Sunday, October 14, 2018

Oklahoma!


Oklahoma!
St. Ann’s Warehouse
October 13, 2018

Photo courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse
If you’d have told me that a production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! could have a gut-wrenching emotional impact and offer a brutally honest point of view as to who we are as Americans, I’d have said that is not conceivable.  Yet, the Bard Summerscape production at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, does just that.  Director Daniel Fish reframes this American classic, making it startlingly relevant to a present day audience.  The production revels in the idealistic goals of the characters, then puts a truthful spotlight on the length they are willing to go to achieve them.  More importantly, it illustrates how their bond tills the soil for future incongruity.


Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey & Damon Daunno as Curly
Photo courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse
The cast creates one honest moment after another, showing the power and quality of Oscar Hammerstein’s book.  They deliver layer upon layer of richness, depth, humor, and intensity to these well-known characters, who we have seen over and over.  This phenomenal work gives us an opportunity to meet them for the first time.  There are riveting performances by Damon Daunno (Curly McLain), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Laurey Williams), Mary Testa (Aunt Eller), Ali Stroker (Ado Annie), Patrick Wail (Jud Fry), James Davis (Will Parker), Michael Nathanson (Ali Hakim), Gabrielle Hamilton (Dream Laurey), Mitch Tebo (Andrew Carnes), Mallory Portnoy (Gertie Cummings), Anthony Cason (Cord Elam), and Will Mann (Mike).  Their chemistry, timing, physicality, and vocal characteristics are flawless. 

Damon Daunno as Curly with the Band
Photo courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse
Daniel Kluger re-orchestrated the Richard Rogers score for a seven piece country/western style band.  His work puts a strong focus on the vocals, luminously highlighting the Hammerstein lyrics.  The small, diverse, and powerful cast shines vocally, both in skill and styling.  The newly conceived choreography by John Heginbotham rides on the structure and story advancing format set by Agnes DeMille, yet delivers it in a powerfully visceral and original manner that is both engaging and deeply psychological. 

Mary Testa as Aunt Eller & James Davis as Will Parker
Photo courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse
The interpretation of the ending is shocking.  Once the main characters achieve their goal, the community bond allows them to get away with the murderous actions they felt justified to execute.  They carry the weight of that burden forward as they begin their lives together and their territory becomes a state.  The finale is sung with brutal determination while characters are covered in blood.  It is upsetting… and brilliant, bringing new and darker meaning to the lyrics, “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”  

The Bard Summerscape production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is running through November 11 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  Do whatever you need to do to get a ticket.  It is a bold, risky, and brave production that will sit with you for a long time.

Domenick Danza

Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Most Alive with You


I Was Most Alive with You
Playwrights Horizons
October 7, 2018

Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizons
Craig Lucas has written a masterpiece in I Was Most Alive with You, now running at Playwrights Horizons.  He parallels this narrative of loss, despair, and letting go with the Old Testament’s Book of Job.  Since one of the main characters is deaf, the production is “shadow cast” and told in American Sign Language.  A portion of the dialogue is projected when the characters communicate solely through signing.  The collaborative efforts of Sabrina Dennison, Director of Artistic Sign Language, and Director Tyne Rafaeli create a seamless and powerful piece of theatre.  The production is a monumental feat, fusing every aspect of design to engage and challenge the audience to join the characters on this brutal and gut-wrenching journey.

Ash (played by Michael Gaston and shadowed by Seth Gore) meets with his close friend and writing partner, Astrid (played by Marianna Bassham and shadowed by Christina Marie), to choose and develop a new writing project after months of hiatus.  Ash and his family have experienced a string of tragic events that have made it difficult for him to work, yet left him in great financial need.  In order to face the hardships head on, Astrid pushes Ash to write the story of the events of the past eighteen months. 

Michael Gaston, Lisa Emery, & Russell Harvard
Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizons
It starts with a car ride to the home of Ash’s mother, Carla (played by Lois Smith and shadowed by Kalen Feeney), for Thanksgiving dinner.  They pick up Ash’s wife, Pleasant (played by Lisa Emery and shadowed by Amelia Hensley), and start to discuss the Bible, particularly the Book of Job, where Job loses everything and is left in total despair.  We meet Ash’s son, Knox (played by Russell Harvard and shadowed by Harold Foxx), getting ready to leave for the same Thanksgiving celebration.  He is deaf and a recovering alcoholic who is convincing his new boyfriend, Farhad (played by Tad Cooley and shadowed by Anthony Natale), to not drink or misbehave when meeting the family for the first time.  Being Thanksgiving, the family’s skeletons emerge.  Tragedy falls on them in three heavy blows, same as in the Book of Job.  It is revealed that Carla is dying of cancer and the family’s finances are in ruin, then Knox is severely injured in a car accident on the way home.  Act II brings more dire hardships.  As a result of the car accident, Knox becomes addicted to opioids and, out of despair, Pleasant leaves her husband and son.  Ash works feverishly to hold on and not relapse to drinking as he helplessly watches his son spiral into a dark place.  Astrid pushes Ash to write an ending to their writing project, thus relinquishing control of the final outcome of his life’s events.

The full cast of I Was Most Alive with You
Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizons
By having the characters write their own story, Craig Lucas chose a highly theatrical mechanism that places the theme directly into the action.  It gives the characters a vehicle for self-examination as events unfold in front of the audience.  All the characters struggle with the need to control.  Ash and Astrid observe every scene, whether they are in the action or not.  The sense of control is always present, no matter how unpredictable and extreme the scenes turn out to be.  It is not until the climax of the play that we see Ash releasing his desperate need for control.  The sense of what he wants to occur is clear, yet his facing the need to accept what he cannot control is painful and cathartic.
Russell Harvard as Knox
Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

This play is emotionally absorbing and intellectually riveting.  The full cast (main characters and shadow cast) is riveting.  They are fully present with one another in every moment, creating intense and genuine interaction.  I Was Most Alive with You is running at Playwrights Horizons through October 14.  See it!  You will be challenged on every level.

Domenick Danza

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Apologia


Apologia
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre
September 29, 2018

Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company
Stockard Channing is brilliant in Apologia, Alexi Kay Campbell’s play presently being produced Off Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company.  The theme of self-forgiveness is prominently explored as a mother faces the feelings she kept buried deep within herself for decades, caused when her children were taken from her by their father.  Mr. Campbell has written rich, complex characters.  Through skillful dialogue and a precise structure, the story unfolds to reveal their unspoken truths.  Director Daniel Aukin masterfully builds the tension to a stunning climax.

Peter (played by Hugh Dancy) brings home his girlfriend, Trudi (played by Talene Monahon) to meet his mother, Kristin Miller (played by Stockard Channing), during her birthday celebration.  Kristin is 
The cast of Apologia in rehearsal
Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company
a world renowned art historian and political activist with an intimidating demeanor.  She is of American descent and has lived in England since she was twenty-two.  She is taken back by the discovery that Trudi is not only American, but enlightening Peter to be a born again Christian.  Her sons, both Peter and Simon (also played by Hugh Dancy), cannot live up to her highly idealistic expectations.  This includes her disappointment that Simon is dating Claire, a materialistic soap opera star (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke).  When conversations opens about Kristin’s newly published memoire, Peter attacks her because she did not mention him or his brother in the book.  The basic core beliefs of everyone are brought into question, and Kristin unearths and faces her deepest sense of loss and failure.

Stockard Channing & Director Daniel Aukin in rehearsal
Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company
Stockard Channing creates a monumental character in Kristin Miller.  The stories she tells are mesmerizing and moving.  She has a genuine chemistry with the four other actors with whom she shares the stage.  Hugh Dancy is charming and personable as Peter, then dark and introspective as Simon.  The character of Peter has a powerful moment of confrontation with his mother toward the end of Act I.  Mr. Dancy flows into that moment and delivers it with sincere force that raises the stakes for all the characters.

John Tillinger, Talene Monahon, Stockard Channing, 
Playwright Alexi Kay Campbell, Hugh Dancy, 
Megalyn Echikunwoke, & Director Daniel Aukin
Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company
In the opening of the play Talene Monahon portrays Trudi as meek and polite when she meets Kristin Miller.  Ms. Channing plays these scenes with high self-esteem and graceful condescension.  Ms. Monahon’s Trudi does not flinch.  She firmly holds her ground while being highly impressed by Kristin’s intelligence and self-assurance.  In the second Act, Ms. Monahon reveals the source of Trudi’s strength.  We see her as an equally powerful woman to Ms. Channing’s Kristin.  There is a tender moment of bonding between the two women at the end of Act II, which pushes Ms. Channing’s character to brutally face her truth.

Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s most skillfully crafted dialogue is in the opening scene of Act II, between Simon and Kristin.  The scene has a rhythm and tone that draws the audience slowly and deeply into the emotional depth of both characters.  The connection between Ms. Channing and Mr. Dancy in this scene is sincere and caring.  All the action prior to this scene pours into this important interaction, then magnificently flows forward to the end of the play.

This play is amazing!  The word “apologia” is defined during the play and on the program cover as meaning “a vindication, a justification, an explanation.”  It is said that it is very different from an apology.  Apologia is running at the Laura Pels Theatre though December 16.  You must see it!

Domenick Danza

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Waverly Gallery


The Waverly Gallery
Golden Theatre
September 29, 2018

Photo courtesy of The Waverly Gallery
Kenneth Lonergan’s new play, The Waverly Gallery, is a heartbreaking glimpse into the effect Alzheimer’s has on a family.  The many layers of this serious affliction are explored in each character of the family unit.  Director Lila Neugebauer allows the space for each actor in the brilliant cast to discover the core of their emotional journey.  Each point of view offers a wide range of audience member the opportunity for an individual relatable experience.

Gladys Green (played by Elaine May) has run a small art gallery in Greenwich Village for decades.  It is now 1989, and her ability to independently care for herself is changing as fast as the neighborhood.  Her grandson, Daniel (played by Lucas Hedges), moved into the apartment behind hers.  Her daughter, Ellen (played by Joan Allen), is regrettably aware that there will soon come a time when Gladys will need to move in with her and her husband (played by David Cromer) on the upper West Side.  Gladys befriends a young artist, Don Bowman (played by Michael Cera) and agrees to sponsor a showing of his painting in her gallery.  Along with the sparingly attended opening comes the news that the landlord is evicting Gladys from the gallery.  The family falls into crisis mode as they face the downward spiral of Gladys’ mental health and the inevitable need for drastic changes in her life style. 

Elaine May, Michael Cera, & Lucas Hedges
Photo courtesy of The Waverly Gallery
Elaine May is warm and likable as Gladys.  During the course of the play, we experience the gradual decline in her mental well-being.  Her vibrancy falters and her ability to maintain a conversation diminishes.  Early on in the play Ms. May draws the audience so close to the caring and generous nature of her character that we cannot help but feel for her.  Lucas Hedges directly addresses the audience at times, so we view the story through his perspective.  His character’s closeness to his grandmother is compromised by the frustration brought on by her condition, yet he never loses the bond they share.  His closing monologue is skillfully delivered, showing the truthful and brutal effect this experience has had on his character.

Joan Allen portrays Gladys’ daughter Ellen as impatient and angry.  There is callousness in the way her character speaks about Gladys as if she is not in the room.  In a short scene in Act II, Ms. Allen shows a glimpse of the strength and courage Ellen will find to unconditionally care for her mother in her time of greatest need.  This moment is then followed by the closing monologue by Mr. Hedges, completing the journey of this family through their crisis and into compassion.

The Waverly Gallery is running on Broadway at the Golden Theatre.  It is a deeply cathartic experience.  Be sure to see it.

Domenick Danza

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur


A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
La Femme Theatre Productions
Theatre at St. Clements
September 22, 2018

Photo courtesy of
La Femme Theatre Productions
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, presented by La Femme Theatre Productions, poetically captures Tennessee Williams’ rhythms to draw you into the complexity of the characters.  Director Austin Pendleton orchestrates this stellar cast to gradually reveal their characters yearnings, motivations, and inner fears.  The scenic and lighting design by Harry Feiner magnificently creates a single room living space on the poorer side of St. Louis in 1939.  The overcrowded set dressing brilliantly reflects the characters’ deep need for fulfillment.  The four women in the cast gracefully dive beneath the surface to deliver heartfelt, genuine performances.

Dottie (played by Jean Lichty) is waiting for a very important call, while her roommate, Bodey (played by Kristine Nielson) is frying chicken and preparing deviled eggs for a Sunday picnic at Creve Coeur.  Bodey is obsessed with Dottie getting together with her brother, Buddy.  Dottie has her heart set on another man, the principal at the school where she teaches.  Bodey does not believe he is a good match for Dottie.  When Helena (played by Annette O’Toole) arrives and asks to speak to Dorothea, it takes Bodey a few minutes to realize she is asking for Dottie.  Helena is a teacher at the same school as Dottie.  They have been planning on getting an apartment together in a more affluent neighborhood, and Helena is there to collect the down payment.  Bodey thinks Helena is there to break some disturbing gossip to Dottie, and tries to keep them from speaking privately.  The presence of Miss Gluck (played by Polly McKie), the upstairs neighbor who suffers from depression due to the recent death of her mother, triggers specific reactions from each of the three women.  When Helena finally has a private moment with Dottie, she has to face her greatest fear.   

Kristine Nielsen, Jean Lichty, & Annette O'Toole
Photo courtesy of La Femme Theatre Productions
Tennessee Williams creates three highly complex characters in Dorothea (Dottie), Bodey, and Helena.  Dorothea is the fragile, idealistic, and aging Southern Belle who puts tremendous effort into maintaining her superficial and calm façade.  Jean Lichty reveals Dottie’s true heart in the opening scene with Bodey.  Their friendship is genuine.  Kristine Nielsen portrays Bodey as highly protective of Dottie.  Bodey’s personal need for Dottie to marry her brother is never spoken, but viscerally communicated by Ms. Nielsen.  When Dottie faces her fears in the climax of the play, Ms. Lichty relies on the genuine connection she created in the opening scene to build her character’s courage and fortitude.

Annette O’Toole’s Helena is highbrow and uptight.  Her entrance immediately creates a problem for Bodey.  Ms. O’Toole and Ms. Nielsen explore many levels of this conflict.  They build and vary their tone and physicality.  Even when they find a moment of agreement, they never drop the tension of competition.  After all her aggressive behavior, Ms. O’Toole is still able to elicit empathy when Helena’s deep sense of isolation is uncovered.

Annette O'Toole, Jean Lichty, Kristine Nielsen, & Pollu McKie
Photo courtesy of La Femme Theatre Productions
Miss Gluck represents the lonely end that each of the three women fear.  Polly McKie creates a dark and imposing presence that none of the other actors on stage can avoid.  She is what unites these characters in their struggle to survive.

This lesser produced Tennessee Williams play is a gem of complexity.  As he does in his other works, Williams sets up the fragile, artistic soul of the main character.  In this play, however, he surprises us by revealing the tender and vulnerable side of the characters who push their expectations on her.  Austin Pendleton and this marvelous cast take the audience on a truthful and intimate journey.  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is playing at the Theatre at St. Clements through October 21.   

Domenick Danza

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Desperate Measures


Desperate Measures
New World Stages
September 10, 2018

Photo courtesy of Desperate Measures
What would it be like if Shakespeare’s morally complex Measure for Measure was transported to the Wild West?  This question is answered in the melodramatic musical, Desperate Measures, now playing at New World Stages.  The bold, bawdy, and highly skilled cast of six takes the book and lyrics of Peter Kellogg and music of David Friedman far over the top, delivering delightfully fun performances.  Director Bill Castellino’s concept is based on concise, rhythmic timing, and topped off with his clever and sharp choreography.

Conor Ryan & Lauren Molina
Photo courtesy of Desperate Measures
Johnny Blood (played by Conor Ryan) is waiting to be hanged for shooting a man who was flirting with his girl, Bella Rose (played by Lauren Molina).  Sheriff Martin Green (played by Peter Saide) believes Johnny’s actions were motivated by self-defense.  He seeks out Johnny’s sister, the virtuous Susanna (played by Sarah Parnicky), to plead for a pardon from the villainous Governor (played by Nick Wyman).  Susanna resides in a religious mission and is preparing to take her final vows to become a nun.  When the Governor meets Susanna, he is infatuated.  He tells Susanna that he will pardon Johnny if she gives him her chastity.  The Sheriff comes up with a plan to fool the Governor and get Johnny pardoned.  Mayhem ensues as both the Governor and the Sheriff fall in love with Susanna.  

Conor Ryan & Peter Saide
Photo courtesy of Desperate Measures
The small ensemble cast fills the theatre with high energy, crisp characterizations, and powerful vocal quality.  The chemistry between Sarah Parnicky and Peter Saide is magnetic, and only surpassed by the comic timing of Lauren Molina and Conor Ryan.  Nick Wyman plays the self-serving, evil Governor to the max, while Gary Marachek is rib-tickling as Father Morse, the drunken, jailed Priest who finds himself tricked into helping with the Sheriff’s plan.

Nick Wyman, Sarah Parnicky, & Peter Saide
Photo courtesy of Desperate Measures
Desperate Measures is pure fun!  After the precise work in Act I of setting up the characters, location, and dilemma, Act II picks up the pace and adds intrigue and hilarity.  Get yourself to New World Stages for a melodramatic, knee-slapping good time.

Domenick Danza

Monday, September 10, 2018

Heartbreak House


Heartbreak House
Gingold Theatrical Group
Theatre Row

Photo courtesy of Gingold Theatrical Group
George Bernard Shaw’s stinging social commentary is clearly played out in Gingold Theatrical Group’s Off Broadway production of Heartbreak House.  Director David Staller’s concept allows the cast to go over the top with their characterizations and find the rhythm and timing that is highly entertaining and intellectually engaging.  This amazing cast draws you in with humor, and before you know it, you are absorbed in Shaw’s dark and truthful themes of human nature.

The opening of the show takes place in 1940 in London, England.  We are in the basement of the Ambassadors Theatre during an air raid drill.  In an effort to keep the audience calm, the actors and staff from the Ambassador decide to perform George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.  They distribute the roles, throw on costumes, and transport us to the Villa of Captain Shotover (played by Raphael Nash Thompson) in Sussex, England in 1914.  Ellie Dunn (played by Kimberly Immanuel) is visiting the Captain’s daughter, Hesione Hushabye (played by Karen Ziemba).  Hesione tries to talk Ellie out of her intended marriage for money to Boss Mangan (played by Derek Smith), and plans on seducing him to achieve her objective.  Ellie admits to Hesione that she is in love with someone else, who, unknowingly turns out to be Hesione’s husband, Hector (played by Tom Hewitt).  Hesione’s sister, Ariadne (played by Alison Fraser), returns to her father’s house with the title of Lady Utterword.  She departed years earlier to start a successful marriage into money.  She is followed by her brother-in-law, Randall (played by Jeff Hiller), who has been smitten with her for years.  Ariadne keeps him well under her thumb, while she pursues her attraction to Hector.  They all chase after their heart’s desire, comment each other’s true motivation, and face their own flaws and heartbreaks.

The cast of Heartbreak House
Photo courtesy of Gingold Theatrical Group
Karen Ziemba is charismatic and beguiling as Hesione.  She has a powerful presence that grabs your attention.  Alison Fraser is funny and cunning as Ariadne.  Her timing and vocal characterization are impeccable.  Both women create characters who live up to the Greek mythological figures they are named after.  Tom Hewitt is bold and debonair as Hector.  He exudes a magnetism that justifies the attraction of the three main female characters in the play.  Kimberly Immanuel plays the innocence and naiveté of Ellie Dunn beautifully, then dives into her deceptive side with charm and commitment.  Strong performances are also delivered by Jeff Hiller, Lenny Wolpe, Raphael Nash Thompson, and Derek Smith.

Photo courtesy of Gingold Theatrical Group
The costumes, by Barbara A. Bell, are superb.  They clearly define each character, while setting the tone and dual time periods of the show.  Scenic design, by Brian Prather, utilizes the small space at the Lion Theatre by providing a second level.  His attention to detail allows the play within a play concept to work smoothly.  Lighting design, by Christina Watanabe, creates an effective ending, which dramatically connects to the 1940 air raid drill.

George Bernard Shaw explores the idea that heartbreak is the human experience that allows us to accept the position and truths of our lives.  He develops this theme from the different point of view of each character.  This Gingold Theatrical Group production is well conceived and impeccably executed.  Heartbreak House is playing at Theatre Row through September 29.
 
Domenick Danza