Category Archives: Theater

Madcap Comedy of Errors

I finally got myself out of the house to catch the last performance of Propeller Theatre Company’s touring production of The Comedy of Errors at the Huntington, directed by Edward Hall. I was hesitant to go because I’m generally leery of productions of Shakespeare (or opera for that matter) that try to shoehorn in a contemporary setting or genre. In this case the contemporary setting was a sort of amalgam of Mexico and Texas and the genre was slapstick, but since the play was Shakespeare’s highly farcical comedy the approach certainly wasn’t at odds with the text.

For the most part the setting worked well, imbuing the proceedings with a colorful zaniness. The production supplements the text with occasional anachronisms (mostly in the form of asides) with references including (in the Boston edition anyway) mentions of Sarah Palin as “a devil woman” along with the Bruins’ recent Stanley Cup win, but they don’t overly distract. Casting Doctor Pinch as a gospel tent revivalist was an inspired stroke, although purists may decry the completely interjected singin’ and dancin’ gospel number that sticks out just a bit too much from its surroundings; but it’s a fun and flashy moment that is in keeping with the flow of the production in spirit, if not in pacing.

The same could be said for the production as a whole. Although the cast is uniformly appealing and the scenes are full of laughs, in general the staging feels somewhat haphazard, freely mingling bits of slapstick, mime, and comedic sound effects willy-nilly. This is madcap comedy, very much in line with Monty Python where the true hits are accompanied by occasional bits of dullness, and everything in between. The comparison to Monty Python seems particularly apt, given the company’s apparent actor-created approach to productions.

But to overanalyze seems petty, and after some initial slowness of exposition the rest of the production zips along. It’s interesting to see how American critics can’t seem to help focusing beyond the visceral appeal, whether it be Brantley’s condemnation of the slapstick when the production hit New York in March in which he makes way too much of the policeman/nightstick and the evangelist/lighted sparkler gags as symbols of “physical abuse”, or The Hub Review’s over-analysis of the fact that they’re an all-male troupe, when in reality (for this production at least) the “drag queenery” serves the same perfectly obvious and prosaic function as it does with Monty Python: that the female characters are simply much funnier when it’s the boys playing the women. (Just to round out the reviews, I suppose I should also mention Don Aucoin’s “review” in the Globe which, as so often the case these days, is content to recap rather than actually review Comedy, although to be fair his review of Richard III is better.) The British critics, perhaps since Shakespeare permeates their country more fully than ours, seem to do a better job of just enjoying it for what it is, and in the end I was certainly won over. I’m not convinced that their slasher-movie take on Richard III would equally successful, but I’m much more interested in seeing it. Even though I’m too late for that, hopefully they’ll went their way back to Boston before too long. And in case anyone is curious, the current productions have returned to London and are playing at the Hampstead Theatre through July 9.

Better late than never? Betrayal

Catching up on a few events that have come and gone, but that are still worth mentioning in retrospect.

First up, Another Country Productions presentation of Pinter’s Betrayal. I’m not a huge Pinter fan, but he doesn’t seem to be done that much in the States so I thought I’d check out this production despite it being of one of his less-idiosyncratic works. The play itself does turn out to be a fairly standard account of marital infidelity, despite its reverse chronological presentation.

As for the production itself, the group emphasizes its use of the Meisner Technique, a form of method acting that apparently focuses on actors being attuned to and thus responding more “naturally” to the others on stage in order to give the work a more spontaneous, real-life quality. I’m not sure how much the production suffers as a result, but there were several elements that stuck out a bit and could be due to the less-scripted approach. One is that the staging was largely static and repetitive, and often a couple would begin a scene on opposite sides of the room, then one would cross over and they would sit, then the other would get up and move to the other side and sit, and then the first would follow the second and sit. Appropriate to the scene and perhaps marginally more “realistic”, but more traditionally planned staging would avoid such repetition and consequently keep the audience more engaged. A more specific questionable moment that can perhaps be attributed to the company’s approach is the kiss at the end of the play marking the beginning of the affair, which was not in the original script and seems out of place. Given the inherent artificialities of a play’s script in and of itself, and Pinter plays in particular, it seems that striving for a more realistic approach seems a bit nonsensical.

More generally the production had other drawbacks as well. The contemporary music played between interludes did little to mark the rewinding of time and sounded like the director had just plugged in someone’s iPod. The actors were perfectly serviceable, although as with many “chamber” plays this one really requires actors of the highest caliber, particularly because it is full of typically Pinter-esque long pauses that at the worst in the hands of lesser actors just bring the play to a screeching halt. Lyralen Kaye as Emma proved to be the weakest link, partly perhaps because she affected a British-esque accent that, as many Americans will do, flattened out the intonation and made every sentence sound monochromatically earnest. All in all still worth seeing, but not the most successful production of a difficult play.

As for reviews, The Hub Review also laments the production’s lack of subtext, although I disagree with his assement that “Wayne Fritsche is far too meek and arch as cuckolded husband Robert”. He comments that “there’s a cruel, even nasty streak in this character that Fritsche seems unable to convey” that I thought Fritsche brought out quite well when I saw him, although at times it bordered on mere whingeing. Boston Lowbrow provides another look also. And here’s the Wikipedia article on the play.

Sleep No More, a dreamy Macbeth

A week later, somehow I still find the eeriness of A.R.T.’s presentation of Sleep No More, by British theater company Punchdrunk, to be palpably lingering in my mind. [My preview of the event is here.] I was and somewhat still am extremely skeptical of the premise, which combines the Bard’s immortal play with a haunted house atmosphere. On this blog I can feel somewhat freer to catalog my personal tastes, and the production inspires me to do so. For one I’m really not a fan of haunted houses, and high among my theater dislikes is anything even vaguely resembling performance art, which is almost always more useless masturbatory self-importance than illuminating experience. I also find nudity in theater to be unnecessary more often than not, too often used merely to shock and distract than add anything substantial. I also have a strong dislike for audience participation, but on that front I was reassured by my friend who had seen it once before and was going back for a second look (although she underplayed it a bit, as one of the first things that happened when I went was that an actress accosted me, which led to much internal grimacing on my part).

A quick browse of reviews will give you the basic information about the production and a sample of the high praise it has elicited. Time Out NY’s and The Boston Globe’s are worth reading, and The Globe also ran a preview of the show in October. You can also find audience comments on the production’s site, and there’s also an article on Wikipedia.

Free from the constraints of having to say something objective about it, I’ll just briefly go over my personal experience. It’s easy to see why each person’s experience will be different: 44 rooms on 4 floors of the abandoned school are used and with a cast of 18 you could spend a fair amount of time just wandering through empty rooms. But the sets of the rooms are so lavishly and oddly dressed that they encourage study as much as they inspire wonder at how much money, let alone time and effort, went into them.

After wandering through several such rooms near the beginning, when I came across a person I later realized was King Duncan getting shaved and dressed I followed him to a ballroom scene that I presume featured the entire cast. There were some baffling interactions, including a homosexual couple (one of whom I later learned was Banquo) that could be interpreted as either (or perhaps simultaneously) sensationalistic or contemporary, and an allusion involving a glass of milk that I later learned is from Rebecca, a Hitchcock film I and probably many of the audience hadn’t seen. After that scene I happened to follow Duncan back to his room where in a liberal dose of surreality (which I quickly found is the norm in this production) he went and gardened for a while. Somehow despite the odds the scene felt successfully bizarre and sinister though. I then followed some actors around and caught some of the central Macbeth scenes, including another obtuse scene in which a woman and naked man with an animal head (yawn) danced with our eponymous anti-hero and rubbed what looked like a bloody fetus that had been sitting in a birdbath over each other. Later I learned that the pair were supposed to be representing the three witches but that the third witch was out that particular night. Hmm. All in keeping with the dream-like, nothing-makes-too-much-sense-or-has-much-connection-to-Shakespeare atmosphere I suppose. A bit later I also caught a peculiar pseudo-dance scene involving a lamp dangling from the ceiling and two men playing an odd sort of tetherball with it.

It wasn’t too long later that I felt I had had enough and wandered my way towards the exit. Despite my criticisms, of which there are many, in the end I have to say I left more convinced than not. Any complaints, ranging from lack of cohesiveness in narrative, questionable use of the word “Hitchcockian” in its marketing, oftentimes extremely tenuous connections to its hallowed source with scenes appearing out of order, and overuse of fog machines (haha), are easily counterbalanced by the sheer abundance of atmosphere: everything seems calculated to leave you disoriented and the production perfectly succeeds in that regard. The wordless presentation and the masked audience’s silence and the constant feeling of stumbling through half-darkness adds to the eeriness. The huge scale and the ability to choose how you want to progress (by following the main actors around the whole time, for example, or just coming across characters and scenes as you find them) certainly inspires a second visit, and discussing the production afterwards with others and comparing notes on what you’ve seen and missed is almost more entertaining than your own experience.

Although the run has been extended, it’s sold out and closes February 7. Punchdrunk has done several other productions which I’m definitely interested in hearing more about, and I’m guessing they were similarly successful, but it would be a no-brainer to just buy the whole building and keep this production running permanently. The audience seemed to be a mix of RPG fans who probably have little interest in theater, theater fans, and people who had heard the hype, and adding tourists to the mix seems like it would enable a very long, very healthy run. Reading audience comments it seems like the production fosters conversation and speculation the same way shows like Lost do, and that at the very least people appreciate the evening as an “interesting” and memorable, if baffling, experience. A permanent production isn’t likely to happen, but if it somehow makes it back something tells me that I’ll be compelled to be back for more of this unique experience.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for a pre-dinner option my group happened to end up at Tashi Delek, a nearby Tibetan restaurant that offers 10% off with a Sleep No More ticket. Good food, and a good deal. Sweet.

Sleep No More presented by A.R.T.

Yikes. Apologies for the lull, but yes, I’m still here. I’ve been busy with life, but I’ve got a few things lined up that should keep me entertained for the next couple of months. To start with, A.R.T.’s presentation of Sleep No More has been extended to February 7. Here’s how their website describes it:

    An abandoned school. Shakespeare’s fallen hero. Hitchcock’s shadow of suspense.

    Award-winning British theater company Punchdrunk makes its U.S. debut with Sleep No More, an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller.

My friend D saw it and had this to say: “It was certainly one of the most interesting things I have ever seen/done; this abandoned school in Brookline has been done up as a set to a Macbeth/Hitchcock-like film, and you are asked to wander and explore the different rooms (which themselves are all intricately designed and fascinating to explore even without any actors) and occasionally follow around actors involved in this replaying of Macbeth. The acting is extremely physical (the actors are actually dancers I think) and almost wordless. It’s totally baffling until you get into it (btw, you don’t have to engage with the performers, they mostly act as if you aren’t there, so you start to feel like a fly on the wall or a ghost after a while). I would say it’s a visual feast.”

I have to admit that I’m leery; I’m getting a bit bored with the glut of Shakespeare-inspired works, although I’m glad to see that audience participation is certainly not required. D also points out that A.R.T. has various passes you can get to save some shmackeroos.

Martian invasion … in Somerville??

I’ve been meaning to post a quick review of the show I saw randomly a couple of weeks ago. I was somewhat intrigued by the premise, which was a staged version of Orson Welles’ radio version of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The production actually consisted of three acts. The first was “The Frank Cyrano Byfar Hour”, a “lost classic from Boston’s radio history” that in its quaint geniality had a rather Garrison Keillor sort of feel, while the second was an adapted version of the radio play that shifts the setting to the Boston area while at the same time intertwining an original story about a group of mobsters reacting to what they hear. The third expands the original story and focuses on the Martians’ reign over Boston before the not-so-surprising ending.

I’m not going to spill too much digital ink on my particular thoughts since I came across the blog entry of someone who’s done an admirable job recapping the show in depth. I agree with most of what he said, including the fun of watching the foley (i.e. live sound effects) artists, the sometimes chilling moments of the second act, and the fact the production was slightly overly long as a whole. In that post the co-writer of the War of the Worlds section also comments on the ship sequence, which was apparently not included in the original Orson Welles production but was one of the highlights of this production. That scene and several other great moments like the first encounter with the Martians at their landing site served as wonderful reminders of the power of one’s own imagination and how a book can still have more visceral impact than even the most lavishly produced movie.

I came across this post from the writer of the first act in which he comments on the difficulties of editing the script, and Boston.com ran a preview of the show. I found the text of the original radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds here. The website of the production is here, and the website of the group is here. Apparently they have some recordings and some clips on YouTube. I came in a skeptic, but I’m sufficiently intrigued that I’ll have to dig through some of their archive. The War of the Worlds is such a classic, though, that it’ll be interesting to see what they tackle next.

Bernadette Peters at Symphony Hall

Just a short review. It annoys me that critics in such publications as The Boston Globe are so rarely critical about anything, but in the case of Bernadette Peters it seems ungrateful to say anything bad about such a legend, one of the few true Broadway stars of all time. As a long-time fan I’d been looking forward to seeing Bernadette Peters in concert for some time, and although The Globe’s review of her performance last Saturday at Symphony Hall does mention that the concert was on the short side at 80 minutes, it neglects to mention the overly loud amplification and the unimaginative setlist, which was extremely similar to her performances from 10 (yes, 10) years ago (archived on two separate CDs Sondheim, Etc. and Sondheim, Etc. Etc. and on DVD), as well as some problems with pitch on a couple of the earlier songs of the evening.

Still, there’s no doubt that Bernadette is Broadway royalty, and her voice is amazingly still in prime form and sounds great. The songlist was heavy on the ballads, which she clearly excels at, highlights being “No One is Alone” from Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods and the old-chestnut-given-a-vibrant-performance “Some Enchanted Evening”, as well as the entire closing section of Sondheim songs. And although her more uptempo songs often seem a bit unfocused in concert (which is puzzling considering how well she performs in shows) it would’ve been nice to have seen more variety and more risks. The two surprises of the evening, the folksong “Shenandoah” and a smoking, sultry version of “Fever”, were quite welcome, though, and the pairing of the Disney classics “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” was also a nice change of pace.

All in all, this is a case where the overly harsh critic in me can’t help being won over. But it would certainly be a dream to get to put together a setlist for her. Just imagining her take on anything ranging from Sondheim classics like “The Worst Pies in London” to more modern fare like the songs from Disney’s Enchanted is enough to make me salivate … Ha ha ha. Oh, and it was also a nice surprise that members of Boston Musica Viva provided musical support. Speaking of which, I should put their last concert of the season, featuring works by Schwantner, Gandolfi, and Schoenberg, on my calendar for May.

Upcoming for January

A bit worn out from the holidays, so don’t have much set for January. Tonight I’m going to the Cotton Candy concert I mentioned previously, part of their “4th Annual Indie Pop New Year’s Day Night”, upstairs at the Middle East. Here’s the schedule, courtesy of M:

    8:45 Cathy Cathodic
    9:30 Smittens
    10:15 Cotton Candy
    11:30 One Happy Island
    Doors 8:30, $9

The Cantata Singers is in the midst of a season focusing on Benjamin Britten. Hadn’t managed to catch any of their concerts in the fall, but I’m a pretty big fan of Britten and there are three concerts this spring that I’ll definitely be making an effort to get to. The first concert is being presented as part of The New York Times’ 2009 Arts & Leisure Weekend, and you can use the promotional code “NYT09” to get two tickets for the price of one. (The Times’ site also has other arts-related promotions listed in MA for that weekend as well.)

Here’s the info on the Cantata Singers concerts I’ll probably be checking out, taken from their website:

    Friday, January 16, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
    All-Britten
    Lachrymae
    Roger Tapping, viola
    Five Flower Songs
    Phaedra
    Janna Baty, mezzo-soprano
    Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
    Michael Slattery, tenor
    Michael Thompson, horn
    Rejoice in the Lamb, orch. Imogen Holst
    First Boston performance of chorus-orchestral version

    Saturday, February 7, 2 pm — All Saints Parish, Brookline
    Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde
    David Hoose, Music Director
    Lynn Torgove, Stage Director
    Members of Cantata Singers and PALS Children’s Chorus
    Alysoun Kegel, Artistic Director
    Young instrumentalists from Boston area arts organizations

    Friday, May 8, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
    Benjamin Britten Psalm 150
    Boston Children’s Chorus
    Anthony Trecek-King, Artistic Director
    J.S. Bach Cantata BWV 149,
    “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg in den Hütten der Gerechten”
    Classroom Cantatas Cantata
    First performance
    Student composers from Neighborhood House Charter School
    and Boston Children’s Chorus
    Andy Vores Natural Selection
    First performance
    Britten The Company of Heaven
    Karyl Ryczek, soprano
    William Hite, tenor
    James Petosa, speaker

While I’m at it, here’s The Phoenix’s preview of the spring classical music offerings. Also, the Boston Metro has a pretty concise listing of the theater and special events for January.

SpeakEasy’s The Seafarer

[The preview for this review is here.]

Last week I saw SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of The Seafarer at the Boston Center for the Arts. SpeakEasy has made a specialty of local productions of works recently premiered in New York (and more recently, London). I’ve come to expect a pretty decent standard, although generally nothing too surprising.

This particular production didn’t really change my perception, although the group certainly wasn’t helped by the substandard play which, although has some successful comedic elements, is in the end little more than a rehash of A Christmas Carol. D and I argued about the merits of the play itself, which felt poorly paced, clumsy, and completely unconvincing. No doubt better direction would have improved my reaction, although still not enough I think to cover up its defects. Ben Brantley’s review of the original New York production in the Times emphasizes the superlative acting he saw, which certainly would also have helped.

As it was, there were drawbacks to both the production and acting in SpeakEasy’s production. For one, the two leads didn’t give any sense of being brothers with a long history, thus cutting out the pivotal relationship in the play. The acting in general was adequate (although most of the Irish accents seemed a bit off to me), but the only one among the cast who was really convincing was Billy Meleady as the central character, Sharky. His wiry tension and buried anger were so well delineated that in the climactic scene when Sharky explodes it feels like a completely natural release.

Ah well. Not much else to say. The production ended last weekend, but a set of highly complimentary reviews have been collected on SpeakEasy’s website, including the Globe’s and the Phoenix’s. Haven’t come across anything I’m looking forward to in town next year in theater, but I’ll probably try to catch one of the shows at the A.R.T.

Upcoming for December

In general I’m pretty picky about going out to see theater in Boston, but I’m intrigued by the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s The Seafarer at the Boston Center for the Arts. Their description is:

    A 2008 Tony Nominee for Best Play, “The Seafarer” is a funny and
    haunting alternative to traditional holiday fare. On Christmas Eve in
    North Dublin, Sharky Harkin finds himself reluctantly hosting old
    friends at the rundown house he shares with his older brother. A lot of
    booze and card-playing carry the men into Christmas Day when Sharky must face the grim promise he made to one of his guests decades ago.

Half-price tickets are available at GoldStar.com.

Will also be checking out the MIT Museum’s new holography exhibit:

    Throughout the winter beginning at dusk, the MIT Museum presents an exhibition of contemporary, three-dimensional holographic artworks displayed in the windows, viewable only from outside the Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery. Featured will be holograms by six international artists whose varied imagery represents artistic and technical advancements in the field of display holography.

Will try to make it to the opening this Friday, although my sources tell me it’s probably going to be more kid-friendly than not:

    December 5, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
    Lighting Ceremony and Opening Celebration
    Free admission, refreshments and street festivities

A few shows coming up I may hit as well. Love is All + Crystal Stilts at Great Scott in Allston next Monday, December 8. The latter is described by one as “the love child of The Jesus and Mary Chain + Joy Division”, haha. Their MySpace page is here.

+/- is playing The Middle East Upstairs the following night, but I’m probably going to have to pass, being too wussy to go to a show two nights in a row. Yes, I’m getting old. 😛 [Update: It looks like the show has been moved to Saturday, December 13. But I’m going to be out of town! Darn.]

So looks like that’s the next couple of weeks figured out. Phew! 😉

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Merchant of Venice

[The preview for this review is here.]

Caught Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of The Merchant of Venice last week. Of the three ASP productions I’ve seen thus far this one was probably my least favorite. Upon reflection I think a fair amount of the problem may have been the space, which was significantly bigger than the Harvard Square location where I’d seen them before. The theater, in the basement of Midway Studios at Fort Point Channel, is interesting in and of itself, with a balcony and a small spiral staircase, but its size proved to be unwieldy. Although the direction made fairly good use of the mostly bare stage, the actors, particularly the younger ones, had a tendency to shout rather than project, and overplay their roles rather than focus on the text in the way I’d seen in their more intimate settings. Part of this I think is also due to the post-Baz Luhrmann tendency for actors to deliver Shakespeare in a college frat boy sort of way, relying far too much on broad physical gestures and CON-STANT STRES-SES ON EV-ERY SYL-LA-BLE.

As for the production itself, in general I agree with The Globe’s comment that “the scenes never quite connect” and that as a whole the production is “too disjointed to be effective”. (Although I disagree with Byrne’s comment that “the subplots featuring Portia’s suitors gambling for her hand in marriage and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Sarah Augusta), eloping with Lorenzo (Jason Bowen) feel less like romances and more like two more business transactions,” because I found that choice actually helped unify the production.) My main gripe is that despite each scene working fairly well, somehow the overall motivations and emotional connection to the drama get completely lost. Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship, upon which the conflict of the entire play is based, is far too understated, as is Shylock’s final bitter defeat in the climactic courtroom scene; and in this production the moment where Bassanio risks all to win Portia’s hand in marriage is completely devoid of tension. The subplot involving Portia and Nerissa fooling their husbands ends the play merrily enough, but again without much connection to the rest of the play.

Despite the overall lack of focus, there was more than enough to keep one’s attention and a fair number of interesting touches. I generally don’t like underscoring in plays, but there was some nice sound design, including the soft sound of coins clinking during some scenes. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, was directed as very young which makes her betrayal seem convincingly naive, and Jeremiah Kissel has deservedly received unanimous praise for his portrayal of Shylock. Kissel’s seething, manic portrayal is both sympathetic and tragic, and his hatred and lust for vengeance are compellingly repellent. His scene with Tubal is certainly the most emotionally honest moment in the entire production. I was a bit disappointed in Sarah Newhouse as Portia, and to a lesser extent Marianna Bassham as her maid Nerissa: I’d seen them in a previous production, and they just didn’t seem to bring enough unique characterization to their roles here.

The group has archived a fair number of reviews of the production on their website, including The Phoenix’s and EDGE Boston’s. And if you’re looking for more info on the play and its historical context, Wikipedia, as usual, doesn’t disappoint.

So even though it’s not a home run, ASP still provides a worthy take on Shakespeare’s classic and some fine acting, particularly thanks to Kissel as Shylock. The production is playing through December 7, so you still have a few more days to catch it.