Not that it needs much: RED BIRD is riveting theatre as written, and the principle thing it needs to make it better is to keep performing it.  

A warning: if you feel that plays with music need to follow a specific format, or that the story must end on a note of unambiguous contentment for all concerned, then you won't like RED BIRD, and should not attend.  

However; if you like theatrical pieces that take you down unsettling paths and into dark corners, and music which doesn't necessarily help move the plot along but rather adds another layer to an already richly lacquered anecdote, then by all means, RED BIRD is for you. 

RED BIRD is told by the narrator in the first person, following the life of an unnamed young man and relating the events in RED BIRD from the boy's perspective.  

We know know little about him except that he has the gift of singing, that he dreams, and that he is alone.  He occupies a time and place scorched and torn by some kind of apocalyptic event.  Civilization has undergone a fundamental shift, hearkening back to the nascent days when the laws of man were barely formed in the womb of democracy; all that has gone before has either passed away into dust, or left charred and desiccated by the holocaust.  

Strange creatures and revenants now hold sway over the blasted landscape; the boy is visited by them, and some of them seem to him beings which occupy the skin of other humans, but only just; he hides himself away from them, and from the citizens of the diseased and ruined towns which loom crepitously down dark roads away from him, keeping to his ruined homestead, alone save for a radio which broadcasts the meanderings of a faraway man whose mind is clearly bent by the darkness which has fallen over the world, watching over a nightscape lit red by fires burning along the ridges which surround his lands.  

The boy's solitary existence ends when he is visited by a young girl, who one night comes unbidden into his home, travelling up the stairs to his bedroom and settling in there as if it were her own; he knows nothing of her except that she, like he, sings.  And dreams.  

The boy comes to understand three things: that the girl is something other than human, that she is there for shelter, at least for a time, and that in her singing and dreaming she brings him a mission- one of terrible import, and one which will change them both in ways no human has ever had to imagine.     

RED BIRD sets itself apart as a theatrical piece in a number of ways; first, it forgoes the normal raison d'être of the traditional play.  Don't look for explanations; accept that the circumstances of RED BIRD are exactly what they are meant to be, and that the characters are doing exactly what they're supposed to, and that things will unfold as they should.

Second, the play's structure charts less of a linear arc and more of a meandering path.  It's an organic piece, flowing from moment to moment, doubling back upon itself or following a tangent which, on its surface, seems unrelated to the story (it isn't).  


Third, RED BIRD's songs, a melange of southern rock, folk, and blues, don't relate directly to the narrative- they don't help move the plot along as they might in a more traditional musical, but instead serve as portals to get the narration from one moment to the next.  One is taken out of the story by the songs, only to be put back into it, at a different point.  At first it's disconcerting, but taken as a whole underscores and augments the story in a way that serves the entire play.  This is not a musical; it's a play with music, and the rules for a musical don't apply in the same ways to RED BIRD.  

Finally, RED BIRD is a parable, but one turned upside down and filled with grave import; it's not meant to teach, but to caution.  It's a story of a world riddled with places of unimaginable power; magic, perhaps, but magic which is alien and elemental, which has burst its bonds and spread itself over its host like a malignancy.  Those who occupy the world cannot help but be touched by it; some are consumed, some crippled, but all are changed.  

This is the world of RED BIRD: a dystopian place of eternal shadow, populated by an abject snarl of humanity teetering at the edge of civilization's wrack and tatter, no longer the lords of creation, but infected and debased by its toxic nature, forever consigned to exist under its pestilent thrall.       

As a performance piece, actor Brian Booth has framed RED BIRD in an elegantly spartan context.  There is no scenery.  No costumes.  No set pieces, light plot, or special effects.  

Part bard, part balladeer, Booth stands before his audience dressed casually, holding a cream-colored Danelectro guitar with nifty lipstick pickups, framed by his mic, a couple stools, and his amps.  He's a lean and pleasant-looking fellow who speaks and sings in a mellifluous tenor.  

Although he's a native son of New Hampshire's North Country, Booth's voice carries a sonorous lilt reminiscent of the Deep South, which infuses the Yankee bedrock tones of RED BIRD's thesis with an Appalachian Gothic sensibility.  

Booth keeps both the pitch of his voice and his movements on stage low-key and tantalizingly persuasive, weaving a story-spell in the confessional style of Spaulding Gray or Anne Sexton; in keeping everything spare and close to the bone, Booth expands upon the themes within the body of the piece, weaving an opulent mental tapestry filled with vivid imagery, using the spoken word as well as song lyrics as his palette.  

In so doing, Booth draws us nearer to RED BIRD's beating heart, until the story grasps us in its talons, unfolding tenebrous wings to bear us up and away into the darkness, so that it can do with us what it was always meant to do; it is a testament to Booth's abilities as a singer and a storyteller that RED BIRD succeeds on every level it aims for.   

RED BIRD is, in and of itself, what it is meant to be- a damned fine play. With damned fine music.  And it tells one hell of a good story.      

Is there any hope at all in RED BIRD, you ask?  Redemption?  Is there light in the darkness? Does the world remain an awful, blistering furnace, eager to burn all who come within reach? Do the terrible engines of dark magic falter and stall, tumbling back into the infernal pits which birthed them?  

What happens to the boy, and the girl who may not be a girl at all- and what exactly, does the "red bird" in the title refer to?  

Ah.  For those answers- if, indeed, there are any- you'll have to sit in the audience, listen to the story, hear the songs, and judge for yourself.  

Go, and let RED BIRD do to you what it's meant to do.



Postscript:  RED BIRD marks the start of something very new and interesting in terms of performance- for both Amoskeag Studio and the area.  New types of theatre, and the venues which host them, deserve your patronage.  Consider attending RED BIRD, as well as all types of theatre, when you can. 




RED BIRD runs May 8-16 at Amoskeag Studio in the Waumbec Mill, 250 Commercial Street, Suite 2700, Manchester NH.  

RED BIRD contains mature themes which may not be suitable for all ages; parental discretion is advised. 

Click the logo below for details. 




Amoskeag Studio 










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.












Saturday, April 25, 2015

PENNY: A Remembrance

I apologize if the following is rather long; I've been trying to think of the best way I know to honor someone who had a huge impact on not only my life, but the lives of many.  It's taken me until now to find the words I felt came close.  

I only wish what we all wish: that I could tell Penny what she meant to all of us while she was around to hear the words. 

Anyway, here's what I wrote.  

I love you and I miss you, Penny Davis.  We all do. 

   

PENNY



There’s a quote I’ve come to understand more fully as I get older, from the distinguished poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, who incidentally spends his days as a practicing funeral director:

“The formula for funerals is fairly simple: by getting the dead to where they need to go, the living get to where they need to be.” 

While that’s why we assembled in March of 2015- first at Cabot Funeral Home on Rose Hill Road and then in exponentially greater numbers the next day in the auditorium at Woodstock Union High School-  it also describes the character of the person we came together to remember.  

Because there are a thousand stories about how Penny Davis got us not only where we needed to go, but also where we needed to be.  

She got us to where we needed to go with her gruff, no-nonsense demeanor, whether in her role as First Constable responding to a call, or directing traffic in Woodstock for a parade, fair or other event, or dispatching from the town’s emergency center, or as the “Pit Queen” at Bear Ridge, yelling at drivers to take their places and doing what she could to help make the day’s events smoother and more enjoyable for all concerned.  

She got us to where we needed to be by her constant presence in our lives, as a devoted daughter, sister, cousin, aunt, and friend: we can all attest to the fact that if Penny Davis was in your life, she was IN. YOUR. LIFE. 

And when Penny was in your life, it was for good; not her good, but yours.  Whether you liked it or not.   

If she thought you were out of line, she’d not only tell you, she’d drag you back to to that line.  If she thought a kick in the ass would serve you better than a kind word, she’d give it.  And then  follow up with the kind word anyway.  And then be there to dole out both for as long as she thought necessary.  

She was rough, and tough, and a bully, and bossy, and profane, and she minded everyone's beeswax, and “by the Jesus”, if you didn’t know better than to not cross her, or divert her from her appointed mission, you learned it soon enough.   

If you could see past that, you came to realize the depth of her kindness, and generosity, and affection.  Everything she threw at you, whether in jest or dead serious, was because she cared about you, and she was going to “by the Jesus” help you get past whatever was ailing you, or break every bone in your body doing it, because she had decided you were worth the trouble.  

And we loved her for it.  

Penny’s brand of love and loyalty cost her; in her devotion to family and friends, and in her service to the town, she put aside any ambitions she may have had for the things many of us take for granted: a relationship.  Marriage.  Children.   

If her regret at putting those ambitions aside cast a shadow, she didn’t let that shadow darken her waking life to the point where she was any more bitter or resentful than she had a right to be.   

Instead, she poured her energies into her parents, her family, her friends, her pets, her pigs, her racing and her town, allowing those to be the surrogates for the things she felt she had to give up.  

I think we can all agree that we are all the better for the sacrifices she made. 

Penny Davis could never be described as being one thing.  She was an aggregate; a conglomeration of emotions and ambitions and impressions, all of which we get to store in our memories, both collectively and in our own way.  

There was the Penny that occupied physical space and time, and then there was the idea of Penny;  both were awesome, and terrifying, and loving.  

She belonged to herself first, remaining faithful to the idea to herself: in so doing, her faith and loyalty to everything else was strengthened a thousandfold. 

By virtue of the manner in which she moved through her life, and the lives of those to whom she mattered most, it is clear that she belongs to all of us as well, and will until the end of our days. 

I’m going to quote another poet now.  Don’t be scared; it’s the last one.  

Dylan Thomas told us “Do not go gentle into that good night… old age should burn and rage at close of day.”

Penny was denied her chance at old age. She left us in a way that was out of character for her; not in the boisterous manner we came to expect of her, but quietly.    

She did not get her chance to burn, or rage.  

Not that she’d have taken it.  She’d have found a way to turn it outward, and channel it into something that would likely have benefited someone.  Or several someones.

Because that’s what she did.  Every day of her life.  

So because Penny spent the better part of her life getting all of us where we needed to be, let us come together, as best we can, now, to make sure we know that she’s gotten to where where she needs to go.  

Let us mark Penny’s going into that good night; not gently, but in the manner in which she lived.  By living as she lived.  Boisterously.  Loudly.  With all the volume and noise and excitement and thunder and drama that comes from a parade down Woodstock’s main drag, or from a good night of racing at Bear Ridge.   

Let us rise as one and give to Penny that one last thing she would not ask for herself: to get up, get out, and get going, with the goal of living your your life uncompromisingly, as Penny did, and would have you do.   

Do not go gentle into that good night.  

Raise your voices.  Raise your spirits.  

Most importantly: raise some hell.  

Because that’s what Penny would do.  And likely is doing right now.  

Let Heaven know that Penny Davis is among those who have taken their place amongst the most high.   

And “by the Jesus”… they better be ready.  

Michael J. Curtiss
April 25, 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

SEMINAR: Art Meets Expectation, And Expectation Meets Reality

SEMINAR


written by Theresa Rebeck

directed by Todd Hunter

A Rolling Die Production 







No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

- THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, by Shirley Jackson


It's no accident that one of the most beautifully-crafted sentences in the English language kicks off this review of SEMINAR; like that which opens Shirley Jackson's seminal novel, we will search for le mot juste, attempting to quantify Theresa Rebeck's ruminative dissertation on writers, what drives writers to write, and the repercussions of writing.

Sadly, no matter how we come at the task, it's likely we'll miss the mark.  The intangibles- phrasing, intonation, structure- will mockingly hang just out of reach.  The peculiar alchemy that Shirley Jackson managed to manifest in her writing will be, for us, a skill which lingers on an interior horizon; close enough to see, but too far away to grasp.

Still, we'll try.  We'll try, then console ourselves that even if we don't come close, that there's honor in the attempt.  That's one of the lies writers tell themselves.  Writers tell themselves a lot of lies.  The hell of it is, the lies work.  At least, for a while. 

Truth, lies, missing the mark, coming close and rising to the challenge are major themes in Rebeck's SEMINAR; the play chronicles the gripping, often brutal process in which four young New York writers and their professor take part in a 10-week writing seminar.   

As the play goes forward, Leonard, the professor, fixes his critical eye upon each of the writers, telling them what they need to do to be better. Tensions and doubts multiply, alliances are formed, dismantled, and as quickly formed again, all within the context of the professor yanking the four out of the literary cocoons they've spun for themselves, forcing them to take an unvarnished look at what they have to offer, as writers and as human beings.   

Leonard's principal job is to teach his clients that writers build for themselves houses of a savage construction- places "without kindness, never meant to be lived in" - and that no matter what their level of talent, writers must contend with two constants; the consequences that come of good (translation: commercially successful) writing, and the eternal notion that even the best writing is never good enough. 

Dreams come with a price, Leonard tells his charges: every writer must embrace the absolute realties that come with the writing process, no matter where the writing takes you- and that an essential part of who a writer is will be consumed by the vocation he or she has chosen. That's just how it is, Leonard says: suck it up, or walk away. 

SEMINAR might be, by some, considered annoying in that it has a casual relationship with the essential building blocks of the play; components like story arc, conflict and plot are treated with less rigor than in other plays, especially in relation to its five characters.  

With SEMINAR, one gets the idea fairly early on that Rebeck likes to play fast and loose with the rule that every play needs to have a central character, where nothing which happens in the course of telling the story detracts from that character's importance.  While this flouting of structure will infuriate the purist, it frees the company to put the focus where they want it, and keeps the audience guessing as to who the real protagonist may be.  

This being a Todd Hunter production, it's a foregone conclusion that the actors have been tasked to "peel the onion", getting to a place that is sweet and pungent in equal measure, focusing on what spurs the characters to do what they do by getting right to the core of what puts them where they are- the better to express what each of them wants.  

Hunter asks his characters to articulate what forces come to bear in getting them to converge at a common point, what their responsibility is in that moment, and what they're going to do to get to the next important moment in each of their characters' divergent paths.  

It's clear that each actor finds external influences to inform their characters' interior lives; once they do, Hunter is smart enough to get out of their way and let them actuate their motivations in as organic a manner as possible.  There's less acting and more reacting, making what happens onstage as prosaic as if it were happening next to us in our own living room.  Well done. 

Matthew Schofield portrays Leonard, the professor, as a bastard-coated bastard with a bastard filling. An author of note who's been damaged by his own choices and experiences as a writer, Schofield's Leonard is a walking contradiction in terms, at once nurturing and disparaging of his four students, using his own considerable talent, psychological games, even sex to provoke, punish, or reward as he sees fit. 

It's a rough wooing Leonard undertakes to winkle his novitiates out of their complacency, and it's always a guessing game as to whether he actually enjoys being a son of a bitch or if he's employing Machiavellian tactics as a means to an end.  Schofield plays Leonard with a consistent low-key menace, which colors every praise or barbed judgment he issues for his students' writing ability, as well as their motivations and characters. It's refreshing to see an actor contain multitudes without being overwhelmed by them; Schofield's interpretation of Leonard's multifaceted personality is a highlight of this production. 

Likewise, the four actors who make up Leonard's writing class bring their A-game to SEMINAR.  At first, it appears that Martin (Kyle Milner), Kate (Jessica Miller), Douglas (Nate Speckman) and Izzy (Dominique Salvación) are all privileged weenies cut from the same cloth; they complain about their entitled lives in New York, name-drop institutions like Yaddo or MacDowell and offhandedly mention submissions to Tin Roof and The New Yorker, glad-hand and needle one another with gleeful insider lingo; they're so smug, self-absorbed and affected that it's less than ten minutes before you have to throttle the urge to bitch-slap each one of them back into the uterus so they can start over.  

But then, this unholy quartet splits into four distinct personalities, and you begin to see not only the disparate characters, but the diverse manner in which each actor compels them into being. 

Milner's Martin is all slouch and mumble, preemptively donning a scornful, iconoclastic armor to hide a crushing lack of self-confidence in his day-to-day existence as well as his ability to write; he is neatly countered by Speckman's too-tightly wrapped Douglas, a tweedy young man of questionable ability and sexuality, using family connections to grope his way down the dark hallways his own ambition is taking him, unsure that he really wants what he claims to want; Salvación's Izzy comes from a place of power as a prickly, streetwise veteran, arguably the most ambitious of the four, or at least the person most clear-eyed about where she wants her writing to take her and what she might have to do to get it, contrasted by Miller's hapless Kate, the seminar's reluctant hostess, who's spent most of her time sawing away at the ties which bind her to her privileged upper-class background, stunted by a skewed sense of noblesse oblige which thrusts itself, an unwelcome guest, into her personal life as well as her writing.       

Granted, this is only a small slice of who these characters are, but it's enough to capture you and keep your interest as SEMINAR moves forward.  It's worth the wait to see where they end up, or if they get anywhere at all, as Leonard shepherds them toward the places they claim to want to go.  There's way more at stake here than the five thousand dollars each student has paid to take part in the seminar; the manner in which we find out exactly what the stakes are makes for a hell of a ride. 

SEMINAR's scenic design makes superb use of the Ring's intimate space; we see an expansive, comfortable living room at stage level balanced by a niggardly, drab writer's pied-à-terre cutting into one of the audience areas.  

Pay special attention to the expressionistic elements incorporated into the design; they're there for a reason. All other technical and design particulars support the production well. 

A caveat: if you're a writer prone to depressive episodes or possessed of a thin skin, you may want to consider not seeing SEMINAR.  

It'll not only make you feel worse about yourself, it will likely snatch away the last tattered shred of confidence you have about your worth as a writer, and encourage you to kill yourself on the sidewalk in front of the theatre after the performance.  

However, a writer by virtue of his essential nature is a glutton for punishment, so of course you must go.  A writer is nothing if not a vessel for the imp of the perverse.   See this play. More power to you if you do. Mazel tov.  Pax vobiscum. 

But know that like the quintessentially elegant red flag which is raised at the beginning of Shirley Jackson's enduring compendium of supernatural malice, the content and character of SEMINAR is a tantalizing promise to writers of all stripes.  

It's this:  whether good, bad or something in between, as a writer you build your own house, and furnish it with the absolute realities that are inextricably a part of what- and how- you write. 

And when you walk there, you walk alone. 

You've been warned. 



SEMINAR runs April 17-May 3 at The Players' Ring.  Click the logo below for details.  










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.