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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

TALLEY'S FOLLY- The Winnipesaukee Playhouse


written by Lanford Wilson

presented by the Winnipesaukee Playhouse

directed by Marta Rainer

TALLEY'S FOLLY is the middle play in Lanford Wilson's Talley trilogy, focusing on daughter Sally and her lover, immigrant Matt Friedman, as each struggles to make sense of their lives during a time of mutual alienation, and the events and people which cause them to reconnect.

It's not so much what's on the surface- the unorthodox love affair between two socially disparate people while the country is in the grip of World War II, to name but one aspect- but what Sally and Matt have put aside, or buried within the accrued rickrack of their emotional lives, which is of value here.  

It's the manner in which Sally and Matt unearth these forgotten treasures, and how they implement them in the search for what they want, which endows TALLEY'S FOLLY with a bounty of sterling examples of how the past informs the present, and thus the future, and of what is possible when we move between tenses: this is who we were; this is who we are now; this is who we can be.  
TALLEY'S FOLLY is praiseworthy in that it sets itself apart structurally- one of its two principal characters, Matt, breaks the fourth wall to act as the play's de facto narrator at the play's beginning and at its conclusion; the set remains static; the entire play is executed in real time- ninety-seven minutes- and in one act, taking place on the Talley homestead on July 4, 1944, the same time and place as TALLEY AND SON, the third play in Wilson's trilogy but first in the chronology Wilson sets. 

This is a play of exposition; as such, there's far less of the delicate balance between action and dialogue than in other works. Words are what drive this play, and it's the way playwright Lanford Wilson assembles those words which gives it a singular power- phrases unique to both time and place, and to personality and history.  

Wilson's dialogue is sui generis, consisting of a language and a cadence all its own, requiring that the actors catch onto the rhythms, the phrasings, and the subtext of what Wilson would have conveyed in terms of articulating who the characters are, the conflicts which unite them (or keep them apart), and what they intend to do to move past the events and causalities which draw and bind them to a place as unconventional as a dilapidated old boathouse on a Midwestern river as the sun begins to set.      

In the Winnipesaukee Playhouse's final offering of the 2014 summer season, the actors are excellent in many ways, but unfortunately as of opening night didn't demonstrate the facility of immersion in the specialized dialect which is required to give this play the energy it deserves. 

Toby Miller, who plays Matt Friedman, tends to fall back on vocal and physical gimmickry, either speeding his end of the conversation or gesturing needlessly, coming off as frenetic and scattered in his characterization.  To be fair, Miller is also tasked with having to speak with a regional European accent, further deepening the mystery of Matt's murky past; he gets the accent pretty well, but it pales against the overdone gesticulations and the staccato bursts of speech.  

Molly Parker Myers, as Sally Talley, is exponentially better with her interpretation of the colloquy required of Sally; Myers also understands that it isn't what's said so much as what's left unspoken, trusting that the audience is capable of divining the emotional gradient beneath the words.  Her deliberate pauses often balance out Miller's more strident efforts, but just as often come across as lugubrious.   

Outside of the dialectic pitfalls, each actor is consistent in what they manifest; subsequent performances may lend further focus and clarity to that which the actors intend to convey.  

Director Marta Rainer herself catches on to other patterns within TALLEY'S FOLLY- in particular how Wilson's writing illuminates characters who are never seen, but who are given critical importance to the present contentions which keep Sally and Matt at cross-purposes.  

Rainer understands- at least academically- that a nascent romance requires a certain degree of struggle before it can reach full bloom.  However, she focuses too much on the "meet-cute" aspect of the play, preferring to accentuate the preciousness of Sally and Matt's evolving relationship, broadcasting her own hope for the potential joy to which they as a couple are entitled, rather than emphasizing the small satisfactions they can earn as they work to get past the obstacles which thus far have prevented Sally and Matt from even being a couple- Sally's prejudiced, deeply dysfunctional family, her secret shame, Matt's ambivalence at his own checkered history and conflicted present existence, and what it will mean for them to be together at a time when the nation itself is in conflict.  

While hope for a happy future is laudable, hope is a construct; its very intangibility makes it ephemeral.  It's the stormy present, and the effort that the characters put forth in coping with it, which is of substance here, and of far more value in imparting what's really important, not merely the hope to which Sally and Matt aspire.  Rainer chooses to gloss over that, and in so doing, diffuses the play's overall impact. 

TALLEY's set is lushly rendered; it's as much a player onstage as the actors themselves.   Designed by Charles Morgan, it represents a Victorian- era folly,  a building erected for decoration, popular among the landed gentry at the turn of the 20th century as a way to show off their wealth and possessions, performing no function except to be a place to withdraw from the demands of life and family. 

The folly we see does double-duty as a boathouse, but it's clear from the onset that it's seen better days- its paint is faded, some of its ornate gingerbread latticework is missing, and items brought from the big house back in the day have acquired the patina of neglect.  It's both lovely and sad, a representation of the ennui which grips those that seek refuge within its dilapidated walls.

Lighting designer Becky Marsh provides a light show of unparalleled beauty; a sunset which slowly fades into twilight, giving way to the subsequent rising of the moon, painting the scene with a rich palette of color at first, then dappling everything with a resplendent interplay of light and shadow. Neil Pankhurst's soundscape is a palette of secret night sounds, interspersed with music of the era,  
adding another opulent dimension to the already compelling scenic composition onstage.

Despite this production's deficiencies, I recommend that you see it.  See it for its sets, lights, sounds, costumes and props- in fact, see it for all the ways in which the Winnipesaukee Playhouse technically manifests its consistently stellar offerings.  

See it for the story and the language in which the story is framed. See it not merely for what it currently is, but what it can be.  

See it for the manner in which Lanford Wilson crafts an otherwise superb parable, weaving a powerful narrative into the tapestry of a bygone time and place, and characters who exist to fight for their hearts' desire.  Like the larger life through which we all move, there are stumbling blocks, but none so great that the lessons within are eclipsed.  

As Sally and Matt discover within the confines in that old whimsical structure on the river, everything that makes TALLEY'S FOLLY worth seeing is there, waiting to be found.   

It's only when we find those things, and bring them out into the open, that we can we make use of them.  That is their value.   There is treasure here.  I am sure of it.  You will be, too. 

TALLEY'S FOLLY  plays through August 30, 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse.  Click the logo to go to their website for tickets and 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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

ANY OTHER NAME- The Winnipesaukee Playhouse




by George Brant

presented by The Winnipesaukee Playhouse

directed by Bryan Halperin 

Imagine, if you will, that you are a down-at-heel critic in early Victorian England, aspiring to be a poet of renown, yet unable to rise past your own mediocrity in your chosen medium.   

You've somehow come into possession of a celebrated bard, one whose poems are of such sterling quality that his literary star burns brightly across the land despite his protracted absence, who's suffered a complete mental breakdown.

You've managed to sequester the poet in a distant oubliette of an asylum, far from the civilized world- but rather than do what you can to help this brilliant sonnetist regain his faculties and restore him to the grateful elites who patronized him, you engineer a convoluted plan to pass YOURSELF off as the poet, leaving him to rot while you convince the world that all of the verses he's been obsessively churning out while immured in the madhouse are, in fact, yours. 

Add a beautiful wife whom you ache to present as a glittering jewel to high society, though you lack the funds to do so, who seems very, very eager to assist you in your mad quest. Throw in an artfully devious publisher who first doubts your story, then presses you to not only produce poems in the style which made your prisoner famous, but to act as unhinged as your demented charge.  

He demands you do this to add a layer of controversy and sensation to your manufactured re-emergence, and thus drive sales of your newest "work" into the stratosphere, making you both rich beyond your wildest dreams of avarice.

And you do- only to find yourself ever more tightly ensnared in a malevolent net of lies necessary to defend and preserve a name and a craft- neither which are yours.  

Extraordinary?  Unbelievable?  Perhaps. But we're not here to debate the logistics of improbability, only to sit back and bear witness to what can happen when improbabilities converge.

Improbability is the at the crux of George Brant's absorbing thriller ANY OTHER NAME, and what sets it apart is 
that it hinges not on supernatural leanings or otherworldly experiences, but that it relies solely on cardinal sins-  desire, envy, and lust, to name but three- and how they spark the fantastic journeys of the mere mortals in the thrall of those sins.    

As performed by The Winnipesaukee Playhouse, the New England debut of ANY OTHER NAME is driven by an ensemble of four powerhouse actors- returning veteran Nicholas Wilder, newcomers Rebecca Tucker and Toby Miller, and perennial Playhouse favorite Richard Brundage.  

Their stock in trade is that they're all exquisitely adept at manifesting their characters as specific archetypes- John Clark, a mad poet (Brundage), mendacious critic Edward Ballard (Wilder), his Machiavellian wife Margaret (Tucker), and Maddock, a canny publisher (Miller).

In the best tradition of the genus thrillus maximus,  these superb actors convince us utterly that they are who they say they are, and that they want what they say they want- that is, of course, until something comes along to change who they want you to think they are, and what they say they want.  And something always comes along.

Confused?  Good.  Intrigued?  Even better. 

This aggregate of talent is shaped and brought into focus by ANY OTHER NAME's director, Bryan Halperin, himself an aficionado of the suspense/thriller genre, having helmed the Playhouse's TURN OF THE SCREW in 2012, and 2010's SCOTLAND ROAD.    

Halperin understands that, in order to maximize the effect the classic thriller must have on the audience, one must tease the audience with a light, feather-like touch, tantalizing them with neatly placed clues and incrementally moving the characters forward, keeping the audience guessing and artfully moving them toward the play's climax by making them go where you want them to go without letting it slip that that's what you're doing.

Then, once they're right where they need to be, one picks up the bludgeon, swooping in for the kill- and if you do it just right, as Halperin and his crew clearly do- the audience is just as delighted in the kill as they are in being set up for it.

With suspense, it's not so much the end result you're looking for; it's the execution, as it were.  In both form and function, The Winnipesaukee Playhouse distinguishes itself with this offbeat work for the stage.  Well done.   

Matthew Guminski's moody light plot enhances the ominous atmosphere of ANY OTHER NAME throughout, and Melissa Shakun's set is cleverly allegorical, representing an asylum cell, a low-rent flat and a well-appointed office in nested acting spaces, each on its own level.   Strategic components of each location have been subtracted- bits of stone, brick or plaster here and there, further adding to the illusion that while every scene is connected to the next, this entire production is a puzzle, with pieces missing, needing to be found and fitted to their proper place in this enchanting enigma of a play.   

Look for bits of foreshadowing- in the action, the dialogue, the scenic backgrounds, even from the actors themselves: a name, uttered in error (or is it?), a tooth, a necklace, and more.  One finds one's mind casting back even as the action moves forward: did ____ really say _____?  Why was there so much emphasis on the _____?  Why does _____give the  _____ to _____?  

The manner in which these disparate elements come to the surface requires that attention be paid if you intend to predict how ANY OTHER NAME ends; it rockets right along, clocking in at right around the two-hour mark, so keeping up with the play and trying to figure out its ending is part of its allure as it races to its climax.  

Speaking of endings: I promise you, the ending you get won't be the one you expect, no matter how adept you think yourself at solving these kinds of mysteries.

If you come alone, you'll drive home going over in your head what you think you see and hear, and if you're part of a larger party, then be prepared to be engaged in vigorous debate as you walk out of the theatre, in an attempt to deconstruct the the events which unfold on stage. 

Whether by yourself or in a crowd, you'll have an enjoyably tough time coming to a satisfying conclusion about the mechanics of how the characters in ANY OTHER NAME reach their end point.  

In an age where so many shows are done to the point where they become blandly predictable, ANY OTHER NAME is compelling theatre.  It's riveting and suspenseful, and the folks at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse do well by this latest offering- it draws you in, turns you upside down, and then lets you loose to try to figure out what in the hell just happened.  See for yourself.  

ANY OTHER NAME  plays through August 16. 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse.  Click the logo to go to their website for tickets and 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.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

SPRING AWAKENING- Peacock Players & Company

presented by The Peacock Players & Company

book and lyrics by Steven Sater with music by Duncan Sheik, based on the play SPRING AWAKENING by Frank Wedekind

directed by Keith Weirich

musically directed by Henry Kopczynskie III

choreographed by Valerie Psoinos Nelson

In the dear dim days of 1891 Germany, young men and women endured a rite of passage delicately referred to as "coming of age"- crossing a largely fictional line of demarcation and assuming the burdens of adulthood, usually at the behest of parents who had followed the laws of God and man of the time, and who had exhausted themselves producing literal herds of progeny.  

These parents would then conscript their older children into caring for the younger, or would send them out into the world to contribute to the family coffers, apprenticing them to tradesmen and factory owners, consigning their oldest sons and daughters to lives of drab servitude until they could assume positions of trust (if male) or marry and produce children (if female), thus assuring that the circle of sameness would continue unbroken for yet another generation, and another.  And so on.   

Complicate the lives of these young people further by throttling their intellectual development, demanding that they adhere to the rigorous moral and social codes set down by the tenets of the prevailing religious and sovereign orders of the time, without question.  Add their inevitable sexual maturation to the mix, all without properly explaining the strange and often frightening changes they experience in both body and mind- except to dismiss it, or characterize it as evil or diseased-  and when all of these incredible pressures converge, something has to give, and not in a good way.  

It's the culmination of these pressures which set into motion a series of events that ultimately shape the lives and destinies of the characters populating the superlative alt-rock musical SPRING AWAKENING, the inaugural production of Peacock Players & Company, the new community division of the celebrated youth theatre organization.  

Director Keith Weirich doesn't blanch at the thought of addressing the frank sexuality or the raw subject matter of SPRING AWAKENING, nor does he trample the finer points of the story into the ground in an attempt to mask his discomfort with SPRING AWAKENING's often grim content. Rather, Weirich strides right up to to the play, introducing himself and giving it a firm handshake while looking it squarely in the eye, taking the audience with him as he and his cast unflinchingly chart the journeys of the characters whose lives spin out inside of the story.  

Weirich understands that SPRING AWAKENING is powered by a third rail filled with taboo subjects: sex and sexuality, pregnancy and abortion, parental neglect and abuse, depression and suicide, and, perhaps most insidious of all, the darkly pervasive power of denial which threads through this play and sways the courses of several of its characters.   Weirich doesn't shy away from showing us that third rail, telling us that yes, it can kill you if you touch it, but that's also where all the power of SPRING AWAKENING is, and it is imperative that you learn what that power can do.

In essence, SPRING AWAKENING chronicles the travails of a group of elite private school boys as they labor to excel at their studies and assume their place in the stifling social order of the late 19th century Deutsches Reich, the historical nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 to defeat in World War I in 1918.  

On a parallel track are teenage girls from the village, denied the same privileges as their male counterparts and only able to dream of the day when they will marry one of the schoolboys and start families, dreaming that somehow the union will somehow give them the opportunity to get up, out and away from the somnolent and soporific lives they now lead. A troupe of boys from the local reformatory plays a rough counterpart to the two groups. Though they are all from different levels of society, the common threads which bind them are their awareness (and sometimes despair) of the predetermined direction in life to which they are bent, but the exponentially expanding knowledge of who they are as sexual beings, and what they might do with that burgeoning wisdom.

Wendla (Grace Kontak) finds herself attracted to rising scholar Melchior (Taylor Morrow); she is aware that her feelings mean something but when she begs her mother (Maryellen Stevenson) for an explanation, she is soundly rebuffed. Meanwhile, Melchior seeks to help his friend Moritz (Alex Giggey), a perennial underachiever, make it through the school year without flunking out, a threat constantly leveled by the Teutonically severe headmaster (Keith Weirich). Moritz is plagued by erotic thoughts and thinks himself either insane or on the verge, even though Melchior tries to assuage his fears by creating an illustrated essay on sex to convince Moritz that what he feels is natural.   Sparks fly when Wendla and Melchior, friends since childhood but separated by societal constraints, meet and rekindle their relationship, and their mutual attraction blossoms into something deeper. In the interim, Wenda's friends discover that Martha (Alyssa Dumas) is being sexually abused by her father, and another friend Ilse (Julia Enos) has been turned out of the home for "wanton" behavior. 
Lest you be worried that SPRING AWAKENING is all straight sex, no worries: there's a scene in Act 2 where one of the schoolboys, Hanschen (Danny Shea), seduces a classmate, Ernst (Bryce McAllister).  The scene is played with an offhanded sweetness, and it's less about the sex than it is about two boys acting out a romantic fantasy, but Shea plays the smooth-talking aggressor in perfect harmony with McAllister's shy, naive but equally eager counterpart, and the scene between them rings true and tender, culminating in a kiss that's as convincing as it is electric.   Oddly, this is as far as the boys go; it's never said what comes of their nascent love affair, or where it takes them.  In context with other elements of the storyline, Hanschen's and Ernst's encounter is little more than a token distraction- a fumbling effort on the part of the writers to be inclusive in an age of ever-expanding sexual diversity, perhaps.  Too bad. The scene is rich with potential; its resolution, less so.

As the show progresses, the audience witnesses the unfolding struggles of children who seek answers about life and love but are hamstrung by the deliberate callowness, outright fear, and often savage treatment which comes at them from the adults in charge. The children, at cross-purposes with the status quo, try to break through the unyielding curtain of taboo and ignorance, only to find themselves forever crippled by the consequences of their actions- or worse.  

To describe where the choices the children and the adults make ultimately take them is to give too much away, but there is a reason Frank Wedekind gave his play the subtitle "A Children's Tragedy". This isn't to say that this incarnation of SPRING AWAKENING is wholly a tragedy: there is also hope, and kindness, and poignancy, and humor. While tragic moments abound, this musical is in no way bogged down by calamity or privation. It's more of a cautionary tale: a contemporary parable, if you will, and a damned good one.

This is a big show. There are about thirty people in the cast of SPRING AWAKENING, playing a variety of characters, and because this is Peacock Players' initial foray into community theatre, the age range is very wide indeed. However, the talent level of this cast is refreshingly constant; led by the principal actors, the entire cast displays energy and inventiveness, and a deep investment in not only their characters but in the story they're playing out onstage. Each is attuned to what's happening at all times, and they're a joy to watch.

Musical numbers interspersed throughout SPRING AWAKENING are excellent: in particular "Mama Who Bore Me", "the Bitch of Living", "The Guilty Ones" and the anthem-like "Totally Fucked". These aren't happy, up-tempo Broadway numbers, but wistful, or braying, or dirgelike songs- often dissonant or staccato musical commentaries, not always pleasing to the ear, but compelling in their narrative.  

Orchestral accompaniment led by Henry Kopczynskie III is spot on, and Valerie Psoinos Nelson kills it with stellar choreography.  Maggie Mahony's costumes are superb.  

Technical and scenic elements are efficient, yet supportive: the set, designed by Weirich and Dan Kohler and painted by Jessie McCoy, consists of one large two-level square set dead center, upon which most of the activity takes place; benches stage right and left hold the show's chorus and provide an additional layer to the action. Lights, again by Weirich with the assistance of Norm St. Germain, are are intuitive and kinetic, keyed to integral moments in the play.  There's a lot of haze used throughout the show and one wonders if it's totally necessary; it doesn't distract, but often it's superfluous. Sound by Rich Loomer is troublesome and could use some judicious tweaking: late pickups and static are a constant annoyance.

Last: the question of whether or not to bring the kids.  It depends.  Because this is a hybrid production of teenagers and adults (ergo the "& Company") and because it deals with adult themes, the answer is absolutely, you should bring your kids- but ONLY if you, and they, are intellectually ready to sit through some gritty stuff, and you're prepared as a parent to maybe have to talk about what goes down in the course of the show. If they're not, or you're not, then no: you should all stay home and watch FROZEN together, because SPRING AWAKENING isn't for you.

But if they are, and you are, and you understand that sometimes parents and kids have to talk about subjects that make both squirm, and you can find a way to explain that a benighted life is inevitably cruel, and that the expression of love- no matter how pure or innocent- has consequences both good and bad, then by all means: bring the kids, and anyone else you think might benefit from seeing SPRING AWAKENING, because Peacock Players & Company put on one hell of a show.  

SPRING AWAKENING runs through August 10, 2014 at the Court Street Theatre in Nashua.  Please click the Peacock Players logo below to get tickets and information.

Please note that SPRING AWAKENING is rated R due to mature content, sexual themes, language, and violence.

Michael J. Curtiss is a writer and playwright who resides in southern NH.  In addition to his work as a freelance theatre critic, he administers THE GRANITE STAGE page.