Monday, April 12, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 253, A Review: "The Sound Inside" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

"I've been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. And a maker of Bulgarian cheese. And a collector of cat calendars."
Bella Lee Baird

"Email's are just not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort. Plus, I like the option of drawing the impulsive in appropriate pictures of two in the margins."
Christopher Dunn

The two characters - Bella Lee Baird, Christopher Dunn - at the center of Adam Rapp's immensely moving two-character play "The Sound Inside" interest us immediately as their troubled tale takes flight with stories and conversations that are real, raw, interesting and confessional.

Though it deals openly and smartly with elements, dialogue and information that merge agreeably to fit its fast-paced 90-minute format, the play itself and its eventual outcome adapts a powerful and profound hook and voice that draws us in with intelligible persuasion, ambition and conscience.

Rapp, as playwright, is original in his approach to the actual story, forcing us to listen attentively to every word and tick and willingly go along for the ride, compelled to understand and enjoy his complicated character exploration, which finishes strong and leads to unexpected plot twists and discoveries that you never saw coming. A master craftsman, he creates dialogue that is so beautifully expressed and cultivated, the engagement between actor and audience is riveting, voyeuristic, concentrated and wonderfully connected. The monologues, of which there are many, are delivered with the actors facing and speaking directly into the camera. Third-party narration, adapts a similar process. 

"The only sound was the chorus of neighborhood cicadas blending with the hum of the refrigerator."

"I'm suddenly struck by the notion of how one becomes remote in one's life. Like a forgotten object on a shelf."

This is one of those plays where wholeness and insight are markedly driven into a work where every word, pause, beat and breath shifts time and place seamlessly through a very impassioned, arresting lens. Rapp surprises. He ridicules. He laughs. He cries. He catches us off guard. He takes us down one path, then switches gears midstream. He kicks us in the ass. He shakes us senseless. He shocks. He overwhelms. And lastly, he moves through minds and memories with the fluidity of a great artist and consciousness that's beautifully positioned and told by just two people.

A character breakdown, goes something like this.
Bella, a 53-year-old creative writing professor at New Haven's Yale University, has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer (her stomach is riddled with a constellation of tumors), which prompts issues regarding her weekly classes, treatments, chemotherapy, hair loss, weight loss and possible suicide when and if she can't handle her pending death sentence. Christopher, an angst-ridden student at Yale, who, is taking her writing class hates emails, following rules, campus guidelines and fancy coffee, but finds obvious pleasure in their student-office sessions and casual dinner dates. Eventually, he talks about his novel-in-the-making, his life as a student, his love of celebrated authors and their novels and scatted memories about family life, sex, dating and puberty. As expected, he also develops an attraction for his female mentor.

At TheaterWorks/Hartford, the ideal venue for "The Sound Inside," Rob Ruggerio ("American Son," "Relativity," "Next to Normal") and filmmaker Pedro Bermudez ("Hasta Manana," "Antifaz") serve as co-directors. Bermudez also plays a major role in the project's editing and cinematography alongside Revisionist Films. Staging the production, Ruggerio adapts a simplistic mindset that adheres to the online streaming process most advantageously. He knows what he wants. He knows how to frame it. He doesn't waste a moment. He also avoids the staging curse that could reduce "The Sound Inside" to just another photographed stage play. Here, monologues, narration and character interaction are fueled by smart directorial choices that give the story its passion, its dramatic weight, its adrenaline and its ever shifting perspective. Bermudez, in turn, takes his directorial cue from Ruggerio, moving his camera freely about by always being in the right place at the right time. His use of close ups, long shots and well-honed cinematography plunges his audience into the throes of the ongoing action unobtrusively. Original music composed and performed by Billy Bivona only furthers that concept.

"The Sound Inside" stars Maggie Bofill ("A Doll's House, Part 2," "Viral Monologues") as Bella Lee Baird and Ephraim Birney ("Admissions," "The Good Person of Szechwan")  as Christopher Dunn. As Bella, Bofill exhibits a polished, detailed performance that is driven, sardonic, truthful, humorous and reflective. Here, as in Long Wharf's "A Doll's House, Part 2" (she played Nora), she dazzles in terrifically smart, intuitive and passionate ways and never once misses a choreographed beat or change in character or direction. She is totally in the moment, delivering extended monologues, narration and conversation that prompt immediate attention and reaction. Playing the part of Christopher, Birney is wonderfully direct and powerful, propelling "The Sound Inside" to its surprise, shocking and inevitable conclusion. As he moves from charm and likeability to rage and grief, he crafts a performance that easily gets under our skin. His paring with Bofill is both natural, affecting and attention-grabbing.

A complex, vital and urgent piece of theatre, "The Sound Inside" unfolds with an emotional zest and amplitude that is impossible to resist. It is clever, connected and potent. The performances of the two principals are complex, weighty and marvelously tangled. Ruggerio and Bermudez orchestrate the proceedings with flair and fluidity. And Rapp's dialogue abounds with focus, fascination and tension, thus, making "The Sound Inside" one of the most creative, intelligent productions o the 2021 season.

The TheaterWorks/Hartford production of  "The Sound Inside" is being streamed online, now through April 30. Tickets are $25 plus a $3 processing fee.  To book a performance, go to twhartford.org. Once the transaction is completed, a virtual watch link will be sent via email to the address you provided during checkout.



Thursday, April 8, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 252, A Review: "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" (Vineyard Theatre) (Goodspeed Musicals) (Irish Repertory Theatre)



 By James V. Ruocco

 "Shenandoah"

"On the Twentieth Century"

"Camelot"

"1776"

"Hamlet"

"Saint Joan"

"We Take the Town"

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"

"Urinetown"

"The Scottsboro Boys"

"My name is John Cullum. I've been performing in front of people since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Most of the shows I've done and the parts I've played have come to me through the back door. By accident, you might say. Or coincidence. Or just plain luck. And tonight, I'd like to share with you some of my lucky accidents."

And "share them," he does. 

With "John Cullum: An Accidental Star," the actor begins and builds his 80-minute showcase with smartly researched, in-depth material that fascinates, beguiles, mystifies and defines his very long theatrical career. Fittingly, he opens the show with "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," a showstopping number from the 1965 Lerner and Lane musical that cast him as psychiatrist and widower Dr. Mark Bruckner opposite Tony Award winner Barbara Harris. Much later, during a segment titled "Bumps in the Road," he tells us that he "couldn't find any humor in the part" even after he auditioned "12 times" for the role and subsequently, didn't get the part until he replaced Louis Jordan, the original leading man when the show had its out of town tryouts at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. "It was a big deal," he recalls. "My first starring role" with only "five days to learn the part" before it reached Broadway.

Smart.
Effective.
Heartfelt.
Clever.
Intriguing.
Classic.

This is one of those shows that could not have come at a better time, and one that makes you long for live theatre again as Cullum stands tall and proud bringing angst and fire to a production that although streamed online, celebrates that one-on-one actor/audience conceit we all know and love with perfect dynamism and engaging indulgence. It's impossible to take your eyes off him for a moment for fear of missing something important or pivotal to the advancement of his thrilling one man show. Then and now, here is a man who loves musical theatre, loves being a performer, loves traveling back to the past where it all began and loves being able to recreate songs and stories that have kept him in the spotlight for more than 60 wonderful years.

Moreover, there's a satisfying grace and intellectual savvy to Cullum's return. And therein, lies its enjoyment. Ingeniously structured through titled chapters - The Early Years, Shakespeare, Changes, A Different Direction - to name a few, this nostalgic postcard respects the actor's roots, his Broadway auditions' balancing act, his joys, his struggles, his frustrations, his declarations, his true-to-life theatrical tales and his chosen oeuvre of lyrics, orchestrations and songs that propel the story forward. He also shares his fondness and appreciation for fellow performers he has worked with including Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Robert Preston. There's even some choice commentary about co-star Madeline Kahn who left "On the Twentieth Century" only two weeks into the run ("Was she fired?" he asks) and was quickly replaced by Judy Kaye.

The musical scrapbook for "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" features a wealth of show tunes that the actor/singer handpicked (oddly, "Molasses to Rum" from "1776" is not featured) for this presentation. They are the title song from "On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight" from "Camelot," "On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady," "There But For You Go I" from "Brigadoon," "I've Got a Girl" from "We Take the Town" ( the show starring Robert Preston folded during out-of-town tryouts), "Come Back to Me" from "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," the title song from "Camelot," "I Rise Again" from "On the Twentieth Century" and "Don't Be a Bunny" from "Urinetown." Cullum also includes "Meditation," "The Pickers Are Coming," "Papa's Gonna Make It All Right" and "I've Heard It All Before" from "Shenandoah."


Vocally, this is a somewhat different Cullum in terms of style, musicality, impact and performance, but nonetheless, a complement to his enduring longevity. He still knows how to deliver a song with power and command. But, in some cases, some of the lyrics are slightly spoken (think Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady") while orchestrations are tweaked or revised to adapt to Cullum's existing vocal range. Regardless, it's a task he does with ease and strongness (you can see it in his eyes and his body language), performing with just the right amount of heart and soul to create a musical sound that capitalizes on how personal each vocal moment was and is to him. He's amazing....and then some.

Staging "John Cullum: An Accidental Star," Lonny Price and Matt Cowart supply the production with its necessary vibe, personality and amplitude. Going in, the duo know that the material itself belongs to Cullum and they are there, as orchestrators, to tell his story honestly and naturally, which they do. As Cullum takes the spotlight, both men use simple staging, editing, close ups and reaction shots to propel the story forward via online streaming. This simplicity works especially well, accurately giving the show its atmospheric landscape, its nostalgia, its passion, its pain, its drive and its naturally rooted theatricality.

Working from David Thompson's ingenious play text (the actual concept was conceived by Cullum and Jeff Berger), Price and Cowart keep the action steady through well-placed songs, conversations and memories. References and thoughts unfold with genuine confidence. Words are energized with focused, in-your-face talk and intimacy. The madness and unpredictability of life in the theater is given ample strength and fury. That said, Cullum's enduring legacy never once hits a false note or low point. It plays out with a significant high and potency that commands and demands your attention most agreeably.

"Doing Shakespeare, I chewed the scenery to bits even though there was no scenery to speak of."

"I was the only white actor in ' The Scottsboro Boys.' "

"The title for 'Urinetown' was ridiculous. I thought 'How am I going to do crap like this?' "

" 'Shenandoah,' which I started at the Goodspeed Opera House was right down my alley."

Julie McBride, at the piano, serves as musical director. With Cullum as both storyteller and singer, the challenge, of course, is to make the music he sings fresh and vibrant with just the right dose of humor, pathos and playfulness. Some songs are sung in their entirety, Others are brought to life in bits and pieces, smartly orchestrated by McBride with crisp responsiveness and bite, melodic lyricism and lucid eloquence. It all comes together nicely with Cullum having a perfectly marvelous time traveling up and down the paths of his huge Broadway musical career.

A co-production with Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals and the Irish Repertory Theatre, "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" puts the 91-year-old actor center stage - ready to perform - full of joy and gratitude. He laughs. He frowns. He sings. He tells jokes. He engages in splendid wordplay and conversation. He's happy to be back on stage. He packs an emotional wallop with his well-intentioned showcase of old-fashioned entertainment. And finally, he is up close and personal with his sincerity and emotionally honest spunkiness.

A bedazzling, impressive one-man show, "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" is one of those rare theatrical pieces that ignites power, passion, eccentricity and attitude. It also brings Cullum back to the theater for a profound, undeniably personal party that celebrates the man, the music and the cleverness of this iconic Broadway actor, singer and entertainer.  

"John Cullum: An Accidental Star" is being streamed online, now through April 22. To book the production, visit vineyardtheatre. org. Tickets are $55 (includes $5 service charge). For additional information, call (212) 353-0303.




Saturday, April 3, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 251, A Review: "Antigone" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

 

By James V. Ruocco

"Now, Deaar Ismene, my own blood sister,
do you have any sense of all the troubles
Zeus keeps bringing the two of us,
as long as we're alive? All that misery
which stems from Oedipus? There's no suffering,
no shame, no ruin - not done dishonor -
which I have not seen in all the troubles
you and I go through. What's this they're saying now,
something our general has had proclaimed
throughout the city? Do you know of it?
Have you heard? Or have you just missed the news?
Dishonors which better fit our enemies
are being piled up on the ones we love."


The plotline for "Antigone," the celebrated Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in 441 B.C., goes something like this.

The title character, a brave, honorable and proud young woman, comes from a family background steeped in murder, incest, hypocrisy and deception.
Her father Oedipus, the King of Thebes, unknowingly murdered his father, married his own mother Queen Jocasta and had two daughters and two sons with her. But when Jocasta uncovered the truth about her incestuous relationship with her son, she killed herself. Oedipus, in turn, plucked out his eyeballs and spent his remaining years traveling throughout Greece with his loving and loyal daughter Antigone.
Once he died, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices fought each other for control of Thebes. Fate, of course (a family curse, perhaps), intervened and both brothers died. Creon, Antigone's uncle, assumed the throne and became the official ruler of Thebes. But as "Antigone" begins, he decrees that Polynices will not be given burial rights (he wants his body to rot before the citizens of Thebes as a warning to traitors) and anyone who tries to bury him will be punished immediately by death.
Grieving the loss of her two brothers, Antigone decides to take matters into her own hands (her sister Ismene warns her not to disobey Creon), and give Polynices a proper burial. As the play continues, she is caught, thus, forcing Creon to eventually have her put to death for disobeying the laws of the city.


The intensity of Sophocles' scenario, its many rants and arguments, its eerie pronouncements and unisons and its ironic twists of fate come full throttle in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's vibrant and moody retelling of the "Antigone" story. Insightful and emotional, this production also unfolds with a menacing and well-defined mindset that respects its theatrical origins and traditions, the instinctive words of its playwright, the spirit and structure of the actual drama and the human feelings of all parties involved. Its natural, well-played connection between actor and audience only furthers that notion.

"Antigone" is being staged by Gary English whose CRT credits include "The Grapes of Wrath," "Olives and Blood" and "Man of La Mancha." Here, he crafts a meticulously urgent and informative work that is fundamentally clever, wondrous, personable and distinct in its meaning and overall interpretation. As director, he doesn't waste a moment. He doesn't get bogged down with the material. He also doesn't overplay the dramatic elements of the piece or allow the characters and the actors to be upstaged by the choices he makes or the manner in which they are presented in this production.


As with other CRT plays this season including the recent "This Property Is Condemned" and  "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," "Antigone" has been staged for at-home viewers using the Zoom process to full effect from edits, close ups and split screens to carefully thought-out backgrounds and visuals that add dimension, scope and color to the story as it plays out over its 1 hr. and 45 minute time frame. This visualization, reminiscent of the surreal, stylistic and unusual imagery of Belgian artist Rene Magritte works most advantageously in the story's telling and its on-screen conversations and pairings of the play's many characters and their individual story arcs. The use of boxed-in faces, framed faces or partially covered faces brings mystery, clarity and enquiry to "Antigone" as does English's use of background music, his employment of quick fades and start ups and his strategic thoughts and influences involving conceptual and minimalist art.

Throughout "Antigone," Sophocles' writing is rich, apt and poetic and blessed with the appropriate style and conviction necessary for the piece to take shape, do it justice and preserve its prurience, metaphors, enticing aesthetics and rhyming trimeters. It also reflects the political and social elements of the times, from family traditions and war to the varying aspects of religion, social position, expression and lingual authority. Here, as in "Oedipus the King" and "Electra," his weighty, fast-paced language responds agreeably to the dramatic needs of the moment and its noticeable use of tragic orthodoxy.



"Antigone" stars Samantha Seawolf as Antigone, Michael Curry as Creon, GraceAnn Brooks as Ismene, Mercedes Herrero as Tiresias, Amy Morse as Eurydice/Chorus, Casey Wishna as Messenger, Christopher Collier as Haemon, Jack Dillon as Polynices, April Lichtman as Chorus and Ethan Caso as Sentry.
Seawolf is a strong, defiant and dominant Antigone who respects and understands the words and thoughts of Sophocles' original work, its survival/sacrifice story arcs and its captivating, often daring observations and touches. Whenever she's front and center, it's impossible to take your eyes off her. As Creon, Curry smartly projects the character's strength, voice, demeanor and boldness. It's an effecting performance and one that immediately draws us into the story and the action with both absolutism and individuality. 
The supporting cast brings a sense of urgency and importance to "Antigone" that is well defined, placed and equally fulfilling. Well cast for their respective roles, they also connect with the language, the  different layers of the play and its vital, often edgy theatrics.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of "Antigone" is being streamed online, now through April 11. Performances are 8 p.m. April 3, 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 8, 8 p.m. April 9, 2 and 8 p.m. April 10 and 2 p.m. April 11. Tickets are  $10, $14 and $16. Event link and password will be emailed to you prior to the virtual performance. The box office is open 1 hr. prior to start of production. For additional information. call (860) 486-2113. 



Friday, March 19, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 250, A Review: "This Property is Condemned" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

 By James V. Ruocco

One of Tennessee Williams most famous one acts, "This Property is Condemned" charts the conversational interplay between 13-year-old Willie, a young Southern girl living at a condemned Mississippi boarding house and 16-year-old Tom, a teenaged boy who stumbles upon Willie one afternoon on the town's railroad tracks as she tries to balance herself decidedly from the water tower starting point to a finishing locale without falling or losing her control.

"The principal used to say there must've been something wrong with my home atmosphere because of the fact that we took in railroad men an' some of 'em slept with my sister Alva," she tells him. "She was 'The Main Attraction.' But the house is sure empty now. I'm not supposed to be there but I am. The property is condemned but there's nothing wrong with it."

Unlike the 1966 film version, which starred Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, Kate Reid, Mary Badham and Jon Provost - reworked for a near two-hour format which the playwright loathed - the stage play contains only two characters - Willie and Tom. The others are talked about at length, which, if you've seen the film, spark interest and memory and heighten the actual story as scripted by Williams. If not, the plot line still intrigues as does the ongoing banter between the two teenagers orchestrated with nuance, character and compassion by the playwright.

In terms of casting, "This Property is Condemned" works especially well if Willie and Tom are played by actual teenagers. The Connecticut Repertory Theatre revival of the play abandons this rule of thumb using actors in their 20's, both of whom are Asian. It's a casting conceit that breaks with tradition but nonetheless, keeps the material fresh and exciting, even though it takes some getting used to at the very start of the play.

As storyteller, Williams portrays real characters in real situations. The structure and story arcs are clean, direct and specific, thus, setting the mood, atmosphere and style of the piece for interpretation. "This Property is Condemned" contains lots of quotable dialogue and conversation that is beneficial to the advancement of the story and especially easy to visualize, a factor that heightens the drama at hand. The emotional attachment he creates is filled with metaphors, references and irony, similar to that of his other plays. Combined with just the right amount of pathos and compassion, "This Property is Condemned" skillfully exposes the harsh realities of life, its heartaches and its subsequent desires.

Staging "This Property is Condemned" falls into the more than capable hands of director Dexter Singleton whose CRT credits include the recent "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" and the upcoming "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens." Using the Zoom process to full effect, the edits, close ups, split screens and full screens are definitive and resourceful. It's all very carefully thought out under Singleton's directorial hand unfolding with the pace, desire and quickness intended by the playwright.

The performances are fluid, driven and intense.
In the role of Willie, Katelyn Trieu delivers a focused, relevant performance. Though she is hardly thirteen, she gives the play a modernity, meshed with connection, engagement and cautiously regulated charm. As Tom, Andre Chan brings strength and complexity to the part. He works especially well opposite Trieu and evokes the right kind of spirit and kindness that benefits the material on all levels.

A fine achievement for Connecticut Repertory Theatre, "This Property is Condemned" exposes the flat-out truths of the playwright's writing, its flippancy, its conventional vitality and its beautifully crafted sensibility. Director Dexter Singleton deftly lays out the hyperkinetic pulse and reality of the piece and keeps at-home viewers thoroughly engaged for a full 25 minutes. The contributions here, set forth by all involved, make CRT's trilogy of one-acts, well worth the visit in these very troubled, uncertain times.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of "This Property is Condemned" is being streamed online, now through March 21. Performances are 2 and 8 p.m. March 20 and 2 p.m. March 21. Tickets are $5. Event link and password will be emailed to you prior to the virtual performance. The box office is open 1 hr. prior to start of production. For additional information. call (860) 486-2113. 

(This production is dedicated to the victims of the Atlanta, Georgia shootings)


Friday, February 26, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 249, A Review: "Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"Opinion's but a fool that makes us scan
The outward habit for the inward man."

"That she would make a puritan of the devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her."

 "Which care of them, not pity of myself
Who am no more but as the tops of trees.
Which fence the roots they grow by and defend them, 
Makes both my body pine and soul to languish."  

"O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms."

"Few love to hear the sins they love to act."

(William Shakespeare, "Pericles, Prince of Tyre")

In William Shakespeare's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," a poetic and moving tale of loss, survival and reconciliation, the title character is forced to flee his homeland and become a refugee at the mercy of the ocean, a group of strangers, many of whom want him dead and a world of endless journeys, alliances, promises, hopes and family separation.

It's a story concept that the Bard explores with passion and knockabout mystery balanced by strong, beautifully rendered verse, an entertaining mix of dramatic and comic characters, impressive melodrama and miraculous coincidences and ideals. And, oh yes, a very happy ending.

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre online production, directed by Raphael Massie, gets high marks for its production values, its artsy craftsmanship, its clever staging and its employment of a well-versed 12-member ensemble of actors, all of whom share a fondness for all things Shakespeare and the play's thrilling diversity, momentum and bold, brazen storytelling.

Filmed and staged entirely via the Zoom platform, Massie opts for the working aesthetic of a graphic novel's artwork, its design component and its scene-by-scene book format of colorful, cartoonish drawings that tell and advance the story. It's a process that not only works especially well, but one that heightens and complements the actual storytelling. Of course, there's lots going on: title cards, cut-outs, projections, ever-changing color palates, piercing background music, close ups and long shots and lots and lots of technical experimentation. Massie, in turn, has a stronghold of the material, which also has the actors facing full front speaking directly into the camera, backed by exciting drawings that reflect the bookish, full-on excitement of the graphic novel. It all makes perfect sense because Massie knows what he wants to do, how he wants to do it and where he's going with everything in terms of  actor/at-home audience formatting.  



"Pericles, Prince of Tyre" stars Damien Thompson as Pericles, Lauren Walker as Gower/Diana, Kiera Prusmack as Marina/Simonedes, Thomas Morgan as Helicanus/Cerimon, Nicole Cooper as Philemon/Pirate, Eliza Carson as Thaisa/Daughter/Pander, Nick Luberto as Antiochus/Leonine/Lysimachus, Abigail Hilditch as Dionyza, Alex Kosciuszek as Cleon, Jim Jiang as Fisher 1/Bolt, Jamie Feidner as Fisher 2/Lychorida/Bawd and Tony King as Thaliard/Escanes/Pirate.

Everyone from lead to supporting player is focused and driven, thus, giving the play a powerful continuity and dimension that is absolutely rewarding. There are moments of high emotion, drama and comedy. Each cast member knows his or her place in the story and runs with it. As actors, they are optimistic, confident and full of wonderful surprise. They also have great fun being in the Zoom spotlight and never once miss a beat, a twitch, a tick, a rhythm, a pause or a change in direction.

In conclusion, "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" is a wild and wacky adventure and fantasia that grabs the attention of the at-home audience for nearly two hours. It is well worth the visit in its online format, further enriched by its playful succession of well-placed events, miracles, surprise twists and resurrections. And finally, there's some pretty spectacular staging by Raphael Massie, a director keen to tell a story you want to watch and to listen to. And naturally, enjoy and appreciate over a bottle of fine wine, a loaf of sliced Italian bread and a charcuterie platter of dry-cured ham, turkey liver mousse with black truffles, three types of cheese and a big screen TV or computer that thrusts you into the world of Pericles to view a tragi-comic work chock full of creative adrenaline.

PS: It is generally thought that George Wilkins wrote the first two acts of the play and Shakespeare penned only the second half. In the end, however, you decide. My thoughts, you ask? "Sorry to disappoint, but the word is mum."

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," is being streamed online, now through March 7, 2021. An event link will be emailed to you 24 hours before the virtual performance. Tickets are $16.00 (adults), $14 (senior citizens/staff), $10 (students)  Performances are 8 p.m. February 27 and March 5,  2 p.m. March 6 and 7, 7:30 p.m. March 3 and 4, and 8 p.m. March 6. Running time: 2 hrs. with one 10 minute intermission. If you have any questions, email crtboxoffice@uconn.edu.


Friday, February 19, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 248, A Review: "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen..." (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Man: "When I woke up, I was in a bathtub full of melting ice cubes and Miller's High Life beer. My skin was blue. I was gasping for breath in a bathtub full of ice cubes. It was near a river but I don't know if it was the East or the Hudson. People do terrible things to a person when he's unconscious in this city. I'm sore all over like I'd been kicked downstairs, not like I fell but was kicked. One time I remember all my hair was shaved off. Another time they stuffed me into a trash-can in the alley and I've come to with cuts and burns on my body. Vicious people abuse you when you're unconscious. When I woke up I was naked in a bathtub of melting ice cubes. I crawled out and went into the parlor and someone was going out of the other door as I came in and I opened the door and heard the door of an elevator shut and saw the doors of a corridor in a hotel. The TV was on and there was a record playing at the same time; the parlor was full of rolling tables loaded with stuff from Room Service, and whole hams, whole turkeys, three-decker sandwiches cold and turning stuff, and bottles and bottles of all kinds of liquor that hadn't even been opened and buckets of ice cubes melting. "

Woman: "I will read long books and the journals of dead writers. I will feel closer to them than I ever felt to people I used to know before I withdrew from the world. It will be sweet and cool this friendship of mine with dead poets, for I won't have to touch them or answer their questions. They will talk to me and not expect me to answer. And I'll get sleepy listening to their voices explaining the mysteries to me. I'll fall asleep with the book still in my fingers, and it will rain and I'll go back to sleep. A season of rain, rain, rain. Then, one day, when I have closed the book or come home alone from the movies at eleven o'clock at night, I will look in the mirror and see that my hair has turned white. White, as white as the foam on the waves." 

(Tennessee Williams, "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen...")

In "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen," a one-act play written by Tennessee Williams in 1953, two people - an unnamed man; an unnamed women - openly bare their souls while clinging to life and sadly wasting away in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. He is a drunk who wakes up in his underwear in some random hotel with no idea of how he got there, who brought him there and why is was attacked by some randoms.

"People do terrible things to a person when he's unconscious in this city," he tells us. "I've been passed around like a dirty postcard."

She, in turn, has spent the last three days staring out the window, drinking nothing but water, talking endlessly about the rain, life's many disappointments and growing old while choosing to ignore life and  mankind in the outside world. "I will read long books and the journals of dead writers," she explains. "I feel closer to them than I ever felt to people I used to know before I withdrew from the world."

The play itself, clocking in at a mere 20 minutes, immediately grabs you by the throat and messes with your senses, the minute each of the characters begins to speak. Tennessee Williams wouldn't have it any other way and therein, lies the fascination with this intimate, well-written two character play. Like so many of the playwright's other works, it digs deep inside the human psyche heightened by honest, in-the-moment dialogue about poverty, desperation, uncomfortable truths, fantasies, escape and misery. 

As produced by Connecticut Repertory Theatre, "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" is being streamed online using Zoom, an audio/video conferencing platform with high quality capabilities that lend themselves nicely to this effective, watch-from-home production event. 

Overseeing the action is director Dexter Singleton whose credits include "The Royale," "Black Book," "The Mountaintop" and "Jesus Hopped the A Train." Later this season, he will stage "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens" and "This Property Is Condemned," two additional one-acts by Williams.

Using black-and-white filters to project the play's 1950's period aura, Singleton brings pain, passion, mystery and excitement to the piece, thrusting you head first into the core dynamic of the play, its rumpled imagery and its obvious separateness. As the story evolves, he also effectively uses the Zoom process, alternating between full screen and split screen depending on the action at hand. It's a balancing act he augments with precision, skill and eavesdropping intensity.

The casting is unique.

Both Colin Kinnick (Man) and Casey Wortham (Woman) are rightfully attuned to Williams' heightened, often poetic dialogue, its pulsating rhythms and juicy conversations. Playing characters on their last legs, so to speak, they each get inside the heads of their characters, which here, is handled brilliantly by the attractive, passionate, challenged twosome. They also deliver full-throttle monologues that are solid, riveting and well understood within the contest of the play. The precision, pacing and naturalness they exude transforms "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" into the must-see theatrical event of the winter season.

A perceptive, knotty and vital work with smart direction and two rapid-fire performances, this one act play by Tennessee Williams sets its sights high and delivers an electrifying buzz that is truly unforgettable.  

"Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" is being streamed online, now through February 21, 2021. An event link will be emailed to you 24 hours before the virtual performance. Tickets are $5. Performances are 2 and 8 p.m. February 20 and 2 p.m. February 21. If you have any questions, email crtboxoffice@uconn.edu.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 247, A Review: "Elyot & Amanda: All Alone" (Playhouse on Park)


By James V. Ruocco

"Death is very laughable. It's such a cunning little mystery. It's all done with mirrors."

"It doesn't suit women to be promiscuous."

"Darling, you look awfully sweet in your little dressing gown."

"You mustn't be serious my dear one. That's just what they want."

It's a pity you didn't have more brandy. It might have made you a little less disagreeable."

Noel Coward, "Private Lives"

Written and first performed in London, 1930, "Private Lives" is an acerbic, detailed commentary of love, marriage, commitment, physical attraction, divorce, second chances and over-the-top marital conflicts. It is characterized by the playwright's cheeky trademark dialogue, his wit, his flamboyance, his poise, his articulate polish, his unapologetic snap, his nervy restlessness and his deliciously wicked sophistication. 

"Elyot & Amanda: All Alone," a 38-minute online stream, produced by the Hartford-based Playhouse on Park, takes its cue from the second act of "Private Lives" and offers at home viewers an upclose look at the two argumentative honeymooners whose spouses Sibil and Victor have been deleted from the script along with any references made by Coward. The new script, written by Ezra Barnes and Veanne Cox, the two actors who play Elyot and Amanda, has been updated to the present (i.e, the pandemic) complete with sanitizer, weed and face masks. The set, a real-life apartment, where the production was filmed in the actors' place of quarantine (based on rules set forth by Actor's Equity, no one was present during the filming, which was done remotely by Hartley Abdekalimi, Alex Zelinski and Johann Fitzpatrick), is a mixture of both past and present, and much to the delight of everyone involved, a sort of third character in the piece. It is handsome and stylish, reflecting a design that complements the production and its Noel Coward ambiance.

 However, unlike "Private Lives," "Elyot & Amanda: All Alone" is neither turbocharged, flip or recklessly kinetic. It also lacks the bounce and ping (more on that, later) of Coward's playtext, its grounding merriment, its biting sting, its cloying contrails and its impassioned dynamics.

The big question: Is "Elyot and Amanda: All Alone," a complete failure?
Hell, no!

It is fun. It is entertaining. It is lightweight. It is sweet and poignant. It is candy-coated and gleeful. It is daft and romantic. It is refreshingly down to earth. It is comedic and progressive.

Since this production is not done for the stage,  it adapts an entirely different pulse and pacing that separates it completely from "Private Lives." The playing area also dictates a certain aura and heartbeat that takes it completely out of the Coward arena, most noticeably the ping pong match frenzy of the dialogue, which is delivered in rapid succession by the characters with a pause and breath tossed in unobtrusively when called for.

Staging the Playhouse on Park production, director Sean Harris retains the bliss, conflict and romanticism set forth by the Barnes and Cox adaptation, but opts for a much slower pacing, which is very un-Coward, but nonetheless, keeps "Elyot and Amanda: All Alone" afloat. He takes full advantage of the real-life apartment setting and guides his two character cast through the proceedings matter-of-factly, making sure they are in sync with the telling of their story, its conflicts, its remembrances, its broad, physical strokes and its comic zingers. It's a valiant effort but Harris knows exactly what he wants and he runs with it.

 The casting of Ezra Barnes and Veanne Cox as Elyot and Amanda is spot on, jammed packed with combustible energy, passion, personality and sparring wickedness. Barnes is charming, mischievous, wistful and suave, which is exactly right for the character of Elyot. He tosses off some rather clever dialogue with energy and brio and makes Elyot and Amanda's relationship real, focused and heartfelt. Cox is wonderfully passionate, sensual and playful as Amanda. She has remarkable appeal and is completely at ease with the sharp-witted dialogue of the piece, its purpose and importance to the story and its priceless absurdity. She is also spirited, lighthearted, direct and mysterious and displays an exhilarating charm, chemistry and partnership with her equally talented co-star.

 "Elyot and Amanda: All Alone"  is available to stream online through March 7,  2021. Individual tickets are $20 each and can be purchased through Showtix4u.com. Upon purchasing a ticket, you will receive a code to access the stream.
For more information, call (860) 523-5900.