Monday, April 23, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 69, A Review: "The Age of Innocence" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

Passion clashes with tradition in Hartford Stage's sumptuous interpretation of Edith Wharton's 1921 literary masterpiece "The Age of Innocence."
Set against the backdrop of New York society of the 1870's, the production is rife with splendid detail about the Gilded Age, the strict rigidity of its social and moral codes, its practiced traditions and loyalties, its accepted veneer and the maintained desired order of entitlement passed down from every generation to both parent and child.
This "Innocence" is also graced with a wonderful hypocrisy and tartness about the period, its players, the suffocating finery, the labyrinthine social gatherings, the formalized invites to the opera and lavish parties and the preoccupation of fashion and the use of haute couture to advance one's already popular social status.

For Hartford Stage, master craftsman and writer Douglas McGrath offers a fresh, new adaptation of "The Age of Innocence" that reflects the angst, hypocrisy and gossipy world of Edith Wharton's famous novel. The struggles, the obsessions, the observances and the traditions are marvelously dissected and mocked ever so engagingly. And the dialogue, some of which recalls the flippness and acidity of Julian Fellowes' "Downton Abbey" is clever, wicked and page-turning much to the delight of the onstage actors and the engrossed audience as well.
At the same time, McGrath paints an observed, intriguing picture with choice, defined central and supporting characters, sharp dialogue indicative of the period and Wharton plus small, vivid details that we watch with complete amazement. There is also a cozy, heartfelt nostalgia to this interpretation, offset by smartly rendered, first-person narration that heightens and advances the play's dramatic sweep and piercing intelligence.

The enlistment of Doug Hughes as director for "The Age of Innocence" is an absolute coup for Hartford Stage. No one is more fitting for this job than the enigmatic director whose directorial credits include "Doubt," "The Grey Zone," "Hedda Gabler," "A Touch of the Poet" and "The Importance of Being Earnest."

The subject matter, for example...New York society exposed and a welcoming stomping ground for Hughes to shape, construct and interpret. He knows the period, the style, the attitude, the verbage, the nuances and the traditions, inside out. Yes despite his familiarity, he keeps things fresh, relevant, intoxicating and urgent.

Taking his cure from McGrath's crafty stage adaptation, Hughes gives "The Age of Innocence" a smart, fluid, cinematic aura that unfolds seamlessly during its intermission-less 100 minutes. Everything is focused, carefully constructed and inspired, to both Wharton and the era. That said, the director also embellishes the production with that deft, signature style that categorizes all of his work.

In this adaptation, the framing device of the piece belongs to the character of The Old Gentleman, who, in actuality, is the elderly version of the young Newland Archer. It's a splendid conceit, particularly since Hughes has cast the charming, versatile Boyd Gaines in this plum role, as both narrator and observer.
Gaines, who starred on Broadway in "Gypsy," "She Loves Me" and "Company," to name a few, is polished, personable and utterly charming. At the same time, the actor wondrously conveys the image of a survivalist  who, despite, not always making the right choice in both life and romance, has endured, regardless of decisions and consequences. The actor also gets some of the best jokes and dialogue, which he infuses with great humor, drama and humanity.

The luminous Sierra Boggess is the perfect fit for the role of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Migott's granddaughter. Garbed in Linda Cho's gorgeous costuming and looking every bit at home in the play's grand, exquisite setting, the actress is completely captivating as the free spirit who mocks New York society to Newland Archer and becomes the other woman in the love story so lyrically stated by McGrath in this stage adaptation.

It's a beautifully nuanced performance, alive with compassion, vulnerability, repression and complete intoxication. Everything she does is completely natural and comes from within. It's all there: the way she sits or walks into a room; the way she thwarts, then succumbs to Newton's charms; the way she speaks or verbally attacks her peers; the way she addresses her past. It's impossible to take your eyes off her.

Newland Archer, the play's young, wildly attractive protagonist who finds himself torn, and in love with two women is brought splendidly to life by Andrew Veenstra. Like Boggess, he too reflects the elitist, crazily moralistic  milieu of 19th century New York society. He's charming, chauvinistic, captivating and perfectly in sync with his lovesick character's tortured dilemma and its obvious outcome.

May Welland, Newland's fiancée is played by Helen Cespedes, a beautiful, young actress who vividly projects her character's innocence and girlishness, her love of social decorum, the life upper crust society offers, the entertainment it brings and her conformance to the social grace and customs that surround her.
But beneath the dazzle, the actress deftly portrays May's unhappiness, her insecurity, the pretense of a happy marriage to save face before New York society and her infatuation with romance and the very word love itself.

In conclusion, "The Age of Innocence" is a show of genuine invention that articulates the excitement and pain of the privileged class with fierce, exquisite theatricality. The inventiveness of Doug Hughes' direction swirls, swoops and dazzles. The cast, lead by Boyd Gaines, Sierra Boggess, Andrew Veenstra and Helen Cespedes, is spectacular. And the sets, costumes and lighting make this production suitable for framing in the grandest style.

"The Age of Innocence" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St, Hartford, CT), now through May 6.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 68, A Review: "The Revisionist" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

When "The Revisionist" debuted off-Broadway back in 2013, the very idea of watching Vanessa Redgrave  playing a Holocaust survivor in her mid-seventies, was a luxury in itself. As was the casting of "Revisionist" playwright Jesse Eisenberg as Redgrave's troubled, condescending second cousin from America,

The powerhouse performances of the play's two leading players, matched by Eisenberg's pungent, quirky playwriting skills, was nothing short of electrifying. And, then some.

At Playhouse on Park where "The Revisionist" is making its New England debut, the opportunity to revisit the play in a new setting with an entirely new team of actors (just as dynamic as the off-Broadway cast) proves to be just as exciting as when the production first played the Cherry Lane Theatre five years ago.
Cheers to the artistic staff of this acclaimed Connecticut-based theater for adding this dynamic play to their remarkable Playhouse on Park 2017-2018 season, which has included "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Intimate Apparel" "Avenue Q" and "Steel Magnolias."


"The Revisionist" is magnetic. The words, the vibrations, the moments of surprise, exhilaration and uncertainty, ring loud and clear . And the story itself, once again, demonstrates Eisenberg's imagination and tenacity as a playwright.

In the play, David, an entitled, opinionated writer of sorts, travels to Poland to visit his much-older cousin Maria, a woman who keeps photos of her adored American cousins on the walls of her small, cozy apartment and lives a very easy, simple life, shrouded from the outside world. That, of course, changes once David moves into her spare room. Arguments ensue and long-kept secrets from Maria's past begin to unravel.

Working from Eisenberg's interesting, passionately rendered script, director Sasha Bratt's staging of "The Revisionist" is interesting to watch on many levels. The story, for example, is honest, real, and emotional and staged with just the right amount of compassion, heat, seriousness and relevance.

The fact that you get two, fired-up actors...Cecelia Riddett and Carl Howell...jumping head first into their respective roles for an intermission-less 100 minutes also thrusts Bratt's creative energy into overload. You sit there, often on the edge of your seat, completely engrossed by the action at hand, often wondering what is going to happen next or how Eisenberg is going to end his play.

Directorially, Bratt never once makes a false move. The interaction, rapport, tension and cultural clash of the play's two central characters is absolutely seamless. Blocking is minimal, but plausible. The play's inherent humor, fiction, pathos and sadness is naturally stated. And the closeness between the actor and audience is intimate, relevant and stirring.

Cecelia Riddett, as Maria, is mesmerizing. It's a role she plays and owns, rife with mystery, judgment, happiness, cynicism, hunger, passion and vulnerability. The actress also brings the right sense of humanity to the part, which, when she finally lets her hair down to reveal the horrors of her childhood during the Holocaust, her recollections hit home dramatically and effectively.

Carl Howell's portrayal of the smug, self-absorbed David is complex, imaginative, edgy and shady, which is exactly what the part calls for. He and Riddett make a terrific acting team, particularly in  scenes, which reveal their philosophical and cultural differences or when they verbally clash and burn and all hell breaks loose. Their closeness to the audience adds additional fuel to these weighty moments, marvelously staged by Bratt , who, takes his cue from Eisenberg's powerful script.

Sebastian Buczyk, in the role of Maria's burly, taxi-driver friend Zenon, is first-rate. The actor delivers most of his performance in such believable Polish dialect, you actually believe he was born and raised in Poland. The script also paints his character as a warm-hearted, compassionate, sometimes cynical individual, which the actor intelligently portrays.

"The Revisionist" is a substantial, exciting piece of American theater. It is warmly real, splendidly acted and one of those productions that you'll be talking about long after the ride home. Sasha Bratt, as director, also makes you feel as if you're a part of the play and not just watching it.

"The Revisionist" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through April 29.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900

Friday, April 6, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 67, A Review: "The Legend of Georgia McBride" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

A straight man becomes a drag queen at a Florida bar called Cleo's.
That is the premise for Matthew Lopez's bitchy, delightfully sassy comedy "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a sweet and silly confection for theatergoers who love to laugh, scream, stand up and cheer and work themselves up into an emotional frenzy all for the sake of entertainment.


This is a show that rocks the house from start to finish. It is also a production that shows theatergoers that drag is so much more than putting on lipstick and shimmying into a dress. It is an art form that demands and commands respect for its artistry, its candor, its musicality, its cultural history and its theatrical illusion.

Case in point: The newly mounted production of Lopez's celebrated work at TheaterWorks/ Hartford.

In the more than capable hands of director Rob Ruggiero, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" is first-rate entertainment, gift wrapped in cotton candy, glittering rainbow colors, garish wigs, wicked, acerbic Bette Davis-like banter and alternately wacky drag costuming that's fresh, authentic and outrageous.

What's especially nice about this production is that the matter how crazy or over the top it gets ...never once veers out of control or makes mincemeat out of the material, the conceit, the characters or the sub plots. Instead, Ruggiero's directorial stokes are keenly observed, spontaneous and rife with a marvelous sense of wit, whimsy and pathos. Yes, this is a play about a heterosexual country boy who makes a living as a drag queen, but it is never once becomes vulgar, one-note or condescending to the drag art form, its populace or the world of dress up and let's pretend. Instead, it is a very real, very observant, very cheeky entertainment.

From an actor's standpoint, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" is a veritable feast of acting styles, acting ranges, mood swings and personas, all rolled up into one requiring someone of Ruggiero's stature to glue things together without any form of calculation or hesitation. He does this effortlessly, of course, and handles all of the plot machinations, both comic and dramatic, with the honestly and verve that categorizes all of his work at TheaterWorks/Hartford, Goodspeed Musicals, and far beyond the state of Connecticut.

He loves theater. He loves actors. He loves directing.  He loves "live" performance. He loves a challenge. And he always gives 110 per cent.

That said, there's an awful lot of things going on here before the inevitable happy resolution. Pacing, of course, means everything and Ruggiero keeps this intermission-less comedy rolling happily along at breakneck speed. Set changes are quick and seamless. The scenes themselves are fast, fun and furious. The musical numbers are deliciously wicked with plenty of snap, crackle and pop. And in between it all, you get an honest, heartfelt story that brings a smile to your face, a tear or two and lots and lots of well-orchestrated laughter.

Austin Thomas is an engaging young actor chock full of charm, personality, dash, handsomeness and appeal. As Casey, a fifth-rate Elvis impersonator with a combined audience of two or four, the actor plays his down-on-his-luck character with unbridled optimism. At the same time, we also feel his pain when he can't pay his rent, his rent check bounces, he faces eviction and his wife suddenly announces she's pregnant.

"We are going to be the best parents since Joseph and Mary,” Casey tells his wife Jo.
“Yeah, but then their kid died,” cries Jo.

Not to worry, though. Before you can say Gypsy Rose Lee, Miss Mazeppa or Tessie Tura, boyish Casey is donning sequins, make-up, wigs, stockings and girlish attire as Cleo's new drag star Miss Georgia McBride. It's an awkward transition similar to that of the one depicted in the hit Broadway musical "Gypsy," but this time, it's a boy (and not a girl) who becomes an overnight female star.

The transformation itself is one that Thomas plays quite innocently and awkwardly at first, as dictated by the script and director Ruggiero. But once the actor masters the art of lip-syncing and actual drag performance, he offers a dazzling, energetic, comic and musical performance that would make RuPaul and Hedda Lettuce green with envy. It's a creative process that the actor builds and nurtures splendidly and one that displays a remarkable range as both performer and entertainer.

The role of Miss Tracy Mills, the kindly, outspoken drag queen who shows Casey the ropes, seems tailor-made for Jamison Stern, a very charismatic actor who connects with both character and audience the moment he appears on stage. It's an award-winning performance you're not likely to forget for quite some time and one that the actor plays to the hilt so incredibly. His catty, often bitchy repartee is absolutely contagious. He gets lots and lots of clever one-liners and pop culture barbs that produce huge belly laughs. He also gets a show-stopping drag solo ("I Enjoy Being a Girl") that has him playing everyone from Baby Jane Hudson to Margo Channing. It's so much fun, you want to shout "Encore!" over and over again.

The wonderfully animated Nik Alexander actually doubles as fiery drag queen extraordinaire Rexy and Casey's best buddy and landlord Jason. It's a spontaneous performance rife with wit, spark, imagination and pulse. As Rexy, the actor is garish, condescending, crazed, heated, hellish and a drag diva in every sense of the word. Then, he does a complete 360-turn and reemerges as Jason. It's the same actor, yes. But there are times, when you shake your head and ask yourself, "Is that really Alexander playing both roles?" It is a shocking revelation, indeed. But that's how convincing the actor's drag queen/landlord duality is.

J. Tucker Smith, as Eddie, the desperate, money-hungry owner of Cleo's, a straight bar that becomes a very successful drag show haven in a very short time, looks and acts as if was plucked right out of some sleazy Florida club and dropped head first into the glittery world of Miss Georgia McBride and company. From the moment he appears on stage, he's the real deal. He's got the moves, the persona, the body language and the line delivery of someone who has spent a lifetime behind the bar or in a club dedicated to some very questionable talent. Samaria Nixon-Fleming is honest and warmly real as Casey's pregnant wife Jo, the last one to know what her husband is really up on the stage of Cleo's. She eventually does find out, of course, in one of the play's very poignant moments, laced with a bit of choice comic timing, banter and surprise.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is one of the funniest plays to be showcased at TheaterWorks/Hartford since the yuletide hit "Christmas on the Rocks." It delivers laugh after laugh. The five-member cast is undeniably first-rate. Leon Dobkowski's colorful costumes create the right illusion. The story itself is happily contagious.
So grab yourself a ticket, drink in the language and sit back and enjoy. You might even be back for a second or third viewing like so many other theatergoers before you.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through April 29.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838