Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Best of the Fringe: Part II," published in the NEWS of Delaware County, Sept. 12, 2007

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival continued through its first full week, with productions that ranged from the lackluster to the spectacular. Since the bad ones aren’t worth writing about, here’s some of the best I’ve seen:

Drexel Hill’s Music and Motions dance group’s performance of Red exploded in a series of color and movement, displaying a vibrant versatility of styles that incorporated and fused ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and gymnastics. Here, Stephen Weisz’s choreography showed a creative mastery of these genres, both in elegant and moving duets and dazzlingly complex group numbers. Why he’s not earning more money directing music videos is both a mystery (his hip-hop pieces were energetic and alive in ways you won’t find on MTV) and a testament to his artistic devotion to the future of his craft.

The Fringe is often a place for works too controversial and challenging to find theatres willing to take a risk on these productions during their regular season, and this year’s festival is no exception. New York’s Stone Soup Theatre Arts troupe led the more challenging of these works with their production of Edward Bond’s Stone. Bond’s play draws the audience on an allegorical journey that fuses vaudeville song and mythic writing (not to mention a striptease), in an existential look at the apparent futility of life. A fascinating production, with Chris Wild giving the best acting performance I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

Diving deeper into the controversial, New Jersey’s The Riot Group presented the world premiere of Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man. This compelling new work takes a stance on which few theatres would risk offending their mostly moderate audiences: the notion that Megan’s Law and cyber task-force stings—the kind featured in the “To Catch a Predator” series—often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good. Shaplin’s play sparkles with lines of true poetry (he was the first playwright-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company), and Riot Group’s Stephanie Viola and Kristen Sieh give powerful and heart-rending performances as the legal team trying to defend the worst cast-offs of society.

I’m split on my best pick of the week, neither of which posed a controversy, and both of which fall into the category of musicals. Philadelphia’s BCKSEET Productions played their rock and roll Hung on a Blonde Ponytail, about the tragic (and I don’t use that word lightly) breakup of a rock duo on the eve of their greatest success. Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the exhilarating performance of Greg DeCandia (singing his own lyrics), features original compositions by Joe Horak in an evening that explores the often devastating history that lies in the life behind an album. With better quality singing and songs than you’ll find in any current top 20 lineup, I can’t recommend this performance enough.

But Brooklyn punk legends World/Inferno Friendship Society gave by far the hippest show I’ve seen at this year’s fringe in Addicted to Bad Ideas, their punk rock operetta about the life of troubled actor Peter Lorre. Their ninety-minute set took the audience on an odyssey through not only his life, but also the styles of music—ranging from swing, jazz, blues, and rock, and from big band to punk—of the entire 20th Century. Jack Terricloth’s charismatic singing fused the silky voice of Brian Setzer with the mesmerizing fury of the Sex Pistols, backed up by an overpowering nine-piece band of horns, percussion, and electric guitar. Though their run already ended, catch them on their return tour through Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 21 at the First Unitarian Church, for what will probably be the most invigorating and wildest show of the season.

Review of "Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Poor Debbie Benton. She’s got a great life as captain of the cheerleading squad, and a chance to make the Dallas Cowgirls when she graduates. However, her parents consider cheering a form of “outdoor burlesque,” and won’t help provide the money she so desperately needs to relocate to Texas. What’s a girl to do but form her own company (aptly named “Teen Services”), and bleed the pockets of all the sexually frustrated and lonely men in town?

When I was in high school, all the cheerleaders worked as cashiers or waitresses. Then again, my life (regrettably) didn’t follow the plotlines of a 70’s porn classic.

Such though, is the story of Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, the hit off-Broadway show written by Erica Schmidt and Susan Schwartz to Andrew Sherman’s music, now performed by To The Wall Productions as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe.

However, the only overlap lies in the plot (there’s no nudity), and only the goofiness of the piece matches the style of a 70’s porno, except with much better music. Schwartz and Schmidt wrote this as a send up, and director Dawn K Cowle treats it as nothing less. After her first encounter (“Ten Dollars Closer to My Dream”) with frustrated adults willing to pay far more than minimum wage for what girls now give away for free on spring break videos, Debbie (Kara Senich) pauses philosophically to remark, “I suddenly feel as if everything is clear to me and I know how I must live.” The ridiculousness builds by degrees from here, as the girls slowly take offers for teen services from all of their various bosses, and song and dance numbers become just so much hysterically simulated sex on stage. Even the sensuality is contrived, as the leering of the adults more resembles Mr. Furley than Jack Tripper. (Sorry, can’t help with the 70’s references here.)

And while DDD contains a few oblique references, both literary (to the Scarlett Letter, no less) and political (one of the girls longs to run for Senate, and worries that she needs a spotless background to enter politics), most of the humor requires a less urbane audience background. Due to the nature of the show, most of those seated in Sister’s nightclub this evening were 20-something members of Generation Porn, all of whom laughed in full comprehension at the jokes, having no trouble understanding the reference during a water-gun fight when one of the girls mock-erotically cried out, “get it all over my glasses.”

Thankfully, Cowle never lets an opportunity for humor go unused, and makes this musical as much about a porn film as Legally Blonde represents the legal field. A few rare intrusions of semi-serious sentimentality (when a voice-over announces, “and now, a song from the heart”) break the mood with no real effect, and display the only moments of awkwardness in a thoroughly ridiculous send-up. Of course, too much of anything wears thin, but by the time Debbie’s plot takes its last twist—having her give up her virginity for more money than she could dream of—this cast has so successfully created a spirit of ludicrousness onstage, that the self-referential attempt at the fringe festival becomes more of a nuisance than a joke. (Not that anyone stopped laughing though.)

Although this show might not make Senich a star (it’s one of the jokes), this production should certainly bring some much-deserved attention to everyone in the cast. Senich delights in her bubbly, naïve portrayal, and an impressive ensemble makes a wild evening out of this material, with Caitlin Reilly (as the future first lesbian Senator Tammy) and John Greenbaum (in multiple roles) delivering hysterical character-based performances.

I hope that Cowle restages this show later in the season—hopefully in a place with better sightlines—so that larger audiences can better see the wild physical humor of this show, and experience the smash production she’s made of it. Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical was some of the most fun I’ve had at this year’s Fringe.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review of Nice People Theatre's production of "Killing Women," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Three women, struggling their way through workplace filled with sexism, glass ceilings, and eventually beat the odds and the rule of their male bosses, rising half-heartedly, to some satisfaction and a place at the top.

Though it sounds familiar, it’s not Nine to Five, or even Working Girl, but a piece of theatre, in this case, the allegorical comedy Killing Women by Marisa Wegrzyn, in production at this year’s Fringe by the Nice People Theatre Company.

Killing Women centers around the lives of three professional hit-women. Gwen (Miriam White), married to an assassin, enjoyed her tenure as a stay at home mom, and never wanted anything to do with her husband’s career, though she possesses a real knack for offing people. Abby (Annie Erickson), on the other hand, killed her one true love in order to pursue a career to the top, only to run against the glass ceiling that exists even in the murdering business. Lucy (Nicole Blicher), lies somewhere in between the two. Vaguely interested in her job (but refusing to use guns, as the trigger breaks her nails), she uses her job contacts to meet potential boyfriends, only to find her work a nuisance when her contract requires their deaths.

As allegories go, well, there’s probably a reason that Aesop composed his fables about humans with animal characters. Besides the over-used vehicle that Wegrzyn’s play adopts (society has long described business as “making a killing,” or their jobs as being “murder out there”), the overlap between what these women do in their work, and the actual business world situation becomes too confusing in her play.

For while it’s clear that women, like Abby, must often drop an early romance to pursue a promising career (nicely drawn in her back story about her first kill), the play confuses in Gwen’s substituting murder for divorce (doesn’t fit) and glosses over reality when substituting a this-or-that choice in Gwen having to pick a career or family life, ignoring the reality of millions of women who shift comfortably and effectively between these two worlds. And Lucy’s inability to date business contacts because they’re business points to a dated problem in the work world.

Which isn’t to say that this play is without its charms, or that this production suffers under the undue weight of an overbearing heavy-handedness. Thankfully, it’s a comedy, which Nice People Theatre takes full advantage of in their laugh-out-loud production. Wegrzyn shows a real knack for humorous one-liners (“you make me wish I was autistic”), and she cleverly spoofs business management style textbooks with advice to not “get involved with anyone you have to kill,” and “every job has its shit and you have to learn to cope or you don’t get a paycheck.”

Of course, not all of this is well-effected either—White and Blicher show subtlety in their delivery, while Erickson’s a hit or miss—sometimes her coarse attitude serves the humor well, at other times, she’s one gritty F-bomb away from making the audience feel too uncomfortable to laugh at anything. Luckily, when character laughs are needed, Chris Fluck’s big grinning moron Mike produces a laugh-riot every time he appears on stage as a dimwitted haiku-writing killer.

When it comes to handling the allegory itself though, director Bill Felty misfires, only partially exercising the obvious knack he displayed for over-the-top comedy in his recent direction of Valhalla. Instead, he splits the difference on the treatment the play calls for—opting for humor, but of a straightforward kind, when the overall intent of the play, as any allegory, clearly requires a touch of absurdity, as no one will believe it otherwise. Moreover, most of the confusions mentioned earlier would diminish in a less sincere treatment of the script.

Only Pat DeFusco’s well played Mike Hammer clone of a boss, Fluck’s goofiness, Ben Stanley’s Antonio Banderas inspired Johnny Duke, and White’s milksop of a housewife-turned-killer add the right atmosphere to the play. Erickson’s too literally forceful, and while Blicher shows the most talent of the three women, she applies it in the wrong direction, opting for a sincere love-struck girl torn between her heart and her career, and not doing enough with the sheer ridiculousness of her role. A line like “cold calculation is barbaric and doesn’t suit me,” uttered sincerely, just doesn’t fit—or rather it does, but only at the expense of believability.

As a result, long, long stretches of semi-seriousness become flat streaks of boredom between the play’s peaks of humor (particularly the overly long “chemical killing” scene). Part of this does rest on Wegrzyn, who shuffles fast-paced, clearly goofy vignettes of scenes in between longer, expository or character-detailing passages, a rhythm that by itself is enough to distort the enjoyment of her play.

In the play’s send-up of women’s struggles in the workplace, Killing Women scores as a boisterous comedy spoofing modern life. But whenever Wegrzyn or Felty take the allegory too seriously, Nice People’s uneven production made it appear more like the ups and downs of a business cycle—great when riding the crests, the rest of the time in a recession waiting for the humor to build again.

Review of The Riot Group's production of Adriano Shaplin's "Hearts of Man," published by EDGE Philadelphia

In his preface to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that there are three subjects that modern society won’t tolerate in art: a work that depicted interracial relationships, a work that glorified the life of a degenerate, or a work that non-judgmentally (or favorably) dealt with the (sexual) relationship between a grown adult and a young person.

While changing social norms reflected in books, plays, and movies have shown the acceptance of the first two, I think it’s fair to say that the last topic still remains a taboo in art.

Or, as Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man’s criminal defense attorney states even her reluctance, "I don’t do politics, and luring’s a politicized crime."

In Hearts, a police sting arrests the mid-thirty-something Rabideux (Drew Friedman) attempting to meet a 14-year old boy after dozens of suggestive online chats that they’ve recorded (and conducted). The initially self-serving DA (Paul Schnabel), goaded on by the lead detective (Dennis McSorley), the media, and the community activist leader of "Jill’s Group" (Tara V. Perry), indicts him on every possible charge. Rabideux’s sister Kris (Kristen Sieh) interns at a law firm, and convinces crusading defense attorney Vicki DeFazio (Stephanie Viola) to take the case.

Most people who go to the theatre wouldn’t think twice about condemning even a potential child offender, even one who’s engaged in online luring only (reinforcing Nabokov’s point). Yet Shaplin’s play takes the opposite approach entirely-indicting everyone but the perpetrator for their self-righteousness, their gun-jumping approach to justice, and their leering voyeurism in the popularity of programs like "To Catch a Predator."

But Shaplin’s also very careful to draw his character and his crimes in a way that not only implies potential innocence of a man victimized by an overzealous police sting, but to craft the language of the internet chat’s in a highly ambiguous not-clearly-sexual manner. And his play argues (much like an essay argues, but not always like a play argues), that anti-child endangerment programs and Megan’s law often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good.

For such odious subject matter, this is a very compelling new work, especially in this world premiere by New Jersey’s The Riot Group (as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe Festival).

Shaplin’s obvious gift lies in his use of language to shape characters, which ranges from the coarse, streetwise vernacular of the detective, to the Biblical alliterations of his Chris Hansen tele-clone Rex (Friedman, double-cast), to the intense, near poetry spoken by DeFazio. Phrases like "you log one half a dirty phone call and call it police work" mingle with "I knew these laws were wrong, but I hid and did nothing...and now I must defend those human remains whose corpses even seagulls would avoid" to create an effect that’s half Law & Order, and half C.S. Lewis style religious prose drama.

For the most part, the actors underscore the text with sincere, nuanced performances. Friedman is just pathetic (and guilty) enough as the alleged predator, while McSorley presents a cantankerous, too-funny-to-dislike detective. Only Schnabel fails to present a convincing role in his DA, either in his reticence to push the case, or his half-hearted attempts to get the media to back off when he barks, "the law is not your sentiment."

However, the women outclass all of the men in this production, though not enough to provide a noticeable imbalance, as Perry’s roles all line up morally opposed to the parts played by Sieh and Viola. Perry shifts effortlessly through multiple, disparate roles, and Sieh’s concerned, yet doubting sister gives an insightful haggling of her emotions from denial through rationalization, while still making the audience feel her shudders when faced with a brother who may have tried to lure a teenager into his bed.

Yet it’s Viola who gives one the best performances of the entire fringe in her attorney’s mix of Christian zeal and legal righteousness. Her quick, nervous movements across the stage generate more tension that what’s on the page, and she makes her final sequence of scenes a heart-rending experience to watch as she crumbles under the weight of the "you’re fucked either way" statutes set up to condemn any defense of these offenders.

Regrettably, it’s this aspect that Shaplin didn’t focus upon more in his play-the frustration experienced by many (mostly drug offenders) slammed by a prosecutorial system in this country that indicts defendants with "attempted" and "conspiracy" charges on top of the actual acts themselves-all in an effort to railroad them into pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Instead, he veered off course to indict too many other sources-the media, the internet itself, the "Jill’s group" type community activists-all of which diffused the injustice initially brought about by the overzealous laws and their highly politicized enforcement.

The play ends with Rabideux, arriving back at his apartment, after pleading guilty (and receiving a long probation) to a lesser charge, only to find an activist has already posted a flier labeling him as a sex offender all over his neighborhood. Rabideux’s guilt remains indeterminate, and I’m inclined to pity him for the self-inflicted wound he’s put on his life, but not because he’s suffered an injustice.

This is partially the fault of the story, and partly the fault of the playwright. The plot never let Rabideux defend himself in a trial, and his early protests of "I didn’t do anything wrong" aren’t the same as innocence. However, Shaplin errs in trying to do too much (the whole media indictment became one monologue of a dead end), and as a result, only touches upon the source of the potential injustice he wants to point out, alerting us to a problem like a town crier vaguely saying, "there’s a fire...somewhere."

Review of Uncut Productions "Assembly: Junior High," published by EDGE Philadelphia

What do you remember learning from junior high school assemblies? “I learned that I should be scared everywhere I go” answers one of the students emerging from the first half of Uncut Productions presentation of Mark Dahl’s Assembly: Junior High. After listening to songs about “the terrorists among us,” getting raped in cyberspace, and watching 1950’s sex-ed and safety films re-edited for maximum effect, you’d be scared of everything too.

But this is the theatre, and this is the latest work from Uncut Productions, the local masters of all things satirical in Philadelphia. So while the characters on stage get frightened out of their tidy-whities and training bras by the educational performing troupe “Scare Tactics,” the audience nearly falls out of their chairs with laughter.

Split into two halves, the play starts with the principal’s announcement for all students to meet in the auditorium for an “emergency assembly” designed to shock and horrify the students—conveniently occurring right after the school has subjected them to the latest rounds of personality tests borrowed from the FBI. This slightly eerie beginning quickly explodes into hilarity, as the five-member crew of “Scare Tactics” performs Dahl’s original songs that parody the Pledge of Allegiance, Homeland Security and the lurking dangers that are only one mouse-click away.

The second half of the show shifts its tone to focus on five junior high students, one from each decade—from the Eisenhower fifties to the Clinton nineties. These students struggle to cope with first periods and crushes, sexual and drug experimentation, and their identities, gender or otherwise, with all of their (mis)information filtered through the lens of the various assemblies and school films by which the first half has educated them. The result, of course, is one of awkward missteps, ignorant malice, and general confusion—students mistaking bulimia for morning sickness, and Chlamydia for flowers.

Carried forward by humor, the highlight of the first half was Dahl’s “The Ability Song,” where a wheelchair bound member of Scare Tactics laments his condition, and where the lyrics (rightly) skewer our society’s current means of inducing tolerance in children by celebrating the unfortunate circumstances of the handicapped. Joining him in song, a girl with flipper arms (from her mother’s thalidomide use) delights in resembling a goldfish, and a boy with one giant sized foot proudly announces his success in kickball. Just when I was writing in my notes “this is the kind of genius that made Avenue Q possible,” out comes one of the members of Scare Tactics attached to a puppet representing his conjoined twin, gleefully boasting of a difference that in class "lets them see 360 degrees.”

The heavily re-edited school films do no less justice to Uncut’s brilliant multimedia work, particularly Jena Serbu’s original short safety film, “The Buddy System.” For those who aren’t aware of the efficacy of partnering to avoid danger, Serbu shows two kids, hand in hand walking through a playground filled with snipers and machine guns, walking unscathed, protected from all harm by following the rules. It could’ve been Philadelphia, or Baghdad, in either case, in an age of terror and violence-filled streets that requires something better than sleep-inducing propaganda, her film provided a moment of much needed, hilarious insensitivity.

Of course, Dahl does have a slight, though sinister message hidden in his play. The hesitant and unsure behavior of Act II’s Junior High’s students stands as the direct result of witnessing the very types of assembly spouted drivel and films presented in Act I. We can laugh at them, but for five decades worth of kids growing up on this paternalistic pulp, the results aren’t nearly as funny.

If only the two halves weren’t so disparate. I loved Assembly, and could tell from the ever-ascending pitch and volume of laughter that the audience loved it too. And while certain parts of Junior High both evoked laughter and clearly disturbed (a woman behind me blurted out loudly, “this is so wrong,” when Dahl’s 80’s Valley Girl described her bulimia as “Karen Carpenter in reverse”), overall, I think everyone kept waiting, as I did, for the second half of the program to reach the tenor of the first.

Otherwise, the entire evening seems like two plays linked by location and Dahl’s theme of the deleterious effects of institutionalized ignorance. The brilliantly over-the-top satire of the Assembly strikes almost painfully against the Junior High’s more muted tones, so much that they don’t even appear as written by the same person, but rather a collaboration; one half fashioned by a satirical genius, and the other crafted by the painstaking efforts of a historian.

In this regard, Dahl’s play is still a work in progress, though I wouldn’t have missed Assembly for any other show in town. The writers of the Onion could not have done more justice to this first half than Dahl’s songs (and a highly talented pair of ensembles) so cleverly achieve. And no artistic directors in Philadelphia slaughter the sacred cows of society with as much verve and hilarity as Dahl and Serbu, and no show at the Fringe made me clutch my sides in laughter as much as the first half of Assembly: Junior High. See it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Hung on a Blonde Ponytail," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Two musicians-one an aggressive alpha-male singer, the other a shy guitarist/composer-struggle with their art as they fight over the same girl. Almost a rock and roll cliché, one of them remarks, or rather in BCKSEET production’s current show, an intentional set of them.

Yet even the most worn and repeated story, when retold with depth and sincerity (not to mention solid, original lyrics), acquires an inspiring sense of freshness and new relevance. When that happens, the result is very often something like Hung on a Blonde Ponytail. (Book and lyrics by Gregory G DeCandia, music by Joe Horak.)

Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the story speaks and sings its way through a music magazine interview with Josh (Gregg Pica), a reclusive musician who’s kept himself in hiding after the release of a quickly soaring first album. Flashbacks play out the drama behind each of the songs (mostly sung by DeCandia’s unnamed singer), driven by the unanswered question, "what happened to the other half of this duo?" Though built around an interview that serves initially to narrate the story, Hung never becomes like a (often vulgar and self-indulgent) VH1 "Behind the Music" piece. Instead, both DeCandia and Pica treat the material with sincerity, presenting intriguing characters roughed up by duplicity and self-destruction, told with exceptional lyrics that melt seamlessly into the story. The ending, utterly tragic-as Josh’s obvious affection for his self-destructive singer compels sympathy-ends with one more mystery, beautifully rounded out in the final song.

While he’s written half of the show (in the book and lyrics), DeCandia’s singer is most of the story, and his obvious passion for his own work both motivates and holds the entire evening together. Why he’s still in musical theatre is the real mystery, as he effortlessly looks (and acts) the part of the rock star, while having a voice that bests most of them.

Pica’s Josh gives the right blend of vulnerability and likeability (that hides his darkly played complicity in the singer’s fate), while at the same time providing a softer vocal counterpart to DeCandia’s powerful singing. Between them, director Christopher Butterfield and Debra Henri (as the reporter) keep the interview focused on its ability to drive the plot, even as Josh’s character keeps slipping between the conversation and his guilt-induced imagination.

The music consists mostly of simple, straightforward chords, full of verve and drive, a kind of hunger and restlessness that never became overbearing or too eager to impress (and the guy on electric guitar commandingly rips his way through these chords). The greatest compliment I can write is to note that many in the audience lined up to buy the soundtrack on their way out the door (and I’m listening to it while writing this review). And why not? For $10 anyone who bought this CD got music that was equal to or better than anything (with few exceptions) currently playing on the radio or churned out of the factory known as American Idol (and with DeCandia’s more sincere lyrics to boot).

The only thing missing-more of a back and forth between the reporter and Josh’s character-either make the decision to use her purely as a device that moves the action along (after all, if we’re supposed to believe it’s an interview, we can accept it as that, and let it ride that she’s not a fully developed character). Otherwise, this aspect of the play seems like the most bizarre magazine interview ever conducted, and some of the segues almost confuse the action.

But I only scarcely noticed this omission hours after I left the theatre. Seated in the audience, this story, and DeCandia’s performance, completely captured my attention.

What a good album used to attempt, DeCandia and Horak have put together here in a rock musical raised to the level of true artistry. Hung on a Blond Ponytail stands as a throwback to rock and roll’s great period of singer-songwriters, achieving a compilation of songs that are not only connected chronologically by a story, but which move with an inner aesthetic from one to the next. The music and lyrics, laid down in the plot of DeCandia’s script, and brilliantly executed in this production, capture the tragedy of an album lived by these artists-the truth of their lives, finally put down and owned by them in song.

My only regret is that I can’t arrange my Fringe schedule to see them perform this again.

"Best of the Fringe: Part I," published in the NEWS of Delaware County, Sept. 5, 2007

The 11th annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival kicked into high gear over the Labor Day weekend. Bringing the spectacular, the wild, and occasionally the truly bizarre productions, the 2007 lineup features all the elements of the live arts in both seasoned productions, those on the verge of major success, and young companies just starting out and testing the waters with new works.

This year’s festival offers over 170 productions, with artists from all over the country, and removes as far away as Vietnam, the Congo, and Europe renting every performance venue in Philadelphia available (some even appearing in the street, or in one case, in the backseat of a car). Scattered among this nationwide and international artistic representation, several Delaware County based artists and arts-ensembles will ply their trade during this year’s Fringe.

My Fringe weekend kicked off seeing Upper Darby based actress Meghan Heimbecker appear as part of a stellar cast in 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of “Six of One.” This chamber musical by Paul Loesel (music) and Scott Burkell (lyrics) deals with the friendships and relationship struggles of six people on the verge of turning 30, still trying to figure out how to handle the interpersonal disasters that plague their lives. Strong performances from the cast, combined with the clever and often funny lyrics make this exploration of trial marriages and pre-mid-life crisis memorable.

Two Lansdowne Improv groups gave back-to-back performances, which will continue next weekend. Tapestry Theatre presented the two-woman show “Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Balloon Ride,” an improvised adventure about two English women (Karen Getz and Kelly Jennings) travelling through time and space to seek out the lost heir to the British throne. Taking cues of places and objects from the audience, while forcing them to participate, Tapestry’s production provides great fun, and is highly recommended for kids and families.

Lunch Lady Doris practiced the art of “long form improvisation" in their impressive (and regularly sold out) show Sunday evening. In their performance, five comedians take a simple suggestion from the audience (song title, childhood memory), which they quickly turn into a series of sketches ranging from the absolutely hysterical to the surprisingly sophisticated and poignant. Their hyperactive wits and effortlessly sharp timing definitely impress in one of the most entertaining improv acts I’ve seen anywhere.

The local improv theme will continue next weekend in “LEAP! The Actor’s Improv Experiment,” where Havertown’s Ben Lloyd joins a cast of some of Philly’s best actors in a ten-day improvisational comedy boot camp. Local improv coach Bobbi Block (part of Lunch Lady Doris) will force Lloyd and four other actors to drop their script addiction, and learn how to create a compelling text seamlessly and out of thin air. Look for this to become one of the most interesting (and best-attended) Fringe productions. Lloyd and the others can certainly act, having several Barrymore Awards amongst them, and I can’t wait to see what they will do without any lines to read.

However, the best show (by far) I’ve seen in the first few days of the Fringe hailed from a little outside Delaware County, in the Philadelphia based Brat Productions show, “Fatboy” by New York City’s Fringe co-founder John Clancy. In Fatboy, South Park collides with Michael Moore in a piercing satire of modern America’s imperialist ambitions, the average consumer’s infinite desires that drain the globe of resources, and the U.N.’s inability (if not complicity) in doing anything but offering to get someone a round of drinks. Suitable for voters of any stripe, politics fall by the wayside here, as the over-the-top crazed performances and blitzkrieg humor of the script catapult the audience through Fatboy’s wacky quest for world domination, driven onward by his insatiable appetite for pancakes and bacon. An absolute must see.

Review of "Batch," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Those who see a work of avant-garde theatre and don’t get it, often refer to the intellectual gap that lies between the mind of the artist and the more common understanding of the experience their art describes. Sometimes this common judgment contains a note of accuracy and rightful condemnation, at other times, the artist has truly broken away from society and pioneered a new pathway of understanding that humanity must now tread behind and follow.

Most often, those complaining against the artists are referring to works like Alice Tuan’s BATCH: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle, now in production by New Paradise Laboratories (NPL). However, in Tuan’s case, a condemnation of her artistic dissonance is completely justified.

None of this condemnation stems from Batch’s failure to titillate the audience, or attempt to display the kind of reckless hedonism that takes place at these parties (though personally, this play counts as one more example of American Puritanism in art; in Europe, families with children wouldn’t hesitate in attending this play).

The fault of the play lies in its inability to move away from mere surface level exploration of the concepts presented as comprising a typical Batch party. Though Tuan litters her play with images, references to, (and occasionally acts) of bisexuality, hermaphroditism, remorse, wantonness, etc., she fails to achieve any greater integration of these into some exploration of a deeper concept or theme (such as the will towards self-destruction, transgression, Dionysian impulses, etc.). Instead, Batch plays like the Ph.D. dissertation of an academic who sits in her armchair and uses her imagination to explore the "concepts" of a bachelor/ette party, while never attending one of these drunken spectacles in person.

Sorry, but sociology, literary theory, and psychology can’t properly substitute for art. NPL makes a wicked attempt to get into the psyche of Batch’s participants through image, sound, concept, and multimedia memories, but the actual result is flat, as concept laden and untranslatable into real experience as an MRI of the brain. Both cases show what the mind might be doing, without showing the sensory phenomena of the actual experience itself.

To give another example: a voiceover punctuated each of Batch’s various rounds, making inane statements like "Batch: a time machine where time stands still," and "Batch: a place to create memories you may not want to remember." As satirical send-ups of Vegas ad slogans they’re inconsistent with the attempt of the play; as real expressions of the character’s mental states or intentions, they’re just one more inane portrayal of the mindsets of the participants. In either case, Tuan confirms her distance from her subject matter, treating concepts as genuine attitudes.

Moreover, the most interesting concept of the night-the notion that the affianced couple "haven’t even touched each other at all"-Tuan leaves completely undeveloped, setting it as a mere sentiment or boundary for understanding, if as anything at all.

I can’t blame the performers for any failure in this production. I’ve rarely seen a group so committed to their craft, particularly Aaron Mumaw (the groom) and McKenna Kerrigan (the bride), the latter of whom gave an absolutely dazzling performance. Whoever they might be offstage, all of them dissolved completely into their onstage personas, with no awareness of any reality save that of the text and each other.

Nor can I fault Whit MacLaughlin’s direction, with his hyperkinetic movement and energy, testosterone-charged attitude, and applied mix of aggression and sexuality. Moreover, I’ve never seen a better-orchestrated or enacted set of multimedia segments woven so seamlessly into a play.

When I walked into the theatre, the set and lighting directors had already achieved an intoxicating mood, one that could’ve by itself engendered a work of genius. Disco balls and trance music spun in the background, and a raised boxing platform surrounded by rows of chairs dominated the stage. Huge multimedia displays hung behind the chairs on all four sides, and a recording showed Mumaw walking through their frames looking inward, giving the audience a knowing smirk. Kerrigan appeared on the stage, barefoot in a red party dress, fingers crossed on one hand held behind her back, shooting flirtatious smiles at the audience, occasionally taking enough time to let her thoughts and gaze return to her parading fiancé. Waiting for the production to begin, I prepared myself for one mind-fuck of an evening.

But the evening devolved quickly from there. Sometimes, the (artistically) healthy experience of thousands doesn’t need an artist to come along and break it down into concepts, especially a play that became not just a simple (and tolerable) deconstruction, but a work by a playwright who took the totality of a batch party and reduced it to the level of an algebra lesson.

Review of "Sweetie Pie," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Many playwrights dream of rewriting a Greek tragedy, updating the plot and forces of fate to the conditions of modern life. Adapting the plot becomes a minor problem, altering the characters and storyline to fit contemporary life. The hard part lies in generating a tragic effect-motivating the plot and characters in such a way that the audience experiences a sort of terror and despair at the end of the play.

Yet this is what Philadelphia playwright Madi Distefano attempts in Sweetie Pie-a 21st century punk rock retelling of Sophocles Oedipus (with an early smattering of Romeo and Juliet to kick start the action).

In Sweetie Pie, seventeen-year old lovers Joey (Tobias Segal) and Barbara (Melissa Lynch) inhabit the same precocious world of their contemporaries, with a slight twist: she’s the rebellious daughter of a rich, powerful (corporate? mafia?) tyrant, he’s a runaway living in an abandoned warehouse in Metro City. Strangely enough, she’s still concerned enough about Joey’s future to insist that he get a job to support her-after all, she’s pregnant-but not so pregnant as to take hits off a pipe (crack? pot?) in between her persistent nagging.

Nonetheless, they’re both smart enough to realize that what they’ve found is The Real Thing, and they make a vow, cutting, then tying their wrists together to exchange blood in a pledge to always stay together. Dad (Tom Tansey) finds out, locks Babs in the basement for nine months, has the baby disposed of, and gives Joey ten grand to leave town on a funded, though permanent exile. Joey leaves reluctantly, reciting his pledge to find Barbara again and live out their lives together.

Of course, this is where the problem begins: no one believes in vows (or believes that others will uphold them) enough to maintain them over thousands of miles and two decades, especially when you never hear from the guy again. And sure enough, sixteen years later (a very awkward, poorly effected transition), Barbara, now Bebe (Distefano), has grown into a minor local punk rock celebrity, attracting runaways as groupies, and moving on with her life, at least where new lovers are concerned.

One of these young hangers-on is Mark (Segal, double-cast), who, in classic Oedipal style, falls for this idealized version of womanhood (for him at least), and when she rebuffs him, he (through sheer passion, since that’s how it’s done, of course), masters the guitar and wins her admiration in due course. Bebe takes him under her wings, produces his first album into a huge success, he becomes the type of famous she always wanted for herself, and half the Oedipal prophesy (never made in Sweetie Pie though) comes true-as the son’s now sleeping with his mom.

Meanwhile, Joey (Tansey, also double cast), roams the land, writing songs and performing self-deprecating open mic night comedy about how miserable he is without the young girl he still loves. Eventually, he straggles back to Metro City, and encounters Bebe on a fire escape outside a club. She spurns him for leaving, he accosts her for going on without him, and Mark witnesses the tail end of it, enraged enough to fulfill part two, and make his way down the iron railing to knife his (unbeknownst to him) father.

An investigative journalist pries too deeply into events, uncovers Mark’s past (abandonment in a trashcan), and Bebe begins to put two-and-two together (which still requires the ad hoc device of a dream to become wholly clear). Though able to cope with a life of frustrated ambition, she nonetheless kills herself during a concert, at the subconscious suggestion (no proof) that she’s, well, with her son. Mark races in, sees the corpse, and having enough (of this play?), gouges his eyes out to see no more.

Faithful to the plot? Absolutely, and a brilliant updating at that, intriguing and capturing my attention throughout-though mostly to see how Distefano pulled off all of Sophocles elements (and I loved seeing her well-integrated chorus in a modern play).

Entertaining? Wildly so at times, and terrifically funny, especially whenever Tom Tansey wandered across the stage, either picking born-to-lose fights with drunks, or performing (if that’s the right word) songs about the emptiness of his life without Barbara. Moreover, Lynch gives the very image of bulldog-like tenacity in her teenage rebel, and Segal’s Young Joey is humorously pathetic enough in his whiny playing against her.

But tragic? Unfortunately not. Too much tongue-in-cheek humor spoiled the tragedy, the one aspect I thought Distefano was really shooting for in her play. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at misery on stage, half of the theatre (comedy) is predicated on that notion. However, Distefano’s play, and John Clancy’s direction failed to make an overall tragedy out of the script.

(Which is why I couldn’t treat this review any differently than I did.)

If only both of them had taken this play either more seriously (or less so). Clancy could have succeeded far more in engendering an overall tragic effect if he had treated the material with greater sincerity-not leaving out the comedy, but not letting it become over-the-top either. Clearly, he could’ve gotten more out of Distefano’s portrayal of Bebe as well. She does a great job muddling her response while playing a woman strung out on booze and Xanex, but by not displaying real emotions when faced with Joey’s death (or even in her envy of Mark’s success), she lessens the impact of her play’s tragic attempt.

Great use of language dominates the script, both in the individual actor’s lines (Barbara’s Father threatening young Joey by spitting out, "you will pay the price of being a teenage boy with a cock"), and in the chorus, who describe events as "burning like hot cum on a whore’s stomach."

But the language never translates into tragedy either-for which some loss, or sense of inevitability, or set of decisions that could’ve been altered but weren’t, is necessary. Along the way, Distefano tries to insert at least four different attempts at this into her script, but they’re either inconsistent or underdeveloped, no matter how poignantly written or well effected by the chorus.

For whatever it is, Sweetie Pie isn’t a tragedy. Someone has to care, or see themselves in these people for that to happen. In Sophocles version, he almost made it easy for himself-picking an adored King in time of crisis, blinded only by his overly confident arrogance toward the world. When a Greek audience saw that the gods laid low someone so noble, using him almost for sport in the fulfillment of fate, there was reason for everyone in the audience to feel terror and woe.

However, in Sweetie Pie, Distefano chose a pair of junkies, inhabiting a subterranean offshoot of what’s already a marginal subculture. Certainly, people identify with their story-particularly the young lover episode that began her play. But she develops no real sense of loss, has it played poorly by both herself and Segal (as Mark), and litters the script with too many jokes. In the end, the notion that Joey’s, Mark’s, and Barbara’s lives constitute a tragedy falls far too short of believability

Review of "Tattooed Lady," published by EDGE Philadelphia

"How can someone so marked leave everything behind?" This question underscores and drives the plot of Tattooed Lady, Bryan Clark’s menacing new play, now in production by Black Starr Collaborative.

Two late twenty-something married couples fill their Friday nights in mutual company-seeing movies, debating pop-culture non-issues, and playing board games that test intimacy and shared morals (think scruples mixed with the questions from "the dating game"). Though married longer, Josh (Nathaniel Robertson) and Lucy’s (Amanda Schoonover) answers never match up and they bicker constantly; by contrast, Mark (Gregory DeCandia) and Lydia (Colleen Corcoran) seem the perfect couple, on the surface knowing everything about each other.

But when Lucy-knowing the darker side of Lydia’s past-refuses to ask a particular question about infertility, Mark’s certainty quickly dissolves. When challenged, Lydia fills his ignorance with lies, as he slowly forces her to confront "life before him," a period riddled with promiscuity, drug addiction, multiple abortions, physical abuse, and crime.

Though she claims, "there’s a reason I don’t act that way anymore," her reformed sinner behavior quickly deteriorates into a web of lies and mistrust. Faced with a partner who’s not only hiding massive chunks of her past, but also teetering on the verge of reliving them, Mark does what almost seems sensible-he plays detective, and hunting down her past, only to discover that worse things than he could have imagined about his wife’s past are true.

This set of contrasts-between past and present, a couple who knows the truth and one who doesn’t-finds an unfortunate mirror in the efforts of the cast and director Steven Wright.

Robertson brings all the (quite welcome) humor to the piece as Josh, the unemployed, self and pop-culture obsessed "thinker" (loafer) of the four, adding life to many moments that would otherwise appear dull. By contrast, though Schoonover’s talent glows through all of her lines, the script gives her very little to do but convey information and play half of a pair that constantly fights-with no real purpose otherwise.

Yet the greatest divides lies between the playing of DeCandia and Corcoran. Her magnificent performance (particularly in her heart-rending final monologue) finds little support in her onstage partner, as DeCandia is largely absent-showing neither the despair nor the eventual horror required. While she’s at once erotic, duplicitous, and frighteningly delusional, he’s an emotional vacuum weakening the entire production.

Wright’s direction allows the right touch of humor, solving the problem of the play’s heady material, but he lets too many of the script’s unfinished and broken segments to wander into awkward pauses, giant gaps that none of the actors transition through smoothly.

To be fair, Clark doesn’t make it easy, filling his script with as much speculative Christian theology and moral philosophy as pop culture, trying to tackle too many of the "big questions of life" in one play. In this, he occasionally veers from overkill on his theme to nearly losing sight of it-while nonetheless managing to return (in dramatic action, thankfully) to Lydia and Mark’s story. Here, he deftly explores his larger theme of redemption versus wanting to leave a past buried, and his play is at its engrossing and centered best when he focuses entirely on them.

What comes through the acting and the script the most is the urge to "never date a person who’s suffered physical and emotional abuse." However, that’s both a simplification of, and corollary to Clark’s theme, which is, "though they struggle to pretend otherwise, people who’ve gone beyond a certain point lose their capacity to change, or even return unscarred." While I watched, frustrated and occasionally pissed off at the excruciating behavior and attitudes played out on stage, Tattooed Lady nevertheless forced me to think. And not only did Clark’s writing succeed in compellingly portraying ideas central to everyone’s lives, but he did what many playwrights today fail to do: he took a side on an issue.

Rather than let the audience go home and "work out the ending or judgments for themselves," anyone who saw this play can only haggle over the responsibility. Clark stamped the final word on his script in a challenging drama that confirms the notion that some acts fall beyond redemption, and that once committed, they forever mark a sinner as such. And while his answers (and the conclusion his ending conveys) might enrage certain sensibilities-his play is all the more powerful for asserting them.

Worth seeing.

Review of The Royal Ballet's production of "Swan Lake," published by EDGE publications

Only rarely in even the longest careers, does the critic face the problem of how to write a review of something that so closely approaches perfection. Here I’m not just referring to one element in The Royal Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake at the Mann Center on Friday night. The sheer grandeur of the sets and costumes, the flawless dancing of the corps de ballet, and the enrapturing portrayal of Odette/Odile by Marianela Nunez combined with Tchaikovsky’s thematically powerful music, Swan Lake’s devastatingly tragic tale, and the unmatched beauty and elegance of Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s choreography to not only bring a fairy tale to life, but to make reality truly falter in comparison.

Swan Lake tells the folk tale of the princess Odette (Nunez), turned into a swan by the evil magician Rothbart (Christopher Saunders), only able to return to human form with a vow of true love. While hunting in the woods, Prince Siegfried (Rupert Pennefather) sees her transform from swan to princess, and pledges his life to her. Returning home, he shuns the festivities in which his mother demands that he choose a bride, until a disguised Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile, a black swan made to look like Odette (and danced by the same ballerina). Captivated, Siegfried swears his love to Odile, breaking his vow, and dooming Odette to remain as a swan forever.

From the multiple sets to the hundreds of richly detailed costumes for the ballerinas especially, this production gave the word "grandeur" new meaning. Act I opened upon fifteen-foot high wrought gold-plated gates in a fence surrounding a fairgrounds. Act II created a canopy-covered expanse in the woods near an ice-encrusted chapel, which moved deeper in Act IV to a dark and cold lake. Act III presented the real spectacle, a golden palace interior, replete with balconies affixed to long stairs leading down to the stage. While simple orange or green frocks adorned the peasants, and the potential brides danced in classic cream-colored gowns, the costumes culminated in the first appearance of Siegfried’s mother, who stepped out of a Winterhalter portrait to take her place in this production.

Following the original choreography of Petipa and Ivanov (right down to the stools and Maypole), this ballet is a virtuoso’s dream that requires flawless execution and precision of technical mastery, conveyed with grace and majesty. To say that the Royal Ballet-from corps to Nunez achieved all this would err in understatement.

Though I favor later versions of the choreography, and am equally moved by each of the possible endings, from the initial pas de trois, the dancers moved with marvelous execution and grace. Whether in the featured swan numbers, or while performing the entertaining National Dances, the majority of these soloists made it evident that they could find homes as principals elsewhere. And Pennefather danced Siegfried with an ease befitting his Princely role, his long limbs lifting effortlessly off the stage in his few numbers, stunning in Act III when he matched Nunez’ dazzling feat en tourant.

However, Nunez dual roles rightly garnered the evening’s attention from the moment she entered the stage as the swan transformed into a princess, her arms and calves undulating with avian perfection. Her Odette moved like a porcelain figurine always verging on shattering, her Odile burned the stage as a Pandora’s Box brimming with seduction and intrigue, particularly when dashing off Odile’s thirty-two fouettes en tourant with the ease of her smile. Truly magnificent, she gave a pure incarnation of both roles, making her dancing into an epic poem set to the dramatic lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music. The audience called her back on stage for a half dozen curtain calls, and she deserved all of them.

What minor blemishes I could report: the pyrotechnics ending Act III rendered unnecessary by the fiery dancing that preceded them, for instance-detracted nothing from the evening’s performance, and I’m glad of it. Every life deserves to witness at least one moment of perfection, and the ballet, with The Royal Ballet’s perfect figures aligned in dance to this music, story, and choreography, provided one of the few opportunities in life capable of achieving such heights of excellence.

Review of The Royal Ballet's production of "Romeo and Juliette," published by EDGE publications

On a rainy and dreary Wednesday night, a crowd of Philadelphians filled roughly half of the seats at the Mann Center to see the Royal Ballet of London perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Staged with Kenneth MacMillan’s 1964 choreography, those that even blinked missed something, in a production that brought all of Verona to life in crowd scenes that often featured forty dancers or more. Those who didn’t attend lost even the opportunity to miss moments of the sheer grandeur and beauty, both of Prokofiev’s score, and the Royal Ballet’s visually stunning and emotionally devastating production of this work.

Save a few flourishes, added characters (the harlots that show Romeo as pre-Juliet playboy), and a few subtractions, little differs from the classic Shakespeare tale. Juliet (Mara Galeazzi) and Romeo (Edward Watson) hail from warring families-the Capulets and Montagues-and their early love forbidden both by clan hatred and Lady Capulet’s desire to have her daughter wed the young suitor Paris (Rupert Pennefather). Romeo’s cousin Mercutio (Ricardo Cervera), with Benvolio (Kenta Kura) in tow, looks for opportunities to pick fights with the Capulets, particularly the headstrong Tybalt (Gary Avis). While Romeo and Juliet secretly wed, Tybalt slays Mercutio, Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge, and the young lovers must plot to overcome their separation brought about by Romeo’s banishment.

Completely set to music (not a word is spoken,) the Royal Ballet expressed the spirit of this work more potently than nearly all of the considerable number of stage productions I’ve seen of Shakespeare’s play. This triumph was achieved through a combination of MacMillan’s choreography and enhancements of the story, and the flawless dancing and characterizations of the principals and soloists, and the powerful visual images that only a ballet can imprint on one’s memory.

When MacMillan wanted to dazzle with dancing, his choreography became a spectacle of the grandest order. The opening scene pits the Capulets and Montagues squaring off in the street, and a single duel between Tybalt and Mercutio quickly became a pair of duelers, than two pair, than four, until eight fencers on a side moved in lines, then fanned out to cover the entire stage, with each strike and clash of the sword in perfect unison as they faced off against one another.

But his choreography would have only imparted a visual effect without the psychological essence captured by these dancers. As Mercutio, Cervera delights with his physical playfulness and daring as the disguised infiltrator riling the Capulets at their ball. Kura’s Benvolio subtlely modulates between peacemaker and Mercutio’s instigating companion, and I’ve never seen an actor possess the sheer physical and cocksure aggressiveness of Avis’ Tybalt-and hope that I never do, wanting to keep this one memory of pantomimic perfection.

The crumbling innocence of Galeazzi’s Juliet and Watson’s earnest and vulnerable Romeo might have made the Bard cut a few words and focus more on movement and expression. Galeazzi made a Juliet that played with dolls before Romeo, and only became a woman in his arms; and their brief moments of dancing together in Acts I and III showed a nuanced affection and love that makes poetry seem clumsy in comparison.

In their final scene, the intensity of the music and the psychological interests of the actors and their movements collided with devastating impact. To the very same chords that Prokofiev had Romeo and Juliet dance when first expressing their love, MacMillan sets the same choreography in movement for both that and the final scene when Romeo finds Juliet in her family crypt, and mistakenly believes that she is dead. Where Romeo once realized happiness in triumphantly carrying Juliet across the stage, his face now crumbled in despair as he tries to do the same with her lifeless corpse. Here, the ballet expressed a sense of tragedy that offers real evidence of why, even after the invention of sound in film, some still preferred movies that were silent.

However, not all of the story translates well to the requirements of the ballet. With large crowds in the streets of Verona, or at the Capulet’s ball, MacMillan presents a richly detailed Verona, but one that too often gives the impression that Verona is quite a charming place to live, and not the strife ridden battlefield of two warring families. While this helps to heighten the contrast between the normal life that must continue each day for the majority of Verona’s citizens and the intermittent and deadly battles that break out because of the Capulet and Montague feud, the impression-seeing all of these amazing dancers bedecked in richly differentiated costumes, sweeping streets, selling wares, partaking in a wedding processional-takes away from the centrality of the conflict in Shakespeare’s play. It’s a minor loss, but psychologically detracting nonetheless.

Moreover, and especially in the Capulet’s ball scene, MacMillan’s choreography wastes some of Prokofiev’s most powerful music on a processional based waltz. Surely, someone can do what choreographers do to every other ballet, and keep the parts that work, substituting their own creations for MacMillan’s underdeveloped parts, and then titling the hybrid "Romeo and Juliet, choreography by so-and-so, after MacMillan." The majority would remain MacMillan, but at the very least, something more needs to be done with the completely underused characters of the Friar and Nurse, whose roles are so central to Shakespeare’s play, and who appear in this version like characters in a silent film.

In this respect, MacMillan should’ve also tried a career as a director in the theatre, as two scenes with Juliet prove his ability to craft indelible visual impressions on an audience. After her parents threaten to force her to marry Paris early in Act III, Juliet sits motionless on the bed for a full minute as her innocence and fear dissolve before our eyes while she crafts her plan to feign death and escape. Credit John Read’s lighting and Galeazzi’s intensity of expression for some of this, but the power of the image itself goes to MacMillan, for knowing the exact moment in the story where a dancer’s stillness does more than any movement could hope to express.

Later, in the ballet’s final scene, Juliet sees Romeo’s lifeless corpse and impulsively plunges his dagger to take her own life. Where she had once been so hesitant and freightened, this visual slap to the face woke up anyone that slumbered, preparing them for the last, most powerful image of the play. Gravely wounded by her own hand, Juliet drug herself across the stage, up and across her crypt to touch Romeo’s hand for the last time. Her back arched over the stone vault, her long and slender arm outstretched to touch his hand, she froze in death as the curtain descended, making this final picture better than any painting, because it was an image that one had to remember, knowing that one would never see it this same way again.

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," published by EDGE Philadephia

A company takes many risks when asking opera singers to tackle roles that, though originally written for vocalists with their more classical (and weighty) training, nevertheless require the acting skills more likely possessed by today's musical theater performers. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is a case in point - an operetta by the standards of the time in which it was composed - Pirates contains long passages of dialogue, and now more resembles the modern musical than any 19th Century opera.

Nonetheless, the New Jersey Opera made both a bold and wise choice in hiring operatically trained singers to perform in their current production.

Alison Trainer’s portrayal of Mabel is a case in point of both the risk and the reward. Her role demands that she carry an entire melody line by herself through several choral numbers. While the current nasally voices of a musical theatre artist would struggle to sustain the notes her role requires, Trainer’s classically trained (and beautiful) voice handles this task with ease.

The risk of course, is can she act, both sustaining her role as the love interest and the minor comedic demands of the part? Or rather, can any of them act? Here NJO made strong selections all around, not only in the liltingly soft - accented playing of Benjamin Bunsold as the young Pirate Frederic and Trainer’s light handling of Mabel, but especially in the strong acting and singing of the rousing Pirate King played by Brain Ballard, and Alissa Anderson’s awkward and clumsy maid Ruth.

Yet the best reward that these (mostly opera) performers add lies in the depth that their type of singing adds. Although Pirates of Penzance skewers the stolidly British virtues of loyalty and duty, the singing must not appear frivolous, or else the satire fails. In this the production succeeds as well, the opera singers add the requisite seriousness to the music, and their potent voices serve as the backdrop and vehicle for the dramatic comedy. Moreover, they all sound leagues better than the Disney - esque singing currently fetishized by too many musical theatre artists, who sound like twelve year olds with stuffy noses in whatever role they’re asked to play.

However, what this production loses - and through no fault of the singers per se, is the sense of pervasive gaiety needed to perform Gilbert and Sullivan well. While this sounds contradictory, ridiculousness is what’s expressed in a musical such as Spamalot; what Pirates must convey is a sense of lightness (very evident in Sullivan’s music) combined with a whim that borders on, but doesn’t cross over into, melodrama. It should come as no surprise that Gilbert wrote his librettos in the same generation that Oscar Wilde wrote his plays, and the attitude towards life (and British society in particular) is the same in both. However, with few exceptions - David Ward nails this attitude in his "Modern Major General" song - the production lacks this spirit, substituting instead a more modern approach to the comedy.

A few minor detractions also made little sense in NJO’s production. The pirate’s maid Ruth motivates much of Frederic’s behavior early in the first act - he wants to leave the pirates, she wants to marry Frederic and go with him. He’s unsure, as she’s the only woman he’s ever seen, and while despite their age difference is great (he’s 21, she’s 47), he’s partially willing, but still worries, because he’s got a hint that she’s not very attractive. However, Anderson’s Ruth not only looks much younger than Bunsold’s Frederic, but in appearance gives absolutely no reason for any man to reject her (especially when she shows up in her leather outfit in Act II).

A minor oversight, as Scarola probably picked her because of the two things - singing and acting - that she does very well. However, the incongruous choice detracts from the coherence by adding confusion at Frederic’s motivation, especially considering that Scarola didn’t hesitate in casting age appropriately when he selected David Ward to play the Major General, a character of about the same age or older.

But these are minor lapses that only a critic (or G & S fan) might notice, and which never once prevented this production from achieving the one thing Gilbert and Sullivan did thoroughly, which is entertaining the audience from start to finish. Here Scarola succeeds wildly, occasionally updating the jokes, but mostly prompting laughter simply by his very well staged comedy, where even the supertitles become an opportunity for humor.

Yet the major lapse in this production lies in the theme of the piece - the notion that Frederic is a slave to duty, even in the most convoluted of circumstances - which Scarola and the cast fail to illustrate or make clear. Instead, Scarola shoots for a more modern, gag and physical comedy centered exploration of the comedy, which certainly entertains, but appears like a book of short skits unconnected by the dramatic theme.

Part of this is a failure of the dated humor; when this work first premiered, the pivotal moment about allegiance to Queen Victoria probably ripped out stitches, but here, Scarola must substitute a silly prop to get any laughter at all. And part of the failure probably rests on our own time, in which the notion of duty to anything other than our own pursuits is regarded (some would say rightly) as an imposition at best, if not an outright means of moral coercion.

Nevertheless, the amount of audience laughter generated by this production showed that few seemed to care, and unlike most musicals I see, NJO provides a rare treat here, as powerful, musically versatile singing coupled with the equally strong acting from this cast entertainly brings this operetta to life.

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliet," published by EDGE Philadephia

The New Jersey Opera provides many reasons to see their current production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Besides the well-effected choral numbers throughout, and particularly all of Act III (with the strong minor performances in the roles of Gregorio and Stephano), Barry Steele’s lighting that added both dramatic clarity and psychological depth to Shakespeare’s tragedy, all combine with the mostly strong performances, the emotionally stirring music and condensed libretto to make this the highlight of the New Jersey Opera’s summer season.

The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre provides reason enough to see this opera even for most familiar with Shakespeare’s play. Their rendition both condenses and embellishes the familiar story; streamlining the plot by avoiding both the fleshed out background in the Capulet and Montague strife, and the close camaraderie of Roméo , Mercutio, and Benvolio. This focuses nearly all the attention on the title characters, even opening the play on the Capulet’s ball, where the young lovers first meet. Moreover, their embellishes deepen the tragedy’s effect-both on the Capulets and the audience-in the first by having Juliette’s mock death take place during her arranged wedding to Paris, in the second by allowing her to awaken in time to sing one last duet of contrition and love-only moments after Roméo drinks the poison that kills him.

Mark Verzatt’s direction adds a few flourishes of his own-from the ballet dancing to enhance the mood in Act I’s ball, the consistently superb choral singing, to the overall feeling of intimacy his production conveys-all help craft an emotionally stirring production in the small space of the McCarter’s Berlind Theater.

However, the main reason to see this production is for the rare and early opportunity to see Manon Strauss Evrard, the exceptional and highly promising young soprano playing the role of Juliette.

Though only 25, her amazingly mature and rich voice conveys the impression that she’s closer to 40 (though her appearance never suggests this). Her vocal instrument is all at once bold, deep, rich in texture and tone, expansive and controlled, especially in her broad and powerful lower range. From her initial Ecoutez to her impressive waltz in Act II, through her duets with Roméo , and the magnificent Act III quartet, her voice is a dream on air to experience, her performance one long intoxication of musical delight to hear.

The role, moreover, seems one this native Frenchwoman was born to sing, both in her elegant articulation and in her dramatic presentation of the role. Evrard recreates the fire of youth and youthful passions, while tempering them with a psychologically haunting portrayal-either when wrenching her arms in despair or fearing to take the narcotic that would fake her death. In this, her Juliette was no child falling in love or resisting an arranged marriage, but a heroine brought forth on stage with power and force-a rarity in this character as intriguing as it was delightful.

With few exceptions, the rest of the cast struggled to match her performance, and only Nina Yoshida Nelsen’s lone but lovely aria shows an equal vocal polish. Scott Ramsay’s Roméo nearly equals her at times, and while his voice is honey-toned and sweet in his upper range (once he gets there), he makes the jumps in his arias sound difficult to perform.

Only the basses fail to round out the cast, with Matthew Edwards vocally unsatisfying as Le Compte Capulet, and Matthew Curran, though strong in his dramatically and musically more impressive role in NJO’s current production of The Magic Flute, appearing here as Frere Laurent, only competently used and portrayed.

But some asymmetries, whether in nature, or on the stage, are nonetheless perfect in their own right, as the entire cast in this regard becomes a solid backdrop for Evrard’s magnificent performance.

Already having performed in Prague and soon headed to Hong Kong and the Netherlands, the NJO achieved a minor coup in grabbing this bright young voice for a few weeks in the summertime. I can only encourage everyone to buy what few tickets remain-years from now, when Evrard is gracing more prestigious venues, those fortunate enough to see her here will remember her "young flower in bloom" of Juliette, on the eve of the promise she is certain to become.

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of "The Magic Flute," published by EDGE Philadephia

After seeing a production of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, it’s only fitting that I see The New Jersey Opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Whereas Shaffer’s play speculated on Mozart’s death at the hands of the Masons, Mozart’s opera presents the evidence for that case. Rich in Masonic imagery and symbolism (not to mention Enlightenment contrasts of reason and emotion, and the place of the individual versus the value of the social order), The Magic Flute has escaped this lore of conspiracy and murder, as its enjoyable music and hilarious libretto have made it one of the most popular operas of all time.

The opera tells the story of the prince Tamino (Greg Warren), ensnared by the Queen of the Night (Colleen Daly) into rescuing her daughter Pamina (Kisma Jordan), held captive by Sarastro (Matthew Curran) in his palace. With his sidekick Papageno (Peter Couchman), Tamino sets forth on this quest, and encounters the surprisingly virtuous Sarastro, who convinces the errant prince of the Queen’s deceit. Offered Pamina’s hand in marriage if he can overcome the trials necessary to gain admittance to the Temple of Light and Reason, Tamino succeeds, realizing his character and his place in this tale of friendship, brotherhood, and moral order.

For the opener of their fourth summer season, Director Scott Altman has assembled a very talented young cast to perform in his musically outstanding production of Mozart’s opera at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Curran’s Sarastro anchored the entire production with the gravitas of his rich bass, finding a counterpart both in the libretto and in Ben Wagner’s equally commanding texture in the role of the Speaker.

Greg Warren turned Tamino into an earnest prince, giving soft yet heartfelt interpretations of his many arias, a lightness that alas, only showed the beautiful color of his voice in his lower register. And while Colleen Daly gave a diligent and satisfying version of Der Holle Rache (one of the most difficult arias in the soprano repertoire); Jordan’s Pamina emerged as the pleasant surprise of the evening, displaying a wonderful clarity in her lovely voice.

The choral singing provided a superb backdrop, adding needed grandeur to the Temple scenes (see below), and the group singing of both the three Ladies and three spirits enchanted whenever they appeared to motivate the plot.

However, the true joy of this Magic Flute appeared in feathery form-that of the bird catcher Papageno. Playing the goofy sidekick in this often goofy opera, his voice-whether spoken or sung-added all of the intentional humor, compensated for a bad choice (again, keep reading), and elevated the quality of this production tremendously.

I only take issue with Altman’s decision to keep the songs in the original German, while having the actors speak the text in translated English. Conceptually, this is not a bad decision, provided that the singers all act even moderately well. But here, only Couchman’s Papageno handles the demands that this decision imposes, and while his mannerisms and comic timing don’t equal his singing, it’s only because his singing is excellent, and he’s hysterical nonetheless.

Had Altman left the entire libretto in German, he could’ve avoided placing this burden on his singers, allowing them to focus all of their energies on perfecting the songs, and enabling the audience to sit undistracted by any type of acting while they read the supertitles of the German spoken on stage. As acted-not poorly, but not well-the interludes of English dialogue disrupt the world of the opera (created by the song and music) and cleave the action in two, both slowing the play down in between musical numbers, and creating a noticeable imbalance between the singing and acting passages.

However, though well founded, this is a personal disagreement that much of the audience enjoyed while both listening to songs they knew and while being drawn into the drama by not having to "read along." (The few German speakers in the audience, well...)

Only the blank sets and occasional prop failures (lights going out or not working) made this young company look and seem their age. At many points, not even the lighting hinted at a setting, particularly with Tamino alone on a bare stage with merely a bench and full orchestra to differentiate this performance from a rehearsal. At all other times, white floor-to-ceiling planks served as Temple, mountains, palace, etc., and worse, the poorly executed and low quality projections made the technical aspects of the production appear all the more amateurish, especially in comparison to the well performed music and singing.

Conductor Brent McMunn treated the music with full respect-giving it a light and lively strength, while tempering the sound enough not to overwhelm the cast. And overall, Altman created a musically dynamic production, with a well-balanced cast, and staging and direction, particularly in the choral or group numbers, that made this Magic Flute far greater than the sum of its parts.

In that respect, I was extremely glad when Altman announced before the show that the entire first weekend of performances had sold out, giving more evidence that this young company, approaching their fifth anniversary in November, is quickly starting to fill the massive void left by the closing of the New Jersey Summer Opera Festival in 2003. Though very young, the New Jersey Opera holds all the promise of restoring the festival’s past glory and more, they are a group of talented young professionals whose talent in its own right, deserves to be heard.

Review of "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, published by EDGE Philadelphia

In academic circles, the heated debates about Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew focus solely on the misogynistic plot, completely ignoring the humor of the play. In their current production of the same, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival takes the opposite tact-inserting humor at every possible opportunity, in a staging that occasionally comes at the expense of the play itself.

Shrew opens upon the young noble Lucentio (a smooth and mellow Zach Robidas) and his servant Tranio (Matt Pfeiffer) overhearing the laments of an awkward pair of suitors, Gremio (Wayne Turney) and Hortensio (Aaron Galligan-Stierle). Both fawn over the delicate and beautiful Bianca (Rachel Joffred), while railing against her father’s decision to withhold her hand until he can marry off his elder daughter Katherine (Grace Gonglewski). However, Kate’s foul tongue and temper make this a seemingly impossible task-her reputation and violent behavior scaring off all possible suitors in town.

Enter Petruchio (Greg Wood), an ambitious and equally abusive traveler seeking his fortune, willing to square off against Kate to secure her immense dowry. Petruchio plots to confound her every action with the opposite of her intent, and in the spirit of "perfect love," break down her stubborn contentiousness in order to make her into the perfectly submissive wife, even pausing to ask the audience if they can offer him a better way to tame a shrew.

Petruchio’s intent, and that he achieves it - Kate’s closing speech is an unmatched example of the victim’s compliance - is what enrages everyone, though to be fair, Shakespeare attempts to show in Bianca how an initial, yet manipulative docility, will lead later to a husband ruled by his mistress. Yet no one watching PSF’s production has the time to feel anger, let alone think about what’s being said, as they’re too busy laughing at the hilarious comedy crafted here by director Russell Treyz.

Drawing on every conceivable source - from Monty Python toSaturday morning cartoons - Treyz’s production capitalizes on every opportunity for humor. Wood’s initial entrance takes a self-referential poke at his age (in his mid-40’s, his character must nonetheless introduce himself as a "young man seeking his fortune"), and Gonglewski childishly torments with wet willies, Indian burns, and even titty-twisters. (I wonder if Treyz had Gonglewski do this to see just how many critics would write the word "titty-twister" into their reviews.)

But the bulk of the humor belongs to the superb ensemble, led here by Turney’s Gremio, and Chris Faith and Andy Wertner as the dimwitted servants Grumio and Biondello. If the servants can’t take Petruchio’s malice seriously, than neither can we, and the result is one long stretch of mirth and laughter, as even Wood and Gonglewski had to hide their amusement during Faith’s standout performance.

Unfortunately, the physical gags and comic inserts often hindered the dialogue, lessening the comprehension of Shakespeare’s lines, entertaining the audience while making them struggle to stay with the story. And with the cast assembled here, the dialogue and expressions deserved full attention.

From his first entrance, Wood strutted about the stage like a cat waiting to pounce-both relaxed and full of tension-and declaimed Shakespeare’s lines with the ease of a native Elizabethan. Likewise, both he and Gonglewski ignited the stage as the warring pair of lovers-she as the ferocious flame that threatened to consume the cast, and he as the explosive and pugnacious bully who set forth to extinguish her. Later, her Kate became a true delight, as the talented Gonglewski conveyed the whole of her character’s evolution from Shrew to submissive with just the lift of her eyes and the turn of her smile, melting both Petruchio and audience alike.

Besides making this one of the funniest and well-acted productions of Shrew I’ve witnessed (three so far just this year), Treyz attempts nothing new or different here. Or rather, he attempts an opening where the half-costumed cast mulls about the stage, some talking on cell phones, others listening to a radio, and where Alan Coates (brilliant and thoroughly underused in his minor part as Vincentio) interrupts this activity to welcome the audience to the "final dress rehearsal." An interesting approach, but unfortunately, Treyz does nothing else with it, neither integrating the notion of a dress rehearsal into the piece, or coming back around to this idea at the play’s end (Shakespeare already presents numerous opportunities to speak to the audience or break away from realism). All his device did was tack fifteen more minutes onto a play stuffed with the use of extras (as servants), added jokes, and Benny Hill inspired chases back and forth across the stage.

Beyond this attempt, Treyz presented an invigorating and funny, though fairly straightforward production of this play. However, given the truly magnificent cast, and the fact that most interpretations of Shakespeare range from mediocre to contemptuous, I’ll take the superb playing over bad innovations any day of the week, and highly recommend this production for the quality of the performances alone.

Review of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, published by EDGE Philadelphia

What’s a play filled with werewolves, ghouls, vampires, mummies, and feisty cross-dressing Victorian romance doing in a Shakespeare Festival? In Charles Ludlam’s 1984 off-Broadway hit, The Mystery of Irma Vep, the answer is doing what the Bard did best in his own time - packing houses with a play that’s as wildly entertaining as it is original. Initially spoofing the Hitchcock film Rebecca, Irma Vep’s "plot" centers around Mandacrest Estate, home to the newly married Lady Enid, the second wife who mysteriously sleeps all day, and Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist still recovering from the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife, Ms. Irma. The staff - a prissy maid still attached to Ms. Irma, Edgar’s first wife, and gluttonous swineherd Nicodemus complicate the new arrangements through their conflicting desires to serve the household’s new mistress, or not, as the case may be. This staple of Victorian melodrama only serves as the backdrop for the bizarre occurrences that come to plague Mandacrest - the appearance of the vampires, werewolves, and spirits, any one of which may or may not be the presumed dead Ms. Irma, or her presumed dead pet wolf, Victor. Edgar flees these torments-both psychological, human, and undead-by travelling to Giza, Egypt, where he discovers a resuscitating mummy that he brings back with him to Mandacrest as one more surrogate for his dead first wife. It’s self-admittedly silly, dishing out one last parody of the genre in the senseless, quickly wrapped up collusion of loose ends. The humor holds the appeal in this play, and even the title becomes one more joke to exploit - a punch line that winks at the audience no less-as Irma Vep is an anagram of the word vampire. The humor ranges from sexual innuendo ("how do you take it?" followed shortly after by "your tea, Miss"), double entendres, cute cultural references (including Janet Jackson’s Superbowl wardrobe mishap), and the, while harping mostly on the campy artificiality in its spoofs of horror films and Victorian novels. An occasional bit of clever wit threads its way through the evening, reminding of Monty Python ("how old is the family?" rejoined by "I don’t know, they’ve been descending for centuries"), and other lines provoke laughter simply because they’re intentionally insufferable, as Lady Enid remarks, "it’s intolerable to marry an Egyptologist and find out that he’s hung up on his mummy." Here, the delivery counts for everything, and these actors do not disappoint. Chris Patrick Mullen, elicits laughter from the moment he walks in, playing the role of the snooty, yet devoted maid Jane Twisden in full drag, with a wig the size of his head and a fey accent that dribbles lines like "when hell freezes over and little devils go ice skating." Brad DePlanche struts in, belly-first, as the swineherd Nicodemus, sporting a goofy, pointy Mohawk and buck teeth, wagging his tongue after crude jokes, some of his lines barely audible from the laughter generated by just his facial expressions alone. Beyond the extraordinary comedic talent displayed by Mullen and DePlanche, the evening’s most entertaining (and difficult) challenge requires these two actors, through a series of quick costume changes and perfectly timed entrances and exits, to play all eight different roles. Here director Jim Helsinger delivers the solid backdrop of staging that allows both DePlanche and Mullen to effect all these changes quickly while never missing a line, even accentuating some of the quickest changes with opportunities for humor. At one of the dozens of stage cues, DePlanche hovers at a doorway as Lady Enid, feigning to weep in order to cover his mouth and speak the lines of the now "offstage" Nicodemus, lines that no one could hear through the incessant audience laughter. Given the two stages available for the PSF productions, Helsinger couldn’t have avoided staging this play in the round without severely diminishing the number of seats available in the smaller Arena Stage. But he could have avoided the unfortunate blocking that too often set both actors facing inward at center stage. Their close talking or whispering at these points, while maybe vital to the script, shielded everyone who didn’t sit in the center section from seeing DePlanche’s or Mullen’s facial expressions - a real loss here, as much of the humor stemmed from their contorted, goofy, or harried pantomime. This one minor, but irritating glitch aside, every aspect of the production contributed to the hilarity of the evening. Bob Phillips surrounded a Victorian parlor with evenly spaced hieroglyphic-covered tiles that made the play seem like some twisted place of banishment on a board game - a bizarre jail for actors in Ludlam’s imagination. Steve TenEyck’s eerie lighting design framed Mandacrest’s exterior with crackling thunderbolts (although someone forgot to raise the Mandacrest chandelier, which then hung inside an Egyptian pyramid during Act II), while Matthew Given’s sound design adroitly punctuated repeated phrases with organ beats in a mock inspiration of terror, and chimed in hysterically when referencing Indiana Jonesand Ghost. However, Lisa L. Zinni’s costumes and wigs provided the real treat, both in terms of technical functionality and contributions to the play’s hilarity, particularly the overinflated bust of the revived mummy that threatened to smother DePlanche, and the towering wigs that threatened both actors with whiplash. Building upon their successful trend of two actors in multiple roles from last year’s Sleuth, PSF has crafted a production here that’s a real blast to watch. While the humor isn’t necessarily of my favorite breed, silliness well done by an impressive cast still entertains wildly. I enjoyed the clever touches the most, especially the set change from Act II’s Egyptian locale back to Mandacrest Manor, where four stagehands appear dressed as mummies to move the furniture, only to suddenly break out into the dance interlude from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Whoever chose that, cast these actors, or chose to stage this play, made this production into a two-hour laugh fest that’s well worth attending.

Review of PSF's Amadeus, published by EDGE Philadelphia

The seemingly smallest choice a director makes can impact the quality and effect of a production immensely. This proved especially true in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s current production of Amadeus, where director Dennis Razze cast Salieri, the ostensible villain of Peter Shaffer’s play, with the most physically striking actor in his ensemble. After watching their production, and thinking about this choice for three days and it still strikes me as both misguided and brilliant all at once.

In Amadeus, envy’s rule of "if you can’t beat ’em, destroy them," plays out in Shaffer’s psychologically penetrating story of the competitive relationship between two 18th Century musicians - Vienna’s Court Composer Antonio Salieri, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though taking more factual liberty with history than Bush’s press secretary, Shaffer portrays the younger Mozart as an ill-mannered, inspired genius who never revised music against the upright musical mediocrity of his elder contemporary Salieri. When Mozart begins to compose and perform in Vienna, Salieri, though eminently more successful at the time, hears the superior quality of Mozart’s music and vows to destroy him.

In the play, Salieri’s hatred stems from two sources, one unfortunately common-that mediocrity rebels against superior talent; and the other particular to the play: in his youth Salieri made a bargain with God. He tells us that he offered God the following: If you let me become a great composer, I will be your voice in the world, and live my life in virtuous service to your glory.

It’s a clever, powerful and easily understandable dramatic device. Whether in hospital emergency rooms, waiting for test results, or hoping a team wins the Superbowl, everyone’s made a similar compact with the heavens. However, once Salieri hears Mozart’s music, he realizes (imagines, really) that God only pretended to agree to the bargain, giving him early success only to throw him down from a greater height. Mozart, it seems, is how God’s voice truly enters the world, and Salieri vows to become "God’s instructor" and destroy Mozart, who God favors over him.

Though inspired by the story of Cain and Abel (and a smattering of Job), Amadeus is not a religious play, but the story of envy’s wrath played out in the larger context of late 18th century ideas. Steve Burns plays Mozart perfectly (as Shaffer wrote him), the uncouth, brash genius, who lacks diplomacy, and inadvertently offends the entire Viennese Court, particularly her composer Salieri. The look of sheer innocence in Burns eyes and smile as he takes a piece of music written by Salieri and improvises upon it after one hearing, even asking, "that sounds better, doesn’t it," captures the degree of insult laden in Salieri’s later assertion that "what I did to Mozart was nothing compared to what he did to me."

But the role of Salieri is the real challenge in a play that even spites him in the title (though who would go see a play called "Salieri, patron saint of mediocrity?"), and requires a Herculean effort from any actor who must not only narrate the entire play, but rarely leave the stage while featured in nearly every scene. A megalomaniac’s role, Salieri’s journey plunges him from the exaltation of early success, to the envy and frustration that stems from being shown up by a superior talent, to the rage and madness that drive him into thinking that by destroying the life of one man, he can thereby thwart God on earth.

While William Elsman nails the sarcasm and aggrandizing self-importance of the role, he never emanates the sense of frustrated anguish at his comparative mediocrity. Instead, the audience sees a man, not only physically superior to Mozart-he’s more robust, much taller, and because of his good looks, even seems more the libertine than Burns’ boyishly impassioned Mozart-but a composer far more popular in his own time, showered with the trappings of wealth and position. In this, Elsman’s Salieri appears as merely afflicted by an unexplained hang-up stemming from his personal recognition of a superior talent gone unremarked by all those who praise his mediocrity instead.

Unfortunately, this lack of a key component of Salieri’s psychology disengages the audience, making the second half of the evening (showing Salieri’s torment while destroying Mozart) much slower than the first act, which shows the events leading up to and motivating his revenge. Elsman only gives us the effect in words, but never the why in portrayal of a sorrow seemingly out of proportion to his station in life. Yet strangely enough, this fault, though a lack on Elsman’s part, becomes a virtue for Razze’s overall production-playing a Salieri tormented by a superior genius that only he recognizes would probably alienate the audience more.

The remainder of the cast delivers solid performances, particularly Alan Coates’ upright "Baron Fugue," and the amusingly noncommittal "well there it is" attitude of Carl N. Wallnau’s Emperor Joseph, both of whom flesh out the other challenges that Mozart’s genius faces at Court. Only Janine Barris’ delightful turn as his wife, Constanze, adds any humanity and sympathy on Mozart’s side. In this production there isn’t a moment where we side with Mozart’s genius, as throughout, making it hard not to grant Salieri’s request when he asks for "not forgiveness, but understanding."

Of course, Razze eliminated any possibility for the audience to sympathize with Mozart the moment he cast Elsman as Salieri. Beyond the psychological power of the "halo effect" (the notion that physically beautiful people are also morally good), Razze’s decision, and Elsman’s completely sympathetic portrayal illustrate the idea that in the game of envy, there are no villains. Elsman never displays any spite or rancor, no bitterness in how he destroys Mozart (but of course, little regret either), and in this, the director enables every self-righteous member of the audience to see themselves sympathetically-whether when standing in the way of a younger, more qualified co-worker gunning for a promotion, or hindering their better-suited friend chasing the same object of affection.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. If we always sided with the "genius" or person of superior quality, we couldn’t laugh at Paris Hilton while sending her off to jail, we wouldn’t endorse the notion in (little-league) sports that "everyone should play equally," hell, we probably wouldn’t have the whole welfare state, and maybe not even democracy. So maybe Salieri is the hero that our unspoken, envy-driven aspirations deserve, and that idea makes casting the heroic looking Elsman as Razze’s best choice of the evening.

"I am the patron saint of mediocrity," Salieri declares, and Elsman’s portrayal must thereby find a mostly compassionate and understanding audience on any given performance, providing not only an enjoyable evening, but ’moral’ reassurance as well.