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

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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
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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.

A (Burnt) Toast to Love & Marriage, On the Rocks

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Syndicated Stage Reviews in Print + Online
BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Penguin Rep Theatre Presents
CLEVER LITTLE LIES
A Play by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Joe Brancato, Founding Artistic Director
Andrew Horn, Executive Director
Through Sunday, July 22
7 Crickettown Road
Stony Point, New York 10980
Order Tickets on Website

In its first few moments, sitcom-style comedy Clever Little Lies grabs audience attention right away, with one of the most revealing wardrobe changes you’ll ever see on stage. It is done modestly but just provocatively enough to elicit vocal appreciation from amused patrons.

The fast-paced play, starring Richard Kline of TV classic Three’s Company, and written by Tony-winner Joe DiPietro, is at Penguin Rep in Stony Point (Rockland County) through Sunday, July 22. (For tickets and information, call 845.786.2873 or visit PenguinRep.org.)

Billy (left, Jordan Sobel) has his work cut out dealing with (from l) wife Jane (Bridget Gabbe), mom Alice (Jana Robbins) and dad Bill, Sr. (Richard Kline) Photo by Chris Yacopino

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In Sam Shepard’s True West, These Brothers are Keepers

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BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

The Ridgefield Theater Barn Presents
TRUE WEST
A Play by Sam Shepard
Directed by Erik Tonner
Production Manager, Stefanie Rosenberg
Assistant Producer, Monet Fleming
Friday, June 22 & Saturday, June 23, 2018
37 Halpin Lane
Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877
Order Tickets on Website
Presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

Imagine a picnic. Now take it indoors. To a converted Connecticut barn. Add a black-box stage. Put on the stage a compelling show with ambitious production values. Add theater lovers. Mix vigorously. Voila! Yield one Ridgefield Theater Barn. Serves more than 70.

Differentiation is the soul of marketing, and the Theater Barn in Ridgefield has the above recipe all to itself, at least in my experience. It is one of the most unusual venues in which to enjoy live theater in the Hudson Valley.

The current production is Sam Shepard’s lean and mean look at sibling rivalry, True West, which ends its four-weekend run Saturday, June 23.

Brothers Lee (l, Anthony Barresi, Jr.) and Austin (Chris Luongo) catch up after several years apart. All photos by Paulette Layton. 

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‘Next to Normal’ Is Extra Special: A Phantasmagoric Pop Opera

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BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

The Armonk Players Present
NEXT TO NORMAL
Book + Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Christine DiTota
Musical Direction by Ricky Romano
Produced by Jeff Rocco + Rod Berro
Through June 9, 2018 (Thursday-Saturday)
Whippoorwill Theatre
19 Whippoorwill Road East
Armonk, New York 10504
Order Tickets on Website
Sponsored by Friends of the North Castle Public Library
Presented by special arrangement with Music Theatre International

Beyond Broadway, there are very few destinations closer to home where local theater-goers can get a great deal seeing a famous Broadway musical performed by top talent. It’s a very short list that begins near the end of the alphabet, with Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford and Yorktown Stage in Yorktown Heights.

After seeing Next to Normal at Whippoorwill Theater in North Castle Library, we now can go to the head of the alphabet by adding Armonk as another destination where Broadway-worthy musical productions can be seen for a song.

The cast of Next to Normal (from left) Jesse Herman as Henry, Anthony Malchar as Gabe, Adam Welsh as Dr. Madden, Christine Gavin as Diane, John Anthony Lopez as Dan, Jess Bulzacchelli as Natalie. Photo by Christine DiBuono

 

 

 

 

 

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Einstein Was Great, But Was He Good?

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BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Penguin Rep Theater Presents
RELATIVITY
By Mark St. Germain
Directed by Joe Brancato, Artistic Director, Penguin Rep
Andrew M. Horn, Executive Director, Penguin Rep
Through June 10, 2018 (Thursdays-Sundays)
7 Crickettown Road
Stony Point, New York 10980
845.786.2873
Order Tickets on Website

He is more myth than man, the Babe Ruth of brainiacs. Who doesn’t know the name Einstein? It’s as much a word as it is a name, a synonym for genius.

Apart from his celebrated scientific work, though, who was Albert Einstein the man? That’s a relative question, one that nimble playwright Mark St. Germain explores with wit, historical veracity and theatrical verve in his one-act play “Relativity.” It can (and should) be seen through June 10 at Penguin Rep, a professional theater of consistently high quality in Stony Point, Rockland County.

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The Return of Talented Mr. Ripley, Believe It or Not

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BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Hudson Stage Company Presents
New York Premiere of
Switzerland
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Dan Foster
Executive Produced by Denise Bessette & Olivia Sklar

Through May 5, 2018 (weekends)
Whippoorwill Hall Theatre at North Castle Library
Kent Place
Armonk, New York 10504
914.271.2811

Order Tickets on Website
or
Call 800.838.3006

The riveting drama Switzerland, now playing at Hudson Stage in Armonk through May 5, is a “two-hander.” That’s theater lingo for a play with two actors. If there seems to be more than two characters on stage in this novel idea for a drama, it’s a testament to actors Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold, and to playwright Joanna Murray-Smith.

The trio brings to life a captivating conceit inspired by real-life crime writer Patricia Highsmith, who was quite a character in her own right. If her name isn’t instantly familiar, it’s likely two of her celebrated works are: The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted into a Hollywood hit movie starring Matt Damon, and Strangers on a Train is an Alfred Hitchcock classic.

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