Thursday, January 26, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 367, A Review: "Espejos: Clean" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

"Traducir no es sencillo".
"Es interpretar."

To articulate the voices of Adriana and Sarah, the two central characters of Christine Quintana's quick-witted, personal and very talky play "Espejos: Clean," the playwright has chosen to interpret her work in both Spanish and English.
It's a bilingual concept - interesting, flawed, distracting or fascinating - completely dependent on the savvy, confused, pleasurable or annoying mindset of the theatergoer who is asked to spend nearly two hours reading, reading and reading lots of translated dialogue while trying to connect the dots, follow the ongoing story and watch the onstage action at the very same time.

I had no problem with it at all simply because growing up as a youngster under ten, and later, my parents took me to foreign films where French, Italian, Spanish, German and Swedish motion pictures were shown with English subtitles.  
"Dubbing," to quote my mom and dad "was a no-no." In their eyes, if a film was presented in its actual language, to "dub it in English was an insult to the actor, the director, the material and the audience."

That same theory is the driving force that keeps Hartford Stage's presentation of "Espejos: Clean" on its toes, so to speak.
Here, the important and detailed words of the intertwined monologues created by Quintana are projected seamlessly via subtitles above the stage as each of the actresses speaks. 
Adriana's Spanish-speaking dialogue is lensed entirely in English. Sarah's English verbiage is showcased in Spanish.
But be forewarned.
To fully enjoy the play, you can't for a moment, lose your train of thought.
Yes, there's a lot to read.
Yes, there's a lot to absorb.
Yes, this isn't the supertitles format of abbreviation found at the Metropolitan Opera House.
At Hartford Stage, the action - played out against the backdrop of Mariana Sanchez's stunning, atmospheric set (a resort in Cancun) - is continuous as the two women proudly and openly step forth to share their feelings, their secrets, their thoughts and their anxieties separately or in scenes where they are asked to perform together.
Therefore, paying attention is mandatory.

As theater, "Espejos: Clean " engrosses, stimulates, jolts, amuses and excites.
It's a crafty theatrical endeavor that Quintana builds with apt back story, shaping, masking, reflection and invention. 
Plotwise, Adriana commandeers the cleaning/housekeeping staff at the Cancun-based hotel. Sarah, in turn, is a Canadian tourist who has come to Mexico as the maid-of-honor at her younger sister's wedding.
The mirrors of their lives (the "espejos" of the play's title) are projected and defined with heady collision, confidence and examination by Quintana. The combustion she seeks is echoed with tiff, precise bounds and bursts that contribute greatly to her telling and add important shading, wit, drama and character to the many monologues she creates for both Adriana and Sarah. A little tweaking here and there, especially near the end of Act I, could remedy a few dull and rough spots, but in the long run, it's hardly unsettling or damaging to the story at hand.

Staging "Espejos: Clean," director Melissa Crespo comes to the project prepared, ready and able to dig deep into Quintano's bilingual character portrait. As the character's speak, there's plenty of emotional footing in their individual interpretations fueled by elevated storyboard instinct, flourish, identity, conflict and engagement. Even when some of the dialogue is not up to par, Crespo plunges forward, backed by crisp, detailed staging and blocking maneuvers, many of which are visually enlightened and supported by Lisa Renkel's choice, colorfully designed, strategically placed and positioned, eye-popping projections.
Here, fluidity is key to how the play works and unfolds before a live before a live audience while utilizing dialogue in two different languages without any hiccups or halts in the proceedings. Cresco, in turn, creates a playing ground that is full of movement, detail and invigoration. It's all procured with real-time thrust, balance and efficiency that naturally complements the action, the story arcs, the complex shifts in time and place and the behavioral changes of the characters themselves.

"Espejos: Clean" stars Emma Ramos as Adriana and Kate Abbruzzese as Sarah.
Well-chosen for their respective roles, both actresses deftly portray the intertwined stories of two women from different cultures with confidence, control, influence and absorption. The demands are great as there is a lot going on, both in Spanish and in English. 
Nonetheless, the clarity of thought, memory and commanding skill they bring to the work allows the audience to get inside their heads and follow their stories with inspired enthusiasm, journey and eavesdropping fascination.

Full of potential, melodrama, love and affection, "Espejos: Clean" is an important work of theatre, framed by two great performances, distinct direction and bilingual dialogue with abundant waves of bite, investment, shout and intrigue.
To full appreciate it, however, grab on tight to the play's subtitles, don't blink and read fast - very fast.

Es una solicitud simple y una en la que necesita ser relajada.

Photos of "Espejos: Clean" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

"Espejos: Clean" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through February 5, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 366, A Review: "Six The Musical" (Aragon Tour) The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

"What hurts more than a broken heart?" asks Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII.

"A severed head," chimes Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII who was beheaded on May 19, 1536, at London's Tower Green for adultery, incest and high treason.

No history lesson, here, as Henry VIII had six wives.
Who were the other four?
Catherine of Aragon. Anna of Cleves. Katherine Howard. Catherine Parr.
How did they die?
Who did what to whom?
Was it love that captivated Henry?
Or was he just looking for someone to bed, wed and give him the next heir (or heirs) to the throne? 

In "Six the Musical," all confusion as to who came first, who died, who survived and who lost their head is cleared up immediately with references to the popular British "Henry VIII Wives' Rhyme."

"Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."

It's a fun fact - and one of the many - that keeps the slick and sassy "Six the Musical" spinning and turning front, center and sideways in all its spangly Renaissance glory for a full 80 minutes of crafty, ballsy and snarky entertainment that gets the pulses racing, the adrenaline flowing, the hands clapping and pretty much anything else you can toss into the mix.

This is theatre.

Fueled by contemporary-styled pop music designed for the music industry's diva-of-the-moment experience, this musical showcase for Henry's perturbed, pissed off, often forgotten royal rejects, "Six The Musical" not only tends to set the record straight with fictionalized star turns - think rock concert - but gives voice to six very different women who time remembers mostly as the wives of Henry VIII and very little else.

As written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the musical wisely opts for a modern telling of the lives of Henry VIII's wives set against the backdrop of a pop concert that becomes a competition of sorts.

Who suffered the most?
Who has the best story?
Who should become queen?
Who is the true winner?

With the groundwork laid, Marlow and Moss bring plenty of girl-squad power and imagination to their story, interspersed with juicy and playful tidbits about divorce, beheadings, miscarriages, church reformation, childbirth, sexual intercourse and the size of husband Henry's penis. What follows is a detailed, class-ridden investigation that morphs into absolute, sheer fun with biting commentary and deliciously wicked notoriety that never once disappoints or stops the action dead in its tracks.
Here, you get finite jest, cynical voice, targeted observation, marvelous stand-alone quotes and well-orchestrated moments that cut straight to the heart of the juicy drama between the six main female characters.

Musically, "Six The Musical" is told through 13 songs, which navigate the dynamic and rhythmic thrust of the score with distinct, impressive individuality, vamp and acoustic clarity. They are: "Ex-Wives," "Ex-Wives (reprise)," "No Way," "The One You've Been Waiting For," "Don't Lose Your Head," "Heart of Stone," "Haus of Holbein," "Get Down," All You Wanna Do," "I Don't Need Your Love," "I Don't Need Your Love (Remix)," "Six" and "The Megasix (Encore)."
Guided with a sure hand by Marlow and Moss, who wrote both the music and the lyrics, each of the musical numbers is well balanced and immaculately shaped, imbuing song styles and lyrics perfectly in sync with the story, its sarcasm, its irony, its fight for the spotlight, its strongness and its pop diva luster. The onstage band, aptly titled "The Ladies in Waiting" (Jo Ann Daughtery (conductor/keyboard), Janetta Goines (bass), Rose Laguana (guitars) and Paige Durr (drums), heighten that sensation with eschewed distinction, boom, flush and flow that smartly reflects the concert vibe and punch intended by the show's creators. It's affecting. It's splendid. It's telling. It's diverse.

Staging "Six the Musical," co-directors Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage create a perfectly proportioned, emotionally connected production of contrast and tempo that intrigues, delights and overwhelms with its whip smart blend of pop-fueled concert staging and atmospheric crescendo. It's rave and illusion, all rolled into one, offset by individual, animated moments of high-rendered, intricate blocking and staging techniques that change course from moment to moment and song to song. This directorial conceit is sustained throughout the production, and is nicely paired with the dance moves, patterns and synchronized beats and rhythms created by choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. Since no two numbers are alike, the end result is both splendid and beautifully expressed with masterful subtlety, form, position and invention.

 "Six The Musical" stars Khaila Wilcoxon as Catherine of Aragon, Storm Lever as Anne Boleyn, Jasmine Forsberg as Jane Seymour, Olivia Donalson as Anna of Cleves, Didi Romero as Katherine Howard and Gabriela Carrillo as Catherine Parr.
As the ex-wives of Henry VIII, each actress takes center stage with big, joyful, colorful interpretations that unfold with jolts of energy, charm, sexiness and whipped out diva power. Make no mistake, these women are ready to rock the Queendom, engage in Tudor wordplay, spill the dirt, shake you up and tell their story in liberated, intoxicating Broadway style.
They snark. They amuse. They sneer. They sing. They dance. They excite. They hypnotize.
They work as a team. They support one another. They reenact the spirit of sisterhood. They unite as one.
Musically, every one of their vocals and ensemble numbers are performed with absolute pulse and feeling, ignited by soul, heart, emotion and sincerity. It's the real deal - flawless, magical, feisty and bloody well brilliant.

A musical celebration of the highest order, "Six The Musical" is a colorful, explosive, confident work about six very cool, very outspoken queens who join together as one to sing, dance, chat and converse over royal history in glorious Tudor finery that complement and define their shout-out, volatile, pop-drenched musical stories.
It's front-row-center fun mixed happily with roar, glee and amped up messages of in-your-face feminism that glide across the stage in steamy, high-voltage Technicolor.
It tilts. It snaps. It seduces. It charms. It excites. It beckons.
It's kiss-ass entertainment - 21st century girl power recalling 500 years of British historical heartache and trauma - where the energy never falters, the spell is never broken and the concert vibe it creates lingers long after the six queens disappear into the darkness as the music swells.

"Six The Musical " is being staged at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT), now through January 21, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-6000.


Tuesday, January 17, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 365, A Review: "Straight Men Can't Dance" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

 By James V. Ruocco

"I am not being Martha Stewart. I would never wear an ankle bracelet that ostentatious."

"Now if I were straight, what would I like to eat?"

"Oh, honey. Don't you know about gaydar? It's easy for one gay person to tell another gay person just by looking at them."

"I've been a bitch. Well, Alexis, you take the cake. And by the looks of your ass lately, it appears more like the whole bakery."

"Straight Men Can't Dance," a new play by Craig David Rosen, tells theatergoers what it's like to grow up gay in the 1990s with all the joys, woes, confusion and chaos associated with homosexuality - coming out to friends and family; same sex marriage; first crushes; diva melts; lumps in the throat; fighting for equality; man-on-man sex; freedom of choice; prejudice in the workplace; etc.

The good news: It's not preachy. It's not full of itself.
It's also not halted by situations or moments that are too long, inappropriate or seismic.
This being a comedy, the accent is on humor.
Lots of it.
The plotline zeroes in on a gay male couple's teenage son's romantic, first-time dalliance with a nerdy high school friend who hasn't told his conservative parents that he prefers boys instead of girls.
They have consensual sex, which they both enjoy.
They start dating.
They have sex again.
Then, before you can say Bea Arthur and Angela Lansbury (both actresses are referenced in early parts of the play), it's time for both sets of parents to meet one another over drinks and dinner.
With the groundwork humorously laid, the plot thickens.
Who's gay?
Who's straight?
Who's confused?
Who's experimenting?
Who's ready for the big reveal?
Who's harboring a life-changing secret?
Will everyone live happily ever after?
Not, a chance!

As entertainment, "Straight Men Can't Dance" is a hoot-and-holler laugh fest.
It tilts.
It swerves.
It delights.
It delivers.
It is voiced with pioneered giddiness.
It's Neil Simon, Harvey Fierstein, Mart Crowley, Michael Frayn, Patrick Dennis and Terrence McNally all rolled into one.

As playwright, Rosen skillfully handles the play's multiple scenes, characterizations, changes of pace and infectiously "queer" moments with irony, bite, reflection, sentimentality, surprise and in-your-face flourish. He knows how to write a line of dialogue. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to pen and develop a character. He knows when to take a breath. He knows how to pause, halt, stop and go. He knows how to shock, surprise and titillate. He knows what works and doesn't work. He takes chances and runs with them.
He not only knows the gay vernacular inside out but includes plenty of playful, well-choreographed bits of dialogue and stage business for laughter's sake that has several of the play's homosexual characters calling each other "girl" or "she," throughout the two-act comedy.
According to the gay handbook, this catty banter is a "gender identity role" that's been played out "for centuries" by the homosexual populace. The gay man's love of Broadway show music is also bandied about, most amusingly. 
Offensive, not really.

Here, high camp is a heavenly pleasure.
It is also well matched by Rosen's welcoming verbiage, his gay endorsements, his playful stereotypes, his gender-bending preening and prancing, his love of Broadway musicals and its leading ladies and finally, the fueled extravagance of his deliciously bonkers plotline. It's all diced, tossed, stirred and sorted with the creative savvy, challenge, wit and self-irony one expects from this sort of over-the-top entertainment.

Directorially, Rosen sets his play in motion with material that's flamboyant, open-faced, demanding, revealing and decades-past confident. Each scene is introduced via projections that offer hints of what's to come, backed by spirited dialogue and character exchanges that fit seamlessly into the progression of his ongoing story.
In terms of staging, he doesn't waste a move. He goes with the flow. He shakes things up. He dives in. He's clever. He's intuitive. He's mindful. He entertains. He charms. He giggles. He thinks outside the box. He also celebrates the stagey melodrama of it all with perfectly synced blocking and stage maneuvers that carry the story along engagingly and confidentially with nary a hiccup or misstep in sight.
Especially important here is Rosen's work with the actors themselves.
In order for "Straight Men Can't Dance" to resonate and barnstorm, he gives the cast important character traits, movements, behavioral patterns, expressions and overreactions that heighten their involvement in the actual storytelling. It's a conceit that not only adds dimension to the already proven material but is framed directorially by choice bits and bobs that are perfectly balanced, detailed, character-building and wildly interpreted.

"Straight Men Can't Dance" stars Rick Calvo as Stephen, Nick Smith as Rick, Collin Larson as Dexter, Kevin McNulty as Marc, Steffon Sampson as Paul (a), Lynn Nissenbaum as Bitsy and Billy Dempster as Winston.
As orchestrated by Rosen, the entire cast brings ceaseless energy to their wildly caricatured, stereotypical roles. Each and every one of them offer hilarious, sustained comedy performances that become even funnier (Calvo's character, for example, ends up in a trance for six to eight minutes once he becomes privy to the truth behind his son's sexual experimentations) as the action inches forward from scene to scene and act to act.
It's all precision drilled, breakneck speed comedy that spills across the stage with just the right amount of farcical momentum, buffoonery and roar necessary to keep the audience howling and howling with laughter. Working together as one, this incredibly talented ensemble never once misses a beat, a character tick or a snappy one-liner that celebrates the play's nonstop absurdity.

Inspired, wonderfully glib and fitfully entertaining, "Straight Men Can't Dance" dials up plenty of slapstick comedy and gate-crashing put-downs and one-liners to keep you giggling for weeks.
Playwright/director Craig David Rosen brings real inspiration and focus to this world premiere work about openly gay and not-so-openly-gay characters living in 1990's New Jersey - just a stone throw from Greenwich Village, the bohemian epicenter of LBGTQ life in New York City.
As penned and staged by Rosen, there's a lot going on, so to speak, with plenty of twists, turns, truths and surprises, all played out by his stellar seven-member cast with weighted merriment, boozy and bitchy demand and sourced up truism.
As theatre, it's high camp with plenty of rainbow-tinged theatrics and dynamics, lovingly curated by Rosen whose gift of the gab has such arch and sneer, it's hard to resist this alert, character-driven comedy romp and everything it has to say about society, about people, about homosexuality, about freedom of expression and finally, living life to the fullest by simply ripping up the rulebook.

"Straight Men Can't Dance" is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through January 21, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023.

Monday, January 2, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 364, "The Best Plays of 2022 (Non-Equity)"


By James V. Ruocco


Non-Equity Theatre in 2022 was exactly that.

So many plays to discover.
So many plays to cherish.
So many plays to enjoy.

Drama. Comedy. Classics.
Some very recognizable.
Some rarely performed.
Some very few theatergoers have heard of.

The thrill of course, was discovery.
New. Old. Timely. Quirky. Outrageous.
That was the bill of fare at both Hole in the Wall Theater and Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.

Shakespeare. Dungeons & Dragons. Neil Simon. The game of Clue.

What worked?
What stood out?
What drove theatergoers and critics absolutely wild?

For some, it was simply a matter of choice.
For others, it was a night on the town.
Or, in some cases, it was the opportunity to enjoy something new or grab a ticket to something they've never heard of before.
No argument there.

Theatergoing was at its peak throughout 2022.
Lots to see. Lots to enjoy. Lots to applaud.

After months of deliberation and revisiting an endless variety of content, from reviews and playbills to columns and specially marked reminder notes, choices for The Best Non-Equity Plays of the Year fell neatly into place, one by one, line by line.

Not really.
An open mind?
Time consuming?
A little.
Yes, indeed.
Personal favorites?
It comes with the territory.

But first, a few simple rules.
Only "press invited shows" (i.e., invites from Non-Equity Theaters or marketing departments within the actual venue are eligible for "Best Play" consideration. 

My choices are as follows:

Please note: This year, there's a tie for first place amongst two very different productions.

"She Kills Monsters" and "God of Carnage" have received top honors in this year's round up of eligible play productions.

The Best Non-Equity Plays of 2022

She Kills Monsters
(Hole in the Wall Theater)
director: Terrance J. Peters

God of Carnage
(The Arts at Angeloria's)
director: Joey Abate

Day of Absence
(Hole in the Wall Theater)
director: Laurie Maria Cabral

Clue on Stage
(Castle Craig Players)
director: Ian Galligan

(Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)
director: Jane Farnol

A Number
(Backyard Theatre Ensemble)
director: Teresa Langston

(Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)
director: Lou Okell

(Hole in the Wall Theater)
director: Teresa Langston

California Suite
(Castle Craig Players)
director: Pam Amodio

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
(Castle Craig Players)
director: Oliver Kochol

Night of the Assassins
(Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)
director: Tony Bosco-Schmidt

Love's Labour's Lost
(Hole in the Wall Theater)
director: Marando Gallo

Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)
(Castle Craig Players)
directors: Carleigh and Bobby Schultz

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 363, "The Best Plays of 2022 (Equity)"

By James V. Ruocco

Fresh takes.
Seasoned classics.
New works.
Engaging comedies.
Mesmeric revivals.
Skilled ensembles.
Edgy dramas.
Holiday favorites.

The play. The actor. The director. The script.

LIVE theatre from an Equity perspective was in top form throughout 2022.

Yale Repertory Theatre.
Hartford Stage.
HartBeat Ensemble.
Thrown Stone.

Opening night was a hit.
Great orchestra seats were plentiful.
The reviews came out.
Many performances stood out.
Standing ovations came from excited theatergoers.
And yes, there were plenty of surprises.

What worked?
What stood out?
What drove theatergoers and critics absolutely wild?

After months of deliberation and revisiting an endless variety of content, from reviews and playbills to columns and specially marked reminder notes, choices for The Best Equity Plays of the Year fell neatly into place.

Absolutely not.
Pros and Cons?
Not really.
An open mind?
Time consuming?
A little.
Hell, yes.
Personal favorites?
It comes with the territory.
A drink or two?

But first, a few simple rules.
Only "press invited shows" (i.e., invites from Equity Theaters or marketing departments within the actual venue are eligible for "Best Play" consideration. 

My choices are as follows:

This year, however, there is no tie for first place.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? receives stand-alone honors in this year's round up of eligible play productions.

The Best Equity Plays of 2022 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(Yale Repertory Theatre)
director: James Bundy

My Children! My Africa!
(HartBeat Ensemble)
director: Melanie Dreyer

Bee Trapped Inside the Window
(HartBeat Ensemble)
director: Vernice P. Miller

(Thrown Stone)
director: Tracey Brigden

This Bitter Earth
director: David Mendizabal

(Thrown Stone)
director: Tracey Brigden

Lost in Yonkers
(Hartford Stage)
directors: Marsha Mason and Rachel Alderman

Zoe's Perfect Wedding
(TheaterWorks Hartford)
director: Rob Ruggiero

Lend Me a Tenor
(Music Theatre of Connecticut)
director: Pamela Hill

(Long Wharf Theatre)
director: Aneesha Kudtarlar

(TheaterWorks Hartford)
director: Rob Ruggiero

It's a Wonderful Live: A Live Radio Play
(Hartford Stage)
director: Zoe Golub-Sass

Straight White Men
(Westport Country Playhouse)
director: Mark Lamos

The Brightest Thing in the World
(Yale Repertory Theatre)
director: Margot Bordelon

Dream Hou$e
(Long Wharf Theatre)
director: Laurie Woolery

Between Two Knees
(Yale Repertory Theatre)
director: Eric Ting

Christmas on the Rocks
director: Rob Ruggiero

My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish I'm in Therapy!
(The Ridgefield Playhouse)
director: Steve Solomon

Lady Day at Emerson's Park & Grill
(Playhouse on Park)
director: Stephanie Pope Lofgren