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Monday, January 26, 2009

“Coming Home” relevant but heavy-handed play at Long Wharf

NEW HAVEN — The statistics are horrific. Over 27 percent of the South African population is infected with the AIDS virus — 40 percent of pregnant women were HIV positive in 2008, and in 2007 an estimated 1.4 million South African children were orphaned.
Even more horrifying was the government cover up that intentionally mislead millions. In the program notes we learn that up until 2004 South Africa’s Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, with the support of then-president Thabo Mbeki, insisted that the AIDS virus could be effectively treated with a diet of bananas, garlic, and olive oil.
The play “Coming Home” premiering at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a personal story of this national tragedy told by acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard.
A young woman leaves her hometown to try to make it as a singer in Cape Town, South Africa. She returns years later infected with the AIDS virus, with a child in tow, trying to secure a future for her AIDS-free child.
At the beginning of the play Veronica Jonkers, played by Roslyn Ruff, returns to the one-room shanty, well designed by Eugene Lee. Her South African accent is all over the place at first, and then it settles down. Ruff portrays a feisty, fiery character, fighting till the end for a secure future for her child.
The end, almost from the beginning, is never in doubt.
The son, Mannetjie Jonkers, is played by two young actors, and they are both terrific. The younger Mannetjie Jonkers, played by an adorable Namumba Santos, only has a few lines, but he is convincing and sweet. The older Mannetjie Jonkers played by Mel Eichler, has the most convincing and consistent accent of the group, and just the right balance of fear and indignation.
Colman Domingo, was fine and believable as the concerned and loving childhood friend Alfred Witbooi. Lou Ferguson who plays the grandfather, Oupa Jonkers, was also solid.
The play is unfortunately over long in exposition. The adult characters each tell story after story. The stories are good ones, but probably read better on the page.
The pace of the play picks up near the end when the conflict and resolution between Alfred and the older Mannetjie Jonkers is explored.
The seed analogy, with the implication that words are like seeds and if nurtured, they will grow, is fine and good, but it is heavy-handed, obvious, and over-played.
The deux ex machina near the end, when the long-hidden money is revealed, feels contrived for plot-resolution purposes. Like the definition of deux ex machina, it is an unexpected, artificial event introduced suddenly to resolve a situation.
“Coming Home” is well meaning and an important, relevant, and tragic story about real poverty and appalling suffering, but talking heads get old after a while.

2 Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costumes by Jessica Ford. Lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Sound design by Corrine Livingston. Dialect coach Amy Stoller.
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. through Feb. 8.
Tickets: $32 to $62. For more information call their box office at 203-787-4282, or visit their website at
Roslyn Ruff … Veronica Jonkers
Namumba Santos … younger Mannetjie Jonkers
Mel Eichler … older Mannetjie Jonkers
Colman Domingo … Alfred Witbooi
Lou Ferguson … Oupa Jonkers

Thursday, January 15, 2009

HSC’s “Dying City” complex, compelling

HARTFORD — Although this complex, compelling play “Dying City” is just one act, so many traumatic, disturbing issues are exhumed, dissected, and revealed, it feels longer.
Love, death, a possible suicide, homosexuality, war, politics, and heartbreak along with other twists and turns are delivered in a flashback motif that works.
Written by Wethersfield native Christopher Shinn, the play centers on three characters played by two actors. Kelly the wife, who is a therapist, is played by Diane Davis. The other characters are her husband, Craig, who died in the Iraqi War, and his identical gay twin brother, Peter, a famous actor starring in a play in New York, where the play takes place. Ryan King plays both Peter and Craig.
Craig has died a year previously in Iraq in an accident at a practice range, and his twin, Peter, comes to Kelly’s apartment as she is getting ready to move away.
The dialog is emotionally charged and spoken in naturalistic, abrupt sentences that start and stop and change direction second to second. It must have been challenging for the actors to memorize and be able to deliver the dialog naturally, but both Davis and King make it seem organic and in the moment.
Davis switches scene to scene, from playing one brother to the other, and is completely convincing. Playing identical twins with different sexual orientations even touches on the nature vs. nurture argument of homosexuality.
The set, by Wilson Chin, is reminiscent of the television show “Friends” set, with a huge loft-like window that looks out on what appears at first to be the city sky line. The d├ęcor is minimalist Ikea-like.
Hearing about the Iraqi War in this poetic, serious play, written in 2006, is both disturbing and relevant. It is an important play, not without some humor, that is thought provoking and promising for the future of modern theater.

3 Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Written by Christopher Shinn. Directed by Maxwell Williams. Scenic design by Wilson Chin. Costume design by Alejo Vietti. Lighting design by Traci Klainer. Sound design by Fitz Patton.
Running time: 1 1/2 hours with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and selected Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees performances Sundays, selected Wednesdays and Saturday s at 2 p.m. through Feb. 8
Tickets: $23 — $66. Call 527-5151 or visit their Web site at
Diane Davis … Kelly
Ryan King …Peter/Craig

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“Avenue Q” is A-Okay

HARTFORD — For anyone who was grew up with Sesame Street and Jim Henson’s Muppet show, “Avenue Q” hits the sweet spot.
The 2004 Tony-award winning musical’s sweet and straightforward story teaches lessons in how to live a meaningful life full of purpose and direction.
Although not sanctioned by either The Jim Henson Company or Sesame Street, the similarities are unmistakable, with the floozy Lucy filling the Miss Piggy roll, Trekkie Monster, played by the fine David Benoit, filling Cookie Monster’s spot, and Bert and Ernie represented by Rod and Nicky, played by Robert McClure and Benoit.
The story follows the life of college graduate Princeton, also played by the energetic and upbeat McClure, who moves to an outer borough of New York City, to the low-rent district along a street called Avenue Q There he finds other good-natured losers like him who are just trying to make ends meet.
The plot such as it is, follows Princeton’s life as he tries to find what his “purpose” is — just the kind of quest an English Literature major would be searching for.
Some of the actors, like the Holiday-named “Christmas Eve,” played by Sala Iwamatsu and her husband, the near-do-well comic Brian, played by Cole Porter, have no puppet characters. Danielle K. Thomas plays Gary Coleman, a parody of the same-named child actor who in this musical is reduced a building superintendent.
In case anyone is wondering, the real Coleman is not too happy with the musical’s characiture of him.
Iwamatsu has a heavy Japanese accent that is part of her character, but is difficult to understand at times.
The other actors, dressed in black, play multiple puppet roles, with half-bodied puppets — a conceit that takes a little getting used to, and is probably more effective from the balcony seats.
In addition to Benoit and McClure, Anika Larsen was outstanding as the puppeteer and voice of both the innocent kindergarten assistant teacher Kate Monster and the sexy Mae West-like Lucy.
The opening song “It Sucks to be Me,” is definitely the show’s best musical number and the funniest, while the song about racism is an interesting examination of the everyday stereotypes that hurt, told with humor.
While the program notes say that the show is appropriate for children as young as 13, that may be pushing the envelope some.
There is lots of profanity, which is amusing to hear from puppets, but there are also naked puppets having graphic puppet-sex, so perhaps 16 years old would be the youngest age that should attend the show.
The musical also uses two projection flat screens that flash cartoon images along with little lessons, like the meaning of the word “Schaudenfreude” — a German word for experiencing happiness at the misfortune of others. The screens showed its proper pronunciation, etymology, and even examples of how it is used in a sentence.
“Avenue Q” offers grown-up lessons in tolerance and matters of the heart that go down more easily since they are told from the perspective of puppets.

Three Stars
Theater: The William H. Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Memorial Center
Location: 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford
Production: Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Directed by Jason Moore. Choreographer Ken Roberson. Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Mirena Rada. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon.
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Jan. 18.
Tickets: $20 — $65. Call 860-987-5900 or visit their Web site at Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Robert McClure … Princeton, Rod
Anika Larsen … Kate Monster, Lucy, and others
David Benoit … Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear and others
Sala Iwamatsu … Christmas Eve
Cole Porter … Brian
Danielle K. Thomas … Gary Coleman
Maggie Lakis … Mrs. T., Bear, and others