Monday, September 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 196, A Review: "Macbeth" (The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts)

By James V. Ruocco

" a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
(William Shakespeare, "Macbeth")

And, so it begins.

William Shakespeare wrote "Macbeth" between 1605 and 1606 in what is commonly referred to as "his dark period."


It's all here waiting to be explored, dissected and bandied about in scholarly, exhaustive, unstressed fashion with witches, prophecies, slayings, hand-scrubbing, apparitions, beheadings and crimson-drenched blood securing its horror show craziness and conceptual madness.

The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts production of  "Macbeth" brings the clock-ticking brutalism and atmospheric eeriness of the story right onto the stage itself with plenty of suspense, shock, coolness and pathos, all of which is intelligently rendered with a daring, energized mindset that proves rewarding from start to finish. Re-cut and re-imagined to fit a 100-minute time frame, this "Macbeth" sizzles with in-your-face ambition, corruption and tension that never falters for a second. Elsewhere, the closeness between actor and audience (a plus at this location) heightens the play's bloodcurdling appeal amid the precise, inventive cacophony of Shakespeare's words, moments, meltdowns, observations, chants and power plays.

Then and now, the play begins with the brief appearance of three witches who tell the inquisitive Macbeth that one day he will become King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife to make this royal position an immediate reality, he kills the King, takes the crown and throne, then  kills and kills again out of guilt and paranoia until he realizes he is doomed and finally submits to his enemy.

The psychological intrigue, collective madness, downward spirals and bloody savagery that is "Macbeth" is carried out in bold, thrilling, intense fashion - the kind that toys with your senses and leaves you breathless - by English-born director Jane Farnol whose credits include "All My Sons," "Quartet," "Exit the King," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Medea," "The Laramie Project" and "The Elephant Man." Upfront, this is a very layered, important, involved dramatic work that requires someone well-versed in the mechanics, structure and storytelling techniques set forth by Shakespeare, its angered showdowns, its long and mannered conversations, its diverse characterizations, its opaque plotlines and page-by-page dramatics.
Not to worry, though. Farnol handles all of this ferocious pain and angst with the grace, skill, imagination and knowledge gained from years of study at The Royal Academy of Art in London. Every moment of this "Macbeth" is so carefully etched, explored and designed, the moments fly swiftly and fluidly from one scene to the next with a deft flourish and involved design that works to the play's advantage. Extraneous parts of the story are missing here and there, but never once does this "Macbeth" seem truncated or at odds with the the director's choice, beat-by-beat editing.   

What's impressive about Farnol's work in this production is the honesty, realness, rawness and compassion she brings to this telling of this oft-told tale. It's all laid out with the purpose, stamina and wild theatrics the story demands. But things are never rushed or taken for granted. Here, you get a taut, explosive examination of the Bard's famous tragedy that masterfully draws you into the drama, its demons, its internal conflicts, its treachery, its repercussions and its articulate nastiness.
It's a well-orchestrated game plan infused by smart, apt blocking maneuvers that includes entrances and exits up and down the aisles of the theater's intimate working space, moody music and lighting cues, lively sword fights and the implementation of widescreen projection Technicolor cinematography (amazingly timed and photographed by Stephen Cihanek) involving the appearance and disappearance of the three witches who taunt and tease Macbeth with their eerie chants and prophecies. 

To be asked to play the lead role of Macbeth in Shakespeare's iconic tragedy is a coup for any actor and David Regelmann's descent into madness, murder and paranoia has a quicksilver charge, pathos and broken dynamic about it that allows him to dig deep into the character's complicated persona, his extreme behavior, his dark heart, his tormented delusions and believable bloodlust. It's a significant, ambitious portrait of memory fraught with real strength and honesty, anchored by line delivery with great clarity, scope and cynicism that reflects the character's sense of restlessness, torment, greed and thirst for regal power.

As Lady Macbeth, Vicki Sosbe is tormented, self-possessed, dangerous and sensual. It's a stirring, vibrant character turn that comes from the heart, layered with the just the right amount of confidence, nuance, passion and intensity. As "Macbeth" unfolds, she brings such a marvelous sense of drive and importance to Shakespeare's dialogue, familiar words, conversations and truths glimmer with a freshness and excitement that is both unique and rewarding. It's a star turn worth coming to Brookfield for commandeered by an imperious passion and poised grit that is completely haunting and captivating whenever she's on stage. The actress also shares a great on-stage chemistry with Regelmann which, here, heightens the dramatic scope and intensity of their many scenes together.

In the role of Banquo, Macbeth's rival and a general in the King's army who is completely oblivious to his own impending doom, Thomas Samuels cuts a very striking figure of bravery, attention, wisdom, dash and command. A supremely, self-assured actor who adds new dimension and personality to his characterization, Samuels is masculine, edgy and aggressive, bringing the right intonation and flourish to Banquo's wordplay, thoughts and feelings. It's a performance steeped in such keenly drawn,  Royal Shakespeare Company-like instinctiveness, Banquo's many conversations, speeches and dialogue seem newly-minted.

For this production, Farnol also surrounds her three amazing principal players with a fine supporting cast of actors including Sam Bass as Malcolm, Christopher Bird as Macduff, Ron Malyszka as the Doctor, Rebecca Pokorski as Lady Macduff, Sean Gorman as Angus/First Murderer and Kylie Block, Molly Badinelli and Keira Sosbe as The Three Witches. They too bring excitement and nuance to this engrossing Shakespearean drama.

A bold, brave and intense retelling, this "Macbeth" compels and fascinates at every turn. It is well played by the entire cast to stimulating effect. As directorial interpreter, Jane Farnol is a brilliant communicator of Shakespeare's language and his eerie take on bloodshed and revenge. Crafty ideas mixed with remarkable cinematic back screen visuals and refreshingly swift and edgy staging make this "Macbeth" is triumph of the highest order that reflects a very fresh, captivating makeover.

Photos of "Macbeth" courtesy of Stephen Cihanek

"Macbeth" is being staged at The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through September 28.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023

Saturday, September 7, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 195, A Review: "God of Carnage" (Greenwich Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

"Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society."
(Yasmina Reza, Playwright) 

In Yasmina Reza's  thrilling, high-powered dark comedy "God of Carnage," everything hinges on the casting, the direction and the shrewdness of how it all comes together in an 85-minute time span without an intermission.

On Broadway, the exhilarating frisson of James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as two middle-class couples who meet one night to discuss and resolve a heated schoolyard fight between their two 11-year-old sons (one boy strikes the other with a stick that knocks out his two front teeth), prompted a verbal tango of unforgettable madness and razor-sharp imagination that was not easily forgotten.

At Greenwich Theatre Company where "God of Carnage" has been justifiably and superbly revived, the effect is very much the same with Mike Boland, Stephanie Hazard, Jason Peck and Wynter Kullman assuming the roles once played by that luminous Broadway foursome. Every joke, every insult, every quirk and every rant is played full-throttle by this tremendously talented quartet with the acidity and rippling irony it demands, thus, making this 2019 incarnation bristle with a life force and primitive aggression all its own.


This production not only has a wonderful sense of intuition about it, but it is potent with very savage,  edges. It flows passionately and impressively freely. It is liberal and angry. It is compassionate and nuanced. It is mouthy and perverse. It pulls no punches. It dissects society with stinging impact. It also retains the crackling precision, the fiery cynicism and the symbolic abundance commandeered by its creator. Elsewhere, a running gag of incessant cell phone interruptions mixed with characters continually switching sides, having anxiety attacks, spouting four-letter words, getting completely bladdered by booze or accidentally revealing their true colors in rapid fire succession, heightens the play's vitriolic energy.

"God of Carnage" is being staged by Rob Kennedy whose directorial credits include "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Addams Family." A smart and savvy showman with an attentive appetite for Reza's talky, driven character drama, Kennedy accepts the playwright's rules of the game, her pragmatic undercurrents, her skillful hypocrisies and her blatant truisms and delivers a meaty mind game of sorts that taunts and teases, spits and brays, fucks you over, toys with your senses and yanks you head first into the play's well-timed jokes, arguments, ideas, confessions, outbursts and breaking points.

Like Reza's other works - "Art," "The Unexpected Man," "A Spanish Play"- "God of Carnage" unfolds with dialogue and conversations that demand the right pacing, the right rhythms, the right mindset, the right motivation and the right stimulation. One wrong move, one missed cue or one abrupt halt in the action and it's over. Just like that. With Kennedy pulling the strings, that never happens here. He not only knows the play inside out, backwards and forwards and front and center, but creates a three-ring circus of sorts (shades of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?") that keeps coming at you from all directions with an emotive thrust and scrutinization that keeps to Reza's triggered conceit, its distinct criterion and its locked horns ante.

"I am not a member of polite society. What I am and always have been is a fucking Neanderthal."
(Michael, "God of Carnage")

As penned by Reza, the dialogue is very rhythmic. It's all beats and measures. It's timed and played to the second. It's all very exact and specific. Even the overlapping voices of two or more characters talking at the same time requires the same split-second acumen. Here, as in the Broadway production, the real pleasure of  "God of Carnage" comes from the fiendishly clever manipulation of the four central characters in real time which Kennedy masters with naughty, playful and stylish outrageousness. The fact that you never quite know what's around the corner or how things will actually play out heightens the play's appeal, its story arc evolution and its numbing conclusion.

More importantly, there's always a big reveal or a big surprise at the heart of a Reza play which shocks, titillates and makes for exceptional theatre. In this go round, that trademark gasp of excitement occurs about halfway through the production. It is a bold, brilliantly orchestrated move for one of the play's four character's that Kennedy builds and shapes with such wicked glee, a jaw dropping release of  shock and disbelief from every member of the audience is practically guaranteed when the big moment comes.
The staging for this particular sequence, in part, is similar to that of the Broadway production. But the advantage here is the voyeuristic closeness between actor and audience that changes things considerably and prompts an in-your-face "Oh, my God, did you see what just happened?" effect that you didn't quite get in the original New York production. It will blow your mind as will the aftermath of it all, which is imaginatively staged in extreme close up by Kennedy who reveals a maddening cleverness that Reza, if she were present, would stand up and cheer.

It's a well-known fact that Reza writes plays for actors - an ensemble of equals, that is - who revel in the wicked dynamics of her page-by-page conversations and quirky diatribes using an edgy, savvy, satiric mindset that brings just the right amount of dramatic resonance to the material and its razor-sharp chasms, jousts, name-calling and dicey hauteur. With the brush strokes in place for this originally shrewd, cultivated satire, there's something revelatory in every performance here.

In the role of Michael, a man very eager to create peace between the two conflicted school boys, Mike Boland delivers a raw and powerful character portrait of a typically uncouth individual who tries too hard, makes racial slurs and denounces child-rearing as something completely wasteful. His timing is impeccable. His line delivery is flawless. He nails the emotional heart and soul of his character's persona perfectly. He takes chances and runs with them.  He can be truth or dare at once. And often, when just standing there listening and observing, we know exactly what he is thinking.

As Michael's judgmental wife Veronica, a woman who is writing a book about the Darfur atrocities and hopes to maintain a peaceful resolve for her son's injury, Stephanie Hazard is a whirlwind of rational deliberation, personal bias, emotional pain and thin-lipped liberalism. It's a part she owns and plays with complete honesty, drive, passion and amazing serio-comic flourish. Smartly attuned to Reza's linguistic oeuvre, she displays the right rhythms, tics and beats in an open arena where dangerous mind games and limited visions collide within the marvelously sketched limits of the playwright's controlled, wickedly funny blueprint.

Jason Peck, cellphone in hand for the part of Alan, an obnoxious, self-centered lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company about to be sued over one of its new products that has harmful side effects, delivers an emotionally wild, roller-coaster-ride of a performance that gets under your skin, slaps you in the face, pisses you off and makes you want to get up from your seat and punch him very hard in the stomach for being such a first-class prick. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?
His face - conveying a mess of smarmy, desperate and fearful emotions - pulls you right into Alan's convoluted story, his shaky marriage, his slimy business tactics and his pacy anxiety. Elsewhere, his remarkable ability to shift gears from story to cell phone within a millisecond many, many times over is brilliantly rendered as is his complete breakdown, a wonderfully orchestrated actor's moment that prompts cheers and convulsed laughter in all the right places.

As Alan's wife Annette, a woman on the verge of yet another panic attack who is constantly annoyed by her husband's feckless behavior and total ignorance, Wynter Kullman, last seen in Thrown Stone's "Cry in Out," gives yet another stand out performance in an electrifying role in which she is absolutely amazing. Here, as in "Cry It Out,"  Kullman is very clear about her character, her dialogue, her conversations, her moves, her expressions and her interaction with the other on-stage actors. She plays the part of Annette effortlessly with smartness, purpose, angst and a broodingly intense desperation that is thrilling to watch and discover.
What's exciting about her work at Greenwich Theatre Company is how she goes about it. Yes, "God of Carnage" is rehearsed page by page to fit its allotted running time. Yes, Kullman is blocked to move, speak and participate on cue. Regardless, she is so refreshingly honest and focused, everything she does is real, impassioned and truly inspired without any rehearsed feel whatsoever. If anyone is doing Federico Garcia Lorca's visceral 1934 drama "Yerma" in the near future, Kullman would be perfect for the lead role of Her, a manic, misunderstood, depressed woman whose descent into madness is astounding. It's a part that would show her in an entirely new light and one she could inhabit with unhinged melodrama and therapeutic pathos.

Tense, satirical, edgy and unpredictable, "God of Carnage" is an exhilarating piece of theatre written with great insightfulness and craft by Yasmina Reza. Under Rob Kennedy's smart, unrelenting direction, the cast of four - Boland, Hazard, Peck, Kullman - deliver confident and determined performances that crackle with such excitement, you forget that you are in a theater watching a play.
A bold, disturbing work of tremendous power, "God of Carnage" jump starts Greenwich Theatre Company's premiere season in Fairfield County. It is a thrilling beginning for what promises to be one of the most talked about new Equity theater companies in the state and one that audiences will embrace most engagingly.

"God of Carnage" is being staged at Greenwich Theatre Company (100 Arch St., Greenwich, CT), now through September 15.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 629-5744.

Monday, September 2, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 194, A Review: Broadway Method Academy presents "The Little Mermaid" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

It's the girl-meets-boy story retold, but with complications.
She's a mermaid.
He's a human.
She lives under the sea. He lives above on land.
Not to worry, though.
This, being a Disney musical, things end happily, of course, in Broadway Method Academy's bright and bouncy telling of "The Little Mermaid," Hans Christian Anderson's beloved children's tale about a beautiful mermaid so fascinated with life on land, she swims to the surface, falls for a handsome prince and makes a deal with a devious sea witch to become human for just three days.

Based on the 1989 Disney animated film musical of the same name, this reinvented revival of the 2008 Broadway production that starred Sierra Boggess and Sean Palmer, uses the combined talents of Equity performers, non-Equity actors and Broadway Method Academy students to make its mark, or splash, as the case would be, on the very inviting, intimate Westport Country Playhouse stage.
It is simplistic and sweet and retold without aerial illusions simulating underwater life, aggressive scene changes, gargantuan sets and backdrops, lavish costuming and over-the-top special effects that could obstruct the story at hand.  This is a very budget conscious "Little Mermaid" more concerned with graceful storytelling and pretty music than Magic Kingdom opulence. Here, using or stretching your imagination to the fullest, is mandatory.

Utilizing Doug Wright's reworked play script (updates were made in 2012 to the book, the musical score and characterizations), director Bret Shuford crafts a pleasant enough fish tale of land and undersea action that is fun, silly, imaginative and entertaining. At times, however, his direction, lacks the three-dimensional grandness of both "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" and occasionally, the story itself somersaults into tedium, but only fleetingly. Happily, for all involved, both onstage and off,  it bounces right back to reach high moments of comedy, drama and musicality intended by the show's creators, all of which Shuford embraces with wit, good cheer and heartfelt projection.

The musical score for "The Little Mermaid," written by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman/Glenn Slater (lyrics) contains 26 songs. They are: "The World Above," "Fathoms Below," "Daughters of Triton," "If Only (Triton's Lament)," "Daddy's Little Angel," "Part of Your World," "The Storm," "Part of Your World (Reprise)," "She's in Love," "Her Voice," "Under the Sea," "If Only (Ariel's Lament)," "Sweet Child," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Act I Finale," "Positoovity," "Beyond My Wildest Dreams," "Les Poisson," "Les Poissons (Reprise)," "One Step Closer," "Daddy's Little Angel (Reprise)," " Kiss the Girl," "If Only (Quartet)," "The Contest," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Final Ultimo." "I Want the Good Times Back" and "Human Stuff," which were featured in the original 2008 Broadway production of "The Little Mermaid" are deleted from this revamped edition of the two-act musical.

Musical direction for "The Little Mermaid" is provided by J. Scott Handley whose Broadway Method Academy credits include "Evita," "Annie," "Carrie: The Musical," "Into the Woods," "Hair," "Spring Awakening" and "Carousel." Working from the Ashman/Manken/Slater blueprint, Handley creates a melodic tonal picture that caps the musical's pleasant-sounding songs and production numbers, its jovial rhythms and colors, its magical flourishes, its individual eccentricities and its elated outbursts of joy. Fully engaged throughout with the able assistance of an accomplished orchestral team of very talented musicians, the ebb and flow of the music is splendid at every turn, full-throated in typical Disney fashion and tinged with a playful humor that is canny, effective and lively.

Choreography for "The Little Mermaid" is the brainchild of Audra Bryant, a crafty dance auteur who opts for simplistic beauty and lyricism whenever the musical happily glides into dance. Her rhythmic compositions befit the story's underwater/on land magic and bliss and heighten the production's narrative progression, its fairy-tale atmosphere and its sugary, cartoonish appeal.
All of the choreography is inspired and diverse with touches of avant-garde emotion and ersatz panorama that bring sass and kitsch to the story along with an inherent wistfulness, brightness and balance. It's all marvelous to watch as "The Little Mermaid" cast dives deeply into Bryant's work with energetic confidence and articulate elan.

Jordan Tyson, as Ariel, possesses a beautiful, lilting soprano voice that commands attention and generates well-deserved applause when she sings the ever-popular "Part of Your World," "The World Above" and "If Only (Ariel's Lament)." Acting wise, she brings  an invigorating sense of humor, compassion and independence to the part, which works especially well throughout the production. As Prince Eric, the handsome prince who wins Ariel's heart, Johnny Stellard is charming, truthful and  dashing, personified by splendid, pitch-perfect vocals ("Her Voice," "One Step Closer," among others) that reflect the kindheartedness and romanticism of the material. Steve Blanchard, in the role of Ariel's widowed father King Triton, plays the part with attendant care, strictness and power the characterization demands while Lawrence Cummings laps things up comically, acerbically and  campily as Sebastian, the king's trusty crab servant, who offers advice to Ariel at his master's request and musically, stops the show with his beautifully-performed renditions of "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl."

The wicked and evil Ursula, played here with mischievous allure and unbridled sexiness by Meredith Inglesby, is yet another one of those Disney villainesses, you can't help but love and hate for all the right reasons. She's flamboyant. She's vengeful. She's confident. She's lively. She's calculating. And vocally, she brings the right sound and mindset to both "Daddy's Little Angels" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls." As Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's giggly electric-eel henchmen, Jackson Wood and Kyle Geriak are a lively, energetic and comical twosome with plenty of well-timed personality, dash and slipperiness that makes them stand out whenever they are on stage. Performing most engagingly alongside the diva-like Inglesby, one eagerly awaits their next onstage moment.
Scuttle, the nonsensical gull, hilariously portrayed by Marty Gnidula, performs "Positoovity" with vaudevillian aplomb. Connor Deane, as Price Eric's trusty, seafaring Pilot, acts and sings admirably. Chef Louis, played with giddy zest and unabashed craziness by Jules Royce, turns "Les Poisson" into the French-tinged showstopper it was meant to be, enhanced greatly by his superbly-timed expressions, gaiety and musicality. It's so much fun, you want to shout "Replay" over and over again.

As with "Evita" and "Annie," the latter of which was staged earlier this season by Broadway Method Academy, one of the key points of this production and others before it, is to showcase the vocal, acting and dance talents of the dedicated, hard-working students of BMA, all of whom put their best foot forward in the name of musical theatre. And what better way to do that than with the zest, vitality and animation that is "The Little Mermaid" and its happily ever after themes and undercurrents.

Under the invigorating tutelage of Shuford, Handley and Bryant, each and every one of the Broadway Method Academy cast members (all ages, all sizes)  succumbs to the beat, spark and magic of this Disney musical. As performers, acting alongside established Equity actors, they are assured, animated, emotional young artists, completely in sync with the production's musicality, its humor, its warmth, its story arcs, its dances, its theatrics and its high-spirited Disney tonality. They are first-class troupers who smartly reflect BMA's long-term commitment to nurturing and shaping the raw, real, refreshing talent of tomorrow. They dazzle. They surprise. They entertain. They also bring a smile to your face, which is this day and age, goes a very long, long way.

Photos of "The Little Mermaid" courtesy of Evan Zimmerman for Murphy/Made

Broadway Method Academy presents "The Little Mermaid" at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Ct., Westport, CT), now through September 8.

For information about Broadway Method Academy, call (203) 675-3526

For tickets or more information about "The Little Mermaid"at Westport Country Playhouse, call (203) 227-4177.