Thursday, October 19, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 38, A Review: "The Wolves" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

The story of "The Wolves" is relatively simple.
Nine high school girls.....all different types, shapes and indoor soccer.
They gossip. They laugh. They cry. They fight. They hover. They stare. They attack. They warm up. They all talk at once.
They say words like "fuck," "bitch," and "cunt."
They talk about periods, boys, sex, allergies, prejudice, world travel, teachers, coaches, hangovers, menstruation, soccer, eating disorders, anxiety, Twitter, Harry Potter, Khmer Rouge and 101 other topics.
Sometimes, their words overlap. Sometimes, their words are inaudible. Sometimes, their words are mean and hurtful. Sometimes, their words are kind and caring.
But you listen, just the same.
And never once, do you turn away.
That's easy.
"The Wolves " is an unmissable piece of important theatre.
It intrigues. It inspires. It excites. It energizes. It shames. It baffles. It shocks. It surprises. It changes course. It explodes. It exposes. It delights. It keeps you guessing. It also cries reality.

The conversations, of course, are truthful, wise and ever-changing. But whatever the topic is, "The Wolves" draws you in completely and keeps you riveted as these nine girls learn more and more about each other and make the most of the on-stage action, which, finds then engaging in some pretty topical wordplay. Or, at the same time, stretching, exercising or kicking the soccer ball around on the smart, bright green Astroturf setting during their pregame practices.

Sarah DeLappe's play script tosses up some pretty wonderful comic and dramatic moments for all nine of her central characters. And despite the sameness of their ages and enthusiastic athleticism, no two characters are alike which makes it relatively easy for the audience to differentiate who's who, who's front and center, who's in the background and who is going to engage in the obvious clash or pitfall when the ball actually drops. And believe me, it does.

In the very capable hands of director Eric Ort, DeLappe's exhilarating play unfolds beautifully with its many set ups, introductions, character developments and interplay, both verbal and physical.  It only runs 90 minutes, but not a moment is wasted. Everything that happens is graced with appropriate wit, style, brashness, tension, warmth, boldness and surprise. The story itself is focused, poignantly articulated and brilliantly paced by Ort. It is presented with such love and care, it's impossible not to be moved or affected by everything that happens in "The Wolves." Then again, that's the point. Regardless of one's background, social status or knowledge of sports, we each take something away from this very real, very raw and very truthful production.

Ort doesn't stop there. Undeniably, DeLappe's dialogue is something special and extremely bold in both its hilarity and heartbreak. The trick, of course, is to always know where to put the focus, how to build it, shape it and thrust it stage center without every missing a single beat. Hard, yes. Complicated, yes. Crazy, yes. Wild, yes. But Ort makes it all look effortless. 

As director, he gets inside the hearts and minds of every single one of the female characters on stage. In turn, their quirks, oddities, skills, weaknesses, rants, raves, mind games, changeability, manipulations, tears, outbursts and unexpected moments of humanity fascinate, cajole, stir and excite. Even when there is no dialogue or someone is lost in thought or just standing there observing, Ort always knows what communicative buttons to push. And, then some.

Every member of the cast works splendidly together as a team, in groups of three and four or during that anticipated, character-building solo moment that every on-stage actress awaits, relishes and indulges. They are Emily Murphy, Shannon Keegan, Carolyn Cutillo, Caitlin Zoz, Claire Saunders, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Rachel Caplan and Dea Julien.

All nine have exceptional stage presence, personality and stamina. They understand girlhood, its rivalries, complications and angst completely without any hint of calculation. They are totally in sync with Ort's astonishing, complicated athletic staging. They also are privy to the mechanics of sports world academia, from its challenges and perks to how being on top of the game can open doors to one's future.

"The Wolves" is a propulsive production that is theatrically compelling, marvelously human and knockabout cheeky. It not only jumpstarts TheaterWorks 2017-2018 season, but reflects the theater's on-going commitment to staging important, powerful works that command your attention and demand to be seen.

"The Wolves" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT.), now through November 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 37, A Review: "Dark of the Moon" (Sherman Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco
Who is the central figure of Howard Richardson and William Berney's moody, controversial character piece "Dark of the Moon?"
Is it the beautiful Barbara Allen, the young woman who pleasures herself with a handsome stranger who impregnates her with a baby that isn't human? Is it John, the mysterious "witch boy" turned human who marries Barbara but is forbidden to step foot in a church? Or is it the conjurers and the witches of the night who taunt John and predict eventual doom for his "Romeo and Juliet" love story with Barbara.

In director Robin Frome's thrilling, hypnotic production, pretty much anyone who takes center stage during "Dark of the Moon's" eerie story telling becomes the central focus of this rarely performed drama set in the Appalachian Mountains during the 1930's. There's love making in the moonlight, dancing and singing, hell and damnation church revivals, spells and witchcraft, witch babies burning in the fire, severed hands with wedding rings, fights and weddings, sin and  masturbation, wicked transformations, death and destruction.

All of this is played out in appropriate fashion by Frome who gives pulse and insight to the proceedings, to the point, where even the most discerning of theatregoers become true believers of everything that's conjured up on the Sherman Playhouse stage. Frome also derives suitable angst, tension, wit, spirit, atmosphere and significance from the play script by always knowing what buttons to push, what and who to taunt and play with, how to thrust the action forward seamlessly and how to balance the two decidedly different worlds of the "Dark of the Moon" story.

This "Dark of the Moon" fascinates, intrigues and excites. It is one of the best performed dramas of the 2017 theater season and one that you'll be talking about long after the night ends and you're driving home ready to grab that glass of wine, whip up a snack or two and chat intelligently about your newfound theater experience.

Trust me, you'll be up for hours conversing about this one.

Directorially speaking, Frome is the ideal choice to stage "Dark of the Moon." In the hands of someone less experienced, the two-act play would probably die a slow death and bore the audience to death within minutes. At Sherman Playhouse, Frome brings decades of experience to the theater as both director and actor. He understands the mechanics and stagecraft of mounting a two-act drama. He takes chances. He knows how an actor moves, thinks, speaks and improvises. He knows how to cast a production with actors who fully grasp his stage logistics and interpretation. He also knows how to surround himself with an exceptional design team who make his productions snap, crackle or pop. Or simply prompt one to say, "Bravo, Mr. Frome."

Lisa Bonelli's impeccably designed costuming superbly reflects the attitude and personality of the Appalachian characters and the supernatural ones who wear her flawless, creative designs. Frome's set design, paired with Krisby Kreho's tree design and construction intuitively reflects the witches' mountain lair and the surrounding town that lies below. Al Chiappetta's lighting design and David White's sound design also moodily complements the strange happenings that permeate "Dark of the Moon."

It's surely not the time for a revival of "Hello, Dolly!" but if Frome were ever to direct it, he might stage it underwater or on the moon and get flying colors every step of the way. 

John Squires as the "witch boy" has the right blend of vitality, compassion, restlessness and bruising dynamism necessary for the pivotal role of John. His transformation from the supernatural to the human world is full of dynamic surprise and conviction. As is his temptation to fly or not fly again with the witches who were once or could still be his playmates of the night.
The actual transformation from "witch boy" to John is one of the play's highlights. Squires amazes as he slowly changes from creature of the night into a human. It's a process that fascinates from every twist and turn and then, back again.

Kate Morris' Barbara Allen is poignant, sexy, moody, thoughtful and sometimes frightening as she finds herself punished by family and townsfolk for failing to conform to their hypocritical ways and abandon her desires for a man not of her world. She also brings a shadowy mix of boldness and curiosity to the part, which works wonderfully well throughout the production.

Michael Wright's Preacher Haggler has the force, the hypocrisy and the smarminess the part calls for. He has a wonderful stage presence and when his big church revival moment comes in Act II, he is a holier-than-thou Christian force to be reckoned with. He's the real deal, make no mistake about it.
Katherine Almquist is completely believable as Conjur Woman. She is a bewitching presence who clearly knows how to cast a spell or two.

The Fair Witch and the Dark Witch, played respectively by Phair Elizabeth Haldin and Jessica Gleason, are devious, snarky, alluring, blatant, corrupt and erotic. Both actresses are perfectly in sync with the play's fantasy and supernatural elements. Their line delivery, their moves, their laughs, their cries, their body language and their interaction with Squires is sensational.

 As Conjur Man, John Fabiani offers a wonderfully animated performance that is rife with pulse, excitement, mystery and craziness which the actor effortlessly elicits brilliantly. Patrick Kelly as Marvin Hudgens captures the character's chauvinistic and egotistic persona without ever missing a beat. It's a part he inhabitants brilliantly, always conveying the tough, queasy desperation of a man who often comes in second in life and with women and every now and then, gets his ass whopped hard much to the delight of those around him.

"Dark of the Moon" is being staged at the Sherman Playhouse (5 Rt. 39 North, Sherman, CT), now through Oct. 15.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 354-3622.