Monday, March 24, 2014

BEYOND THERAPY- Milford Area Players

BEYOND THERAPY

presented by the Milford Area Players

directed by Vick Bennison


Reviewed by guest blogger 
Lowell Williams 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

Saturday, March 8, 2014

OTHELLO- Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England





OTHELLO



presented by Ghostlight Theatre Company of New England

adapted by John Kneeland

directed by Ozan Haksever



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



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

Really?  Who wants to see that? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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












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


Saturday, March 1, 2014

PENELOPE- theatre KAPOW




PENELOPE

produced by theatre KAPOW

directed by Matt Cahoon


Review by guest blogger Lowell Williams


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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








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

Monday, February 17, 2014

LEAVE THE IOKA ALONE



The Ioka Theater in Exeter's  for sale. 

Again.


And here's why the arts community should leave it alone.  

All due respect to the dreamers, the doers and the movers and shakers, but there comes a time when the arts community needs a reality check. 

This is one of those times. 

The Ioka in Exeter is a venerable old building with a rich and storied pedigree, but its time as a viable venue is past.

The physical plant is old and outdated, its infrastructure is crumbling, its interior gutted. It is a mere shadow of the grand old movie palace it once was. Whoever ends up buying it will need millions to rehab the place and bring it up to code before opening the doors, no matter to what purpose they put the building.

While renovating, there are town fees, taxes, and utilities, which add to the bill. Monthly upkeep and maintenance on top of that.

If it reopens as a performing arts venue, add payroll for personnel. A grantwriter.  Office staff. Technical staff. Someone to book artists. Marketing campaigns. Fundraising. Supplies. And so forth. All before before one paying customer walks through the door.

Look, I get that people fall in love with the concept of a dynamic and thriving arts venue within the walls of this historic building, but the truth is, the Ioka is past its practical life for what people would like to get out of it.

It's in a part of town with no parking for the number of patrons that would be necessary to contribute to a venue's sustainability, and it sits on the edge of a river that's been proven to flood its banks time and again, meaning that every few years the owners would have to repair flood damage after laying out huge premiums for the mandatory flood insurance.

Count Phillips Exeter Academy out for any kind of help. Their resources go into their own arts programs, and rightly so.

Yes, Exeter itself is a lovely old town, full of rich history, fascinating shops and interesting restaurants. One old converted theatre, even with a surfeit of "name" artists added to the mix, might well tip the balance with those looking for a place to spend a day or an evening, but the chances of that are slim.

Not to discourage anyone from dreaming, but there are REASONS why the Ioka closed in the first place; the concept of what constitutes entertainment underwent a fundamental shift, and its customer base dwindled to the point that the business was no longer sustainable.

The Ioka was a fine example of what a movie house should be during its run, but its run is over, and trying to make it into something it wasn't meant to be in the face of incalculable odds is a fool's game.

Two organizations have done their utmost to come up with a sustainable business model that would keep a rehabbed Ioka going, and kudos to them for their enthusiasm and passion, but neither group succeeded. Not because they were stupid, or lazy, or disorganized, but because the chances of success were too small when measured against the challenges facing them.

A pipe dream is nice, but reality dictates you have a plan in place to deal with all of the contingencies, and thus far no one has been able to rise to the challenge of making this building work as a profitable theatre since it closed.

The arts community has to let this dream go, as painful as it may be. Because the alternative- trying to make the impossible happen- is going to hurt a lot more when it fails.  
And it will. 


Because- as much as we may wish to the contrary-  rescuing the Ioka from fading into history and making it into something it was never supposed to be isn't going to happen.  


Time to move on.


-Michael J. Curtiss 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

BRILLIANT TRACES- Nashua Theatre Guild






BRILLIANT TRACES


presented by Nashua Theatre Guild


directed by Will McGregor 




If I must be wrung through the paradox,
– broken into wholeness,
wring me around the moon;
pelt me with particles from the dark side.
Fling me into space;
hide me in a black hole.
Let me dance with devils on dead stars.
Let my scars leave brilliant traces,
for my highborn soul seeks its hell –
in high places.
-Avah Pevlor Johnson, Individuation 

In the opening scene of BRILLIANT TRACES, the audience is tantalized by a uniquely intriguing dilemma: what do you do when an insane woman wearing a wedding dress breaks into your isolated house in the middle of a winter storm and completely shatters the still, small world you've spent years carefully crafting for yourself? 

Yes, really: a woman flees her wedding day in Arizona, driving her car so far and so hard it dies within shouting distance of a hermit's cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, to which she walks- still clad in her wedding gown and satin slippers.  

In winter.  In a blizzard of whiteout proportions.   

She hammers her way into the cabin, rousing the hermit, and in the course of the next 90 minutes, the pair explore the fantastic series of events which brought them together- she a clearly unraveled woman who's literally left her fiance at the altar, he an awkward, pathologically shy man living in self-imposed exile following a terrible tragedy.  

One would hope that such a wildly improbable opening would give rise to either a series of riotous comedic moments or a gripping dramatic narrative, either of which would then build to a wholly satisfying ending.  

Yeah, no.  Not so much.

It's hard to divine what spurred director Will McGregor to want to bring Cindy Lou Johnson's lackluster offering to the stage, which makes it equally difficult to understand from which direction he approaches the play, or what he intended for audiences to take away from it. 

In his notes, director Will McGregor claims to have been struck by how well the playwright wrote for actors, saying that "opportunities for actors to play complex characters with such intricate dialogue don't come along  all that often", and alluding to how the story touches briefly upon the theme of alienation, chronicling the twin journeys of two people whose flight from their demons ends in their meeting, only to find catharsis. 

What the catharsis may be is left unsaid; McGregor also admits upon first reading the script that he thought "no one will want to see this", so to say that his own conflicts about the deficiencies of the piece manifest themselves in the final product is not too far a stretch.  As a director, McGregor can only get out of the way of the play, perhaps playing up the random detritus left in its wake as it rolls ponderously forward and eventually stalls under its own chaotic weight, but not much more.  

Cindy Lou Johnson arguably may write well for actors, but she certainly isn't writing for audiences with BRILLIANT TRACES.  

Touching briefly upon themes is all that Johnson does. She ignores the basic building blocks of the successful play- plot, character, conflict, resolution- by never fully fleshing out any of them. 

Johnson drops two characters into an improbable situation, forcing them to wade hip-deep through a sea of emotional wreckage without giving the audience integral clues as to what they want, or what's supposed to happen as a result of their meeting.  

The characters' histories are contrived and trite; there's no story arc, no real obstacles to overcome, no climax, and no real direction as to where the story is supposed to go outside of an amorphous and feeble conclusion. 

Taken as a whole, these flaws doom the play almost from its first moments, turning it into a flaccid melodrama, throttling its emotional gradient and flatlining it.  

Happily, the diaphanous plot of BRILLIANT TRACES is somewhat salvaged by the talent of the two actors in the roles of Rosannah, the runaway bride, and Henry, the loner in whose home she finds herself. 

Katelynn Devorak is fearless in how she occupies the character of Rosannah; this is an actor who's absolutely unflinching in her ability to manifest a woman completely out of control at every level- mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.  Despite the paucity of clues within the play's text from which to construct a viable onstage persona, Devorak is riveting in her translation of the fears and desires which drive Rosannah, finding in herself a absorbing array of peaks and valleys to portray a woman at the end of her rope, and at her absolute most vulnerable.   

As an actor, Mark Morrison has long made characters who are off the beam, or outside of the parameters of what's considered "acceptable" society his raison d'ĂȘtre.  His interpretation of Henry is no different in this regard, and Morrison does not disappoint.  

Morrison imbues Henry with a plethora of artful tics and nervy, staccato speech patterns; he shows us a man who has long been in the process of disconnecting from all of the social cues that would enable him to live comfortably among others.  Morrison makes Henry believable by not overselling the character's bleak internal life; we get that Henry is profoundly damaged, even if the reasons behind his damage are less than plausible.  

Together, these actors both convincingly portray wounded, scarred people who, despite being thrown together by the slimmest of chances, do their best to ignite a flame of commonality between them. 

Neither Devorak nor Morrison is able to rise past the obstacles within Johnson's flawed script, though both manage to endow the play with a consistent and absorbing level of intensity that distracts the audience from the deficiencies of the material for the entire time the actors are onstage together. 

The set design for BRILLIANT TRACES is serviceable, recalling the interior of a rustic cabin, It's generously proportioned, with just enough rudimentary appointments to make it look habitable- a table, chairs, stove, sink, a few cabinet and a bed.  

A puzzling design choice is evident with the addition of a small loft, the entirety of which is taken up with a large wooden trunk. Neither the loft nor the trunk is used or alluded to in the course of the play, making both an unnecessary distraction.  However, the blank, dirt-colored walls do lend the environment an air of stifling closeness, which serves to accentuate the tension between two strangers trapped together by weather and circumstance- as improbable as the latter is. 

It's no secret in recent seasons that Nashua Theatre Guild has faced challenges in keeping its place, as well as its audience, in the ever-expanding and diverse theatre scene in Southern New Hampshire. 

However, NTG aspires to be as relevant a player as any of the other companies in that neck of the woods are, and it continues to plug along, as evidenced by the fact that it's been around some 54 years.  

It's clear that NTG's mission is to continue to find that balance between traditional theatrical offerings, and less-produced works like BRILLIANT TRACES.

Because they look for ways to redefine and expand their own niche, that makes them risk-takers- never an easy thing to be, or do, even at the best of times. For this, they should be commended.

It's likely that BRILLIANT TRACES won't earn Nashua Theatre Guild the audiences they hope for, b
ut the fact that they're willing to take a chance on a lesser-known work speaks well of them, as well as those who've come together under NTG's aegis to present Cindy Lou Johnson's quirky offering to the theatre-going public.  

It says that they believe enough in the play, its director, its actors and production crew to take a chance on it, to give people the opportunity to see it, and possibly find the same value in the play as NTG does.  

That level of enthusiasm and passion for an artist's work is worth something, which is why I recommend that you go and see this play for the one weekend it's in town.  

Take a chance.  See something different.  You may not take away that which you normally would in seeing a play, but you'll have acknowledged NTG's efforts to keep itself relevant in an age and a state where far too many theatre organizations have recently faded into history.  

BRILLIANT TRACES isn't all that, but Nashua Theatre Guild is.  Go see why.  They're worth it.   


BRILLIANT TRACES runs February 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th at 8pm, and with 2 pm matinees on February 8th and 9th at the Court Street Theatre in Nashua, NH.  Be advised that the play is presented without an intermission. See the Nashua Theatre Guild website for details. 






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



Friday, January 31, 2014

TEMPTRESS- The Players' Ring












TEMPTRESS

written by E. Christopher Clark 

produced by the Players' Ring

directed by Jonathan Martin






Attending new plays can be like having sex with an octopus.  

You go in not knowing a lot, put your game face on and commit to the experience, only to find so much coming at you that it ends up being far more off-putting than you expect.  

All snarkiness aside, such is the case with E. Christopher Clark's TEMPTRESS, now on stage at The Players' Ring in Portsmouth, NH.  

TEMPTRESS is the latest installment in Clark's larger play cycle about the Silver family, an interesting assortment of relatives and those who get pulled into the Silvers' sphere of influence. 

In TEMPTRESS, Veronica Silver, her wife Desiree and daughter Tracy (Veronica's, borne of a disastrous attempt at a hetero-normative relationship some 17 years earlier) are running a community theatre out of a garage, staging shows which chronicle their family history. 

TEMPTRESS opens as one of these plays has ended; it's Tracy's job to strike the props, one of which is an old, weathered boot.  

"The Boot" is also the title of the play running at the Silvers' theatre, chronicling the life of one of their forebears- a bitter old mariner and the abuses he heaped upon his own wife and children in days of yore.

Both the boot and "The Boot" serve as twin catalysts for Tracy, sparking outrage and a desire for revenge- the target of which is her mother's cousin Michael, who's come to see the latest stage adaptation of the life of the Silver clan, and who Tracy views as a destroyer of the women in her life whom she holds most dear- her two moms, their friends, women from Michael's past, even Michael's wife.  

It's at this point that TEMPTRESS goes off the rails, and it never recovers. 

To return to the octopus metaphor, by the time we understand what the boot and play represent, there's way too much flailing in the audience's face to be able to figure what TEMPTRESS is supposed to be about.  

There are things simultaneously pulling the audience in and pushing them away,  and at the end of the evening,  those in attendance leave knowing it was part of something, but not sure what that something was.

TEMPTRESS starts off fairly promising, with engaging characters and crackling, intelligent dialogue, but then quickly stalls.  Like many new and untried plays, TEMPTRESS groans with the flabbiness of overwriting, and its own weightiness ends up killing it. 

The play is burdened with a plethora of underdeveloped concepts, relationships which materialize out of thin air and never coalesce, conflict cascading on top of conflict without any true resolution, and double-cast characters fading into transparency with no clear sense of self or objective.   

Worst of all, the play employs a half-assed deus ex machina in the form of a potion to move the play forward- a potion which casts the unsuspecting Michael into a weird, sexually twisted fantasy/sci-fi world inhabited by the women of his past, presided over by his wrathful second cousin as both judge AND jury. 

We get that Tracy's angry, and that her anger should be principally driving the play in terms of what she wants and what could happen when she attains her objective.  

Unfortunately, hers is an unfocused anger, and when it hones in on Michael, it turns out he's the wrong person to be mad at- he's a largely inoffensive shlub who has no real motive for the crimes against women of which Tracy accuses him. 

Michael is acted upon plenty by the ladies in TEMPTRESS, but in the end lacks either the intellect or drive necessary to carry out the ambitious agenda to be as corrosive a force to the Silver family women as Tracy wants him to be; he's a plot device with a penis, nothing more. 

The "dream sequence" is chock full of improbability, chief among them events and characters which Michael came into contact with years before Tracy was even born; unless her two moms were particularly chatty about the family history over the breakfast table on a daily basis, it's hard to believe Tracy's rationalization of the impact these events had  on her, decades after they occurred, much less being the basis of her vendetta against Michael .   

Eventually, Michael comes out of his drug-induced vision and everyone...goes to bed.

Then in the morning, the family scatters, concluding TEMPTRESS with the impact of a slowly deflating balloon- the wrong people are demonized, and its characters fail to account for what they want or how they get it. 


Nothing's resolved,  and no one ends up being responsible for anything.  The end.  

Despite the flawed material, Clark does have an ear for dialogue, and his characters do have the potential to be both believable and sympathetic.  

Meghan Morash (Tracy), Jennifer Henry (Desiree) and Liz Locke (Veronica) all turn in solid interpretations of their characters.  As Michael, E. Christopher Clark puts in a good effort, and so do the other five actors in the play, but they're handicapped by the material.  Outside of consistent energy levels, the actors aren't really able to rise to the challenge of manifesting characters who are fully-formed and believable.  

Despite what he may have thought of the play, director Jonathan Martin doesn't get bogged down in whether or not the story works as it is- he simply interprets it as best he can, and tasks his cast to do the same, keeping the blocking crisp and the scenic elements spare. 

Once this run ends, it's imperative that Clark do an extensive retooling of  TEMPTRESS, with an eye toward sharpening the play's focus, and bringing clarity to both its plot and characters . 

Right now, the play is about too many things, many of which are superfluous and distracting- these things need to be thrown overboard.  In its current form, TEMPTRESS wallows with the weight of too many story elements; without a refit to make it sleeker and more efficient, the play will founder. 

On a personal note, I have to admit to a certain respect and admiration for anyone who puts his shoulder to the wheel of an unproven play and does the hard work of getting it out into the world for consumption, be it by the everyday theatre enthusiast or jaded critic.  

E. Christopher Clark and his crew are fortunate to have a theatre like the Players' Ring to function as the incubator for this nascent work, a collaboration which has the potential to yield a far superior play, in time. 

This version of TEMPTRESS will fail. That's good.  It should be allowed to, and in a place that allows for its failing to open the door to the possibility of something better. 

That which ultimately makes plays absorbing, or provocative, or memorable, is not only the skillset of the playwright and those who produce his work,  but the chance to showcase their efforts and find out first-hand what makes a play good, and what doesn't.  

So whether this review puts you off from seeing TEMPTRESS or perversely spurs you to go, let us all give kudos to people like E. Christopher Clark, the staff at the Players' Ring, and the corps of talent which continually converges at that little brick building there on Marcy Street in Portsmouth in order to put themselves and the work they believe in out there.  

Your plays may not always make the grade the first time around, but because you were gutsy and innovative and brave enough to believe in the work in the first place, everyone succeeds. Well done.  



TEMPTRESS runs through February 9 at The Players' Ring.  See their website for details.  







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

Thursday, January 9, 2014

BACKGROUND CHECK- The Players' Ring





BACKGROUND CHECK

presented by The Players' Ring

written by G. Matthew Gaskell

directed by Bretton Reis



We all have elements in our past of which we're not proud; anyone who says they haven't done at least one thing that turned out to be disastrously dumb is either lying, insane, or hasn't yet graduated kindergarten. 

BACKGROUND CHECK, G. Matthew Gaskell's newest play, examines the question of what we've done in our disparate pasts, and the lengths to which we go to leave them behind- or at least not let them totally screw up our lives as they are in the current moment. 

 Gaskell's newest offering is a slyly ruminative examination of what's possible when past indiscretions and secret lives of not one, not two, not three, but eleven people catch up to each of them and converge in one place, at one time- as well as the  hilarity which ensues as all eleven try to extricate themselves from the interconnected web of lies and obfuscations each has unwittingly knit around one another. 

As a play, BACKGROUND CHECK is chock-full of both successful moments and pitfalls.  It's effective in that it constantly wrings a consistent level of laughter from the audience, but at this point in its development, that's all it does.  

Both the plot and its inherent comedy come at you with the pace of a fully-loaded freight train screaming brakeless down a mountain in the 75 or so minutes it takes the play to get from start to finish.  Its pacing is frenetic, its jokes visceral and shallow, and the plot is heavily dependent on who's having/had sex with whom.

When it's not going straight for the crotch, BACKGROUND CHECK relies far too much on plot twists so Byzantine and multitudinous, it ends up coming across as the bastard child of Ira Levin and O. Henry, with the Marx Brothers serving as zany midwives. 

But wait: there's more.  

Despite its structural flaws, BACKGROUND CHECK works as-is. The reason why is simple: it's a play not yet ready to rise above itself, or to be more than it is, and it doesn't try to be.  

Playwright G. Matthew Gaskell is a known quantity on the Seacoast;  he's noted for his wry (and arguably far more cerebral) SHARP DRESSED MEN trilogy, among other plays.  He knows his way around the comedy genre; it's clear with BACKGROUND CHECK that he was less interested in making his audiences think,  and more concerned with making them laugh.  

Couple that intent with the fact that BACKGROUND CHECK was written as star vehicle for the leading actors, Jamie Bradley and Teddi Kenick-Bailey- a literary wedding gift for a couple who intend to marry in the near future, if you will.   

Like the couple's wedding plans, the play isn't close to being complete; thus, BACKGROUND CHECK takes on the characteristics of a sweetly crafted comedy, made all the better for the intent behind it, with the potential to be better than it is.  

We should all get such a present.

Even at this nascent stage, BACKGROUND CHECK isn't a  fluff piece. The humor is largely crass, but there's an undercurrent of intelligence beneath it. 

As a work-in-progress, Gaskell still tasks his audience to keep up with the onslaught of running jokes and converging plot lines which cascade over one another without surcease, structuring the premise of the play and the comedic elements behind them so that it's possible. 

Director Bretton Reis has the unenviable task of taking something which is unproven and making it work without having any prior knowledge of it having worked before.   Happily, Reis doesn't let this bother him, or stop him from transliterating the work from page to stage. 

Reis is smart enough to get out of the play's way at this level of its development, electing not to impose his will on how it should unfold, or where it should go; rather, he recognizes that it's better to focus on the characters-  what they're doing, what they want, and where they ultimately end up. 

Rest assured: everyone in BACKGROUND CHECK gets to where they need to be.  Reis shows us that it's more important to shepherd the characters through the play from beginning to end than worry about any perceived deficiencies in the play's structure.

That's not his job.  It's  the playwright's.  As this play's director, Reis' responsibility is to realize the concept of the play and its characters as they exist at this very minute in time, not what they all may be down the road.  Reis asks his cast to stay in the moment, rather than look forward to some ambiguous and unrealized future version of their characters in a version of a play that may never take shape.

Because he does, his cast keeps both the play and the characters they occupy in the present, consistently and admirably.  It not only endows the play as it is with a certain viability, it also opens up opportunities for the playwright to  further explore the possibilities of where this play might go.  The story as written is told, and it's told well.  

Gaskell's and Reis' efforts are equaled- and often surpassed- by the superb ensemble which powers the work. 

Jamie Bradley is without question this play's pivotal character, not so much by what is written for his character, but by how he interprets it.  

As Walter, the sweetly put-upon new husband, Bradley is a glorious example of how to bring the funny- his looks, takes, movements, gestures, utterances and pretty much all of his stage business is a sterling example of how an actor embraces an archetype without becoming eclipsed by it.  He owns this play, and that's how it should be. 

Teddi Kenick-Bailey, as Walter's newly-minted wife Kitty, provides a far more understated performance, but don't let that fool you; Kenick-Bailey's equal to the task of matching her onstage mate Bradley in terms of energy and timing, and together the couple enjoy a precise, quirky chemistry which enhances their performances, both as as individuals and as a couple. 

Kevin Baringer is over-the-top comedy gold as the anally-fixated Poppy, a gay illegal-alien Dominican/Canadian proctologist  (yes, really) on a quest for true love;  Liz Locke and Matthew Schofield provide unbridled hilarity as the quintessential gung-ho CIA agents Samoa and Tagalong (yes, really).  

Todd and Jasmin Hunter occupy their roles as Kitty's clueless witness protection program parents with a judiciously sleazy aplomb; Molly Dowd Sullivan acquits herself well as crunchy-granola Haley; both  Bretton Reis and Michelle Blouin Wright turn in performances which are easily recognizable, but no less enjoyable, as a neo-Nazi villain and tomboyish INS officer respectively. 

Scenic and technical elements are minimal but effective.

BACKGROUND CHECK is a charming  play, made even more so by the fact that it hasn't yet made up it's mind what it's going to be.  

It's a lot like the impending nuptials of the couple for whom it was written- uncertain, unfinished, even a bit diffident and fearful.  

It hasn't yet decided what it's supposed to be, and what it becomes is largely dependent upon the amount of hard work those involved put into it, so that it has the chance to become what it's meant to be- if it's meant to be anything at all. 

At the same time Jamie Bradley and Teddi Kenick-Bailey are figuring out who they are as a couple and where their lives together will take them, G. Matthew Gaskell and his play are working out a parallel existence, in that Gaskell will be deciding what- or if- BACKGROUND CHECK is going to be.   

That's kind of cool.  You should check 'em out. 

We wish them all Godspeed.  

Stay tuned. 



 BACKGROUND CHECK runs January 3-19, 2014, at The Players Ring.  See their website for tickets and information. 





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