Monday, May 30, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 318, A Review: "Cabaret" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

"From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made my mind up that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So, I kept a detailed diary, which in due course, provided the raw material for all of my Berlin stories."
(Christopher Isherwood,"The Berlin Stories")

Let the drum roll, begin.

Part flamboyant, part queer.
Part bohemian, part dare.
Part sweet, part fun-loving.
Part comical, part sexy
Part, sparkly, part frothy.
Part Disney, part MGM.
Part soaring, part giggly.
Part cartoonish, part velvety.

Welcome to inviting, atmospheric world of the Weimar Republic's Kit Kat Klub, as envisioned by director James Vasquez and choreographer Lainie Sakakura for the Goodspeed's colorful, hugely entertaining revival of the oft-produced Kander and Ebb musical "Cabaret.

"Here, the girls are beautiful. The boys are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful."

Do we catch our breath?
Do we stare and wink?
Do we send a note of invitation backstage?
Do we bask in the musical's flamboyant camp?
Do we cheer the romantic chemistry of the two central couples?
Do we welcome the sight of tangled bodies, the burlesque naughtiness and the in-your-face blend of genders - straight, gay, bisexual, confused or whatever?

By all means, YES.
But, in moderation.

No room for delivered menace, masterbation, creepiness or sexual overload here.
Thjs "Cabaret" is Disney Plus with PG-suggestiveness and brightly gift-wrapped charm and gusto.

And that's perfectly OK.

But first, let's backtrack.

Since its Broadway debut in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" stage musical has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised to include original songs from the 1972 film adaptation directed by Bob Fosse or new ones that were introduced in subsequent incarnations including the 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes, his 1998 Broadway production with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the Emcee and the current West End London revival that originally starred Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley and now features Fra Fee and Amy Lennox in the signature roles of the Kit Kat Klub Emcee and cabaret singer, the notorious Sally Bowles.

This edition - played out in glorious Technicolor on the Goodspeed Musicals stage with sumptuous lighting cues by designer Amanda Zieve  - takes its cue from both the original 1966 Broadway musical and the critically-acclaimed Sam Mendes revival and deletes "Meeskite," "The Telephone Song" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" from the song list, but adds "Maybe This Time" "Mein Herr" "Heiraten" from the 1972 film version of "Cabaret" along with "I Don't Care Much" from the 1987 production that brought Joel Grey back to Broadway to reprise his original Tony award-winning role.
Not to worry, though.
This "Cabaret," despite lots and lots of revisions to Joe Masteroff's original book, wisely retains most of the music from the original 1966 Broadway Kander and Ebb production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy and Jack Gilford.  Then and now, the iconic, popular "Cabaret" songs - "Willkommen!" "So What?" "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies," "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "The Money Song," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "What Would You Do?" "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)" - are included in this retelling of the familiar musical story.

Overseeing the pungent and tangy musical score for "Cabaret" is Goodspeed's resident musical director Adam Souza whose credits include the Broadway productions of "Wicked" and "Kinky Boots," "Next to Normal" for Hartford's TheaterWorks and more than 15 musicals for Goodspeed including "Rags," "A Grand Night for Singing," "Because of Winn Dixie," "Very Good Eddie," "George M" and "Brigadoon." A master of color, expression, slam, bam and motion, Souza's comfortable, fluid take on the Kander and Ebb score is laden with perfectly realized choices that give way to the score's gravity, surprise, cutting wit, silence and space. Songs flow with demand and powerful assurance. Moods, scuttles, summons, warnings and shots erupt with maximum effect and thrust. Harmonies blend together with effortless precision and melodious dynamic. Solos and big, production numbers have style, purpose and importance.
Doubling as conductor and keyboardist I, Souza's hand-picked orchestral team features Adam J. Rineer (reed); Liz Baker Smith (reed I): Andrew Studenski (reed II), Pete Row (trumpet), Matthew F. Russo (trombone) and David Uhl (bass). Their orchestral energy - confidant, vibrant and varied - adds fuel, bite, sting and allure to the proceedings, offset by an obvious respect and appreciation for the musical's originators that makes every single one of the show's familiar character-driven songs not only stand out, but move the story forward seamlessly without any hiccups, hesitations or halts. It's all superbly detailed, gleaming, original and special.

From the rousing, inviting opening number "Willkommen!" to the surprise, mind-blowing "Finale" that ends Act II, this "Cabaret" unfolds with a saucy, sweet and determined spin that takes the already familiar music to an entirely new level. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know the song rota. Yes, we know who sings what - "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies" - and when. We also know what's coming - "Maybe This Time," "The Money Song," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "If You Could See Her," "Cabaret" and how it will all play out, dramatically or comically. Regardless, Souza and company aren't interested in the tried-and-true or paint-by-numbers blueprint. Here, they tap into the Kander and Ebb songbook with an overall freshness and theatricality that heightens the score's rhythmic fluidity and the feel and flow of its sonic, percussive tapestry.

Staging "Cabaret," director James Vasquez ("Hurricane Diane," "Tiny Beautiful Things," "In the Heights," "West Side Story") takes his cue from the good-natured original 1966 Broadway production and the dark, perverse 1998 Broadway revival, directed by Sam Mendes. Opting more for sweetness than perversity, he crafts a bouncy, buoyant revival that dances to its own beat (nothing wrong with that), darts and dashes with wallop and giddyap, charms and cajoles, tickles your fancy, allows you to have a giggle or two and immerse yourself completely in the musical story at hand. But it's not glitter and be gay (no pun intended). 

As storyteller, he comes to "Cabaret" with a trunk load of thoughts, ideas and creative input. He works hard. He takes chances. He experiments. He tries something new. He does have a tendency to soften the musical's sexual content, its edginess, its politics, its prejudices, its depravity, its seediness, its queerness and the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin. But he doesn't shy away from boys kissing each other, characters cross-dressing or engaging in sexual acts with any combination or pairing of two or more consenting adults. It's just not very alarming.

One of the biggest and obvious changes to this "Cabaret" is Vasquez's decision to transform the otherwise dark and dingy Kit Kat Klub into something very glamorous and inviting. It's a creative choice that Vasquez and set designer Michael Schweikardt utilize to full advantage - think British gentleman's club or British music hall - and frame it with "42nd Street" shimmer and shine. It's pretty. It's likeable. It's workable. But it has absolutely nothing in common with the mindset of "Cabaret" or Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories." 
Lastly, there's the bright-red, front curtain design. What is up with that? And what are we to make of it?  Sadly, it's looks like an odd piece of detailed, unimaginative froth resembling something left over from "Gypsy," "The Muppet Show" or some lesbian East Village watering hole. Another design error are the costumes by Lex Liang. Looking more like something pulled - last minute - from a New York-based costume shop warehouse - they fail to represent the look and style of characters living in pre-war Germany in the 1930's.  
The staging of the showstopping "If You Could See Her," is also a misstep. Originally, the number is performed by the Emcee dancing romantically with a female dancer in a gorilla costume. Here, Vasquez changes things completely substituting a female rag doll in place of the gorilla. It's engagingly performed by the Emcee and his dancing partner but is has nothing to do with "Cabaret" or the original concept envisioned by the show's creators. Here, all thoughts of the Nazi's rise to power and their hatred of the Jewish populace are erased entirely in favor of a number that is pure vaudeville, pure camp and nothing more.

Still, all is not lost.

While some of the more damning and dangerous issues facing German Jews and homosexuals living in Berlin during the early days of Nazi takeover in Berlin, are either overlooked or sidestepped, Vasquez's handling of the first signs of Nazism during "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" at the end of Act 1 is absolutely brilliant. The entire sequence is staged to thrilling, dramatic effect as is the positioning of the red Nazi swastika on the arm band of Ernst Ludwig who stands center stage as the scene concludes and the stage lights fade to black. Another voltage charged moment occurs at the end of Act II when three flags of the Third Reich suddenly drop down from the ceiling out of nowhere much to the horror on the onstage characters and everyone else in the audience. It's a scalding, numbing moment that frames the tension of the flag, the end of life as everyone knows it and the injustice, savage and terrifying events that will soon follow.

The frenzied, high kickin' choreography, influenced in part by Bob Fosse's aggressively edgy dance maneuvers from the 1972 Oscar-winning film and the subsequent 1998 Broadway revival, is solidified here by choreographer Lainie Sakakura, a creative auteur well versed in the challenging mechanics of theatrical staging and the rhythmic mindset and philosophy that is "Cabaret." Here, dancers stand. Dancers kick. Dancers pose. Dancers spread their legs wide open. Dancers bump and grind. Dancers flirt and gyrate. Dancers touch each other openly and erotically. Heads droop. Heads turn. Bodies twist. Arms, legs and feet move imaginatively to the beat of the music. It's all pretty wild and decadent stuff that unfolds in the manner and style of the musical's 1930's setting where anything goes and anything can happen and does.
As "Cabaret" evolves, every one of the dances is sexy, playful, eye-catching, high-spirited and gritty.  For "Willkommen!" "Don't Tell Mama," "Two Ladies" and "Money," Sakakura creates an electric blueprint of fun and dazzle that celebrates and digs deep into the musical's reworked conceit and its flavorful decadence. "Mein Herr," is turn, unfolds with the signature style and thrust of the 1972 film adaptation, celebrating the slither, pounce, prey and wild abandon of Bob Fosse, which, in this revival is created by special permission with the Verdon Fosse Legacy to mirror and reconstruct the uniqueness of the late choreographer's work from that Oscar-winning film. It is stunning.

Aline Mayagoitia, a dreamy, beguiling actress whose credits includes Eva Peron in "Evita," Cinderella in "Into the Woods" and Nina in "In the Heights" tackles the role of Isherwood's original party girl Sally Bowles (the character is based, in part, on his real-life friendship with  Jean Moss) with a thrilling, laid-back flourish and British musical hall aura that captures the naughty, confused, showbiz persona  and unpredictable abandon of the woman depicted in Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" and, as portrayed here, the delusional grandeur of someone who refuses to open her eyes, see what is happening and sadly, how she, among others, will be swallowed up whole without any warning.
Throughout this revival, she delivers an expressive, glamorous turn as a sexy, promiscuous chanteuse, chock full of froth, dazzle, passion and command. Together, with Bruce Landry, who plays her love interest Cliff Bradshaw, the duo spark the right chemistry as "Cabaret's" central romantic couple.
Vocally, the actress is as sensational and commanding as Jill Haworth was in the original 1966 Broadway production. Given the vast repertoire of Sally's many songs in "Cabaret" - "Don't Tell Mama," "Mein Herr," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Maybe This Time," "Cabaret" - Mayagoita digs deep, but has great, great fun offering her own personal take on every one of these iconic Kander and Ebb showtunes, delivering each and every one of them with the excitement, oomph and flair intended by "Cabaret's" original collaborators. Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe and vocal clarity are trademark perfect as is her ability to convey the meaning behind every lyric and every musical beat put before her. 

Oozing an uncoiled charm, chill and freshly minted twistiness, Jelani Remy, at first glance, seems an appropriate choice to play "Cabaret's" iconic Master of Ceremonies. He dazzles. He shines. He flirts. He cajoles. He manipulates. He attacks. He fascinates. He hypnotizes. Welcoming everyone into the musical lair of the Kit Kat Klub with the icy-cool and decadent "Willkommen!" he has great fun setting the style and tone of this big and glossy Technicolor musical.
He's a snappy, song-and-dance showman who loves and craves the spotlight and loves being the star attraction. He's got some of the best written songs out there - "Two Ladies," "The Money Song," "If Your Could See Her" and "I Don't Care Much," a dark and dreary tirade about desperation, fear and blindness to the world around him, which he delivers with ache, angst and mental disconnection.
He also gets lots of colorful cross-dressing costume changes that prompt questions about his character's sexuality. But unlike the Emcee created by Joel Grey, Alan Cumming and most recently, Eddie Redmayne in London's West End, he is never the centerpiece or glue of the story. Nor is he the tortured, lost soul of Berlin or the menacing perpetrator of gloom and doom. It's a creative choice deemed by the director - and no fault on Remy's part. That said, he still finds ways to mix eroticism, decadence, wit, individuality and gayness into the patchwork of this oft-told Berlin story right before the bomb dropped and all hell broke loose changing the face of Germany forever.

Ambitious, struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a gay novelist struggling with his sexual identity (he prefers both men and women including Bobby and glamorous party girl Sally Bowles), is played in this production by the dashing, boyishly handsome Bruce Landry ("Cinderella," "Les Miserables," "Anastasia") who finds a new sense of style and purpose with the role along with the rippling belief that his character has truly found a sense of self and worth as an individual and as an aspiring novelist. He's not only the best Cliff yet, but he delivers a grounded, well-crafted performance that is heartfelt, truthful, personable and very, very real. Vocally, he is strong, note-perfect and emotional, as evidenced in the second half of the cheeky and charming "Perfectly Marvelous," which he performs with the equally enchanting co-star. But as "Cabaret" spins forward, he doesn't get the opportunity to sing anything else ("Perfectly Marvelous," as performed in the 1966 version, does include extra verses for his character to sing, but not here) because Cliff's big Act II solo "Why Should I Wake Up?" doesn't exist in the 1998 revival script used in this revival (puzzling, to say the very least, seeing that is readily available)  while the character's other big ballad "Don't Go," which replaced "Why Should I Wake Up?" and was only heard in the 1987 Broadway edition of "Cabaret." Such a loss because Landry has the voice, the power and the charisma to pull off these songs most engagingly.

As Fraulein Schneider, a part originated by Lotte Lenya in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," the always watchable Jennifer Smith projects a convincing portrait of a lonely German woman and landlady whose life is not as terribly exciting or as fulfilling as she had hoped.  Acting wise, she plays this kind-hearted survivor with charm and truthfulness never quite knowing what tomorrow will bring. Musically, she captures underlying emotions of her character's songs with realness, drive and sensitivity. Her rendition of the perplexing "So What?" is both powerful and commanding as his her sweet-tinged romantic duets with Kevin Ligon (Herr Shultz) - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married." Much later, during the second half of Act II, she delivers the heartbreaking "What Would You Do?" an important song about choices, fascism, desperation, survival, wounded dignity and life's deafening blows. It's sung beautifully, but there are times when she fails to inhabit the truth and anguish of the interpretation and its intense, dramatic lyrics.

In the role of the sexually promiscuous Fraulein Kost, Terra C. MacLeod is saucy, devious, passionate and cunning in typical backstreet Red-Light district fashion (her character moonlights as a prostitute to pay her weekly rent), which is exactly what the part calls for. Underneath that facade, the actress deftly communicates her character's desperation for money, the turning of tricks in the privacy of her small bedroom, her nationalistic political beliefs and her obvious fight for survival in the wake of a troubled tomorrow that will change her life forever. Vocally, MacLeod delivers the eye-opening Nazi anthem  "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung with both Ernst Ludwig and the "Cabaret" ensemble with breakthrough passion and heartfelt concern. The actress also gets to sing uplifting "Heiraten," the German version of "Married," which rounds out the trio of vocals, shared with the characters of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The mixing of the two numbers together with three very different voices is sheer magic on everyone's part. It also comes full circle with additional shading and resonance to reflect its intended meaning.

As the loveable, charming, gentlemanly Jewish shopkeeper Herr Shultz, a part made famous by Jack Gilford in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," Kevin Ligon offers a warm, sincere and compassionate portrayal of a troubled man who refuses to recognize the danger that lies ahead for German Jews under the Nazi regime by saying "It will pass. It will pass." But sadly, it never does, a fact that adds resonance to his characterization at the end of Act II. It's a part he plays well enough, but the character never reaches its full potential in this somewhat softened telling. Vocally, he's so dynamic, it's odd that Vasquez didn't resurrect the often deleted "Meeskite," Herr Shultz's big comic number, back into the framework of the story. If it was, Ligon would not only own it, but turn it in a very big and grand showstopper.
Cast in the pivotal part of Ernst Ludwig, the German-born smuggler (later revealed as a Nazi and Jew hater) who befriends Cliff when he arrives by train to Berlin in the opening scenes of Act I, Tim Fuchs crafts a potent performance of exploration, politics and petition that fuels and nurtures his eventual allegiance to the Third Reich.

One of the most revived musicals this decade and last, "Cabaret" is a thrilling, chilling and daring musical entertainment that demands to be seen. Taking its cue from a story conceit set forth by Christopher Isherwood in "The Berlin Stories" and John Van Druten in "I Am a Camera," it is a brazen and not-so-brazen musical - depending on which version of the dozen out there is used - that is full of colorful characters, cheeky dialogue, plot advancing story arcs and an enticing Kander and Ebb score of rich, driven, melodic music in sync with the observant, evolving and crippling numbness of life in 1930's Berlin as seen through the eyes of Isherwood, playwright Joe Masteroff and the many collaborators who have tweaked and tinkered with the original story over 50 years or more.

The Goodspeed revival bends the rules, amps up the Technicolor and turns on the charm with dashes of dare, queer, bubblegum and cotton candy goo for a rousing, uplifting, sentimental telling that cries Disney Plus and MGM all-singing, all-dancing musicals while paying recognizable homage to the more innocent, more playful original 1966 Broadway telling.
It's still "Cabaret" - good, bad and brilliant - backed by a cast of tremendously talented principals, supporting players, dancers and ensemble performers whose primary goal is retell the "Cabaret" story but from an entirely different perspective that dances to its own beat, its own drum and its own viewpoint of life in Germany during the early days of Hitler's regime.
This "Cabaret" as seen through the eyes of director James Vasquez, "holds the mirror up" for a more shiny, happier, cleaner and attractive interpretation mixed with appropriate hints of destruction, decay and flamboyance that makes its point as sheer entertainment rather than a metaphorical darkness that  stings, hurts and breaks you in two.

"Cabaret" is being staged at Goodspeed Musicals (6 Main St., East haddam, CT), now through July 3, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Friday, May 27, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 317, A Review: "Between Two Knees" (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

As written by the 1491's, an intertribal sketch comedy troupe whose primary aim is to communicate, skewer and confront a predominantly white audience unfamiliar with the atrocities and massacres of Native American history, "Between Two Knees," which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival back in 2019 and is now celebrating its East Coast premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, attempts to humorously set the record straight.

One's lack of knowledge, of course, is immediately, up for grabs.

On December 29, 1890, in the state of South Dakota, more than 250 men, women and children of the Lakota tribe were killed by the U.S. 7th Calvary Regiment during the Wounded Knee Massacre, also known as the Battle of Wounded Knee.

How many people know that?

On February 27, 1973, more than 200 members of the Ogala Lakota tribe seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days in a much publicized protest known as the Wounded Knee Occupation.

What prompted the protest? 
Who was Richard Wilson?
And why was this tribal president the subject of impeachment?

What Native Americans fought for America during World War II and the Vietnam War?

During the opening minutes of "Between Two Knees," Larry, the personable, front-and-center jokester and narrator of the piece, played here in the Yale Rep version, by an energetic, talky Justin Gauthier, announces, "It's ok! We're going to make this fun. We're going to talk about war and genocide and PSTD and molestation. So, it's ok to laugh."

Yes, really.

Relying on humor that harkens back to the days of early 20th century vaudeville, "Between Two Knees" targets and parodies white audience ignorance, racial prejudice, absurdist story plots, cultural diversity, 1950's soap opera organ music, tribal folklore, American historical figures, drugs, marriage, hippies, television game shows, seized land occupation, family heritage, abandoned babies left on doorsteps, wounded and deceased soldiers, severed body parts, wheel chairs, small town bars and happy endings that spring out of nowhere.

But does it all work?

Mixing irony and unrest with shout, exploitation and zany, in-your-face collateral, "Between Two Knees" is a frenzied, fueled comic perspective and history lesson that may, or may not be everyone's brew. Or, satisfy everyone's taste.

There are laughs - lots and lots of them.
Jokes are frank, uncensored and surprising.
White people are attacked, bruised, ridiculed and reminded continually of their wrong doings.
Story arcs are dangerous, challenging, drug-induced and beneficial.
There are also times when "Between Two Knees" is ground-breaking, absolutely brilliant and completely fucked up.

But at the same time, this hopscotch through the decades, unravels and disconnects, if only fleetingly. Some scenes go on far too long. Others are cut short with no gratifying conclusion. 

Making his Yale Rep directorial debut, Eric Ting (Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theater), addresses "Between Two Knees" with marked determination, style and vaudevillian vitality. He also works overtime to bring things completely together with frequent off-the-cuff madness, references, encounters, shouty activity and fantastical pronouncements meant to ripen and enhance the play's storytelling potential.
Taking on the directorial challenge of the 1491's constantly changing subject matter - scene by scene; sketch by sketch -  he covers the necessary comic ground of the play text and its fixated, quirky details with over-the-top silliness and creative aplomb, hoping to prompt chuckles in all the right places.
There's trap doors that open and close stage center; a "Wheel of Fortune" type-wheel; "Wild West" show acts; a New Age guru; an appearance by George Washington; an army of real and animated nuns; characters dressed in space suits; lots of distorted historical facts; a love story carried from generation to generation in B-movie fashion; jibes about "Custer's Last Stand;" choreographed fights and dances that are played for laughs; and lots of pop culture madness.
Gut busting absurdity and straight-faced delivery is played to the fullest here as Ting moves the play's crazy comedic and dramatic moments through some pretty rigorous, well-timed staging and blocking maneuvers across the Yale Rep stage. Working against a brilliant, colorful, atmospheric backdrop (smartly designed by Regina Garcia) reminiscent of Buffalo Bill's iconic Wild West shows, offset by well-positioned light and sound cues and vivid, immersive projections, Ting brings plenty of imagination, style and grit to the proceedings even when the material shoots itself in the leg or slightly disconnects for a minute or two before jumping back into the spotlight for another gleeful round or two.

"Between Two Knees" stars Shyla Lefner, Rachel Crowl, Derek Garza, Edward Astor Chin, Justin Gauthier, Wotko Long,  Kholan Studi (understudy) and Joan Henry (understudy).  Rapidly connecting to the roles (Luc Haac's costume designs are a plus) they are playing, all eight performers portray a variety of different characters essential to the growth and advancement of the story, as dictated by the 1491 writing troupe. All of this is accomplished with range, presence, nuance, voice, humor and impact. Even when the writing isn't up to par and certain jokes flat, the cast plunges ahead reconnecting the dots and locating the fun, hoping you won't notice bits of material badly in need of rewrites, editing or reconfiguration.

A humorous, high-pitched play of comedy sketches, Native-American-history, war, angst, family ties, unrest and endless jibes at its mostly white audience, "Between Two Knees" is an important, well-acted piece of theatre that demands to be seen, despite obvious flaws that often interrupt its multiple viewpoints, complexity and amplified humor. Regardless, it's yet another offbeat, daring offering that signifies Yale Rep's ongoing commitment to non-commercial works that entice, thrill, jump start and entertain, powered by language, storytelling, ideas and gimmicks that are decidedly different from other area regional theaters including Hartford Stage and Long Wharf. And therein, lies its decidedly different hook, spin, execution and presentation.

Yale Rep is also to be greatly commended for its enforcement of mandated COVID-19 rules and regulations. Upon entering the theater, all ticket holders must provide proof of vaccination and booster shots along with a current photo ID. Masks also must be worn at all times while inside the theater. No exceptions.

Photos of "Between Two Knees" by T. Charles Erickson

"Between Two Knees" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT), now through June 4, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 316, A Review: "Queen" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

What is happening to the honey bees in America?
Is there a plague?
Why are they disappearing?
Why are they dying off?
Could they be humming their last buzz?
Scientific research, we are told, hopes to prove that theory wrong.

The life span of bees, among other topics, is the centerpiece of Long Wharf's "Queen," Madhuri Shekar's provocative 2017 play that aptly addresses the "colony collapse disorder" experimentation of a six-year university scientific study that rapidly signals the decline and possible loss of the honey bee population.

As the play opens, UC Santa Cruz Ph.D. candidates, colleagues and best friends Sanam Shah and Ariel Spiegel are putting the finishing touches on their exhaustive research about the global vanishing of the honey bee population. Although "Nature Magazine" has agreed to publish their career-defining paper and findings, much to the delight of everyone involved, Shah finds an error in their calculations, which could damage their career and reputation if they decide to commit fraud and tamper with the results, play hardball or stand by their principles, admit defeat and accept the consequences of their actions.


"Queen" is a fresh, unexpected twisty pleasure of fascinating arguments, statistics, hand wringing, campaigning and dramatic wordplay that unfolds with a distinct aesthetic and immersive storytelling grip that adds up to something throbbing, unique and remarkably plausible.

The premise, as written by Madhuri Shekar, is compelling enough to hold the audience's attention for a full 100 minutes (there is no interval), offset by gripping dialogue, story arcs, characterizations and well-crafted story essentials that drive the play forward with page turning excitement and surprise. Everything that happens is trotted out in significant, understandable form with chunks of exposition and information that is relatively easy to follow, thus, avoiding any form of confusion or disconnection on the audience's part.
Mixing metaphors, ecology, math and science into her theatrical commentary, Shekar's frequent twists and turns are pitched effectively as is her anticipation of the subject matter, its language, its playing ground, its desired effect and its unexpected ending. There's also lots of important bookish, classroom information about the actual study of bees, their habitat, their pollination, their reproduction, their swarming, their brood rest, their economic worth, their disruptive behavior and their nutritional/agricultural value. It's all very telling, matter-of-fact and vividly mapped out by the playwright. 
The play's last ten minutes - an in-your-face look at beekeeping and the actual maintenance of honey bee colonies - is bee built for beginners but told by the playwright with directness, subtlety and occasional flashes of surreal excitement before the stage fades to black and the actors appear a second or two later when the house lights come up and they gather across the Long Wharf stage to take their final bows.

Drawing the audience into Shekar's fitting, argumentative and thought-provoking play, director Aneesha Kudtarlar accepts the ethics, theories, elements and concepts set forth by the playwright and fashions an assured production with viewpoints and developments that are motivated, creative and heavy lifting. There's no denying the boldness of the endeavor and directorially, she holds the threads of the actual story together with pacy, uncluttered staging, atmospheric overlapping and arch, smartly placed interjection.
The right lighting cues, original music and sound execution lend themselves nicely to the production allowing Kudtarkar room to create, experiment and explore. An awful lot rests on the seamlessness of the action at hand and "Queen's" liberation, honesty and character building blocks adapt a straight-edged fluency that more than complements its intimacy, power, thrust and stinging (no pun, intended) vitality.

"Queen" stars Avanthika Srinivasan as Sanam Shah, Stephanie Janssen as Ariel Spiegel, Ben Livingston as Dr. Philip Hayes and Keshav Moodliar as Arvind Patel.

As Shah, the hard-working, concerned math genius. Srinivasan crafts a focused, important, likeable performance, projecting the urgency of the play script, her character's role in the story's progression and her struggle to make the right choices. Well cast as Ariel, the beekeeper whose passion for her work is now jeopardized by disruption, Janssen enters the mix with a gutsy performance that intrigues, excites and entertains with academia dynamic and heightened intensity. Both actresses also superbly portray the long-term friendship of their characters, the ecological politics of their valued research program and finally, the enticement of world-renowned success and its many, many temptations.
In the role of Arvid Patel, a Wall Street stock trader of Indian descent, Moodliar is both intriguing and confidant, oozing charm and calculation to full effect, matched by a sexual complexity and drive that makes his relationship with Shah, dynamic, passionate and narcissistic. Despite his oversized ego and smarminess, we like him, nonetheless. As Dr. Philip Hayes, Livingston is the right fit for the role (a compliment for the casting team), fueled by ego, dash and a willingness to commit fraud for his own personal gain, regardless of the consequences. 

An exciting, effective, involving play about theories, consequences, collapses, miscalculations and moral high grounds, "Queen" pushes boundaries, tests limits and creates the necessary chemistry between actor and audience to accentuate its edgy, scientific allure. It's a quirky bit of off-the-cuff theatre, helmed to great effect by director Aneesha Kudarkar, who unravels Madhuri Shekar's talky, exploratory script with wit, confidence and technique. The well-chosen, ensemble cast of four, furthers that notion with balance, identity and very hard work.  

"Queen" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through June 5, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 693-1486.

Friday, May 20, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 316, A Review: "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

The title - "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" - pretty much sums it up.
Zoey's family is Jewish.
The groom's family is a group of religious nutters who hail from Arkansas.
Trouble brewing. Oh, yes.
Perfect, not likely.
If it was, there'd be no point to Matthew Lopez's irresistible comedy about the mishaps of one couple's wedding reception (the groom is never seen) at the downtown Brooklyn Marriott during Thanksgiving weekend (the rates are cheaper), circa 2008.

"I look like 'Carrie,' " cries Zoey looking in the hotel's bathroom mirror halfway through the first part of play - her beautifully designed wedding gown covered in creamy chocolate frosting, which she later enjoys (licking it off the dress, that is) with some welcomed, much-needed alcoholic refreshment.

That's just one of the many, many laughs in this intoxicating comedy portrait about family and friends (some offstage; some onstage) whose colorful banter, excessive drinking, surprise revelations, judgemental tirades and candid sexual remarks about intercourse turn "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" into one of this season's must-see endeavors at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

If a script was available for sale (sadly, it is not) in the theater's inviting, spacious, recently revamped lobby, theater patrons would no doubt be leaving Hartford with a copy in tow for late-night reading, cocktail sipping or off-the-cuff improvisation or acting out in the privacy of their home.


No matter what your sexual preference - more on that later - shot for shot, this paean to pop-culture weddings paints an open view on the fun, the charm, the angst, the jitters, the expectations and the disappointments of something borrowed, something blue.

Matthew Lopez, best known for "The Legend of Georgia McBride," "The Whipping Man" and the Tony award-winning 2019 play "The Inheritance," fuels "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" with dialogue, motives and situations that provide an insider's view to the wild and wacky subject matter at hand. Here, his cynical voice is attractive and generous, full of acute, detailed, well-drawn banter that never loses site of the character's humanity, their chartered, entertaining accounts and pronouncements and sentences that are pen-and-paper ready for some wondrous, stand-alone quotes.

With nothing on his mind except to entertain, Lopez's descriptive candor and wedding planning/wedding reception truisms illuminate his play with bite, zing and straightforward acceptance. His mountaineering - serviceable, pithy, splendid and cherishably vulgar - provides apt humor, absurdity, wallop, shudder and spine. No room for argument, either. "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" is what it is. It's a comedy. It's not going to change the world. It's not going to make you lock yourself in the closet and cry. It's not going to ruin your marriage or ask you to call your divorce lawyer first thing in the morning. It's also not going to make you rethink your upcoming wedding plans.
As the story evolves, you get an insider's peek at lives and situations you probably already know with just the right amount of push and shove to make you want to see what happens next in the up-close and personal saga of the just-married Zoey and her quirky, mouthy, idiosyncratic friends including Rachel, the best friend who wasn't asked to be a bridesmaid and Sammy, a handsome, gay man (his lover Jordan is sick at home) who cannot resist the urge to drop his pants when the urge for hot, smoldering man-to-man sex is an invitation he simply can't (and will not) pass up.

Staging "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" director Rob Ruggiero brings a decided sense of purpose and excitement to the proceedings, mixed with gracious grandstanding, believable comedy, heated drama and breezy momentum. Working from Lopez's comedic blueprint, he gives the playwright's acerbic behind-the-scene's commentary - a wedding reception swirling completely out of control - a logical mindset and backup that keeps it free from parody, panto, soap opera and melodrama.
Balanced with fresh ideas, wonderful bits of physical comedy and reflective, shrewd and swoop injection, this translation moves quickly from scene to scene and character to character never once losing sight of its tracking, its jokey premise or its story arc fluidity. It's all perfectly synced, mended, rehearsed and performed with impressive energy, command and result.
Ruggiero - smart and savvy director that he is - wouldn't have it any other way.

There's food fights and wedding toasts that get completely out of hand. There's lots of memorable slip's of the tongue. There's loud, catchy 1980's pop music. There's arguments and conversations about gay sex, straight sex and no sex. There's talk about marriage, commitment, cheating and divorce. There's excess drinking from liquor bottles, shot glasses and champagne flutes. There's a wedding cake malfunction that leaves the bride's wedding gown covered with chocolate frosting. There's a private gay porn video that isn't a secret any more. There's a sexy gay bartender who's primed and ready for some hot gay sex with an equally hot male wedding guest. There's girly fights and flip discussions in the ladies' room. There's a song list, provided by the bride that the hired DJ refuses to play. There's no food, delayed food, a shortage of food and a last-minute reprieve of Chinese take away. There's raunchy banter about the joys of being the recipient of gay sex with a 10-inch penis. There's mobile phone screw-ups. And finally, Table 27, for plot purposes, is the worst seat in the house.

Tapped into the eccentricities and ever evolving paradox of Lopez's creative spin, Ruggiero provides a front-table view of bafflement, pleasure, gaffe and shifting physical energy, using stage mechanics, movements and blocking techniques that are timed, played and choreographed with split-second precision and hook. It's a sustained process that fuels the inside joke of a wedding party falling dreadfully apart, piqued by exercises in drilled, head-on lunacy and pathos primed and aimed for huge belly laughs at every possible turn. At the same time, these moments - small, large and ballyhoo - provide a charming intimacy and a kick-around fell of recreation (Brian Sidney Bembridge's attractive, immersive set and lighting design complements the action) that's pulled off with force, blaze and evident joy.

"Zoey's Perfect Wedding" stars Blair Lewis as Rachel, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Sammy, Daniel Jose Molina as Charlie, Rachel B. Joyce as Zoey, Hallie Eliza Friedman as Missy and Estaban Carmona as DJ.
Rachel, an attractive wedding planner and best friend to the bride whose marriage is slightly on the rocks, is played with ice cool allure and sophistication by Lewis, who, as the play evolves, becomes more and more irritated and frazzled in true comic fashion. She also gets to deliver a stinging nuptial toast to the bride and groom about why the institution of marriage is one big joke. As Sammy, an attractive gay man whose boyfriend is home sick in bed, Herdlicka  crafts a solid comic performance with bundles of positives that run smooth, hit home and address gay life without stereotypical convention. His raunchy, explicit tirades are hilariously executed and well suited to everyone's levels of fringe-induced humor.

Cast in the role of Missy, the perplexed wedding planner who puts on a smiley, happy face when things backfire throughout the wedding party reception, Friedman is very entertaining to watch as is her defined comedic style and slightly slapstick-oriented persona which makes everything she says and does completely palpable. As Rachel's husband Charlie and best friend to Sammy, Daniel Jose Molina moves through the script and its hilarious complications with breeze, snap and responsibility and gets laughs in all the right places. There's also a hint of a sexual attraction on Sammy's part to Charlie, a plot device with spoiler ramifications and surprise that pops up during the play's final half hour. 
Looking every inch the happy and not-so-happy bride, Joyce finds lots of well orchestrated humor, frustration, anger and madcap dash to bring the title character of Zoey to life. She looks absolutely smashing in her wedding gown (smart costume design choices by Harry Nadal befitting the entire cast) and has great fun portraying a character where everything can and does go so terribly wrong. Completely the picture, Carmona stands out as a DJ with prefers to play his own music at the wedding reception and much later, befriends Missy as a very possible love interest. The actor also gets some very funny dialogue including a truly hilarious comic bit involving his Hispanic family's miscommunication with the English language, thus mistaking "The Color Purple" film title for a movie called "The Colored People." 

Fresh, charming and blossoming with satiric, playful flair, "Zoey's Perfect Wedding" is a hilariously crafted comedy with dish-sized enthusiasm, raw, laugh-a-minute language, brazen, cutthroat footing and more than enough rights and wrongs for wedding reception partying to make one think twice about actually tying the knot and sending out all those invites to friends, family and loved ones.
Rob Ruggiero's fitfully, inventive take on Matthew Lopez's play script is real-time, kinetic-fueled, matched by six engaging performances of sugar-rush escapism, inviting wit and camp and some bitter, in-your-face truths and commentary about relationships - gay and straight - that hit home in a salty, jubilant, recognized manner.

Photos of "Zoe's Perfect Wedding" by Mike Marques

"Zoey's Perfect Wedding" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through June 5, 2022. It is also being streamed online from May 30 through June 5, 2022.
For tickets for more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 315, A Review: "She Kills Monsters" (Hole in the Wall Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

It's a quest like no other - or, if you prefer - an emotional journey where fact and fantasy are just plain weird, nerdy or hilariously fucked up.  So, let the games begin.

"Look, you overgrown stack of stupid, just because I'm pretty doesn't mean I won't fuck you the fuck up! Seriously, did you see a sign on the way in here that said 'Petting Zoo.' Now, get out of my magically enchanted forest before I decide to go all Faerie berserker all over you ugly asses. Yo, do I sound Canadian to you?  Ain't no one here gonna be nice all the dame time. Faeries are happy. HAPPY. No one said nice. And I'm brimming like made with some magical happiness. And guess what makes me happiest? Kicking the crap out of any lame ass adventurers who decide to trespass on my magically enchanted forest."
(Farrah "She Kills Monsters)

Qui Nguyen's potent, vigorous 2011 play "She Kills Monsters" - inspired by the hugely successful role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons" - is filled with humorously flecked references to the early days of the Internet and 1990's television bits and bobs, offset by epic, live-action elements of the D&D underground culture and quirky, involving sub-plots that include action-packed duels and sword play, graphic bloodshed and violence, wizards and warriors, the appearance of five-headed dragons, a gelatinous green cube, a notebook with secrets that magically spring to life and a good-vs. evil scenario featuring a colorful populace of characters ranging from vindictive homophobic cheerleaders and supermodel elves to paper bag puppets, crazed demons, hormonal lesbians, proud dungeon masters, clueless boyfriends and a young girl who recently died in a car accident.

Perfect fodder for a play, you ask?
Hell, yes!

Nguyen's narrative and its goofy, cohesive spin on life itself and the D&D world of its hardcore fan base sets Hole in the Wall Theater's inventive, standout revival of "She Kills Monsters" in constant motion for well over two hours (there is also a 15-minute interval) much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

Marvelously crafted.
Mind blowing.

In terms of escapism, "She Kills Monsters" succeeds swimmingly as it wildly connects the dots with hard-work flair and excitement toward the original material and its uncanny knack and appreciation for the D&D game itself and its many tilts, curves, wonders, adventures, accidents, revelations, pronouncements and influences.

But first, let's backtrack.

At Hole in the Wall, the fun actually begins once you enter the theater. The masked crowd - a necessary and important factor during these troubled COVID-19 times - is primed, ready and dressed to kill (no pun intended) - anxiously awaiting the "Dungeons & Dragons" journey to begin, which, of course, most of them already know word for word, heart by heart, game by game. You can see it their eyes, their choice of wardrobe, their conversation, their animated persona and their eagerness to get the best seat in the house. Gay, straight, transgender, non-binary, nerds, geeks, you name it. Everyone at Friday night's opening was primed for the actors to take their place on the HITW stage and the houselights to dim.

Ready! Set! Action!
Cutting edge theater - at its finest.

To set the mood, "She Kills Monsters" comes gift wrapped with a welcoming intro of sorts explaining the etiquette of the theater, its rules, its regulations and its protocols. Hilariously delivered and ad-libbed by J. Mason Beiter who plays the pivotal role of Orcus in the production, this commentary is rife with demented, flip and completely fucked verbiage that not only sets the tone for what's to follow, but prompts a monumental curiosity as to who exactly this actor really is and when exactly he will pop up on stage to perform. Suffice to say, Beiter's onstage performance is not only well worth the wait, it's actually the comic centerpiece of this hilarious D&D, mystifying and magical opus. The laughs and cheers that greeted his opening "rules and regulations" requiem were just the beginning. 

As devised by Nguyen, the plotline for "She Kills Monsters" is set in both the real world of Athens, Ohio (circa, 1995) and the imaginary one of "Dungeons & Dragons." As the play opens, 24-year-old English teacher Agnes Evans has lost her younger sister Tilly and her parents in a car accident. Upon looking through her sister's belongings, she finds a D&D module, written by Tilly, mapping out the detailed parameters of the "Dungeons & Dragons" game and the characters themselves. With the help of Chuck Biggs, a high school D&D expert (the character is actually based on the real-life friend of the playwright), Agnes enters the imaginary world of her sister's creation with Biggs doubling as her Dungeon Master and guiding her through the tangled web of Tilly's creation, which, surprisingly reveals hidden secrets and desires from her deceased sister's life.

To bring "She Kills Monsters" to life, Hole in the Wall Theater has placed Terrance J. Peters in the director's seat. The perfect fit for this particular form of slap-dash-wallop entertainment, Peters has staged "Completeness" and a virtual production of "This Is Our Youth" for HITW in addition to "Arcadia & Frankenstein" at the UMass Theatre Guild. Acting wise, his credits include Michael in "God of Carnage," Rooster in "Annie" and Brad in "The Rocky Horror Show." For this production, Peters is faced with the challenging task of crafting a theatrical piece set in both a fantasy and non-fantasy world, a directorial feat that would send most directors running for the nearest exit or the nearest pub or bar-and-grill. That is not the case here.
Peters, as director, turns "She Kills Monsters" into a viable showcase of invention, wit, imagination and dare or dare to be dared wizardry. His connection to the material, the 90's game of "Dungeons & Dragons," the characters (real and imagined) and the edgy, satirical and cohesiveness of the two central stories, is both focused and inspired, thus, delivering a 5-star production where both actor and audience are totally absorbed in the wild and wacky world of his creation. 

And what a world it is!
Here, everything from costumes, make up, lighting, sound, music, scenery, set changes, props, fight choreography and special effects play a key role in the story's vivid, over-the-top telling. There is no room for error. There is no room for mistakes. There is no room for wrong line deliveries or character interpretations. There is also no room for any of the action - real or imagined - to stop dead in its tracks. Peters, as interpreter, knows this and gets things right at every turn. His re-enactment of Nguyen's celebrated play dances to its own drum roll, using effective, important, seamless staging movements and blocking techniques, which carry the story forward without ever once missing a beat. There's LOTS and LOTS going on, but Peters, pro, that he is, keeps things steadied and controlled. Timing is everything here and nothing ever gets lost, stepped upon or drifts out of sync. Peters knows exactly what he wants and he runs with it.

In the role of Orcus, a demon overlord and soul-snatcher of the underworld, based, in part, on Tilly's high school friend Ronnie, J. Mason Beiter, all but steals the show, delivering a wacky, hilariously, reefer-tinged, blazing comic performance so real, so centered and so creative, you can't help but smile, laugh or applaud him every time he's on stage. It's an exciting characterization built with unbridled glee, sweltering freshness and in-your face snap and giddyap. As Chuck Biggs, a friend of Tilly's who becomes the Dungeon Master for Agnes' D&D journey, Stephen Kalpin keeps the part afresh with just the right amount of charisma, personality, support and mystery. He's absolutely perfect for the dual roles he is asked to portray.

Sarah Etkin, as Agnes Evans, projects apt concern, warmth and curiosity as Tilly's sister. Her entrance and eventual descent into the magical D&D world is one the actress powerfully conveys with determination, drive, thrust, angst. adventure and sheer, sword-wielding delight. Playing the dual roles of Agnes' sister Tilly and Tillius the Paladin, Zoe Hayn offers two uniquely different, electric performances that are clever, driven, revealing, poignant and perfectly in sync with the playwright's vision of both characters. The audience - loving everything she does - is with her every stop of the way.
In a no-holds-barred performance that prompts laughter in all the right places. Lily Kops portrayal of the mean-spirited Farrah, a loud-talking, dirty-mouthed fairy is amped with gleeful hysteria, glam and bitchiness that puts this mean girl at the top of her game. Mess with her and it's light's out.

Other fine performances come from Kendra Daisey Garnett as Lilith, Kerrie Macquire as Kaliope, Greg Mahoney as Miles, Kirsten Easton-Hazzaa as Vera, Kait Fitzpatrick as Tina, C.S. Dunn as Steve and Sydney Yargeau as Gabbi. All six have great fun bringing their respective characters to life while all around them cheers, shouts, screams, choice wordplay and loud clapping from excited D&D fans greets their on-stage antics. 

A likeable, marvelously inventive production chock full of accomplished swords-and-sorcery craziness destined to elicit a "Dungeons & Dragons" game at the stroke of midnight, "She Kills Monsters" is one of this season's big surprises. It is not only another playful and organic standout for Hole in the Wall Theater, but one that quickly affirms the troupe's ongoing passion for off-the-beat theatrical fare that challenges, stimulates and excites its audience.
As scripted by playwright Qui Nguyen, this D&D commentary vividly embraces its geeky underground culture front, backwards, sideways and upside down and thus, creates, an immersive fantasy world where fairies, shape shifters, demons, outsiders, wizards, heroes, heroines and antagonists act out their wildest moments scene by scene, act by act, much to the delight of everyone around them while pretty much anything can happen and does.
Under Terrance J. Peter's feverish direction, the cast - every single one of them - is a mighty force of wild, uproarious fun who make "She Kills Monsters" a remarkable, effective piece of theatre that celebrates the power of the "Dungeons & Dragons" ownership and its legions of loyal followers, all of whom uphold the elements of the popular role-playing game and its frequent flights of irrepressible fantasy.

Photos of "She Kills Monsters" by MasonMedia 

"She Kills Monsters" is being staged at Hole in the Wall Theater (116 Main St., New Britain, CT), now through May 28, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 229-3049.

Monday, May 16, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 314, A Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

"The Actor's Nightmare."
"Beyond Therapy."
"Sex and Longing."
"Laughing Wild."
"Baby With the Bathwater."
"The Marriage of Bette and Boo."
"Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You."

Few playwrights have explored the human psyche and all its repercussions as crazily,
expressively, madly or unpretentiously as playwright Christopher Durang. The lightning bolts of his imagination - no matter how quirky, fucked-up or completely off the charts they purport to be - reveal a talent like no other akin to a humorous world of primary colors, oddities, absurdities and conversational curves that are grotesque, nail-biting, strange and pathological yet, at the same time, ironic, satiric, involving and alarmingly true.

The core of these plays - idiosyncratic, strong-willed people struggling to make perfect sense out of their messed-up lives - are rife with foolishness, mean-spiritedness, unabashed sexuality, imagination, quirky overdrive, weirdness, pitfalls, non sequiturs and telling truths that only Durang could muster.
And that is exactly what makes each and every one of them stand out.

"I write intuitively, and with most of my plays, I don't know what is always going to happen. This means I can sometimes go off on a wrong tangent, and with luck then rewrite it in a better direction. But it means I sometimes surprise myself as I'm going along."
(Christopher Durang, Playwright)

Nowhere - at least for the moment, anyway - is this more evident than in Durang's celebrated comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," a deliriously wicked and playful spin on the moody and profound works of Russian playwright Anton Chekov.

"If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about."
(Christopher Durang, Playwright)

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, this crazy, offbeat comedic portrait about life, love, loss, regret and lunacy is back in the spotlight - or limelight, if you prefer - for a two-week run at Castle Craig Players, an intimate, cabaret-style theater well suited for this form of engaging, laugh-a-minute entertainment.

It is bold and snappy.
It is cheeky and insane.
It is acidic and sneering.
It complements the playwright's trademark absurdism.
Its intentionally ridiculous behavior and chaos is played with decided purpose.
It's well focused and clearly drawn.
It's a jolly good story with lots to say.
And finally, it is one of those plays that not only finds the joy in the language and bullishness of Durang's writing, but has an intoxicating weirdness to it that makes it even more palpable, more vivid, more engaging and more colorful than it already is.

Taking its cue from the plays of Anton Chekhov - "The Cherry Orchard," "The Seagull," "The Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya" immediately spring to mind - Durang finds humor with the oft-told story of three siblings at odds with one another, using dialogue, character names, references, story arcs, ideals and revelations associated with the 19th century playwright. The well-placed jokes about cherry orchards and what actually constitutes the makings a real cherry orchard (for example, how many trees constitute an actual cherry orchard?)  are hilariously orchestrated as are the play's acidic bits about Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Gloria Swanson, Neil Simon, Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett, Ozzie and Harriet, Snow White, Annette Funicello, Dorothy Parker, the Oscars, Walt Disney, Perry Como, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," the film adaptation of "California Suite" and decades-old television with only four channels.
As penned by Durang, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" depends heavily on the right comic timing, the right pacing, the right preening, the right posturing, the right mindset, the right expressions, the right line delivery, the right beats, the right holds, the right pauses and the right element of surprise to make the articulated neuroses, quirks and ticks of his outrageous mindset swerve, verve and giddyap. The implementation of Oliver Kochol as director (he co-directed "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Who's Holiday" and "Next to Normal" with Ian Galligan for Castle Craig Players) is not only a coup for this acclaimed, Meriden-based theatre troupe, but one that keeps the over-the-top craziness of the piece in check alongside its pretty looney characters, its Chekhovian heartbeat and its scene-by-scene whip and snap.

Then and now, Durang's dialogue still zings, excites and cajoles as it explores and retraces the choices, lifestyles, passions, idiosyncrasies and commitments of its six central characters, all of whom play a key role in his amusing, off-the-cuff, voltage-charged telling.

Here, Kochol, as director and interpreter, comes to the project with a keen sense of balance, purpose and directorial know-how to thrust "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" into orbit. He gets Durang. He understands Durang. He knows what works and what doesn't work. He digs deep. He takes chances. He doesn't waste a moment. He also guides his six-member cast through the play's unexpected comforts, insecurities, angst, merriment, frustrations, pronouncements and sexual frivolity with confidence, counterpoint, thrust, expression and intuition.
As the play evolves, he takes hold of Durang's blueprint and has great fun with it.
Directorially, he knows how to set up a scene, how to make it play before a live audience, how to get a laugh, how to let the material breathe and resonate, how to shake things up, how to pause or take a breath, and how to keep things moving at a brisk pace both comedically and dramatically. Given the intimate space of the Castle Craig Players' venue, he also enlightens the production with a special, one-on-one, actor-audience connection that would be relatively missing - to some degree - at a larger theater.
For this revival, Kochol allows room for small bits of improvisation here and there, a directorial tact that adds spark to some of the play's more funnier sequences and allows his cast to not only further embellish their characterizations, but play certain moments differently from their predecessors or make acting choices that allow them to take leaps or chances that bring additional dash and freshness to Durang's already proven material.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" stars Adrianne Giammatteo as Masha, Stephen Koehler as Spike, Barbara Gallow as Sonia, Mike Zizka as Vanya, Elisa Albert as Nina and Lisa Carroll as Cassandra.

Back in 2013, Sigourney Weaver's outrageous portrayal of the showy, self-preoccupied Masha, a famous Hollywood film star with an ego the size of Beverly Hills and a set of not-go-great slasher films to her credit, gave the Broadway production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" a high-octane drive that was chock full of splash, snap, dash and glitter, offset by a series of rants, raves and tirades that poked fun at tinsel town, its manufactured talents, its labored success stories, its sexual escapades and its glamour-induced materialism. It's a role the actress inhabited  quite comfortably, using the right amount of lunacy and eccentricity indicated in the play script. Playing the same part for the Castle Craig Players, the wonderfully charismatic Adrianne Giammatteo ignites the part of egotistical, self-centered Masha with the same fiery intensity and overplayed narcissism that Weaver brought to the role. At the same time, she goes full tilt with the performance - great directorial encouragement by Kochol - and is actually much funnier and crazier than her predecessor.

Creating non-stop laughter, thunder, argument and borderline chaos whenever she's on stage, the actress gives new meaning to the word "egotist," "diva" and "showoff," playing the role with keen, ripe, comic exactness and Hollywood glitz, glamour and flourish.
She also knows how to deliver a punchline and joke perfectly. Her moves, her comic expressions and her eye contact with everyone on stage is a genuine source of merriment. And in Act II, when her character comes home from a costume party (she is dressed as Disney's Snow White), she is at her comic peak crying and moaning about how pissed she is because most of the party guests assumed she was Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" or some colorful Hummel figurine. Priceless - and then some.

In the Broadway production of Durang's comedy, Billy Magnussen's portrayal of Masha's hunky, blonde, muscular toyboy Spike, got laughs in all the rights places due to the actor's uninhibited portrayal of a narcissistic exhibitionist prone to peeling off his clothing and stripping down to his underwear with gleeful abandon much to the delight of the straight women and gay men in the audience drooling and hoping for a costume malfunction.  At Castle Craig, Stephen Koehler assumes the role of Spike and its quirky playfulness, offering a polished, refreshing, absolutely hysterical turn that's so real and naturally inventive, you can't wait to see what his character is going to do next.
He's funny. He's charming. He's witty. He's charismatic. He's wild. He's quirky. And he knows how to play comedy effectively no matter what the script asks his character to do. His reenactment of Spike's HBO audition for "Entourage 2" is delivered with Actor's Studio resilience, charm, wit and surprise, using the necessary beats, pauses, drum rolls and excitement associated with the live audition process. It's one of the major highlights of the production and one that, under Kochol's savvy, intuitive direction, plays better on the Castle Craig stage than it did on Broadway. What Koehler does with his belt, jeans, and zipper is truly HYSTERICAL.

In the role of  "adopted" sibling Sonia, a plain, dowdy, middle-aged woman who believes that life has passed her by, Barbara Gallow gets some great scenes and great dialogue to flesh out her amusing, worrisome and somewhat damaged character. It's a rousingly ambitious, full-of-life performance, delivered with style, charm, wit and harmony that piques interest whenever she's on stage. She is also a master of the one-liner. Her droll, unaffected delivery of Durang's many, many zingers, offset by wonderfully timed reactions, is absolutely priceless. As is her outrageously funny comedy bit for a neighborhood costume party that asks her to dress up as Snow White's evil stepmother while channeling the voice and screen persona of Maggie Smith's Diana character from "California Suite."

As Nina, the neighbor's pretty, unassuming niece who dreams of becoming an actress when not flirting with Spike in his underwear or gushing madly over Masha's big screen success, Elisa Albert crafts a vivid character turn with grounded rhythm, genuinely-live in exhilaration and deliciously sprung surprise, the later which comes about in Act II when she is asked to play the part of a molecule in a reading of Vanya's play.
Last seen in Backyard Theater Ensemble's chilling production of "A Number" at New Britain's Hole in the Wall Theater, Mike Zizka (Vanya) offers yet another polished, honest performance that smartly reflects the character blueprint set forth by Durang. His line delivery, his comic timing and interaction with the entire "Vanya" cast is flawless. During the second half of Act II, he too gets one of those big theatrical moments that asks him to rant, rave and philosophize in grand, illuminating fashion similar to something found in one of the Chekov plays. He pulls it off effortlessly. Lisa Carroll, as Cassanda, Vanya and Sonia's cleaning woman, who delivers dire prophecies that come true and uses a voodoo doll on Masha, brings sitcom sensibility to the part, laced with drama queen abandonment and variety show, panto-themed determination. 

Smart, sassy and cheerful, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is a wildly clever two-act comedy that playwright Christopher Durang crafts with outrageous wit, cheeky, character-driven dialogue and enough biting irony to keep one happily entertained for well over two hours. The script is bold, saucy and lampooning, thus, eliciting loud chuckles and belly laughs from start to finish. With director Oliver Kochol at the helm, the playwright's tangled, absurdities and marvelous plot twists ring loud and clear as does the play's Chekhovian-inspired characters, their triggered-up craziness, their verbal tirades and their dysfunctional angst and ennui which, of course, is the heartbeat of this engaging comic entertainment and other works by Durang.
Whiplash comic timing and genuine, airborne performances by the entire cast, bring additional spark to this splendid revival about family, choices, sex, self-identity and pretty much everyone else in the chaotic world of Durang's thinking. 

Photos of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" by Kevin McNair

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is being staged by the Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse, 59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through May 22, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 634-6922.