By James V. Ruocco
Normally, when I go to the theater as actor, critic or audience member, I usually know something...or quite a lot....about what I am about to see.
Not so, with "Gidion's Knot" by Johnna Adams.
Surprisingly, I had never heard of the play.
I arrived at the Thomaston Opera House...pad and paper in hand....to see Sybil Haggard Chamberlin perform. It was as simple as that. I had seen Sybil make her stage debut back in 1990 playing Laurey in the Wolcott High School production of "Oklahoma!" (and yes, she was sensational) and I have followed her stage career ever since as both friend, writer and critic.
Taking a quick peek at the set, I saw that "Gideon's Knot" was set in a modern day classroom. No clues anywhere about what was going to happen.
Once the lights started dimming, I took my seat like everyone else, sat back, and thought, "This should be interesting."
Well, "Gidion's Knot" was more than just interesting. It was phenomenal.
As written by Ms. Adams, this intricate and articulate two-character play was an emotionally, gut-wrenching theatrical experience that plunged the viewer head-first into its controversial subject matter. When it finally ended 85 minutes later, the need to take some very meaningful gulps of your finest Scotch, was absolutely mandatory.
Set in a 5th grade classroom after hours, "Gidion's Knot," charts the unexpected meeting between a demure schoolteacher and an emotionally-wrought parent. At first, they argue about her son's suspension, but as the play progresses, we learn that the boy, named Gidion, has died, from a self-inflicted gun shot.
Why, or how, all of this happened, seamlessly connects and unravels under Donato J. D' Alibis studied, artful direction. D'Alibis grabs hold of the material and fashions an edgy, brutally honest story of argument, deception, courage, sexual awakening and regret, that builds and builds to its thought-provoking conclusion. Moreover, he doesn't rush things or clutter the stage with lots of superficial or unnecessary movement. Instead, he lets the material speak for itself though of voices of his two brilliant leading ladies, Sybil Haggard Chamberlin and Kailee Donovan.
If someone is staging "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?" "God of Carnage," "Art" or "The House of Bernard Alba," D'Alibis is your man. I, for one, can't wait to see what he does next.
"I am slated to direct two one act plays in the Warner Theater's One Act Festival in which, hopefully you will see Kailee, Sybil and other members of our extended company," he notes. "That will be in October. Then, in February and March we are presenting 'The Glass Menagerie.' "
Working on "Gidion's Knot" with D' Alibis "was fantastic, Chamberlin explains. "He studies each piece and has a clear idea of how he envisions every detail of the play from movement to sound to lighting to props. He also really trusts his actors. He works with your instincts about the characters and pushes you beyond what you believe you can do. He knows so much about theatre that every rehearsal is like a Master Class in acting and theatrical anecdotes."
In the role of the unassuming schoolteacher Heather Clark, Chamberlin brings the right amount of nuance, shading, honesty and depth to this fascinating role. Given the script's many, many twists and turns, she skillfully changes gears so unobtrusively, she inhabits and owns the part....and, then some. And yes, one never gets the impression that she is acting. She takes hold of the character, dissects her from limb to limb, and creates one of the most thrilling characters of her career. Wow!
Interestingly enough, Chamberlin accepted the role before she had read the play.
"I have such respect for our director Donato that when he suggested the show and said he wanted me in it, I said, 'Yes.' He picks incredible work and his vision is always beyond what I could imagine.
I loved doing 'Crimes of the Heart' with the Backyard Theatre Ensemble and I was excited to do another show with Kailee Donovan, one of the founders of the company and a great actress."
As Gidion's enraged mother Corryn Fell, Donovan, is equally as riveting. This is my first time seeing Donovan in a play and I was completely blown away by her gusty dramatic performance. Whatever she's doing next, I plan on being in the audience....fifth row center, on the aisle.
Like Chamberlin, she too knows what buttons to push, how to play a character, develop it and run with it without every looking back. She superbly communicates her character's anguish, grief and sense of loss. There are are times when Corryn becomes so despicable and opinionated, if I was sitting next to her character on a plane, I'd change my seat immediately. That's the beauty of Donovan's work, and a compliment of the highest order.
The casting of this duo is no accident. And, that in turn, makes "Gidion's Knot" one of this year's brilliant theatrical endeavors.
D' Alibis agrees. "After seeing the chemistry between Sybil and Kailee in 'Crimes of the Heart' I knew they would be great together. Sybil has an innocence and vulnerability on stage that is hard to find. She never has an untrue moment when acting. Kailee also has the same qualities but she also has a frailty that is brittle. You watch her and are waiting for the shell to crack and show her inner self. When I first read the play I knew Kailee had to play the role of Corryn. After working with Sybil I knew I had my cast. "
Is there life for "Gidion's Knot" after the Thomaston Opera House.
"We are reaching out to other theater companies to see if we can present the show in their seasons," D'Alibis," explains. "We want to work with other people and form a network of artists who are willing to work together and share resources. We are currently in discussions now with a couple of theaters but nothing is set in stone."
Chamberlin said she'd jump at the chance to do "Gidion's Knot" at another theatre venue.
And she hopes it will be soon. "In December, I will be 'producing' my second son so that will be taking up a lot of time, but I'm always open to any opportunity that comes down the line if I can fit it in my schedule.
"I've also gotten more into singing jazz in the last few years and had some fun gigs and hope to have more next year."
(Tony, Tony, Tony.....You Found Your Heart in Berlin)
If you've ever been to a play or musical at the Connecticut Cabaret Theater (31 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), then you already know why there's rarely an empty seat at this intimate showcase. Season after season Artistic Director Kris McMurray offers theatergoers an eclectic mix of plays and musicals (both classic and new) that warrant standing ovations night after night.
Case in point: McMurray's recent musical staging: "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett." Stylish, savvy, wistful and brimming with reassuring energy, this sweet and simple musical revue not only honors the man himself, but transports its audience back to the days of those chic and dimply-lit supper clubs of the 1940's and 1950's. It's a moody effect that he sustains beautifully.
Just as he did with "Rent," "Pippin," "Singin' in the Rain," Into the Woods" and so many others, McMurray....genius that he is...understands the piece, enjoys the piece, edits the piece and mounts it as if he were a French painter creating a visual masterpiece. He also has fun with it, takes chances and injects his own brand of cheekiness into it, whenever possible.
The material, which lovingly opens and cherishes the Tony Bennett songbook (much to the delight of the audience, the on-stage performers and the musicians) includes several standouts. Among them: "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Plenty of Money and You," "Steppin' Out," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "Fly Me to the Moon," "Rags to Riches," "Because of You," "The Best Is Yet to Come," and several others.
Musical director Sean Lewis (he and I were in "The King and I" together some years back; he played Prince Chulalongkorn; I was Lua Tha) masterfully takes his three-member cast into Bennett's world, and keeps them there for well over 90 minutes for an energetic, flawless, jazzy nightclub act that rarely slows down to catch its breath. That is, until intermission of course. Let's just say, the King and Mrs. Anna would be ever so proud.
What's especially nice about this particular production is that the cast never once tries to mimic or transform themselves into Tony Bennett. That, of course, would be completely impossible, a fact that the show's creators David Grapes and Todd Olson have set in stone as "a no-no." Instead, Nick D'Angelo, Jonathan Escobar and Bobby Schultz set their own style of musicality under both the watchful of McMurray and Lewis (I like the way those name sound together; maybe, they should become Broadway producers). They sing smoothly as individuals and as a trio, rarely missing a musical beat. Moreover, they completely understand the genre they are working in and effortlessly connect with material they are performing.
For more information on Connecticut Cabaret Theater, call (860 829-1248)
(Want to Go Shopping? Let Me be Your Guide and Instructor)
Now is the time to go shopping for your new fall and winter wardrobe.
But before you do, here's a few "fashion tips" to make your experience fun, exciting and profitable.
Just follow my advice, ignore your friends, your family and your gay and lesbian confidantes. Shop alone. Trust your instincts. And have your American Express card ready.
The key to dressing right is... not how much you spend on clothing, but how you wear it, how you feel when you wear it and knowing exactly what looks right on you. First and foremost, fashion is an extension of yourself, your personality, your lifestyle and the statement you choose to make. That's it, in a nutshell.
Therefore, when buying clothes, one must be aware that what looks good in the adverts, in magazines or in store windows, may not work for you, depending on your body type. So take notice...Just look in the mirror....and go from there. It's all fairly easy when you put your mind to it.
To start, find the right color and the ideal color combination that fits the entire picture, from top to bottom. Experiment. Try clothes on. Never buy form a catalogue. And don't go overboard. You don't want to look like a clown or something out of a freak show. Think smart, not trendy. Trends almost always, never last.
Essential to your look is the right tailoring. If you buy something off the rack, make sure it fits properly. Adjustments are often necessary, even the subtle ones. For the best look, however, pick a store like Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren that has an in house tailor. It makes all the difference in the world.
Lastly, make sure the salesperson you're working with knows exactly what he or she is talking about.
In the long run, it's all about you....not the commission.
Recommended stores: Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zenga, Paul Stuart, Ascot Chang, Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, to name a few
(Want a Slice or Two of Bacon? Sorry, Folks! This Bacon is Sold Out )
I'm the first to admit it... I have connections....I can even get fifth row center seats to "Hamilton" on Broadway. But that's another story.Oddly enough, I didn't have to use "any connections" to get third row center seats for Hartford Stage's upcoming production of "Rear Window," starring Kevin Bacon. And yes, I'm one of the lucky ones, because unless you're living under a rock (maybe, some of you actually do), the production is completely "SOLD OUT. "
Bravo, Hartford Stage.
Per box-office management, the theater has had its biggest and highest sales day in its 52-year history. It seems everyone wanted to get close too....or grab a piece of the Bacon...himself.
The stage production of "Rear Window" is adapted by Keith Reddin from the original short story that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic film classic. Bacon plays L.B. Jeffries, a man confined to his claustrophobic apartment who actually believes he may have witnessed a horrible murder in a nearly building.
"Rear Window," directed by Darko Tresnjak, runs October 22 through Nov. 15 at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT). It marks my fifth time seeing Bacon on stage. Caught him previously in the Broadway/off-Broadway productions of "Slab Boys, " "An Almost Holy Picture," "Album" and Loot."
For those of you lucky enough to get tickets, hold on to them tightly. Lots of Bacon groupies will probably descend upon you outside Hartford Stage or in the adjacent parking garage (a nightmare to get out of following any "sold out" performance) offering "top dollars" for your "Rear Window" seats.
If that's not your cup of Starbucks and you don't fall into the "Bacon groupie category," "Hartford Stage" is offering a special "wait list for tickets." Just go to the theater website, click on the form and fill in the information requested. Tickets, if any, will depend entirely upon cancellations and exchanges.
Per box office management, "no additional performances are being added" to the limited run engagement of "Rear Window."
For more information, call (860) 527-5151.....if you dare.
(It's Really About the Fundraiser.....Not that Delicious Abbey Cheese)
When I was telling close friends of mine that I was attending the gala "From Rags to Riches" fundraiser at the Abbey of Regina Laudis (273 Flanders Rd., Bethlehem, CT), they told me, "You're just going for the Abbey cheese."
I did a double take and said, "No seriously, I'm really going to show my support."
They laughed and said, "Sorry, Jim, we don't believe you. You love that cheese so much, you'd go the Bethlehem every day if the Abbey had it for sale."
That, of course, if true. I'd jump in my car and head straight to Flanders Rd without hesitation.
But seriously folks,
I'm really going to make a donation, support the Abbey (they were always wonderful to me whenever I covered their many events for the newspaper,), its outdoor theater and to visit with Mother Dolores Hart, James Douglas, Joan Gilbert, Mother Prioress Olivia Frances Arnold, among others.
I can't wait.
"From Rags to Riches" will be staged Sept. 19th from 3 to 6 .m. at The Gary-The Olivia Theater. Produced by the Clay and Wattles Theater Company, the three-hour event with feature music, dance, song, dramatic readings and a few surprises or two.
Mother Dolores Hart will offer a dramatic reading from Nikos Kazanzakis' "Zorba the Greek."
Hannah Dubner will play Fanny Brice and sing songs from "Funny Girl." Katie Keough, Korie Blossey and Maurio Hines will perform selections from "Porgy and Bess." Other cast members include Meghan Corcoran, Thomas Camm and Nico Apicella.
Tickets are $45 for the performance, wine and cheese (ah, yes, the cheese) and a meet-and-greet reception with the cast.
I'm hoping to finally meet the famous Abbey cheese nun and commission a wheel of that savory cheese for me and my family.
For more information, call (203) 273-5669.
(This Big WATR Radio Fan Almost Ended Up "Running on Empty" )
Whenever I'm behind the wheel of my car in the very early wee morning (or wee later hours, depending on your point of view), I always make it a point to listen to WATR RADIO's "Tom Chute and You," hosted by my good friend, TC, the "King of Culture" himself.
There are even times when I deliberately plan my roads trips to coincide with the weekday broadcasts of both Tom Chute's radio show and Barbara Davitt's smart and savvy "Coffee Break."
But for purposes of this column, let's backtrack.
About a week ago, while driving, I hit the dial (it's already programmed to 1320/AM) to listen to "Tom Chute and You." The program was so exciting, entertaining, diverse and amusing (it always is), I actually missed my exit on the highway and kept on driving and driving.
This has happened many times before (Chute and Davitt can attest to this), but here's the twist.
I was so rigorously entertained by Chute's cheeky banter and marvelous wit (he and Allison Demers) are a great team), I forgot to see that my gas light was on drifting slowly toward "Empty."
Here I was heading toward Woodbury, completely unaware of what was going on. But, luckily, I made it to Exit 16 on I-84, purchased my gas and drove the car home safely.
On Facebook, I retold the story.
"Thanks for the fun shout out, and for tuning in to WATR in the a.m,," commented Chute. "Sorry about the gas. I happily used this story today on WATR!"
(These "Assassins" are Singing to the Tune of Bullets Flying)
Take, for example, his 1990 musical "Assassins." Here, a group of psychos, killer wannabes and nut jobs take center stage as men and women who have tried or actually assassinated American presidents. Their stories, told through song, are so bold, brash, hypnotic and spellbinding, actors claim they "would kill (no pun intended) to be in this decidedly different Sondheim musical.
I mean, who could blame them? I'd even jump "head first" into the musical theater arena to take part in this deliciously macabre musical fare.
One person who did is the tremendously talented Torrington-born Keith Paul.
"I've always been attracted to odd stage shows," he explains. "Once I knew I wasn't directing this fall or returning to Provincetown to work on the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, I decided I needed a real challenge.
"Directing and producing events are great fun, but I really missed being in a cast. And 'Assassins' has proven to be a very fun challenge."
Previously, Paul was featured in the 2006 musical "Paint Your Wagon" at the Warner. He also appeared in the theater's 2014 International One-Act Play Festival.
"I have also been heavily involved in puppet acting with CT's Elmwood Productions after landing a role in their all-puppet horror comedy "HEAD" last fall. And, I also keep busy on all kinds of music and burlesque projects with my company, 'The Desultory Theatre Club.' "
So, who does Paul play in "Assassins." John Wilkes Booth? Lee Harvey Oswald?
The answer is no.
"Alas, I am the assassinated this time around," muses Paul. "I am playing President James Garfield and a handful of other colorful characters in the ensemble. So I'm hoping to resonate all sorts of emotions through my performance along with the rest of this truly talented ensemble.
"I'm also hoping some new faces will purchase tickets and take a risk to check out this wonderfully crazy show!"
The production, directed by Katherine Ray, is being staged at the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre (82 Main St., Torrington, CT). Dan Koch is musical director.
"Assassins" runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 2. Performances are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (opening weekend) and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (closing weekend).
Tickets are $29. For more information, call (860) 489-7180.
(If You're Not the Right Age, This "Book" is Definitely Not For You)
TheatreWorks of New Milford is holding an "open casting call" for their upcoming production of "Bell, Book & Candle." The production, directed by Joseph Russo, is looking for 3 men (ages 25 to 70) and 2 women (ages 25 to 70). If your age is 24 or 71, however, it looks like you're completely out of luck. Or, you can simply lie, depending, on how desperately, you want a part.
Written by John Van Druten, the two-act play charts the cheeky story of a fun-spirited witch, who, after, falling in love with her handsome neighbor, resorts to witchcraft to stop the pending nuptials. Now, for the bad news. Any witch who falls in love loses her power. Then, again, who's to say, there isn't a magic potion around to reverse all that witchy nonsense.
Auditions will be held at the theater (5 Brookside Avenue, New Milford) on Tuesday, September 22 and Wednesday, September 23 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All actors will be asked to read various parts from the "Bell, Book & Candle" script. There is no pre-casting. All roles are open to professional and community theater performers. You don't have to read the script prior to auditions, but, trust me, it helps....tremendously. There's also the 1958 film version of "Bell, Book & Candle" on DVD with James Stewart, Kim Novak (decades before that hideous face lift), Jack Lemmon, Janice Rule, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs.
Rehearsals will begin in October. The production runs December 4, 2015 through January 9, 2016. For more information, call (860) 350-6863.