Monday, April 25, 2016

Theater Review: Spamalot -- CT Repertory

The Cast. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

The Lady of the Lake is the Diamond in Camelot's Crown
By Lauren Yarger
How many times have I seen the musical version of Monty Python’s Spamalot? A lot, a lot, a lot (sing along with me).

And how many times does it make me laugh? Every time. Without fail.

It’s a really entertaining couple of hours at the theater. What’s not to love? There are rude French people, Sir Lancelot, questions about sparrows, flying cows, a killer rabbit and lots of the silly humor we all can quote by heart from the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” featuring member Eric Idle, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show and co-wrote the music with John Du Prez.

What makes the production currently running at CT Repertory Theatre especially sweet is the terrific pairing of comedian Richard Kline (TV’s “Three’s Company”) and the marvelously voiced Mariand Torres as King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake. Camelot has never had such a charming first couple.
The two actors, who anchor the otherwise all-student cast, are reunited here. They had toured together in the national tour of Wicked, where Kline played the Wizard and Torres starred as Elphaba (and believe me, with her soaring voice, we’re sure she “defied gravity” with minimal effort….)

In short, Spamalot is a quest for the Holy Grail by Arthur and the Knights of his roundtable: Sir Bedevere (Kent Coleman), Sir Dennis Galahad (Chester Martin) Sir Lancelot (Bryce Wood), Sir Robin (Nick Nudler). Along the way, they meet up with some interesting characters, including the Black Knight (Curtis Longfellow) who doesn’t fare so well in battle,  the Knight of Ni (Susannah Resnikoff) who requires a shrubbery, Prince Rupert (Ryan Rudewicz) who waits in his pink-d├ęcor tower for a prince to rescue him and the Lady of the Lake who guides the king.

Arthur also is helped along the way by his faithful and totally unappreciated servant, Patsy (an excellent Gavin McNicoll) who carries his master’s load and doubles as his steed by providing horse-hoof beat sounds by clicking coconut shells together.

Either you are chuckling because you are a fan, or you are wondering what in the world I just was talking about. There certainly are plenty of familiar gags here to elicit chuckles, but there’s also more, which is why the show earned a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005.

I personally laugh every time I hear “The Song That Goes Like This,” a dramatic duet by the Lady of the Lake and Sir Gallahad about how in a normal musical, they would be singing a soaring ballad at this point in the action.

Mariand Torres and Richard Kline.
 Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Once in every show
There comes a song like this
It starts off soft and low 
And ends up with a kiss
Oh where is the song

That goes like this?

Ha ha ha ha ha. That is me laughing just typing those lyrics.

The Lady of the Lake also has another song called “Whatever Happened to My Part?” Very funny stuff directed by Richard Ruiz (who performed with Kline in The Sunshine Boys at CT Rep) and choreographed by Tom Kosis, The 11-person orchestra sounds great and is conducted by John Pike.

The diamond in the crown of this Camelot is Torres, however, who recently returned from Japan and the world premiere of Prince of Broadway. She is a star to watch. Catch her in Storrs while you can. 

Spamalot quests for the grail at the Harriet S. Jorgenson Theatre on the Storrs campus of UConn through May 1. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Select matinees  Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $7 to $30:; (860) 486-2113.

Production:  Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idlebook and lyrics by Eric Idle; Direction by Richard Ruiz; Assistant Direction by Nathan Francis, Music Direction by John Pike, Choreography by Tom Kosis, Assistant Choreography by Olivia Benson,  Scenic Design by Abigail Copeland, Assistant Scenic Design by Brett Calvo, Technical Direction by Gregory Maine, Lighting Design by Adam Lobelson, Assistant Lighting Design by Danielle Verkennes, Costume Design by Heather Lesieur, Assistant Costume Design by Sheri Giglio and Elly Nuy,  Sound Design by Justin Graziana and  Joel Abbott, Projection Design by  Josh Winiarski, Puppet Design by Shane McNeal, Flying Direction by Ed Weingart. Voice and Accent Coaching by David Alan Stern.

Richard Kline…. King Arthur
Mariand Torres…. The Lady of the Lake
Gavin McNicoll…. Patsy
Juliana Bearse…. Monk/Ensemble
Kent Coleman,…. Sir Bedevere/Concorde/Ensemble
Jeffrey DeSisto…. Historian/French Taunter/Ensemble
Zack Dictakis….Dennis’ Mother/Ensemble
Curtis Longfellow…. Black Knight/Prince Herbert’s Father/Ensemble
Bryce Wood…. Sir Lancelot/Tim the Enchanter
Derrick Holmes…. Mayor/Guard/Ensemble
Chester Martin…. Sir Dennis Galahad
Nick Nudler…. Sir Robin
JoonHo Oh…. Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Show/Mime/Ensemble
Scott Redmond…. Not Dead Fred/ French Guard/ Lead Minstrel/ Ensemble
Susannah Resnikoff Knight of Ni/Ensemble
Ryan Rudewicz…. Prince Herbert/French Guard/Ensemble
Meredith Saran…. Minstrel/Ensemble
Ben Senkowski…. Minstrel/Sir Bors/ensemble
Ryan Shea…. Guard 2/Ensemble
Brian Patrick Sullivan…. French Guard/ Ensemble
Jacob Harris Wright…. Brother Maynard/Ensemble
Mikaila Baca-Dorion, Valerie Badjan, Olivia Benson, Tabatha Gayle, Sarah Jenson, Kirsten Keating Liniger…. Ensemble

Theater Review: Wit -- Playhouse on Park

Harrison Greene, Elizabeth Lande, Sara Detrik, Tim Hackney, Julia Ekwall. Photo: Meredith Atkinson
Finding Poetry and Wit  in the Last Stanza of Life
By Lauren Yarger
Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play is no easy night at the theater.  Especially if you or someone you love has gone through cancer treatment in a hospital.

But don’t let the subject matter keep you from taking in Stevie Zimmerman’s sensitively directed production  at Playhouse on Park or you will miss a moving performance by  Elizabeth Lande and a few lessons about how the smallest kindnesses can have the biggest impact.

Lande is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a poetry professor who finds herself in experimental treatments to fight end-stage ovarian cancer. Always in control and demanding the most of herself and her students, Vivian suddenly finds herself in a scary, lonely world totally beyond her control.

Her oncologist, Dr. Kelekian (David Gautschy) is almost happy about her condition – if she can get through eight full doses of chemo, she’ll be the first and he will be able to write up her case. While he attempts to hide his excitement, his Fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hackney), who happens to be a former student in Vivian’s class, barely disguises his lack of feeling or empathy for his patient. He prefers research to humanity, he tells her bluntly.

Vivian steals herself for the difficult road ahead and seeks solace in the poetry of John Dunne, who is her specialty, and his metaphysical wit. Ironically, he probably is best known for “Death Be Not Proud” and the use of punctuation in the last line of that work, “And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die,” gives Vivian lots to think about (hence the semicolon often used when the title of the play is listed as W;t.

As the doctors increasingly are interested only in her stats, Vivian, without family or any close friends, finds that she needs someone to care. Help comes from a kind nurse, Suzie Monahan (Chuja Seo), who provides come companionship and tells Vivian the truth about what to expect. She advocates on her patient’s behalf with the doctors trying to get them to reduce the dose of chemo and make her more comfortable.

Vivian also finds some comfort from her old teacher, Dr. E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck) who shows what a difference someone can make by going out of her way and offering a few small kindnesses.

The action unfolds on Emily Nichols’ minimal set (complete with sliding panels that proved difficult to operate for several cast members) where hospital scenes are mixed with vignettes from Vivian’s past as she drafts a play about her experience. Harrison Greene, Sara Detrik and Julia Ekwall round out the cast as students and interns. Zimmerman adds a nice touch with scene changes occurring with props being moved in and out by folks dressed in hospital scrubs (Kate Bunce designs the show’s costumes).

The subject matter makes this a difficult almost two hours without intermission which can drag a bit (and the theater recommends it for ages 14 and up due to brief non-sexual nudity.) Edson captures some of the isolation felt by patients in the hospital as well as the uncaring attitudes of some of the care providers (as well as their incompetence). She also captures the emotions of a woman trying to be strong and brave when she increasingly doesn’t feel that way.

Seo gives a genuine performance making us hope we’ll get her as our nurse if we ever end up in a hospital – and Hackney creates such a self-centered, uncaring character that we want to go up on stage and slap him because he reminds us of unfortunate real encounters with doctors more concerned about self-aggrandizement than what is best for their patients. Buck at first seems awkward in her role as Dr. Asher former student in the hospital.

An observation: I previously had thought the play poignant, but watching it again after having spent numerous hours at the hospital with my husband during his cancer treatments, it hit me unexpectedly and hard with its realism, so be warned.

Wit runs through May 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm with additional matinees that vary. Tickets $22.50-$35. Additional special ticket offers are available: 860-523-5900 x10;

Additional Credits:
Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott, Sound Design by Joel Abbott, Properties Management by Pamela A. Lang.

Also at Playhouse on Park: (in case you need some humor to counter Wit's drama):
The final show in Playhouse on Park's Season Seven Comedy Night Series is Poppy Champlin and Mike Egan Saturday, May 21 with two shows at 7  and 10 pm. Tickets $15; BYOB: 860-523-5900 x10;

Monday, April 18, 2016

Theater Review: Lewiston -- Long Wharf

Randy Danson and Arielle Goldman. Poto: T. Charles Erickson
Visiting a Family Rooted to Their Land and Each Other
By Lauren Yarger
The roots of family trees are strong. They anchor people as well as the themes and settings of the plays by Samuel D. Hunter, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

Lewiston, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, is no exception. Hunter returns to his native Idaho for a tale of a family, whose rich soil has been eroded by years of separation following a tragedy and by the selling off of land. (It also marks a return home for former Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, who directs this production.)

Selling off the land, piece by piece, is how Alice (Randy Danson) has been getting by for years. The cheap fireworks stand she operates near the Snake River certainly doesn’t pay the bills. Friend and boarder Connor (Martin Moran) lends his advice and services to try to help her be more profitable, but safety regulations make it impossible to sell fireworks that have any real explosive qualities any more (there are some very cool pyro effects that behave on cue), so sales are slow despite pending Fourth-of-July celebrations.

A different kind of explosion rocks Alice’s world, however, when long-estranged granddaughter Marnie (Arielle Goldman) shows up, stakes a tent and offers to buy the remaining family acres with profits from selling an urban farm she developed. Alice announces that she already has decided to sell the land, which has been in their family for six generations, to developers, however.

Deep-seeded resentments sprout for Marnie: Who is this Connor freeloading off of Alice? Why didn’t her grandmother stay in touch with her after her mother committed suicide? Marnie tries to find some meaning in audio tapes recorded by her mother during her last nature hike (the voice is supplied by Lucy Owen). The results are surprising with Connor deciding to plant himself in a new place -- Pocatello, where he might find himself eating at an Italian restaurant in Hunter’s other play about people discovering family bonds – and grandmother and granddaughter finding themselves entwined in the branches of a family tree too strong to chop down, despite their best attempts.

While the story is moving, the presentation is a bit disjointed. First, the setting (designed by Wilson Chin) has a beach quality– which could be confusing since Lewiston, ME is well known and, well just about any town in Idaho, is not. Later dialogue about cattle ranches and then a hike to the Pacific Ocean leave us wondering where exactly this action is taking place (unless we are fortunate enough to have read the setting information in the program or know that Hunter’s plays tend to be in Idaho).

We have no idea at first whose voice we are hearing on the tapes (or in fact that they are recorded tapes) or what this dialogue has to do with the rest of what we are seeing. There’s also an odd popping sound (design by Brandon Wolcott) from behind the set that sounds like hot pipes expanding, making us think we should get ready for a large fireworks explosion, but ultimately which isn’t connected to action on stage.

We also don’t quite get to know these folks well enough to feel invested in their situation. We never fully understand why Alice didn’t maintain a relationship with Marnie, or what exactly her relationship with Connor is. Marnie is a naturalist vegetarian, but smokes and has a tattoo? So a bit more growth and pruning is needed to shape this family-tree saga.

But, as with all of Hunter’s plays, like his wonderful Drama Desk and Obie Award winning The Whale, which featured an isolated 600-pound man, Hunter shares compelling moments with people “who don’t normally get written about,” according to Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. The actors’ strong performances here keep us interested, but make us wish Ting lit more sparks flying between them.

Lewiston runs at Long Wharf's Stage II through May 1. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $26-$85; www.longwharf.org203-787-4282.

Additional Credits: Costume Design by  Paloma Young , Lighting Design by Matthew Richards

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Theater Review: The Road: My Life with John Denver -- Ivoryton

Katie Deal and David M. Lutken. Photo: Anne Hudson
Gee It’s Good to Be Back Home Again
By Lauren Yarger
I admit it, while everyone else was listening to the latest from Led Zeplin, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan or any other pop rock star in the 1970s, I was listening to John Denver. The wholesome country singer sang about simple things like love, peace, family, happy childhoods and nature and his constant smile and cries of “Far Out!” appealed in a time otherwise filled with angst.

What a treat to get to enjoy his songs in the hands of a master: David M. Kutken, who plays Dan Wheetman (a co-writer on the show’s book and its Musical Director) who toured with Denver. The story (the book is co-written by Director Randal Myler) is told from Wheetman’s perspective. His life and Denver’s seem on parallel courses at times as the men enjoy success in their careers, marry, have children and then suffer marriage problems as the demands of being on the road take their toll.

Lutken is joined by Katie Deal who lends harmony on a number of the tunes, sings some of them on her own and steps in occasionally to give an impression of Wheetman’s wife as he reflects on some of their personal joys and sorrows. There’s just enough story to give context and deeper understanding to the songs, but The Road doesn’t try to be a jukebox musical with some silly plot interwoven around a chance to sing the artist’s most popular tunes.

It’s an entertaining show with the audience singing along (sometimes invited to do so and at other times just because they can’t help themselves) on songs like “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane.”  In fact, I was struck by just how many songs Denver has given us – all of which we know all they lyrics to -- as tune after tune was played on a variety of instruments. And both actors play those instruments.

Lutken, you might remember from his appearances here in Connecticut (Ring of Fire at Ivoryton and the fabulous Woody Sez at TheaterWorks). Deal tours and performs as a concert vocalist. My one criticism of this show is that the sound mix (Design by Tate R. Burmeister, who also does the lighting design) makes it hard to hear her, despite Lutken’s obvious attempts to pull back on his guitar.

Other than that, I didn’t take a lot of notes. I just sat back and thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re a Denver fan, or if you are one of the millions of people who got married in the ’70s to a John Denver tune (as Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard quipped probably was the case for many in the audience), you will enjoy doing the same.

The Road: My Life With John Denver plays through April 24 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets are $44 for adults; $39 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children. (860) 767-7318;

Additional Credits: Set Design by Dan Nischan, Costume Design by Vickie Blake.

Theater Review Having Our Say -- Long Wharf/Hartford Stage

Olivia Cole and Brenda Pressley. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
These Sisters Have a Lot of Insightful Things to Say
By Lauren Yarger
I just finished pulling up a chair, enjoying a cup of tea and learning from two delightful sisters what life was like over the past 100 years. It sure felt like that’s what I did watching the superb staging of Emily Mann’s play Having Our Say at Hartford Stage.

The production, directed by Jade King Carroll, was presented earlier in the season at Long Wharf Theatre, and lets two centenarians, Bessie Delany (Brenda Pressley) and Sadie Delany (Olivia Cole) have their say about growing up the daughters of a former slave, living through the Jim Crow laws in North Carolina, the Civil Rights movement and just about anything else they want.

The two women were real. Mann adapted their 1993 autobiography “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” with Amy Hill Hearth and the show was nominated for a number of Tony Awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1995 (Baikida Carroll’s original music is used here).

The sisters are a close as can be, even if they are very different in personality. Bessie, a pioneering woman who became a dentist, is hot-tempered, quick to speak and will let you know exactly what she thinks about the unfair and racist treatment she has received over the years, especially from Rebbies – racist white males.

“The darker you are, the harder it is,” she tells us.
Her bluntness is balanced by former schoolteacher Sadie’s patient and forgiving spirit. One thing they share in common is an appreciative and abiding love for their parents. Their father, a teacher, became the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church and their mother, a college-educated woman, worked outside the home while raising their 10 children.

They realize now that they had a privileged life growing up compared to most African Americans. They invite us in to their Mount Vernon Home (meticulously created by Alexis Distler with projections of photos enhancing the storytelling), cook up some delicious-smelling food to celebrate what would have been their father’s birthday (the audience complained of hunger at each of the two intermissions taken in this two-hour, 15 minute play) and reflect on their lives. It’s a combination of history, personal insight and humor that make for a satisfying look at the triumph of human spirit.

Both actresses give compelling performances, portraying women much older than themselves, of course. We see the stiffness in getting around, the tension between them when there is conflict, the deep love and affection of each for the person who has loved and known them the longest on earth.

Some wonderful moments and insight:

·         A heartfelt rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Bessie.
·         Loving their country even if it didn’t always love them back.
·         The secret of their longevity: never having husbands to worry them to death.

We feel as though we also have known these wonderful women for a long time and we want nothing more than to pull up a chair in their comfortable living room and say, “Please tell me what you have to say about. . .”

Having Our Say runs through April 24 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.  Tickets are $25-$85: 860-527-5151;

Additional credits: Costume Design by Karen Perry, Wig Design by Carol “Cici” Campbell, Lighting Design by Nicole Pearce; Sound Design by Karin Graybash, Production Design by Paul Piekarz.


AfterWords Discussion
April 12, 13, 19 -- Join members of the cast and artistic staff for a free discussion, immediately following select 7:30 pm performances on Tuesday or 2 pm Wednesday matinees. FREE

Open Captioned Performances -- 
April 17, 2 and 7:30 for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss. FREE with admission.

Audio Described Performance April 23 at 2 pm for patrons who are blind or have low vision. FREE with admission.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Mark Twain Writers Weekend Postponed

The Mark Twain House & Museum today announced it is postponing its 5th Annual Writers Weekend, originally set for April 15-17, 2016. The new dates are September 23-25, 2016.
“We put together a terrific slate of workshops and other activities to appeal to a broad range of writers,” said Jennifer LaRue, who joined the museum’s staff as director of writing program in January.  “But we didn’t have time to build the audience that the event deserves. Rescheduling for fall will give us the opportunity to get the word out more widely and ensure that we attract a full house, so to speak.”

LaRue said she has been working to create a Writers Weekend that will give participants the sense that they are guests in Mark Twain’s house and allow them to draw inspiration from the great American writer’s legacy. “When writers arrive here in September, they’ll feel a kinship with Twain as they expand and refine their craft in the home where he lived during the time when he created some of the world’s most enduring literary masterpieces,” she said. “We’ll be offering a rich and full schedule of workshops covering every aspect of writing, plus plenty of opportunities for people to interact, network, and talk shop about their writing.”

Those who registered for the April weekend will receive full refunds, but are still invited to attend the Saturday, April 16th 6pm Conversation with Larry Kramer free of charge.
For more information contact Jennifer LaRue, Director of Writing Programs, at or 860-280-3147.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Theater Review: Cymbeline -- Yale Rep

The cast of Cymbeline. Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2016.
This Cymbeline Gives Us an Unexpected Royal Laugh
By Lauren Yarger
When I think of Cymbeline, William Shakepseare’s tale of tragedy and love in Roman-occupied Britain, I don’t usually laugh, but I chuckled quite a bit through Director
Evan Yionoulis’ gender-bending interpretation at Yale Repertory.

I hope the humor was intentional, because it made what usually is a very long, soporific play with its ridiculous “let’s-wrap-it-up” ending quite interesting. Lines delivered with fresh insight bring large belly laughs from the audience – especially during that insipid climax – and make for an entertaining experience.

Also unconventional is Yionoulis’s decision to switch genders for a number of the characters. For most of them, the change remarkably is not noticeable. Kathryn Meisle is a fiery King Cymbeline, who is angered when his only heir and daughter, Imogen (Sheria Irving), marries for love without the king’s permission and banishes her new husband, Posthumus Leonatus (Miriam A. Hyman).

Finding himself in Italy, Posthumus meets conman Iachimo (Jeffrey Carlson) and in a bragging fest, declares that no one could woo his fair Imogen from him. Iachomo pulls off a deception that convinces Posthumus his wife has been unfaithful and he orders his servant, Pisanio (a solid Christopher Michael McFarland) to kill her. Instead, Pisanio spares her and dressed as a boy named Fidele, Imogen ends up serving Belarius (Anthony Cochrane), who also had been banished by Cymbeline years ago, and his two sons (Monique Barbee and Christopher Geary whose identities are a secret known only to Belarius.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s ambitious and calculating queen (Michael Manuel) plans to put her own son, Cloten (also Geary), who has his own lecherous designs in Imogen, on the throne. Some sword battles with angry Romans (excellently staged by Fight Director Rick Sordelet), a beheading, a Romeo-and-Juliet-like faked death, multiple confessions and true love all take center stage before the end of this comic tragedy, which is the funniest I ever have seen.

And that’s my short version of Yionoulis’s two-hour-45-minute condensation of the Bard’s play (which sometimes can have a running time of almost four hours).

As I have said, for the most part, using women in men’s roles and vice versa, works very well. Sofia Jean Gomez and Barbee as the first and second lords are convincing and entertaining. Hyman, who is an actress to watch, is excellent as Posthumus and is so convincing as the wronged husband that we honestly forget she is a woman (and visual evidence that might remind us, especially during a bath scene, is artfully hidden in costuming by Asa Benally.)

Tony Manna and Michael Manuel. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Where the gender bending stresses our imagination too much and breaks is in the casting of hefty and tall Manuel as the queen. Looking like a ridiculous drag queen in a flowing robe with heeled boots, his entrances are greeted with laughter, as is much of his dialogue, whether it is funny or not. There really isn’t a purpose to this humor, however, and it distracts from the rest of the production which is nicely staged on Jean Kim’s soaring and brooding stone set with brambles entwining it much as darkness grips this family.

Multiple levels allow for intriguing staging and for the use of superb projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson. The materialization of some apparitions is one of the most spectacular and wondrous effects, aided by revealing light design by Elizabeth Mak. Original music and sound design by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca also adds to the mood.

Cymbeline reigns through April 16 at Yale Rep's University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets $20–$99:; (203) 432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.

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