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Monday, March 22, 2010

“No Child…” at Long Wharf an original magical education


NEW HAVEN — What a gift to be able to experience the fantastic one-woman play, “No Child…” performed by the incomparable Nilaja Sun, the show’s creator.
Other fine actors have performed this play that originated Off-Broadway in 2006, now running at the Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II through April 18, but there is nothing like seeing the original.
The story follows Sun’s own experience as a visiting teacher at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx-teaching 27 students to perform a play in six weeks as part of an $8,000 grant.
As she explains, it is a play within a play within a play, with the student’s being asked to perform a real play called “Our Country’s Good,” which is about Australian convicts performing a play dealing with sexuality, punishment and their judicial system.
Sun plays all the characters in this jam-packed 70-minute show, from the wizened old janitor who is the show’s historian and narrator, to the no-nonsense school principal, Mrs. Kennedy, to the South Park-like teacher Miss Tam, to herself as the energetic, positive, at times overwhelmed and discouraged teacher.
Sun imbues the students she plays with a believable and natural coolness and the astounding energy and life force of youth. She remarkably and almost magically morphs from one character to the next before your eyes.
Using nothing more than an accent, movement, body posture, tone, and expression, she embodies the charismatic and confident Shandrika Jones; the unintelligible, mumbling Phillip; the shy sweet Chris; to the students’ natural leader, the intelligent therefore understandably furious Jerome, and many others.
The play was written at the height of the last administration’s cynical attempt to impose unrealistic expectations on the national school system through the unfunded, federally mandated law — “No Child Left Behind.” The result she points out, is an impoverished, hellish, and inequitable education system that successfully oppresses those who are already severely marginalized.
It’s still relevant today, and will continue to be so as long as poverty is tolerated in the richest nation in the world. Her clear agenda is that if you teach solely to the test and eliminate what some consider the “extras” such as the arts, the possibility for real learning and growth is stunted.
What you end up with, as one of her characters aptly observes, in an institution with metal detectors, armed police officers, and bars on the windows, is nothing more than a training camp for future prison inmates.
“We are getting them ready for jail,” she says at one of her low points in the play. “We’ve abandoned them and I’m abandoning them too.”
As Sun says, 79 percent of the students she sees have endured physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. “They need a miracle everyday,” she discouragingly concludes.
And yet, this is a show of bottomless hope and great humor, with humanity and real accomplishments, in which the children and all who are connected with them, grow and change.
Like a true natural teacher, Sun says to Hispanic, doomed Jose, who complains that he is bored, “Boring usually comes from boring people.” She also points out that more than dying, “public speaking is the number one fear of adults.”
She states simple truths that are sometimes forgotten, like “habits are difficult to break.”
True, most in the audience, unlike most the students Sun respectfully and lovingly channels, have seen their fair share of plays, and know that thespians are not gay.
Still, what a terrific way to be reminded of our common humanity, the healing power of forgiveness, and of our responsibility and ability to make a positive difference in this world one person at a time.
“Hush, hush,” the janitor says to the audience. “You could learn a little something.”
And we do.

NO CHILD

three and ½ Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written and performed Nilaja Sun. Directed by Hal Brooks. Off-Broadway set design by Narelle Sissons. Off-Broadway costume design by Jessica Gaffney. Lighting design by Mark Barton. Off-Broadway sound design by Ron Russell.
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, most Wednesdays, and Sunday March 28 at 7 p.m. Wednesday March 24 at 7:30 p.m. with no matinee that day. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday and most Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. through April 18.
Tickets: start at $45. For more information call their box office at 203-787-4282, or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.
ACTOR…CHARACTER
Nilaja Sun as herself

Monday, March 15, 2010

“The Philadelphia Story” at the Ivoryton Playhouse sophisticated romance

IVORYTON — Ah, the life of the idle rich. How we love to spy on the trials and travails of those for whom money is no object, but still manage to be unhappy none-the-less.
“The Philadelphia Story,” playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse, was originally written in 1939 by Philip Barry for Katharine Hepburn, and subsequently made into the classic movie in 1940 starring Hepburn, stands up well under the test of time.
Hepburn, a Hartford native, performed at the lovely Ivoryton Playhouse, making this show feel even more at home here.
A wealthy gal, Tracy Lord, played with delightful coltish determinism by Brenda Withers, arms akimbo, is about to marry for a second time. This go-round she’s hooking up with a man of the people, George Kittredge, played by Geoffrey Murphy, who is spiffy — looking and acting like Ralph Bellamy on caffeine.
Kittredge worked his way up through the ranks and sees Lord as his just desserts. She doesn’t quite see it that way, but is remarrying on the rebound after she split with her true match in social circles, intellect, and heart, C.K. Dexter Haven (Christian Pedersen), because of his drinking.
Haven designs and races sail boats and raises polo ponies, so you know from the get-go what set your dealing with.
Tracy’s father, Seth Lord (Bif Carrington III) is having an illicit and rather public affair with a chorus girl, evidently making the whole family fodder for a gossip magazine.
In comes that same magazine’s reporter, the poetic Macaulay Connor, played with sincerity and swagger by Matthew DeCapua, and photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie, played by the swell Caroline Strong, who seems to have stepped right out of a 1940s film.
A pip of a kid sister, Dinah Lord, played by with wide-eyed charm by Jennifer Leigh Cohen, tries her darndest to ruffle things up, despite her mother’s best efforts — the much put upon but remarkably patient Margaret Lord, played by the elegant Donna Schilke.
Tracy’s brother, Sandy, is played by Thomas Layman, and although his part is key to part of the plot, something about his working as an editor somewhere, his voice was so inarticulate and sing-songy, perhaps in an effort to sound upper-class, that I couldn’t understand most of what he said.
The romantic side of the story comes down pretty hard on our poor heroine, Tracy, somehow making her to blame for her former husband’s alcoholism, played with sardonic wit by Pedersen, and is blamed for her father’s philandering — quite a stretch.
They say it’s because Tracy is the “ice goddess” — holding others to the unattainably high standards she lives by — causing the men around her to crumble.
“She needs trouble to mature her,” Haven says, which is probably what we all need.
Tracy, up to the challenge, counters of her marriage to Dexter — “I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.”
Of Kittredge, Haven observes, “He’s no great tower of strength, he’s just a tower,” and in one sentence, succeeds in getting us all to not like Kittredge much.
Of course, none of what happens in the course of the two-hour play is of much consequence, really, but it is so witty and entertaining you can’t help but be willingly swept along by the spectacle of it all.
Solidly directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, with well-tailored costumes by Pam Puente, you do feel like your invited to an exclusive club and enjoy basking in the reflected warmth of wealth.
Set designer Tony Andrea immeasurably helps this show along with a gorgeous and well-appointed set that immediately sweeps you back to that romantic big-band era.
In the end it’s the rich and famous who are meant to win our sympathy, not that opportunistic, narrow-minded, self-serving working class.
Thanks to a fine plot, along with some deliciously witty dialog, it all goes down like a cucumber and cream cheese tea sandwich with champagne — Light, satisfying, with just the right amount of sophisticated insight to make you feel right at home with the fashionable set.

PHILADELPHIA STORY

3 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, CT
Production: Written by Philip Barry. Directed by Jacqueline Hubbard. Scenic design by Tony Andrea. Lighting design by Doug Harry. Stage manager Theresa Stark. Costume design by Pam Puente.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through March 28.
Tickets: $38 for adults, $33 for seniors, $20 for students, and $15 for children 12 and under. Call the box office at 860-767-7318, or visit their website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org
ACTOR…CHARACTER
Brenda Withers … Tracy Lord
Christian Pedersen … C.K. Dexter Haven
Matthew DeCapua … Macaulay (Mike) Connor
Caroline Strong … Elizabeth (Liz) Imbrie
Geoffrey Murphy … George Kittredge
Jennifer Leigh Cohen … Dinah Lord
Donna Schilke … Margaret Lord
Thomas Layman … Alexander (Sandy) Lord
Bif Carrington III … Seth Lord
Norman Rutty … William (Uncle Willy) Tracy
Don Shirer … Thomas

Thursday, March 11, 2010

HSC’s “Motherhood Out Loud” has something for everyone

HARTFORD — If you are a mom or were born to one — and let’s face it, who isn’t? — this show is for you. There is something in Hartford Stage Company’s production of “Motherhood Out Loud” for everyone.
The one act show is presented in a rapid-fire succession of individuals and groups of twos and threes, in vignettes and scenes of motherhood and parenthood stories.
The stories, conceived by Joan Stein and Susan Rose and written by 14 different women, covered a whole gamut of relationships in all types of scenarios, from “gaybie” babies, to adoption, to a Muslim mother, in situations ranging from birth, to playground politics, to weddings, and everything in between.
The actors read from three-ring binder scripts off and on, much as “The Vagina Monologues,” with plenty of profanity, particularly at the start.
Sometimes the actors gave monologues, while other times they spoke to each other, and still other times there were two or three talking in cross-sentences about the same subject, from puberty to Thanksgiving.
Gracefully directed by Lisa Paterson, the show has a feeling of the dance of life, or as one character, played by the fine Amy Irving, says when her musical high school son going off to college, “a highway of tears.”
“I’m waiting to stop waiting,” she says vacantly. “It’s taking a while. It seems to be taking a while.”
Irving, Randi Graff, and April Yvette Thompson all complement each other beautifully, and are well cast for this play.
About half way through the 90-minute production, the show starts to drag some despite their best efforts though, and then James Lecesne steps on board, bringing new energy and a male perspective to the proceedings.
Lecesne’s first character is a homosexual man who decides with his partner to have a surrogate carry their child, or as he calls it, a “gaybie.”
He tells the audience that he and his partner have been together for eight years, “which is 56 years in heterosexual time.”
His piece as the divorced man who moves back with his mother, switching roles in the process, and sending her to school, is finely underplayed.
Thompson is funny as the 12-year-old girl interviewing her cantacorous grandmother played by Graff, as well as the young Muslim girl who pokes her head up from behind a low wall at amusing moments, chiming in just like kids do when their parents make incorrect statements.
Graff plays the Muslim mother who inaccurately hurls a plethora of items at her kids, who have cataloged them as “victims of velocity” and complains about their use of “face space.” Her exasperated daughter, (Thompson) clarifies that it is “Facebook” and “My Space,” but mom sticks doggedly to her own term.
In one scene the three gals deal with breasts — one mother, Graff, has a 14-year-old daughter who doesn’t need a bra, but gets her one for the girl’s ego, complaining, “$42 for a bra the size of a postage stamp.”
Another mom, Irving, has a 10-year-old daughter who is bigger than she is, while the third, Thompson, has a son who is getting too chubby and appears to be developing breasts.
Some scenes are heartbreaking, like the nanny living in California taking care of other’s children, while her own son in El Salvador has his birthday without her, played by Thompson.
Thompson also portrays a mother whose son is in Iraq, and deftly brings to life the anxiety of a mother whose son could die any day.
Graff injured her leg last week and reviews were postponed until director Lisa Paterson could re-stage the show to accommodate the handicapped actress, and Wednesday’s performance, with the new staging, went smoothly.
Between quick scenes the lights dim and cool cartoon animated scenes (adorable animation by Emily Hubley) danced on three screens (projection designed by Jan Hartley) while different music, from Dolly Parton to Charlie Brown-like piano tunes, played, with original sound design and music by Jill BC DuBoff.
The blessing of this show is that the divergent characters from dramatically different backgrounds say in many different ways what mothers everywhere have probably always wanted to say to their children.
As one mother says in a beautiful revere of love and amazement to her newborn — “One second you were in there and the next second you were here, and I got to be there.”
“Motherhood Out Loud” is a great big reminder that regardless of your history or religious upbringing, life is a miracle to be cherished daily.

MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD

3½ Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Co-conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music and sound design by Jill BC DuBoff. Projection design by Jan Hartley. Animation design by Emily Hubley.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees performances Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through March 21.
Tickets: $23 — $66. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org.
ACTOR…CHARACTER
Randy Graff
Amy Irving
James Lecesne
April Yvette Thompson

Monday, March 08, 2010

“Bus Stop” at LTM timeless classic

MANCHESTER — Adultery, abduction, pedophilia, alcoholism, and domestic violence without a profane word to be heard can be seen in the timeless classic play “Bus Stop” by William Inge at the Little Theatre of Manchester through Sunday.
This is the first production the Little Theatre of Manchester produced 50 years ago, and, unlike some plays that show their age, this show is still relevant and solid today and a fine community theater production.
Confidently directed by Fred T. Blish, who knows the show well, having played Bo Decker in their original production, this play is set in the 1950s in a Kansas bus stop diner in March during a late winter snowstorm.
As the characters repeatedly and endearingly say, “March sure is coming in like a lion.” There is something comforting and kind about these common colloquialisms which connects the social subconscious of the group of mostly strangers in a strange place.
Those strangers include a ragtag group of bus riders — a lounge singer, a couple of cowboys, and a college professor on the lam. They stumble into period-perfect roadside diner to get out of the cold and have a bite to eat. Their stay is extended due to a snowstorm that is blocking the roads ahead.
Alysa Auriemma plays Cherie, the chanteuse, with wide-eyed bewilderment and lower-class sweetness. She is a young gal in her 20s who has had a rough go of it, coming from a large family in the Ozarks who lost everything in a flood that has left her friendless and penniless in the world.
A na├»ve but exuberant cowpoke who has just won his first rodeo, Bo Decker, played by Bob Pelletier, “gets familiar” with Cherie and just assumes she is like one of his horses — he wants her and he takes her. He commanders her onto a bus along with his buddy, the older Virgil, with the expectation of marrying her and taking her to live with him on his Montana ranch, whether she wants to or not.
Mike Zizka does a terrific turn playing Virgil the bachelor cowboy who has raised Bo after Bo’s parent’s death when he was 10. There is something so natural and unaffected in Zizka’s expressions and delivery. He’s endlessly compelling and seems like a cantankerous character right out of a Sam Shepard play.
Other characters include the fine Michael Forgetta as the drunken Falstaffian rogue professor, Dr. Gerald Lyman, who has a penchant for underage gals. His “Romeo and Juliet” scene with the high school waitress Elma Duckworth, played with perky intelligence by Trish Urso, is one of the highlights of the show — at once amusing and poignant.
Sara Logan is also natural and real as the sassy down-to-earth diner-owner Grace Hoylard. We learn she is married, but hasn’t seen nor heard from her husband in ages, and is not too upset about that fact. She has a thing for the bus driver, Carl, played with many sly innuendoes by Nick Demetriades.
As Grace explains to Elma, “Every once in a while I gotta have a man or I get grouchy.”
The costumes, by Marge Patefield are age and time appropriate, but why are Bo’s jeans so terribly ill fitting?
As a cowboy and a rodeo dude, those jeans should be tight as tight can be, rather than the strangely baggy, low-inseamed, nondescript jeans he uncomfortably wears. It’s not too late. There are a few shows left. Get that man a pair of tight, sexy wranglers that advertise Bo’s strongest attributes — his animal magnetism and sexual potency — not hide it.

BUS STOP

3 Stars
Location: Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester
Production: Written by William Inge. Directed by Fred T. Blish. Associate direction by Debi Freund. Sound by John Ryan and Michael Forgetta. Set design by Fred T. Blish and shop crew. Lighting design by Lee Hammitt. Costumes by Marge Patefield. Produced by Michael Forgetta. Stage manager Jim Ryan.
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. through March 14.
Tickets: $16 — $23. Seniors over 60 and students receive a discount. Call the box office at 860-647-9824, or visit their website at www.cheneyhall.org

ACTOR…CHARACTER
Alysa Auriemma … Cherie
Bob Pelletier … Bo Decker
Trish Urso … Elma Duckworth
Sara Logan … Grace Hoylard
Michael Forgetta … Dr. Gerald Lyman
Mike Zizka … Virgil Blessing
Dave Walton … Will Masters
Nick Demetriades … Carl