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.