Monday, March 30, 2015

Theater Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Yale Repertory

The cast of The Causcasian Chalk Circle at Yale Rep. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Circling in on the Storytelling Enhances an Old Play
By Lauren Yarger
Director Liz Diamond appears to abandon the play-within-a-play format for presenting Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Yale Repertory Theatre and the play seems much better for it.

She focuses instead on the human story, enhanced by music composed by David Lang (with Music Direction by Daniel Schlosberg, who does additional musical arrangements, with Drew McVety, and Singing Coaching by Anne Tofflemire.) In fact, Diamond’s direction opens up new interpretation to the dialogue, which even when it is not being sung, sounds lyrical, especially on the tongue of Steven Skybel, who plays to the roles of the Singer and Azdak, a judge.

Before I get too ahead of myself, here is the plot:

Set in the war-torn country of Grusinia in the Caucasus border region between Russia and Persia, Grusha (Shaunette Renée Wilson), a young servant girl, promises to wait for her soldier love, Simon (Jonathan Majors) until his return. When revolution turns the capitol into a war zone, she rescues Michael, the son of the deposed Governor (Max Gordon Moore) and his wife, Natella (Brenda Meaney), who abandons the child while being preoccupied with selecting furs and shoes to accompany her in exile (the costumes designed for her by Soule Golden include outrageously high heels, indicative of her desire to rise above everyone else).

Grusha evades ruthless soldiers searching for the heir and takes Michael into the mountains. She escapes to the farm of her brother, Lavrenti (Jessie J. Perez) and his suspicious wife (also played by Meaney) and raises him as her own. To avoid gossip, as well as to protect Michael’s identity, Grusha agrees to marry dying neighbor, Yussup (Aubie Merrylees). When the war ends, it seems Yussup was just faking to avoid the draft and now he expects Grusha to act as a wife. She refuses, thinking still of her love Simon, who suddenly returns from war.

Also returning is Natella, who wants her little boy (now played by Kourtney Savage) back. The case goes to court, before Judge Azdak, nephew of a Fat Prince (Perez), who rules that the boy be placed in the center of a circle drawn with chalk, then tells the two women claiming to be his mother to pull him by each of his arms until one wins.  Grusha, who really loves the boy, cannot pull him toward her for fear of hurting Michael. (Yes, you recognize a variation of the story from Confucius and earlier from the book of Solomon).

Now let me tell you that I am not a fan of this play (or of Brecht, for that matter. Yes, blasphemy in the theater world. I know.) At almost three hours it’s way too long and most of the second act could easily be cut. This production is immensely watchable, however, thanks to Diamond’s fresh direction and solid performances (Wilson is compelling) that make it a piece of musical storytelling instead of a “what-the-heck?” confusion of a play within the play (this translation is from the German by James and Tania Stern with lyrics by W.H. Auden). Modern touches (there’s even a selfie) are inserted skillfully.

It is appealing to the eye as well, with Chika Shimizu’s large, brooding sets conveying the bleakness of the surroundings while Golden’s costumes infuse muted color – and in the case of Grusha, there’s even a pretty print – to offer individuals some happiness and hope. 

Yale Rep's production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs at the University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven through April 11. Performance times vary. Tickets $20-$99; (203) 432-1234, Box Office (1120 Chapel St.). Student, senior, and group rates are also available.

Theater Review: Playing the Assassin -- TheaterWorks

Garrett Lee Hendricksand Ezra Knight. Photo: Lanny Nagler

Tackling Responsibility, Forgiveness and the Goal of Manhood 
By Lauren Yarger
The theme is football, but the emotions passed around on stage at TheaterWorks are far more hard-hitting than any action you might see on a playing field.

Playing the Assassin, David Robson’s gripping drama about responsibility, manhood, forgiveness – and football – is getting an electrifying run here with standout performances from Garrett Lee Hendricks and Ezra Knight reprising roles they originated last fall at Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, NY, where Joe Brancato, Penguin’s artistic director, also directed.

The play is inspired by a real NFL incident in 1978 when Oakland Raider Jack Tatum hit New England Patriot wide receiver Daryl Stingley so hard the force of the tackle left him in a wheelchair for life. No foul was called but the rules of the game – what constitutes a fair hit -- changed and so did the lives of both men.

Robson sets the play in a Chicago hotel suite (designed by Brian Prather in a way that doesn’t make the hotel setting obvious at first) where former safety Frank Baker (Knight), a.k.a. “The Assassin” for his brutal tackles, considers the chance of a lifetime. A TV producer (Hendricks) offers him a contract (and money needed by the now-walks-with-a-cane Hall-of-Fame-reject) to do an interview during the upcoming Super Bowl. The catch is that he will be appearing with a football player named Lyle whom he left crippled following a hit in an exhibition game – and will be required to apologize.

Baker is incredulous that Lyle would even be willing to do the interview, but Turner assures him it’s possible, as long as Baker is willing to apologize. That raises some issues for the veteran, who played for 12 years under rules which encouraged hard hits – for a League that looked the other way when bounties were paid to players for hurting the opposition. He did his job, Baker replies – and it left him without any coaching options, a shot at the Hall of Fame or any hope of being thought of in any way except as the man who had paralyzed Lyle.

When Turner’s real motivations for wanting to air the interview are revealed “defense” and “offense” take on new meaning. A wide field of emotions runs wild with Turner demanding that Baker recreate the fated hit on Lyle. This scene, with fight choreography by Ron Piretti, stretches the reality of Robson’s drama a bit and seems forced. The emotions battling throughout the 80-minute drama are intense, however, as the men explore the consequences of choices, taking responsibility, dealing with hatred and finding forgiveness.

Hendricks and Knight take hold of a wide range of emotions and score a touchdown in a play that questions not only motivations of pro sports, but what it really takes to be a man.

Playing the Assassin runs (ha, ha) through April 26 at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838;

Monday, March 23, 2015

Theater Review: Stand By Your Man -- Ivoryton

Ben Hope and Katie Barton. Photo by Jacqui Hubbard

Marriage is the Tune of the Hour at Ivoryton's Production of Stand By Your Man
By Lauren Yarger
Marriages – lots of them – are in the air as Ivoryton Playhouse opens its 2015 season with Stand By Your Man, the Tammy Wynette story.

The show explores the tragic story of  “The First Lady of Country Music,” who was married five times (Mark St. Germain’s book might more accurately be titled Stand By Your Men.) The singer is portrayed by Katie Barton (Million Dollar Quartet tour), whose real-life husband, Ben Hope (Broadway’s Once), stars as Wynette’s husband and song-partner George Jones. And if that’s not enough marriage for you, the show is directed and musical directed by another married couple, Sherry and David Lutken, who were at Ivoryton in 2012 with Ring of Fire.

Some 26 tunes Wynette made famous, like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Golden Ring,” “Apartment # 9,” We’re Gonna Hold On,” My Elusive Dreams” as well as the title song are included. Barton does a nice imitation of Wynette and duets with Hope bring back memories of Wynette/Jones hits. Sherry Lutken skillfully utilizes the talented on-stage musicians (who play a wide variety of instruments) to fill out scenes.

The story starts with Wynette’s humble Mississippi cotton-picking roots where she marries beau Euple Byrd (nicely played for some depth by Morgan Morse) pretty much because her overbearing mother, MeeMaw (a scene-stealing Marcy McGuigan), doesn’t want her to. Children follow and Tammy pursues a career as a beautician with the help of Dolly Parton (Lily Tobin).

Singing in church and to her babies leads to a career in country music, thanks to producer Billy Sherrill (Louis Tucci), who recognizes her talent, gives her a new name (she was born Virginia Wynette Pugh) and signs her to a recording contract with Epic Records. Success on the charts doesn’t mean happiness for the singer, however, as she endures a string of failed marriages to Byrd, Jones, Don Chapel (Jonathan Brown) and Michael Tomlin (Guy “Fooch” Fischetti). The woman, who seems to have issues with being alone, also marries singer/songwriter George Richey (Eric Scott Anthony), who becomes her manager. There’s a romance with actor Burt Reynolds (Sam Sherwood, sporting a signature moustache) thrown in for good measure as well.

Wynette also has a daughter requiring medical treatments as well as numerous health issues of her own that leave her addicted to pain killers before her death at age 55. While the performances are good and McGuigan adds much needed humor, the story – and the songs – are just kind of depressing.

St. Germain’s script follows the tendency of many of these biographical shows to try to put on stage every single thing that the subject ever said or did. There’s a whole scene, for instance, for two lines of dialogue. It makes the two-and-a-half hour production (with intermission) feel congested with so many facts and songs. He also adds a hokey “retrospective from heaven” perspective that’s unnecessary to tell her story.

But if you are a fan of the tangy songs Wynette made famous, head on over to Ivoryton where they are being lovingly performed.

Stand By Your Man runs through April 5 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8. Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children . (860) 767-7318;

Monday, March 9, 2015

Theater Review: Bad Jews -- Long Wharf

Michael Steinmetz and Keilly McQuail  Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Dysfunctional Family and Religion Make Odd Death-Bed Fellows
By Lauren Yarger
When a survivor of the Holocaust dies, family dysfunction rears its very ugly head over who will get his most treasured possession in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews playing at Long Wharf Theatre.

And I do mean ugly. In fact, if some of the long diatribes of vitriol the family members hurl at each other here weren’t so funny, you’d flee from the theater, run home and beg your mother to invite all of your family’s most annoying relatives over for dinner so you could thank them for not being as bad as this bunch.

Cousin Daphna (Keilley McQuail) crashes at the Upper Westside apartment of Jonah (Max Michael Miller) to attend the funeral of their grandfather. After thoroughly criticizing Jonah and his family for being too wealthy – his parent bought this pricey studio in their building (designed by Antje Ellermann) as a sort of spare bedroom --  she makes it clear that she wants their grandfather’s chai – a small golden religious ornament that he kept with him through his time in the concentration camps and used in place of a ring when he proposed to his wife.

A man of few words, Jonah indicates that he doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have it, but when his brother, Liam (Mike Steinmetz) shows up with his non-Jewish and blonde girlfriend, Melody (Christy Escobar), the shiksa hits the fan.

Liam, it seems, already has Poppy’s chai, perhaps through some manipulation by his mother on his behalf to secure it while his grandfather was in a coma, and plans to propose with it to Melody.  An apoplectic Daphna feels the item should be hers, since she is the only observant Jew among the cousins. Liam, with his Americanized name and Jonah, who rarely visits temple, are “bad Jews, she says. She is going to join her fiancé (possibly a figment of her imagination) in Israel, she says as proof of her devotion to the religion. The idea of the heirloom passing out of the family doesn’t sit too well with Jonah, however, and he fails to lend Daphna the support she thought she had. Before the confrontation is over, a frenzied Daphna physically attacks Melody (fight direction by Tim Acito) to get the chai back.

While most of Harmon’s script consists of long monologues where characters say the most horrible things to each other, it does contain enough sharp, witty and biting dialogue to keep us in our seats. I’d say it is like witnessing a drive-by shooting where the bullets are words. Some audience members, however, were describing it as offensive.

Humor helps. Melody’s attempt to soothe Daphna with a song from Porgy and Bess is really sidesplitting. Daphna dismisses the WASP’s heritage (and her choice of opera as a major in college) outright, but this non-Jew might just know more about love and family than anyone else in the room. In the end wishy-washy Jonah shows he might have the deepest connection with Poppy’s time in the camps, despite Daphna’s memorization of his tattoo number.

Director Oliver Butler keeps the action moving for the 90-minute intermission-less production and coaxes solid performances form the ensemble – all making  their Long Wharf debuts.

Bad Jews continues through March 29 at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances vary. Tickets are $40-$70. 203-787-4282;

Monday, March 2, 2015

Theater Review Reverberation -- Hartford Stage

Luke Macfarlane and Aya Cash Photos by T. Charles Erickson
A Little Too Up Close and Personal with Characters We Don’t Know
By Lauren Yarger
It’s about friendship and love. It’s about loss and taking chances. And it’s about some other things I’m not so sure about.

Most of all, the world premiere of Matthew Lopez’ Reverberation at Hartford Stage was just not interesting to me. Now before you leap to the conclusion that the only reason I wouldn’t like this play is because of an extended opening scene involving nudity and gay sex (which, yes, like most sex scenes --  homosexual or not -- are unnecessary on stage), let me say that isn’t the reason. I’m actually a fan of Lopez, a frequent collaborator at Hartford Stage (he participated in the Brand:NEW series, served as the 2013-14 Aetna New Voices Fellow and has had productions of Somewhere and The Whipping Man – a fresh and intensely interesting piece – here).

The problem for me was that at 20 minutes in, I still had no real idea of who these people were or why I was being asked to feel as though I were sitting in a chair in the cluttered Astoria, Queens apartment designed by Andromache Chalfant watching them – Director Maxwell Wiliams creates a kind of voyeur feeling by breaking down the fourth wall. Near the end of the two and half hours (with intermission) I still hadn’t engaged with the strange characters and the plot took such a bizzare turn that my notes say, “please make this stop.”

That first sexual encounter is with the apartment’s occupant, Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane of TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”), a reclusive greeting card illustrator who lost his longtime partner in a violent anti-gay attack. His only contact with the outside world is with men he hooks up with for sex through the gay social networking site “Grindr.”

His current hookup, Wes (Carl Lundstedt), has just experienced the best sex of his life  (and so have we, unfortunately) and he is interested in more. Right now, any time. He can’t keep his hands off Jonathan. It might go a bit deeper than just this moment, however. Wes lives in the neighborhood and has had his eye on Jonathan for a while, it seems. The idea of anything more serious than a one-night stand turns Jonathan off, however, and he sends Wes on his way.

Enter Claire (Aya Cash, star of the sitcom “You’re the Worst”). She has just moved into the loft upstairs that Jonathan and his former lover occupied before the tragedy (this second story is visible above Jonathan’s apartment and realistically connected via hallway and stairs). She offers sex to her new neighbor before discovering his orientation, then rather aggressively offers him friendship. He is reluctant at first, but Claire’s flighty, fun-loving and caring personality win him over and the two become best friends, filling needs that aren’t met through their other relationships.

When Jonathan is overwhelmed with grief and crying and screaming in the night, he has only to bang on the ceiling and Claire comes downstairs to get into bed with him so he can spoon her and stroke her hair the way he did with his dead lover. When Claire is getting ready for a date, Jonathan is there to help her zip up her dress and to soothe her later when it doesn’t go well with a jerk who through her out of his car when she wouldn’t put out.

The relationship suffers complications, however, when plans for a vacation together are jeopardized. Claire might have found “Mr. Right” and Wes returns to the mix saying he loves Jonathan and asking to rekindle their relationship. Jonathan just might be in ove with wes after their one too….

The play suffers complications (besides having a bunch of uninteresting characters we can’t really relate to) when Lopez introduces bizarre, psychological or otherworldly twists (though the otherworldly feeling is played up by Lighting Designer Matthew Richards with shadows flitting throughout.)

Under the direction of Williams, the three actors give solid performances – Cash has most of the humorous moments and she makes us think Claire might have some interesting qualities hidden in there somewhere. It’s not enough, unfortunately, to convince us it has been worth the time we have spent being voyeurs into her dealings with odd Jonathan or into his encounters with the one-dimensional Wes.

It’s one of those plays that leaves you wondering what the heck it was about. The audience (which was not full on opening night) was very quiet on the way out of the theater – usually a sign that people haven’t understood what they have seen and are afraid to ask. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

I guess I was hoping for more after so enjoying the rich, fully developed characters of The Whipping Man. We wish Lopez the best on his next project, an adaptation of Javier Marías’ trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, for the big screen.

Reverberation runs through March 15 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Sunday and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets $20-$85  (860) 527-5151;

Note: The theater recommends this one for ages 18+ because of the adult themes, language, nudity, violence 

Theater Review: The Dining Room -- Playhouse on Park

EzraBarnes, AnnieGrier, SusanHaefner, JayWilliamThomas, SusanSlotoroff, SeanHarris Photo: Rich Wagner
Watching the Changing Dynamics of a Family Meal in The Dining Room
By Lauren Yarger
Several decades of family interaction play out against the scene of The Dining Room in an upper middle class home in A.R Gurney’s play continuing the mainstage series at Playhouse on Park.

An ensemble cast of five actors (Ezra Barnes, Susan Haefner, Sean Harris, Jay William Thomas, Annie Grier, and Susan Slotoroff) portrays multiples characters in 18 vignettes with timelines sometimes overlapping. The posh dining room (simply set by Christopher Hoyt and lighted by Christopher Jones ) is the focus for all the scenes.

The first has a brother and sister quibbling about who will get the dining room set following the breakup of the household. We discover the dining room has witnessed a number of sibling moments over the years, including a brother and sister trying desperately to win the attention and approval of their uninterested and exacting father.

There also is a son who discovers his mother’s affair, two school friends raiding the family’s liquor supply while parents are gone, a rebellious daughter who stands up to her mother’s social demands, a woman who irks her husband by not showing proper respect for the antique table by pounding away at a typewriter to complete her master’s thesis and a poignant meeting as a father relays instructions for his funeral (including, of course, bringing guests back to the dining room for food) to his loving son.

We also meet a string of maids who serve and clear endless tea times, meals and special occasions. Through them, Gurney most notably makes his commentary about the vanishing culture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The play has a nostalgic, sad feeling in the vein of looking at fading scenes from American life, with a few moments of humor included. (A couple of women seated nearby squealed with delight and laughter throughout, so maybe there are more than just a few moments).

This production is hard to stage because of the many roles being played by the same actors. While Director Sasha Bratt aids the process by using actors who don’t like each other, it isn’t enough to overcome a sense of confusion despite some costuming hints (like aprons for the maids) by Demara Cabera.

At intermission, audience members were asking each other who was who and trying to figure out the relationships between them. “No, that couldn’t have been his mother,” one woman argued, “because she was his sister….”  “No, that was the other family,” said another audience member trying to help. “No, no, that was the same people, only in the past,” offered another.

The show program does include character identification and a scene breakdown, which are helpful, but there needs to be sharper differentiation between characters and tighter definition between current and past times, often taking place simultaneously on stage, to avoid head scratching.

Standing out is Haefner in the role of a maid (we see her age and change in demeanor over the years) and as “Aunt Harriet” giving her photographer nephew, Tony, lessons table etiquette, so he can capture this wonder of the past for his archeology term paper.

See it through March 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford.-860-523-5900 x10;

Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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