Monday, August 17, 2020

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 245, A Book Review: "True Believer" by Nicholas Sparks

By James V. Ruocco

The works of author Nicholas Sparks - like the writer himself - have attained a popularity, status, appreciation, and fondness from readers all across the world.

And rightly, so.

As a novelist, Sparks writes from the heart. An exceptional storyteller, his books are rife with imagination, nuance, allure, resonating triumphs and tragedies, vivid characterizations, impassioned, truthful dialogue and creative mindfulness. He knows how to tell a good story that is both memorable and enjoyable. He writes passionate stories that people want to read, chock full of human emotion, drama, surprise and insight. He knows how words must look on a page, how sentences should sound and what particular voice should be used as his stories unfold.

To date, over 120 million copies of his novels have been sold. All of his books have become national/international best sellers and have been translated into more than 50 languages. Twenty of them have placed on both the New York Times and London Sunday Times Book Review List in the #1 spot. And eleven of his novels have been adapted into major Hollywood films including "The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle," "The Longest Ride," "Nights in Rodanthe," "The Last Song" and "The Best of Me."

With "True Believer," Sparks crafts a novel that is a fast, run read - impossible to put down - once you get caught up in the solid, insightful story at hand.  The writing is smooth, welcoming and cleverly construed. The plot twists - there are many - are clever, invigorating and well positioned. Sparks also creates a heady, vivid atmosphere where time and space are well grounded and ripe for page-turning excitement and enjoyment.

The story, in a nutshell, is one that thrusts the reader immediately into the action at hand almost immediately

Jeremy Marsh, a sexy, handsome New Yorker who earns a living as an ace journalist for "Scientific American" and has made his first appearance on national television, is asked to come to Boone Creek, North Carolina (via an important letter from restaurant owner Doris McClellan) to investigate and write about the town's ghostly lights which appear in a legend-shrouded old cemetery that townspeople believe is haunted by supernatural beings and other assorted paranormal activities.

Is there truth to these stories?
Are there really ghosts that prowl the cemetery at night?
Are the diaries documenting these strange nightly occurrences real and truthful?
Are the lights in the cemetery creepy and scary or are they related to some recurring nightly phenomena in Boone Creek?
Or is the legend itself a fabrication designed to bring tourists and thrill-seekers into the town to boost the economy?

You have to read the book to uncover the mystery, but Sparks, creative writer that he is, doesn't disappoint. The ghost story theme is well documented and well played throughout "True Believer" and the author never fails to deliver. He keeps you guessing from chapter to chapter until all is finally revealed.

The flip side of  "True Believer" explores Jeremy Marsh's attraction and infatuation with Lexie Darnell, an attractive woman in her 30's who runs the town library. Hurt and disillusioned by past affairs and relationships, Lexie hesitates to trust this handsome outsider who has come into the library to do extensive research on the ghost stories of Boone Creek. But as the story progresses, she not only cares for Jeremy Marsh much more than she's willing to admit, but eventually falls in love with him despite impossible consequences.

In penning the Marsh/Darnell relationship, Sparks' exploration of this troubled romance (lots of conflicts, break ups, arguments and steamy sexual desires are portrayed) is distinctive, ambitious, poignant and purest. Better yet, it is never gooey, cliched or preachy. Instead, it is nurtured with the kind of flavorful passion and romantic commitment Sparks is famous for. And the ending - the very last page - is a big surprise in itself. You'll love the final line of the book.

In conclusion, "True Believer" is a confident, self-assured page-turner. It slides from chapter-to-chapter with honesty and perseverance. It is rigorous, quirky, complex and brimming with edgy supernatural freneticism. Attention to detail, plot advancement and characterization is thoroughly fleshed out by Sparks who has plenty of surprises up his sleeve.

Equally clever, is the ghostly fodder that allows Marsh to pan out and discover a wide set of truths, gloom, history, lies, deceit and facts. It's all envisioned marvelously by Sparks who has created a succinct, thought-provoking work that is full of heart, pulse and genuine emotion. His solid grasp on form and structure is unbeatable. And that's exactly what makes him one of the most-read, popular  author's of his generation.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 244, Massachusetts Theatre News: Barrington Stage Company, Shakespeare & Company

By James V . Ruocco

A reading of Rob Ulin's hilarious new play, under the direction of Matthew Penn, will premiere online Saturday, August 22 at 7:30 p.m. Following its debut, the production, sponsored by Barrington Stage Company (30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA)  will be available for viewing for a limited period of 96 hours only through Tuesday, August 25.

Ulin is best known as the executive producer of "Roseanne," "Norm," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Young Sheldon" and "The Middle." Penn's directorial credits include "Law & Order," "The Sopranos," "House," "Royal Pains," "Damages" and "The Closer."

Heading the all-star cast are Jason Alexander, Patti LuPone, Michael McKean, Santino Fontana, Loretta Devine, Elizabeth Stanley, Josh Johnston, Bianca LaVerne Jones, Julian Emile Lerner, Justina Machado, Carol Mansell and Michael Mastro.

In the play, Sammy Campo, a strangely corrupt, morally bankrupt lawyer has a near-death experience in which he comes face-to-face with a terrifying angel who threatens him with eternal damnation. In a desperate attempt to quickly redeem himself, Sammy enlists the aid of a Catholic priest who is having his own crisis of faith as he struggles against Church rules, practices and authority.
Together, Sammy and the priest debate the timeless questions of Western philosophy - morality, faith, religion - while forming a unlikely bond in this offbeat, irreverent comedy.

" 'Judgement Day' is the perfect panacea for today's' world," states Julianne Boyd, Founder and Artistic Director of the Barrington Stage Company. "It's a smart, funny play with a brilliant cast that gives audiences an opportunity to laugh out loud, which is something we've had little opportunity to do recently."

 Access to "Judgement Day" is available through a donation of $35 or more. It can be ordered via the Barrington Stage Company website at Day.

On Sunday, September 6 at 7:30 p.m., Barrington Stage Company will present "Leslie Kritzer: Is It Over Yet?" a musical event about "how to move forward" through song, comic mayhem and crazy, quirky stories. The actress, last seen as Delia in the Broadway production of  "Beetlejuice: The Musical," will be joined by Vadim Feichtner, her favorite pianist and husband.

The production will be staged inside the Barrington Stage Company theater. It will be presented without an intermission to maintain social distancing policies. Tickets are $35-$65.

Beginning September 9, BSC will present Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings," a darkly funny comedy set in a small Midwestern funeral parlor. Told through three different stories, the production, directed by Julianne Boyd, will run through September 20.

On October 1, the theater will stage Arthur Miller's "The Price," a two-act drama set in the attic of a soon-to-be-demolished brownstone. The play, as penned by the playwright, looks at family dynamics, estrangements, arguments and dilemmas along with vivid commentary about the price of antique furniture and the price of one's own decisions, observations and truths. Directed by Julianne Boyd, the production runs through October 18.

For more information, call (413) 236-8888.

Shakespeare & Company (70 Kemble St., Lexox, MA) and the Cherry Orchard Festival have united to co-present Arlekin Players Theatre's online live interactive art experiment "State vs. Natasha Banina," directed by Igor Golyak, the winner of the 2020 Elliot Norton Award for best director. Darya Denisova, the actress who headlines the production, was also awarded the coveted prize for Outstanding Actress.

"State vs. Natasha Banina" tells the informative story of a Russian teenager who grew up in a small-town orphanage and how her desire to be free led to a crime of passion. From the inside of a "zoom court room," she makes important appeals to the audience and jury expressing her dreams of love, family and her future. Ultimately, the audience takes over to decide whether she is innocent or guilty of manslaughter.

The play, according to Denisova, began an an online experiment from Igor Golyak's living room and subsequently, became an overnight national/international sensation bringing in virtual audiences from around the world and eventually, garnering a special "Critic's Pick" from the New York Times. It is based on Yaroslava Pulinovich's play "Natasha's Dream."

"The story made sense for our theatre because the world that Natasha lives in is completely different from the world that we live in," explains Golyak. "For immigrant theatre, it hits very close to home. We are from a different world, from a world that doesn't exist anymore. That forever put a stamp on how we grew up and how we perceive the world just like Natasha.
"Many of the characters are from the Soviet Union. Regardless, it hits home even though it is a story from a faraway land. It is also is a relevant work for today's world where systems fail young people, people of color and underrepresented people."

"State vs. Natasha Banina" will be projected on the big screen at the Berkshire Drive-In, located on the Shakespeare & Company's campus. It can also be watched from home on ZOOM.
Following the performance, there will be a "talk back" session on ZOOM with both Denisova and Golyak.

Tickets are $15 per person at the Drive-In or $60 per car.
ZOOM tickets are $25.

For more information, call (413) 637-1199.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 243, Connecticut Theatre News: Valley Shakespeare Festival, Hartford Stage, the Bushnell

By James V. Ruocco

Paris, circa 1640, is the setting for Valley Shakespeare Festival's upcoming outdoor staging of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano," the familiar story of an unattractive nobleman with a very large nose who pines for his beautiful cousin Roxanne, but believes his ugliness would prevent them from having a viable romantic relationship.
Of course, complications arise. The very handsome but tongue-tied Christian de Neuvillette appears on the scene to woo Roxanne. And she is quite smitten with him and his very good looks. But lacking intellect, wit and eloquence, Christian is at a loss for words until Cyrano offers his services as both letter writer and romantic conversationalist.

The abridged 75-minute production, which runs for four nights only, is being directed by Valley Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Tom Simonetti. It will be staged in a specifically socially distanced setting at Veteran's Memorial Park (38 Canal St. E., Shelton, CT) from Thursday, September 3 through Sunday, September 6. There is no intermission.

Showtime is 7 p.m. The park opens at 6 p.m.
Admission is free with a suggested donation of $10.

"We are very excited that we are able to continue our outdoor free theater series in Veteran's Memorial Park in our 8th year," says Simonetti. "We are taking proper precautions both onstage and backstage by using health policies that align with the state of Connecticut, CDC guidelines and the latest scientific research.
"Each of these three policies have highlighted proper social distancing practices such as staying 6 ft. apart, PPE usage, and regular disinfecting of any high touch surface areas that are key to minimizing the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
"The show must go on...but safely."

The production stars Eric Bermudez as Cyrano, Jessica Breda as Roxanne (plus other characters) and Mitchel Kawash as Christian (plus other characters).

"We are extremely pleased to present 'Cyrano' with three excellent actors who have all graced Valley Shakespeare's stages over the past few seasons," adds Simonetti.

Bermudez was last seen as Proteus in last year's critically-acclaimed, two-person play "Two Gentleman of Verona." Breda has appeared in several VSF productions including Emily in "Our Town," Viola in "Twelfth Night," Adriana in "The Comedy of Errors" and Dorine in the Shakespeare in the Bar staging of "Tartuffe." Kawash's credits include George in "Our Town" and Lucentio in "The Taming of the Shrew." 

"If you have attended a park show within the past 7 seasons, you will notice the change of dates from July to September," explains Simonetti. "Putting off the performance to September instead of our July dates was one of the better ideas for our organization.
"It gave us extra time to do more research on the virus and ample time to see how our efforts in Connecticut were in slowing down the spread.
"We also went for a shortened runtime for 'Cyrano' to keep any possible exposure to the virus low for both staff and audience. We are being very strategic and cautious in our reopening like any business at this time."

Per Valley Shakespeare Festival. all patrons must where masks when entering the park, going to the food and drink trucks, going to the bathroom, going back to their car and speaking with a VSF staff member or volunteer.
Face masks can be taken off while sitting in the 122-inch circle designed specifically for this production, eating or drinking or when you are safely socially distanced at 6 ft. apart. Any violation of these rules or guidelines will result in removal from the park and the production.

For more information, call (203) 513-9446.

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT) has cancelled all upcoming plays and onstage performances through June, 2021. This announcement includes the previously postponed "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)," Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" and the annual holiday presentation of "A Christmas Carol."
The entire six-play season, which was scheduled to begin in January, 2021, has also been scrapped. Plays included William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" and "Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous" by Pearl Cleage,

"Having to cancel our final weekend of  'Jane Eyre' this March, the entire run of  'The King's Speech' and the productions of  'Ah, Wilderness!' and 'The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)' has created a serious financial hardship for the theatre," explains Hartford Stage Managing Director Cynthia Rider." "Cancelling our 2020-2021 season as well was such a painful but necessary decision to ensure the safety of our audiences, staff and the long-term survival of Hartford Stage."

The decision to reopen Hartford Stage in the fall of 2021 is largely dependent of the success of the newly envisioned "Raise the Curtain" fundraising campaign. Patrons, community members and leaders and corporate sponsors are being asked to donate generously to sustain the ongoing operation of Hartford Stage, Ticket holders of cancelled performances are also being approached to donate their previously purchased tickets back to the theatre,

During this time, Hartford Stage will continue to build and structure its online and educational programming, which includes the popular virtual communications conversations series "Scene and Heard: LIVE," hosted by the theater's Artistic Director Melia Bensussen.

"Although I deeply miss the joy of collaborating in our theatre with our artistic guests and staff,  I am excited by the new ways we are finding to connect with our audiences and make entertaining and meaningful work," states Bensussen. "Our virtual season this fall gives us an opportunity to further
build our community partnerships, highlight our education work and contribute to a meaningful dialogue with our city and region.
"We need the theater and our artists more than ever to help us make sense of this challenging time and to help us envision the future.

For more information, call (860) 527-5151.

The Bushnell (166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT), one of Hartford's most prestigious venues, is looking forward to reopening its doors in January, 2021. Currently, the theater is busy rescheduling bookings and talking with the production staff of upcoming "National Tours" in conjunction with its popular "Broadway Series."

Based on the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, however, there may be additional changes to the upcoming season, but so, far, according to the theater, things look especially stable.

The newly revised "Broadway Series" is as follows:

"The Band Visit" (January 20-24, 2021)
"Escape to Margaritaville" (February 9-14, 2021)
"Dear Evan Hansen" (July 27-August 1, 2021)
"Hadestown" (October 26-31, 2021)
"Pretty Woman: The Musical" (April 12-17, 2022)
"Hamilton" (June 21-July 10, 2022)
"Wicked" (cancelled)
"The Cher Show" (cancelled)

For more information, call (860) 987-5900.