Feasting on Family in Osage County

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Beyond Broadway
 

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BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Axial Theatre Presents
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
by Tracy Letts
With Mickey Pantano*, D. Scott Faubel, Elizabeth D’Ottavio, Michel E. Boyle, Jr., Julie Griffin, Jeffrey Schlotman, Levi Joseph Green, Maria Oppedisano, Siobhan McKinley, Anthony Barresi, Jr., Dan Forman, Stella DeBeech, Alexandra Theodoroupoulos  (*Appears with permission of Actors’ Equity Association)
Directed by Catherine Banks

Lighting Design, Brian Pacelli
Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Production Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum
Stage Manager, Sabrina Fuchs 

Stephen Palgon, Producer
Original Music, Jim Simonson

Through May 19, 2019
Axial Theater at St. John’s Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570

TICKETS
$27.50 General; $22.50 Students + Seniors
Order Online
 Here
Order by Phone: 800-838-3006
Information: Axial Theatre

ALL PHOTOS BY LESLYE SMITH

Consider these tasty ingredients for a delectable, prize-winning stage play, part tragedy, part comedy, all uproarious: One mother, medicated. One father, missing. Three sisters, distraught. Sprinkle in a motley mix of in-laws and outcasts. For added measure, it’s August, and the lady of the century-old house, wherein they all noisily bump into — and bellow at — each other, has no use for air-conditioning (or for heiresses).

Mickey, Julie, Liz, Michael

As husband Bill (Michael E. Boyle, Jr.) looks on, Barbara (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) lays down the law with her mother Violet (Mickey Pantano), to the shock of Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Julie Griffin).

Meet the Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, county of Osage. They’re on spectacular display through May 19, in a rousing production of Tracy Letts’s multi-award-winning stage play August: Osage County, at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville.

Stir ‘em up and watch the blood boil over. Blaming and shaming, mocking and shocking one other. A lifespan of open wounds festering; feasting on each other’s weaknesses. Arguing about the rules of arguing. Sure, every now and again, there’s a stray compliment that manages to slip out, but it’s usually a mere superficiality, skimming the thin ice that covers deep-seated resentments.

It’s a fun-house mirror of Americana arcana, reminding us that the reason blood is thicker than water is because it’s larded with toxic sentiment, born of relationships that were thrust upon us by birth or invited in by marriage. More than one of those relationships here gets pretty funky before the curtain falls, by which point the household has fallen apart.

Jeff, Julie, Liz, Mickey 2

Charlie Aiken (Jeffrey Schlotman) and Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Julie Griffin) have words with each other in front of Violet Weston (Mickey Pantano) and her daughter Barbara Fordham (Elizabeth D’Ottavio).

CUCKOO’S NEST OF VIPERS AND VICTIMS
Not all families can claim the abundance of volatile drama that distinguishes the Westons. Thank goodness a writer as skilled as Tracy Letts gave birth to this cuckoo’s nest of vipers and victims. It makes for one heck of a roller-coaster ride. Not surprisingly, he has been amply rewarded for his efforts with every coveted theater prize handed to him for this exquisitely crafted Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play.

His sharp-toothed dialogue is swift and savage, most notably as voiced by mouthy matriarch Violet Weston, brought to vivid life on the Axial stage, with a riveting performance by the charismatic Mickey Pantano (of Manhattan). She pulls off the neat theatrical trick of making Violet’s behavior so vile it’s sublime.

As the play hurtles forward, the decidedly non-shrinking Violet meets her white-hot match in eldest daughter Barbara, portrayed potently by Elizabeth D’Ottavio (Old Greenwich). She effectively manages the tension within herself that pits resolve against exasperation, a dueling duality recognizable to many an adult child-turned-caregiver. Vi and Barbara become the fast-pumping heart of the piece, though their fraught and fragile relationship feels more like congestive heart failure.

Where in all this fits Violet’s husband, Mr. Weston? That would be Beverly, a lapsed poet of some renown. He lives in the bottle, as Mrs. Weston, coping with mouth cancer, lives in the pillbox.

Anthony and Stella

Karen Weston’s fiance Steve Heidebrecht (Anthony Barresi, Jr.) takes a special interest in Barbara and Bill Weston’s daughter Jean (Stella DeBeech).

BEVERLY’S DISAPPEARING ACT
The first time we see Beverly is the last time we see him—in the opening scene. Following an elegiac monologue, spiked with martini-dry humor and masterfully delivered with economy and authenticity by D. Scott Faubel (White Plains), Beverly disappears with dispatch. The rest of the play posits the Westons’ extended family in search of Beverly, but that’s the script’s MacGuffin, a favorite term of famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchock’s. It connotes a plot device that has little to do with the plot’s subtext.

Tracy Letts’s real preoccupation is, in part, with the failings of human connection and communication. His fictional people, like a great many of us real-life folks, talk and talk, but don’t hear each other very well. They talk at or past one another. They are busy licking their wounds, waiting anxiously for the next chance to defend and retaliate, like domestic war games.

A perhaps more obvious theme here is the ties that bind parents to children and vice versa. Mr. Letts pokes around the idea of how parents and children stay tenuously   connected while not wanting to be imprisoned by past interdependence.

For both generations, it’s a losing battle, in more ways than one. In another time, it was common for children to stick around wherever it was they grew up, staying near to parents. As advances in transportation made America easier to traverse, the offspring more frequently flew further from the nest, creating both physical and emotional distance from parents.

Alexandra and Scott

The first time we see Beverly Weston (D. Scott Faubel), in the opening scene, is the last time we see him, as he waxes philosophic about his life to newly-hired housekeeper Johnna Monevata (Alexandra Theodoropoulos).

THE UMBILICAL CONNECTION
Mr. Letts employs a starkly literal way to underscore that evolution of filial estrangement: He has the Westons’ housekeeper, a native American young woman named Johnna Monevata (elegantly played by Alexandra Theodoropoulos, Cold Spring), explain that Cheyenne tradition is for the umbilical cord of newborns to be dried and sewn into a pouch worn for the rest of their life.

“If we lose it,” says Johnna, “our souls belong nowhere and after we die our souls will walk the Earth looking for where we belong.” Inherent in the American tragedy, so suggests Mr. Letts, is that we have forsaken such wisdom and spiritual connectedness that is an article of faith in the soulful native American culture that we not only supplanted but wantonly demonized.

Along with that, the author suggests, we have squandered the sacred human currency of mutual respect, decency and kindness.

Of course, excellent material is essential to a rewarding theater experience, but the players must be up to the task. So must the person piloting the production, the director.  

Levi and Jeff

Violet’s brother-in-law Charlie Aiken (Jeffrey Schlotman) assures son Little Charles (Levi Joseph Green) that everything will work out.

JUST ‘PLAINS’ FOLKS
As the play’s only still-together married couple, Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s sister, and Charlie, seasoned actors Julie Griffin (Ossining) and Jeffrey Schlotman (Pleasantville) turn in rip-roaring portrayals of unabashed “Plains” folks.

Levi Joseph Green (Bronx), as their son “Little Charles,” and Maria Oppedisano (Harrison), as middle sister Ivy Weston, who want to be married, prove achingly vulnerable as lost souls who happily find a soulmate in each other.

Liz and Siobhan 2

Youngest Weston daughter Karen (Siobhan McKinley, r) dishes on older sister Barbara (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) as they prepare for mother Violet to feast on the family.

As youngest sister Karen Weston, who lives in sunny Florida, Siobhan McKinley (Ridgefield) carries off most convincingly an innocence and lightness that offsets the decidedly darker deliberations of her unsunny siblings.

Michael E. Boyle, Jr. (Ossining), as Barbara’s soon-to-be-ex Bill, and Anthony Barresi, Jr. (Peekskill), as Steve Heidebrecht, the naughty fiancée of Karen Weston, conjure a fellowship of free spirits whose devil-may-care posturing befits their helplessly horny impulses.

As helpful Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, who had courted Barbara in high school, Dan Forman (Yorktown Heights) projects a palpable discomfort in having to be the bearer of sad tidings. The sheriff’s humble reticence helps lower the temperature, albeit briefly, of an otherwise over-heated pressure cooker.

Liz and Stella

Barbara Fordham (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) has a heart-to-heart with 14-year-old daughter Jean (Stella DeBeech).

AUSPICIOUS STAGE DEBUT
Special mention goes to Stella DeBeech, who plays Jean Fordham, precocious daughter of Barbara and Bill. Stella, a 15-year-old freshman at Ridgefield High School, studies with Cat Banks in Howard Meyer’s Acting Program, and is making her stage debut in the play. I hope she keeps at it, because she’s a natural who does impressive work here.

The three-act play’s three hours whiz by. Directed with a firm grasp and theatrical smarts by Axial co-artistic director and stage veteran Catherine “Cat” Banks (Ossining), the pace stays reliably on track, moving mostly at breakneck speed.

Two set pieces indicative of her flair are the rambunctious dinner scene, where the audience intimately overlooks the outsize dining room table of nine people eating a real repast, as Violet ravenously feasts on her prey; and a scene where most of the actors are on stage at once, carrying on three or four simultaneous conversations in a cacophony of crosstalk. For a director, it’s the proverbial challenge of herding cats, and, true to her name, Cat makes it all work purr-fectly.

So, save the date and location, May: Westchester County, for August: Osage County

[NOTE: The author of this article is a member of the board of Axial Theatre, who also regularly reviews local theater in his Bruce The Blog Beyond Broadway column.]

Dan, Mickey, Michael

Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Dan Forman, l) and son-in-law Bill Fordham (Michael Boyle, Jr.) are bemused by one of Violet Weston’s incoherent, drug-induced retreats from reality.


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

A Teachable Moment — on Steroids

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45 Minutes from Broadway
 

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BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

GoJo Clan Productions Presents
OLEANNA
by David Mamet
With Duane Rutter, Julia Boyes
Directed by Robin Anne Joseph
Julia LaVerde, Production Stage Manager
Duane Rutter, Technical Director/Lighting & Sound Design
Michael Serpe, Fight Choreographer

Through March 17, 2019
Westchester Collaborative Theater
23 Water Street
Ossining, New York 10562

Order Tickets Online
$25 General; $20 Students + Seniors

As I was watching this barn burner of a stage drama, I found myself furiously scribbling in my notepad the choice morsels of dialogue that spring from the fertile and probing mind of Pulitzer-winning playwright David Mamet, best known for his trenchant take-down of hucksterism, Glengarry Glen Ross, which gave us the immortal line, “Coffee is for closers only.”

Julia Boyes is Carol, a college student, and Duane Rutter is John, her professor up for tenure. Photos by Robin Anne Joseph

In Oleanna, Mr. Mamet’s target is not disingenuous salespeople, but rather what he deems an equally offensive stain upon our social order: elitist educators and the system that justifies their abuse of power wielded over students. 

That’s the fulcrum of his premise. On either end is a college professor, John, up for tenure, and a student, Carol, with low self-esteem, who summons the resolve to not only challenge her teacher but to jeapordize his career.

[It is somewhat uncanny that this Grade A production opened mere days before news broke of the college admissions scandal, which is nothing if not a grotesque symptom of how the powerful in an elite class can oppress the powerless in an underclass.]

OLEANNA pic 4

Things start to go south when Carol takes exception to how John comports himself during a meeting. They see the situation from opposing points of view. It’s up to each audience member to decide who to side with. Couples who see the play rarely agree on whose position each supports.

Oleanna‘s battle royale pits institutionalized, patriarchal power against the highly subjective perception of what words mean. Hanging in the balance are what appear to be the author’s ambivalent musings on the sexual subtext of how we communicate with each other, both verbally and non-verbally.

When the professor drops phrases such as “white man’s burden” and “copulating” during  a private meeting with his female student, is he being racist or sexist? To her, yes! To him, no! And so it goes, until the explosive climax, when their irreconcilable values devolve into the very human failing of primal flailing.

This intimate, powerful production proves that you don’t need big theaters to house big performances, which is what Duane Rutter and Julia Boyes deliver with impressive intensity and tightly focused theatricality. To not be riveted by their work throughout is to not be awake throughout.

The two talented actors could not be in better hands than those of Robin Anne Joseph, one of the finest theater directors in this region. Her keen insight into human behavior poignantly authenticates any production under her watch.

[NOTE: The author of this review is a paid marketing consultant for local businesses, including GoJo Clan Productions, who also regularly reviews local theater.]

Oleanna ArtsWestchester screen shot 2018-12-27 at 9.17.49 PM 300dpi

 


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

Relationships Take Center Stage, One Act at a Time

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45 Minutes from Broadway
 

Online + Print Syndicated Reviews of Theater in the Hudson Valley
Covering the Region’s Leading Stages — from Ridgefield to Armonk to Elmsford to Pleasantville to Ossining to Philipstown to Stony Point to New Paltz

BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!


Ridgefield Theater Barn Presents
AN EVENING OF ONE-ACT PLAYS
by C.J. Ehrlich, Ed Friedman, Pat Lennon, Ellie Martino, Ginny Reynolds, Bob Zaslow 
With Kristen Aug, Chris Cenatiempo, Maya Jennings Daley, Lori Franzese, Elayne Gordon, Larry Greeley, Timothy Huber, Valerie Huegel, Daschel Knuff, Cathy Malloy, Kristi McKeever, Taffy Miller, Christine Mitchell-Robinson, C.J. Morsey, Matt Pagliaro, Eli Rose, Craig David Rosen, Stephen Ross, Chhanda Som, Emily Volpintesta, Kylie Wolff 
Directed by Shawn Tyler Allen, Brian DeToma, David Fritsch, Nick Kaye, Nancy Ponturo, Erik Tonner, Alexis Vournazos,
Paulette Layton, Production Manager
Linda Seay, Stage Manager
Helen Hedemann, Backstage Manager
Mark Hankla, Lighting Manager
Carol Mark, Sound Coordinator
Bob Ottulich, Light Board Operator
Marie Ottulich, Sound Board Operator

120 minutes, not including 15-minute intermission
Through March 30, 2019
Ridgefield Theater Barn
37 Halpin Lane
Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877

Order Tickets Online
$35 General; $28 Students + Seniors + Veterans


Short plays – typically running no longer than 15-20 minutes — are an increasingly popular format for local stages. Audiences favor them too. That was evident by the full house and enthusiastic reaction on display when I caught the eight entertaining pieces that form Ridgefield Theater Barn’s An Evening of One Act Plays. (This warm and welcoming venue has comfortable cabaret seating, so feel free to bring along your own eats and drinks.)

Part of the appeal of one-act productions is the variety of subject matter that fills the stage in a rapid-fire, two-hour span.

Ridgefield One Acts-Miss Match

Chris Cenatiempo portrays a cross-section of Millennials who try to win the favor of Emily Volpintesta (as Eliza) in “blackout” sketches staged in between the seven one-acts. All photos by Paulette Layton

In this well-paced production, we witness the following…

  • a lonely suburban mom looking for love in the wrong places
  • a young man stumbling through the confessional as he stumbles through pubescence
  • a hapless single guy with a lot of questions about love and marriage
  • a young couple for whom love is poignantly color blind
  • three sisters in a museum for whom art is much more than paintings on a wall
  • a second-rate screenwriter concocting a slapdash scheme to land a second-rate actress for his next script, to the chagrin of his wife
  • middle-age female lovers who have distinctly different recollections of how they met, which are re-enacted by younger versions of themselves, to hilarious effect
Ridgefield One Acts-How We Met

Valerie Huegel (Marie) and Taffy Miller (Tess) compare notes in How We Met, one of the evening’s standout pieces, with their younger selves portrayed to hilarious effect by Maya Jennings Daley (Young Marie) and Chhanda Som (Young Tess). Written by Ellie Martino and directed by David Fritsch.

There’s a lot to take in and enjoy, by turns refreshing, illuminating, diverting, and just plain funny. What distinguishes this particular assemblage of otherwise unrelated playlets is a connective tissue in the form of blackout sketches, collectively titled Miss Match/Mismatch.

They are eight interstitial pieces sandwiched before and after each of the one-acts, featuring the same two actors: Emily Volpintesta and Chris Cenatiempo. He nimbly portrays a cross-section of Millennial types, all of whom are romancing her. It is a smart device, well-conceived and authored by Paulette Layton, that pulls the evening together nicely while providing the equivalent of a fine meal’s intermezzo that serves to cleanse the palate before the next course arrives.

Ridgefield One Acts-Bless Me Father

Larry Greeley is Father David Coughlin Power and Daschel Knuff is Brendan Larkin in Bless Me Father by Pat Lennon, directed by Brian DeToma, about a young man stumbling through pubescence and the confessional.

Song segues also are used to good effect during the evening’s quick set changes. It all adds up to a top-notch production that shows off local writing and directing talent, and mixes the seasoned stage presence of veteran actors with the apprenticeship of young actors, who are to be encouraged for their hard work and worthy efforts.

ridgefield-one-acts-waiting-for-hugot-e1552430445279.jpg

In Waiting for Hugot, by C.J. Ehrlich, directed by Shawn Tyler Allen, Lori Franzese (Lizzie) has her hands full dealing with delusional screenwriter-husband Timothy Huber (Clark).


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

Elvira Returns in Noel Coward’s Comedy Classic

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45 Minutes from Broadway
 

Online + Print Syndicated Reviews
Covering the Region’s Leading Stages — from Ridgefield to Armonk to Pleasantville to Ossining to Philipstown to Stony Point to New Paltz

BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

M&M Performing Arts Company Presents
BLITHE SPIRIT
by Noel Coward
With Kathy Files DiBiasi, Kate Gleeson, Kelly Kirby, Kur Lauer, Elizabeth Mialaret, Melinda O’Brien, Larry Reina
Directed by Michael Muldoon
Emmy Schwartz and Nan Weiss, Stage Managers
100 minutes, performed without intermission

Through March 31, 2019
Lyndhurst Mansion
635 South Broadway
Tarrytown, New York 10591

Order Tickets Online
$40 General; $35 Students + Seniors

Watch Bruce The Blog TV Interview with
Blithe Spirit Director Michael Muldoon

This timeless farce by the inimitable writer, actor and bon vivant Noel Coward has a ghost or two gliding about, wreaking havoc – and lots of silly fun.

But there are more than 40 “ghosts” surrounding the stage as well. That’s because the audience is seated along three walls of the stately Grand Picture Gallery of the national historic landmark Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown. Much of the action takes place within this encircled area, placing the audience so intimately close that when an actor is pouring a martini, a spectator sitting there is within arm’s reach of the libations.

Novelist Charles Condomine (Larry Reina) is caught between his current spouse, Ruth (Kelly Kirby, left), and his ghostly wife Elvira (Melinda O’Brien). Photos courtesy M&M Performing Arts Company

The setting is perfect for the premise. As research for his next book, novelist Charles Condomine has summoned a medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance in his English country house. But he didn’t count on the Madame reeling in the ghost of his late wife, Elvira, who is having a high time of it, blithely flitting about as she torments Charles’s  flustered second wife, Ruth, who can neither see nor hear Elvira, as Charles is able to. That creates funny bits of comic business, when Charles is arguing with Elvira, but Ruth assumes she’s being insulted.

Reina Reigns

As eccentric and urbane Charles, forced to frantically play referee between his warring wives, Larry Reina reigns supreme in a canny performance brimming with coiled energy and panache. Keeping up with him as haughty and exasperated Ruth is the stately and polished Kelly Kirby. Melinda O’Brien is perfectly ethereal and coquettish as Elvira, floating about the room, above it all in her flowing, full-length chemise.

The principals are strongly supported by Kate Gleeson as exuberant Madame Arcati and by Kurt Lauer and Elizabeth Mialaret as the Condomines’ friends.

Bon Mots Savored Like Bonbons

Full of delicious bon mots that the actors savor like bonbons — mots – such as “I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me” — Noel Coward’s sophisticated satire is handled with flair to spare, a tribute to veteran director Michael Muldoon, who milks the shenanigans to full effect. (For a short video interview with Mr. Muldoon, https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fbruceapar%2Fvideos%2F10216749983075669%2F&show_text=0&width=560” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Click Here.)

A co-production of M&M Performing Arts Company and Red Monkey Theater Group, Blithe Spirit is playing in repertory with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Seagull on weekends through March 31. Ticket information: MMPACI.com.

Blithe Spirit runs through March 31 at Lyndhurst Mansion, in repertory with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Seagull. (top, from left) Kathy Files DiBiasi (Edith), Kate Gleeson (Madame Arcati), Kurt Lauer (Dr. George Bradman), Elizabeth Mialaret (Violet Bradman); (below, from left) Kelly Kirby (Ruth Condomine), Melinda O’Brien (Elvira), Larry Reina (Charles Condomine)


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

An Immaculately Faithful Production of Shanley’s Masterwork

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Philipstown Depot Theatre and GoJo Clan Productions Present
DOUBT: A PARABLE
by John Patrick Shanley
With Julia Boyes, Dawn Brown-Berenson, Robin Gorn, Duane Rutter
Directed by Ed Friedman
Julia LaVerde, Stage Manager
Duane Rutter, Technical Director (Lighting, Sound, Video Design)
Evan Schweikhart, Light/Sound Board Operator

Through December 16, 2018
Philipstown Depot Theatre
Garrison Landing
Garrison, New York 10524

Order Tickets Online
$25 General; $20 Students + Seniors

[NOTE: The author of this review is a paid marketing consultant for GoJo Clan Productions who regularly reviews local theater.]

‘The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’
Ann Lamott, based on Paul Tillich

There’s a general assumption in these parts that the best way to see dynamic live theater is by traveling to Manhattan. That notion is being disproven in dramatic fashion right now at Philipstown Depot Theatre in Garrison Landing (Putnam County).

That’s where I strongly recommend you go to catch one of the three remaining performances this weekend of GoJo Clan Productions’ scintillating staging of “Doubt: A Parable.” 

Depot is a jewel of a theater (as well as a historic landmark) that is ideally suited to both contain and amplify the tight, tension-filled, eloquent, elegant moments that make this John Patrick Shanley prize-winning play a modern classic.  

Robin Gorn (r) as Sister Aloysius asks Duane Rutter (Father Flynn) what he’s jotting down in his little book.

We are witness to a high-pitched battle of wit and will where the stakes on each side reach up to the heavens. Acting like an advocate on the side of the angels, as if appointed by St. Peter himself, is Sister Aloysius (Robin Gorn). She’s a stoic, hidebound catholic school principal in the Bronx in the early 1960s.

Sister Aloysius seethes at the sight of a ballpoint pen being used instead of a fountain pen. To her disciplinarian’s mind, the modern writing instrument might as well be the devil’s trident.

Caught like trapped prey in her cross-hairs is progressive priest Father Flynn (Duane Rutter). His solicitous relationship with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student, has Sister Aloysius high on her haunches, suspicious as (excuse the expression) hell.

Caught between the pair’s battle royale is callow young nun Sister James (Julia Boyes) and Donald Muller’s mother (Dawn Brown-Berenson).

Video is projected above the stage to supplement the live action below it.

All of the actors are on point in bringing their complex characters to vibrant, theatrical life. It is a gift to audiences to feel the emotional pulse that courses through the actors’ instruments and touches us even if we’re seated in the last row.

Undoubtedly, the gravitas that pulls all the pieces and people together is Sister Aloysius, who is in just about every scene, and, thanks to the bravura acting of Robin Gorn, just about dominates every scene. That is until Dawn Brown-Berenson enters the picture and fairly shocks the sister with her attitude about her son Donald’s alleged predicament.

The two actors infuse this high point in the play with the kind of sparks we attend the theater to hopefully experience. They deliver the goods first class.

Julia Boyes is fitfully timid and poignantly vulnerable as Sister James, who emerges from her shell gradually and with grace.

Father Flynn (Duane Rutter) shares his concerns about allegations against him with Sister James (Julia Boyes).

As charismatic Father Brendan Flynn, Duane Rutter deftly threads the needle by being highly likable while also conveying a teetering over-confidence that suspicious souls like the Sister are certain is hiding something unholy.

The high-caliber acting and masterly direction of Ed Friedman add up to a transcendent and fast-moving 90 minutes (without intermission).

This show is airborne from the first scene, and even before then. Wrapping epochal context around the action about to unfold is a moving montage of video clips capturing the zeitgeist of the ’60s — from the assassinations and race riots to Dylan, The Beatles, and Vietnam. Cleverly crafted by multi-talented Duane Rutter, it is projected above the stage and used sparingly but effectively during the play as well.

Any familiarity with this powerful play is most likely based on the film version starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That’s quite an all-star lineup, to be sure, but the natural habitat for “Doubt” is in live performance, as this impactful production impressively proves.   

That’s a testament to its immaculately skilled author, John Patrick Shanley, whose four flesh-and-blood characters and and muscular narrative justly anointed him with the Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for Best Play.

I don’t doubt Mr. Shanley himself would express admiration for this faithful, finely-tuned realization of his timeless masterwork.


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

In ‘Senescence,’ Small-town Prophet Takes on Big-time Profits

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Covering the Region’s Top Theater Companies — from Ridgefield to Armonk to Pleasantville to Stony Point to New Paltz

BY BRUCE APAR
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Axial Theatre Presents
SENESCENCE
by Howard Meyer
With Eric Cotti, Michael Kingsbaker, Ryan Mallon, Claire McClain
Directed by James Fauvell
Axial Artistic Directors Catherine Banks, Linda Giuliano
Axial Managing Director Betsy Klampert
Weekends through November 18, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570

Order Tickets Online
$27.50 General; $22.50 Students + Seniors

Playwright Howard Meyer packs a lot of meaty food for thought into his new play, Senescence, which is having its premiere performances at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville, where it runs through Sunday, Nov. 18. It is the 20th anniversary production of Axial Theatre, which was founded by Mr. Meyer, who also operates Howard Meyer’s Acting Program under the same roof.

As always in a Meyer piece, there’s a lot going on in his curious and socially-conscious mind, and it’s all there on stage: In the fraught scenario that has universal import, in the uniformly excellent acting ensemble that brings it to vivid life, and in the muscular vernacular of Mr. Meyer’s authentic and taut dialogue. This isn’t a musical, but in his expressiveness, he’s got rhythm.

(From right) Ryan Mallon as Rudy and Eric Cotti as Geo meet the strange stranger who calls himself just J. All photos by Leslye Smith

The play’s title is a word that means aging. In the context of the play, the word can be inferred two ways: aging, as in maturing into a responsible adult; and aging, as in growing old before your time. As one character points out, there’s a difference in the quality of life between getting older naturally and “being kept alive longer” through modern medicine.

Senescence is a wake-up call for our times: It’s in part a reminder of how we casually and negligently allow healthy bodies to be inflicted by toxic byproducts of industry, and how we intoxicate ourselves with mood-altering medication, legal and otherwise, to avoid facing hard questions about the future. Put another way, as we make toxins that can kill us, we unmake ourselves.

The setting is Linden, N.J., home of (fictional) Petra Oil Refinery, the second largest on the east coast. That’s the plant where a trio of millennials — lifelong friends — work and share a rented house: Rudy Malone (portrayed by Ryan Mallon), his girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain), and their friend, ex-con Giuseppe “Geo” Gomez (Eric Cotti).

The author’s character development is clear and specific in each case. We know precisely at which point each person is in his or her life and see the recognizable behaviors they represent in the rest of us.

Geo (Eric Cotti) likes listening to Nirvana on his exercise cycle.

Rudy’s and Natalia’s fathers worked their whole lives at Petra. Both died of cancer believed to have been caused by carcinogens released in the refinery process. When not working their shifts, they get high on weed, listen to Nirvana, and approximate exercise by pedaling away on an exercycle tucked in a corner of their cozy living space.

Mr. Meyer makes credible use of the knowing street talk that’s endemic to the demography of these characters. The venturesome playwright even tries his hand at a few rap lyrics, riffing off of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and, to borrow street talk, the result is “dope.” He interlaces the exchanges with just enough well-researched dollops of scientific fact to make his points without turning it into an academic exercise.

The character of J is a spiritual descendant of biblical personage Jeremiah, who is a prophet of judgment and hope.

Geo, who is fiercely proud of his Italian-Spanish heritage, is trying to rehabilitate himself after serving time for shooting someone. He wants to convince his dad that he’s righted himself enough to help run the father’s gas station. Natalia is looking to attend graduate school. As for Rudy, he ain’t goin’ nowhere, literally and figuratively. He’s a plant supervisor who repeatedly turns down promotions he’s offered by management.

It’s as if there are two basic ways to navigate this life: either move ahead purposefully in a more-or-less straight line toward specific goals of fulfillment, learning to grow and prosper and learn from adventures; or chase yourself while running in circles, avoiding adventures and, more likely, inviting disappointment, if not the outright depression that attends a static existence.

Rudy Malone (Ryan Mallon) is comforted by girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain).

Into the humdrum lives of the threesome steps an agent of change who calls himself simply J (Michael Kingsbaker*). They don’t know at first what to make of the soft-spoken, cryptic stranger. He is equal parts mysterious (in his apparent metaphysical gifts), transparent (in his activist’s proselytizing of environmental and human sanctity), and deeply flawed (in his checkered past).

Does “J” stand for Jesus? Or for Jeremiah, a biblical personage who is invoked here, along with his quotation: “Each pursues their own course, like a horse charging into battle.” J, Jeremiah, and the noun that is Jeremiah’s namesake – jeremiad – all bring to bear urgent warnings against evil and destruction. It could be in the form of a hurricane with the force of a Sandy – which figures prominently in Senescence — or in unsafe refineries like Petra Oil, which gets Sandy in its eyes.

Michael Kingsbaker admirably essays J as humanistic, humble, and hell-bent on following his mystical (and biblical) muse. Claire McClain, Ryan Mallon and Eric Cotti are fine actors all who make us feel as if they’ve known each other their whole lives.

The production is briskly and impactfully directed by James Fauvell, who gets great technical enhancements from his lighting designer Shane Cassidy and sound designer Jim Simonson, both of whom orchestrate a perfect storm of special effects. The efficient, “before-and-after” scenic design is by Eric Zoback.

With Rudy looking on in wonder, J (Michael Kingsbaker) appears to exert a mystical power over Natalia (Claire McClain) after she is injured when Hurricane Sandy damages the house.

Make no mistake. Senescence is an indictment against the moral turpitude of the oil industry, illustrating through artful playwriting and stage performances how its corporate chiefs take advantage of human nature and mother nature.

In the end, Mr. Meyer presents the audience – and society at large – with a binary choice: Do we, as Rudy declares at one point, “Keep our mouth shut,” and be grateful for steady jobs and income; or do we stop misplacing our trust in the wrong powers that be, and start asking hard questions that may save us all from a dark, precipitous future.

Senescence playwright Howard Meyer is founder of Axial Theatre, commemorating its 20th anniversary with the premiere production of his play.


ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Scenic Design, Eric Zoback
Lighting Design, Shane Cassidy 

Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum*
Assistant Stage Manager, Virginia Reynolds
Technical Director, Chris Arrigo

*Member of Actors Equity Association


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

Parallel Universes vs. Us > Instant Replay in Real Time

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Covering the Region’s Top Theater Companies — from Ridgefield to Armonk to Pleasantville to Stony Point to New Paltz

BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Hudson Stage Company Presents
CONSTELLATIONS
by Nick Payne
With Faith Sandberg, Ben Paul Williams
Directed by Mark Shanahan
Executive Producers Denise Bessette, Dan Foster, Olivia Sklar
Through November 3, 2018
Whippoorwill Theatre @ North Castle Library
Kent Place
Armonk, New York 10504

Order Tickets on Website 
$40 General; $35 Students + Seniors
Also may also be purchased in-person at the theatre ½ hour prior to performance, including $10 student rush ticket

Think about how or where you met your spouse. With a slight shift in timing or physical whereabouts, it’s entirely possible you’d be married to someone else right now, or not at all. In that moment your future was formed, there were many other possibilities waiting to happen, but they didn’t.

That is the underlying premise that author Nick Payne explores theatrically in his high-minded play Constellations, presented by Hudson Stage Company at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater in Armonk, through Nov. 3. 

When first we meet Marianne and Roland, they are testing the theory that being able to lick your elbows is the secret to immortality. Photo by Rana Faure

Almost as soon as the show begins, audience members can be forgiven if they begin looking at each other quizzically, as if to say, “What on earth is going on?”

What on stage is going on is a most unusual drama, the likes of which you’ve likely rarely, if ever, experienced before. The two characters are having the same exchange with each other several times in succession, but with specific word changes and variations in attitude each time. Think Groundhog Day, the cult Bill Murray movie where he re-lives the same day over and over.

Over the course of the play, set in England, the same two individuals — Marianne (Faith Sandberg) and Roland (Ben Paul Williams) – are placed in a series of life-changing situations. We see how each scenario could have vastly different outcomes. For instance, they meet at a barbecue, but Roland is in a serious relationship. Re-set. They meet at a barbecue, but this time Roland is married. Re-set. They meet at a barbecue, and – aha! — Roland is single.

Using this device throughout the 80-minute piece (no intermission), Mr. Payne illustrates the concept of a multiverse.

In advance of a wedding, Roland has been instructed to sort out his two left feet for a with dance lessons. Photo by Rana Faure

“At any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously,” Marianne, a theoretical physicist, tells Roland, a beekeeper. “In the Quantum Multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

The author clearly has carefully researched the metaphysical science that examines how the choices we make in any given situation are part of a chain that extends to the rest of our lives. It is in those micro-moments that our destiny evolves. What plays out on stage in Constellations is a probing dramatization of how, per the multiverse theory, every possibility exists at once. Our future already is set. Unlike in this play, we never can know how the alternative choices would have developed in the future universes we end up not experiencing.

In none of our equations,” says Marianne, “do we see any evidence of free will. We’re just particles governed by a series of very particular laws…” We hear a touch about string theory, parallel universes, atoms and molecules, quantum mechanics and relativity. It’s nothing like science class, but just enough to tickle our imagination.

Depending on your curiosity quotient and tolerance for entertaining the vast unknown, trying to wrap your head around the notion of a multiverse is either mind-boggling or mind-expanding. I am utterly fascinated by such things. It helps to be to appreciate the high-wire act that Nick Payne is pulling off with this daring piece.

The couple likes to poke fun at each other sometimes. Photo by Rana Faure

In their work, actors are used to the sort of instant replay in real time that unfolds on stage in Constellations. On a movie set, the director will ask the actors in a scene for multiple takes, repeating the same lines for each take, so the director can have a choice during the editing process. Similarly, in auditions, actors may be asked by the casting director to make an adjustment in a reading, repeating the same scene with variants on how it is played. “OK, that was nice, but now, I’d like to see a bit more confusion and less disappointment.”

Shading a performance various ways in an audition is one of the actor’s most formidable tasks. Shading a performance various ways in front of a live audience is much more daunting. In an audition, you can ask for a moment to re-focus. On stage, there are no time-outs — it’s pull out the stops, full steam ahead.

That’s what makes the work here of Faith Sandberg (Marianne) and Ben Paul Williams (Roland) – both members of Actors Equity — exhilarating to watch. There is evident joy in how they embrace and inhabit the veritable ensemble of characters the two of them alone create, conjuring theatrical craft that is crisp and credible.

Mr. Williams, whose physicality evoked, for me at least, the actor Andrew Garfield, is an immensely likable and pliable presence, comfortably adept at conveying a generous range of empathy.

In an on-again, off-again relationship, this looks like one of their on-again moments. Photo by Rana Faure

Director Mark Shanahan wisely has kept the set simple with an abstract honeycomb motif (designed by James J. Fenton) that focuses our attention squarely on the motions, emotions and fates of the characters.

Mr. Shanahan made an ideal match casting Ben Paul Williams opposite the abundantly talented Faith Sandberg, who appeared in the pilot episode of the newly revived Murphy Brown series on CBS-TV.

Ms. Sandberg exudes an inner strength and natural charm that sets the tone for the play. Director Shanahan put it pointedly when he told me on opening night that the two spirited actors are very generous to each other on stage, which the opening night audience recognized with a rousing ovation at curtain call.

In other Hudson Stage Company news, congratulations are in order for producers Denise Bessette, Dan Foster and Olivia Sklar, who have been bringing top-tier theater to the lower Hudson Valley for 20 years. Their outstanding production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland from earlier this year will be moving to off-Broadway in February 2019 at the 59E59 Theaters. It is the producing team’s first off-Broadway venture, a fitting tribute to its 20th anniversary.

Constellations director Mark Shanahan (c) congratulates Faith Sandberg and Ben Paul Williams at the opening night celebration. Photo by Bruce Apar


ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Stage Manager, Emily Roth
Scenery, James Fenton
Lighting, Andrew Gmoser 

Costumes, David C. Woolard
Original Music & Sound, Matt Otto


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.