Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Death and the Maiden" at the Curio Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

While the American media seethes over Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence (and before that, Ford’s exculpation of Nixon), our news outlets devote considerably less attention to the pardoning of crimes perpetrated by the world’s more brutal regimes. The question in most of these countries is the moral theme that drives Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden: “When the same judges who excused a government’s behavior now sit on the same benches to grant pardons, what happens to the criminals?”

With a script filled with heady political discourse, ambiguous ethical dilemmas, and three characters whose past and motivations he stains with disturbing moral complexities, Dorfman doesn’t make his play easy for any cast or director to stage. Yet Gay Carducci’s skillful direction and the superior talents of Curio Theatre’s cast creates a forceful and emotionally stirring production that seemingly makes short work out of Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play takes place in an unnamed country still emerging from the remnants of a brutal dictatorship into the relative tranquility of democracy. Human rights lawyer Gerard Endawe (Jerry Rudasill) has accepted a recent appointment to head an official commission, one dedicated to investigate and uncover the truth about crimes committed by the former government.

He and his wife Paulina (Erika Hicks) hold a particular stake in the matter. While both sided with the opposition, she was imprisoned, tortured, and raped for her participation, and has yet to recover fully.

A chance roadside encounter—a flat tire without a spare—brings him into contact with the Good Samaritan Dr. Miranda (Paul Kuhn), who drives him home.

Paulina overhears them talking, and immediately believes that she recognizes Miranda’s voice as that of the doctor who prolonged the life of her fellow captives, assisting in their torture, and who had even raped her. Taking her husband’s gun, she binds Miranda, and through the course of an evening, works him over, both to extract a confession of his guilt and enact the vengeance that will allow her to finally move forward with her life.

From a seemingly awkward start that downplays the level of trust and genuine affection between the married couple, Carducci strikes a balance between the interests of all three characters. He skillfully escalates and draws out the tension between each link in the triangle, effectively highlighting the moral ambiguities and potential evidence revealed in Dorfman’s play: Gerard once promised to avenge Paulina, Miranda’s fondness for Schubert (the music played while she was tortured), and Paulina’s own longstanding rancor that suddenly finds a convenient, though much needed outlet.

Hick’s conveys a searing embodiment of her character’s pain, while at the same time showing the internal struggle between her desire to move forward and her uncertainty over what—violence or forgiveness—will best make that possible. As Gerard, Rudasill gave the evening’s most intense performance, that of a man walking through the minefield of his wife’s past, while trying to balance the interests of their future (his really) against the absurdity of the painful dilemma in which she’s placed him.

And while Hick’s sense of outrage tips the scales for many in the audience (who nearly cheer when she strikes or threatens Miranda), Kuhn’s brilliantly subtle innocence never allows them to sit in definitive judgment of his character. The question “Did he or didn’t he?” drives the play’s plot, and while the script offers hints, Kuhn’s spellbinding performance reveals nothing.

Kuhn’s set design-in-the-round even amplifies this by encouraging judgment, placing jury boxes of seats nearly inside the Endawe’s home, while Jared Reed’s sound design eerily accentuates the seaside location, a pacific background noise of waves crashing on the shore that creates a perfect contrast for the symphony of violence Paulina inflicts.

Who should forgive, forget, or do either? Will purges following regime change—democratic or otherwise—amount to any good or sense of justice achieved?

Curio’s production obliquely references South Africa, both in mentioning Soweto and transposing the “Escobar’s” from Dorfman’s original script into the “Endawe’s” of this production. If they intentionally specified this location, it’s only gives more reason to applaud the craft in their production.

After nearly half a century of human rights abuses, South Africa’s new government purposefully refrained from policies of redistribution and revenge against the former regime. But like Paulina’s character laments, how fair is it that the victims “must always make the necessary compromises to move a country forward,” when they’re the very ones who suffered the injustice? Dorfman’s play offers no easy answers. Curio’s production asks them with a fury.

Review of "Rigoletto" at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, published in Edge Philadelphia

Dramatically, the story of Rigoletto has everything to recommend it. Francesco Piave closely based his libretto on a play by Victor Hugo, whose theme consists of curse-spewing vengeance (fulfilled, no less), larger than life characters including a hunchback, assassin, and a philandering Duke, and a tightly woven plot centered on seduction, filial love, and revenge.

Musically, Verdi achieves a minor perfection to match, with the Duke’s easily recognizable arias and the tender songs of devotion offset by the dark intensity of Rigoletto’s anguish stricken numbers, not to mention one of the most engaging quartets in the genre. Little surprise that Verdi’s work ranks as the ninth most performed opera in America.

Verdi’s opera opens on the Duke of Mantua candid pursuit of the wife of one of his courtiers, a fellow noble named Ceprano. The Duke’s jester Rigoletto suggests simply imprisoning Ceprano, which the Duke considers before he’s interrupted by the appearance of Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had earlier seduced. While Rigoletto mocks, Monterone vows revenge, and the Duke sentences to death this potential threat to his libertinism, but not before Monterone puts a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto.

Fearing Rigoletto’s influence, Ceprano and the court abduct Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda (they believe she is his mistress). Unbeknownst to them, the Duke has been disguising himself as a poor student in order to see Gilda on the sly, resisting his possibly true feelings of love while deceiving her into loving him nonetheless. When the courtiers bring her to the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto swears revenge, and hires the assassin Sparafucile to kill the Duke, after which he and Gilda can escape to neighboring Verona. Little of these competing plans come to fruition, as fate cruelly intervenes at the cross purposes of human action to ensure the tragedy and fulfill Monterone’s curse.

Musically, this is the best production I’ve seen at the Opera of Philadelphia since their 2003 Il Trovatore, largely due to the company premiere of Israeli born soprano Chen Reiss in the role of Gilda.

Matthew Polenzani, the much-hyped tenor playing the Duke, sings beautifully the solo arias that everyone loves in this opera (Questa o quella, La Donna e mobile), with his honey-toned voice so charming to hear that I didn’t even mind how softly the orchestra played underneath his singing.

Yet he’s exceptional when singing with Reiss, as she brings out of him not only more volume, but also the most pleasing aspects of his voice, particularly in the flourishes (the “Adio” runs) that end their first scene together.

Alan Opie‘s Rigoletto gravelly baritone proves capable, if not outstanding, expressing his anguish more through his pained expressions and tantrums of rage than in his singing. Kirk Eichelberger looms over the stage powerfully as the Duke-cursing Monterone, and Dimitrie Lazich‘s Marullo, and particularly Julian Rodescu‘s Sparafucile admirably round out this cast.

However, the evening’s real delight emanated from Reiss’ flawless, brilliantly controlled, beautifully sung performance. Beyond her exquisite coloratura, she made comprehensible to me (for the first time out of the half-dozen or so productions of this opera I’ve seen) the motivations why her character would sacrifice herself to such a lecher as the Duke.

Here, her singing proves all the difference—portraying a caged lament when paired with Rigoletto, contrasted strongly against the happiness of a moment’s freedom and the joyful exuberance of first love that her voice conveys when singing with the Duke. She makes the choice of options so visibly (audibly, really) clear that her fatal choice almost seems obvious.

(Ms Reiss, thank you for clearing up the only problem I’ve ever had with your character’s motivations in this opera. Now, if someone could finally show me why Sparafucile abandons his otherwise proud assassin’s duty…)

Dramatically, the new production suffered, though not from any aspects of the visually opulent staging. No sooner did the anguish-driven overture end than the curtain raised upon a palatial revelry brought to life by jugglers, ballerinas, clowns, and courtiers, all resplendently bedecked in Richard St. Clair’s costumes, right down to a Duke entirely clad in the devil’s red. Paul Shortt’s set design impresses by sheer enormity, notably the massive Rubenesque-styled painting that depicts an abduction (after his Leucippus, rather than his Sabine Women) which hangs over the entrance to the Duke’s chambers in Act II.

Yet (maybe because of all this) Robert B. Driver’s direction somehow manages to underscore the dark and tragic aspects of the story. Granted, the extremity of the tragic impact only comes in the very last scene (enhanced superbly by Drew Billiau’s lighting), but for a opera which contains a forced abduction, judicial murders, a curse, multiple currents of revenge, and deep moments of shame, nothing seems dark, and none of the negative emotions seem effectively conveyed by the production. Nothing made this lack more evident than when the audience laughed after Sparafucile told his sister to “mend the sack” in which he plans to put the corpse of his next victim (in addition to their laughter during several other nasty moments in the plot).

Not that Verdi’s opera could ever achieve a happy ending. Rigoletto, who proudly exclaims, “Let the world behold the Jester and the King,” gets a comeuppance undeserved by any figure in tragedy, while the only innocent figure in the piece suffers irreparably.

Yet Rigoletto stands as one of the more powerful and penetrating operas written, and the opportunity to see this piece in a musically beautiful new production marks a reason for opera loving Philadelphians to rejoice. My only hope: that the Opera Company of Philadelphia will plan their future seasons around more opportunities for Ms. Reiss to perform here.

An absolute must see.

Two Recent Arts Editorials published at The Broad Street Review

‘Death and the Maiden’ and Duke U. lacrosse 10.20.2007 Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden takes an even-handed look at the question of due process vs. cathartic revenge. But his premature support for action against Duke University’s lacrosse players suggests where his sympathies lie.

Death and the Maiden. By Ariel Dorfman. Through October 27, 2007 at Curio Theatre, 815 South 48 St. (215) 525-1350 or

Click on the image above to read the article published at the Broad Street Review.

Artists and criminals 09.08.2007 Should a convicted drug dealer be allowed to put on a show about his crime? Performance artist Christian Lisak raised that question with his recent monologue, That’s Why They Don’t Call It a Picnic. Some Philadelphia theater people say yes and others vehemently disagree, but all of their reactions seem to misunderstand what art— not to mention crime— is really all about.

Click on the image above to read the article published at the Broad Street Review.

Review of "Three Tall Women" at BCKSEET Productions, published in Edge Philadelphia

BCKSEET Productions kicks off their second season in residence at the Society Hill Playhouse with a compelling production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Albee’s play—which attempts to come to terms with the memory of his mother—marks a strange choice for this young company, and a difficult choice for any company to attempt.

Act I poses all the problems. Imagine going to a home for seniors, not to see anyone you know, but to walk into the room of a wealthy, cantankerous 92-year-old matron (Jean Brooks, referred to in the script only as “A”), her left arm disintegrating from osteoporosis, her mind melting away under an equally progressive case of Alzheimer’s, to hear her ramble on about her life.

Competing for time in arguments and listening to the stories are two other women: A’s caretaker (Catherine Palfenier, only called “B”), and a young representative from A’s lawyer (Janice Rowland, as “C”). While certain plot-lines surface throughout this act—A believes everyone cheats her, C recoils in horror from the A’s physical decline which B tries to manage with equal parts callousness and compassion—ultimately the first half exists to offer a window into the inner life of the recalcitrant, slightly bigoted woman who once threw Albee out of her house, and with whom he never completely reconciled.

To his credit, Albee fills this seemingly bland scenario with enough intrigue, humor, and bitter and joyful anecdotes, so that director Oscar Dubon and this cast can plough through the first half. (Which is in many ways a placeholder for the meatier material of Act II, where A, B, and C each play Albee’s mother at various stages of her life, as the woman in the twilight of her year’s, at 52, and two year’s before marriage at 26, respectively.)

In Act II Albee offers a captivating scenario that many would like to experience, the opportunity to listen as our future selves give us advance notice of the painful reality to come. Here the play takes off, becoming a dynamic and poignant meditation on the very nature of human experience in a life where the only constant is change. Highly pessimistic (in the philosophical sense), Albee explores the notion that “a person’s character is their fate,” as C points at the future selves that now terrify her with their bitterness and shattered ideals and declares, “I will not become that,” long after the audience has seen the futility of this gesture.

I’ve seen productions of this play where the director seemed to relish in the vitriol, nastiness, and existential anguish, which if taken seriously, would result in “streets littered with adolescent corpses.” Thankfully, Dubon makes some choices that both add dimensions to this play and unburden the audience from the potential viciousness and despair laden into Albee’s script.

Where Albee’s script uses B’s telling her younger self tales of adultery and mid-life anguish in an attempt to implode C’s notion that “happiness is on the way,” Dubon lightens the presentation, having a much softer A than the woman we met in Act I, and by showing the source of B’s cynicism as having more to do with rage in her interaction with Albee’s onstage, though silent, character (Noah Mazaika). The overall feel of the production then capitalizes on the existential themes (when is the happiest time? Why do we struggle?), particularly as enhanced by Steve Heitz’s lighting in the final moments of the play.

All three women help Dubon maintain this softness, particularly Rowland, who gives a searching and very affecting performance that struggles to hold onto the hope of her ideals even while seeing their eventual betrayal. Palfenier’s intermittent callousness in both acts plays nicely against this, nailing the bitter humor in stories like her adulterous interlude with a stable boy on a pile of straw that “probably has shit on it,” while Brooks tames Albee’s mother with an almost sing-song reading of her lines in the second half.

In a sense, Brooks’ acting further cleaves the production in two, as there’s not enough of her temperamental Act I persona or her Act II gentility. But this is a minor loss compared to the only real detraction, which is that these three tall personalities don’t have enough room.

Christopher L. Butterfield’s design isn’t the problem, as the jagged lines of his set aptly harp on the fractured memories and timelines played out on stage. But the small space nonetheless smothers these actors, starving them of the necessary space—personal and theatrical—necessary for them to manifest the grandeur of each of the contradictory epochs in this woman’s life.

At an age where A can’t even remember which one of her husband’s eyes was glass, she remembers being tall. Ultimately this play is much more than Albee’s coming to terms with his mother, and this production very compellingly shows not just a woman who endured, but who fought her way through life with a confidence in the values of an era many are thankful no longer exists. The real question, “How do we not become our future selves, how do we not lose our ideals, our capacity for happiness?” goes unanswered, but I walked away with enough of the impact of Dubon’s production to still ask this question.

Review of "Man of La Mancha" at the Walnut Street Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

For theatre-goers accustomed to the visual and auditory onslaught of musicals written at the end of the 20th Century, 1965’s Man of La Mancha offers little in the way of the spectacle.

While Dale Wasserman scripted his book for a large cast, only two muted, barely rousing chorus numbers take full advantage of their appearance. Joe Darion’s lyrics on many of the songs range from the straightforward to the simple, and that Mitch Leigh’s score contains four refrains, showing a seemingly boring lack of imagination (this isn’t Wagner where you expect motifs that work, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, where they often don’t). Moreover, though magnificent and impressive, the staging never deviates from Todd Edward Ivins’ initial set, most of the cast spends the entire evening sitting or lying down, little action takes place, and what does occur, all happens within the imagination of the main character. Not exactly a promising premise for a musical.

Yet, in terms of pure spiritual excitement and courage, I can think of no musical that matches it. I’m not referring to church or religion here, but to the spirit of the chivalrous Golden Age of Spanish literature from which this musical draws its source—Cervantes Don Quixote—a spirit that argues for a proud and noble bearing in the face of the constant onslaught of life. And in spite of (or maybe because of) all the elements of a traditional musical that Man of La Mancha lacks, this production still manages to soar.

Set in the late 16th Century, Man of La Mancha opens on Cervantes (Paul Schoeffler) being thrown into prison by the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners quickly realize by his dress and bearing that he’s a gentleman (not to mention that his servant, Pancho (Jamie Torcellini) accompanies him even in a dungeon), and attack him, justifying themselves by setting up a mock court in which “one’s fellow prisoner’s determine your guilt first.” If found guilty, he must forfeit all his possessions, including the unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote.

Cervantes offers to stage his defense as a re-enactment of his novel—to explain why his “cowardly idealism” (as they see it) has landed him in a dungeon alongside thieves and murderers. More to relieve their boredom than to truly help out, the inmates take their parts, “converting” the dungeon into a castle, inn, and battlefield, the male prisoners into knights, fellow nobles, and priests (today they could play themselves), and having a prostitute named Aldonza play the princess Dulcinea.

It’s much to this musical’s credit and the Walnut Street’s production that they evoke so much of Cervantes novel with so little, a spectacular feat without spectacle that captures the spirit of indomitable virtue arising from imagination’s necessity in escaping despair. If any “spectacle” does color this production, it’s only noticeable in Jack Jacobs lighting that deftly narrates the play like a film camera that shifts from one location to the next.

Director Bruce Lumpkin stages the right amount of tedium and languor in both the prisoners and the background to imbue their side of the production with the necessary contrast for the grandeur of spirit exhibited by Schoeffler’s Quixote. And while Schoeffler initially seems ridiculous shifting back and forth between Cervantes and Quixote (mostly though, because he plays the latter role with the style of “Master Thespian”), his silky baritone quickly redeems his part, softly blending even his show-stoppers into the general tenor of the production.

Thankfully, the one role that gets to scream and make some noise does so with the fire of a hellcat, as Denise Whelan’s Aldonza ignites the stage with her passionate singing, while still managing to provide a heartbreaking final turn of character in the last moments of the play.

When Cervantes wrote his masterpiece four hundred years ago, Spain was slowly unwinding from the knight’s spirit of living boldly, finding beauty and goodness while fighting what was filthy and base. These Aristocratic values, long since lost on a democratic society, came back to life for a few hours at the Walnut Street, where the notion of “living beautifully” lived once more in song.

A two-hour withdraw from the world that’s well worth seeing.

Review of "An Empty Plate at the Cafe du Grand Bouef" at the ArdenTheatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

Though it delivers a “feast of adjectives and adverbs,” Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf offers little in the way of plot, character development, or (dare I say) entertainment. More of a grad school exercise in animated storytelling than a real play, the Arden’s production of Hollinger’s play only left me hungry for more filling and creative fare.

The Arden Theatre is celebrating their twentieth anniversary in a number of ways. They opened their season with a smash production of Sondheim’s Assassins. In January, they will present a world premiere of Wittenberg, the much-anticipated follow-up to their hit Daedelus of a few years ago. And to solidify and commemorate their long-standing collaboration with local playwright Michael Hollinger, they’re currently reviving An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, the first of the six works that they’ve premiered.

I didn’t see Empty Plate when the Arden first presented it in 1994, but after watching this production, I can’t imagine how it ever launched Michael Hollinger’s career as a nationally produced, nationally recognized playwright.

Empty Plate opens upon the aptly named (I won’t spoil it) interior of the Café du Grand Bouef (Café of the Big Ox), a four star Parisian restaurant devoted solely to the gastronomic satisfaction of one individual, Victor (Douglas Rees), a wealthy American expatriate and former publishing magnate. As much the traveler as gourmand, Victor keeps the restaurant’s temperamental staff on-call 24/7, occasionally dining in to share the latest, fascinating stories of his pan-European exploits.

And that’s about it.

Well, not quite, as Hollinger invokes a pair of twists—one major, one minor—to make this particular evening different from all of Victor’s prior visits. The minor twist: the restaurant’s former busboy (we never meet him) has died, and the staff’s closeted bi-sexual head waiter Claude (Ian Merrill Peakes) has hired the object of his desire Antoine (James William Ijames) as a replacement.

The major twist: Victor, despondent over an unrevealed crisis, has returned from Madrid without his traditional dinner guest Miss Berger (Mikaela Kafka), and now refuses to eat, instead deciding to starve himself to death in the seat of his culinary paradise. Over the course of 90 (long) minutes, the staff tries to restore his “appetite for life,” tempting him with descriptions of a series of “empty plates,” while Victor relates both the story of his life “from birth to a bullfight,” and the present tale of woe that’s caused his despair.

A few plot-lets break up the monotony of his narrative. In his intermittent lust for Antoine, Claude has severely neglected his wife Mimi (Mary McCool), who longs to travel as Victor does. The chef Gaston (Richard Ruiz) despises Claude and secretly pines for Mimi, but fears telling her. Victor longs to die. Antoine, the only self-described happy character, simply longs to work as a journalist.

Now that’s really all there is to this play.

Hollinger conceived Empty Plate as a gourmet-inspired poetic meditation on longing. However, just as longing must be felt, in a play it must also be shown, and while Hollinger masters the art of culinary description (perhaps paying homage to the first careers of actors and playwrights everywhere), and cleverly inserts allusions to stories and snippets from Hemingway, the evening contains no action whatsoever. Like Victor’s twin narratives about life and loss, it’s all told to the audience, with little acted out or shown.

The actors struggle valiantly to overcome this, most notably the energetic Peakes and neurotically amusing McCool, playing the only characters (besides Victor) with enough lines and stage time to do anything with their roles. Dees emanates a certain type of mournful vivacity (indicative of his former self), and his placid, sarcasm heavy demeanor adds color and humor (though over all, this production lost a great deal of the humor of Hollinger’s script). But in the one passage where he’s called upon to act out the tragedy that’s befallen him, he falters, though it’s probably not his fault, as the script calls on the cast to convincingly portray the spectacle of a bull slaughtered in a bullfight.

Like the series of empty plates symbolizing the food left in the kitchen, all I can think is what a waste: of the talent of this cast, Jerold R. Forsyth’s intimate lighting, and Donald Eastman’s gorgeous café interior, the walls themselves a series of oil-painting panels bound by deep mahoghany columns.

As a short story, Hollinger’s play would’ve succeeded very well, and it’s not hard to imagine what Nolen felt when first reading it, that it “leapt off the page at him.” But on the stage it plays like a grad student’s experiment in “animated storytelling.” And while I might expect to entertain children with a main character who does little more than sit in a chair and tell stories, Empty Plate doesn’t satisfy the needs of theatre for grown-ups, or even for those looking for passable entertainment.

In one of her last lines, Mimi comments on one of Victor’s stories, that “it was very eventful.” If only I could say the same of Hollinger’s play, which in the end, only sent me home hungry for more fulfilling theatrical fare.

Review of "Miss Saigon" at the Media Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

People pick the worst times to fall in love. Take Chris (Christopher deProphetis), an embassy guard in Saigon. A few weeks from his redeployment home, he used to “love getting stoned and waking up with some whore,” but now he feels only disgust over the life he’s led in country. Then he meets Kim (Michelle Liu Coughlin), on the night of her first “deployment” in a brothel, and quickly falls in love—as she represents all the innocence that this do-gooder felt when he first arrived in Vietnam.

It’s bad enough when you’re forced to admit to friends, “this is the guy I met while trolling on Craigslist,” but imagine the story he’d have to tell… Such is the plot of the smash musical Miss Saigon, now in production at the Media Theater. Or rather, it would’ve been the plot, if NVC’s hadn’t overrun the embassy in 1975, forcing Chris to flee on the last helicopter, abandoning the woman now pregnant with his child.

Back in the states, Chris has (re)married—Kim believes they had wed after a village ceremony—and only returns to Southeast Asia after a visit from his old army buddy John (Jonathon Lee Iverson) informs him that he has a son, now living in Bangkok with Kim. Chris and the new wife Ellen (Jessica Edwards), though realizing that they could provide a much better life for the child in America, struggle over what to do with the child, causing some conflict, (if they had only asked themselves “What Would Angelina Do?”), before Kim preempts their decision with one of her own at the musical’s end.

My insensitive jokes aside, Miss Saigon stands as both a powerful love story, a tale of a mother’s love, and the failure of good intentions that too often lead to tragedy, set to emotionally powerful (some would say manipulatively so) music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil—the same pair that wrote Les Mis—with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.

Under Jesse Cline’s direction, the Media’s production focuses mostly on the love story, but in what’s quickly becoming his signature style, Cline took a story of drunk, roughhousing GI’s, Vietnamese prostitutes and violent pimps, and a war ravaged country, and made it even lewder. After watching this production, I felt like I needed to take a bath.

Which is to this production’s credit, as Kim is no “hooker with a heart of gold,”—a character for whom prostitution is romanticized in everything from Madame Butterfly to Pretty Woman—but a farm girl who watched her family butchered, her village burnt to the ground, and found that her only escape from both the atrocities of war and a prearranged marriage to a violent cousin (Anton Briones) lay in (literally) prostitution. There’s nothing romantic in this—and Cline (rightly) doesn’t treat it that way. Instead, he intensifies the drama by letting her remaining innocence become the last battlement in her psyche to fall victim to this onslaught.

Cline also managed to assemble a stellar cast to sing the 30-plus songs this musical contains. As Chris, deProphetis seems chosen as much for his physique—one that equals his rich voice—and for his earnest, American-boy appeal, that he conveys well in his innocent, though bumbling manner. Coughlin adds her own charm, delighting as Kim, so long as she’s not forced to belt unendingly under Steve Ertelt’s musical direction (that also requires this of most of the cast). Moreover, she plays her role to great effect—shy and demure enough throughout that she devastates when she cries, “you don’t know what I’ve done to be here.”

But the supporting cast nearly runs away with the show. Briones gorgeous voice sparkles vocally in the darkest role, and Iverson’s and Edwards’ compelling solo numbers emotionally anchor their conflicting interests. John Haggerty’s engineer—the comedic undercurrent and embodiment of seediness—sings and entertains wildly, even if not quite nasty enough to convince that he’s capable of the violence that colors his daily life as a pimp.

The production values run high overall—though inconsistently in the minor details, which put Michelob Ultra bottles and German Luger pistols into a show set in 1975’s Vietnam—glitches which offset the impressive onstage appearances of a helicopter and a vintage Harley. And while Joshua Schulman’s lighting brought nightclubs, dream sequences, and gate-crashed embassies powerfully to life, the poor sound design and technical problems made the choral numbers mostly incomprehensible.

Like in Vietnam, the lengthy musical is one long set up for the events in the plot to tragically devastate Kim’s innocence at the end. Cline doesn’t ignore these political implications either—though to his credit, he touched upon this without resorting to heavy-handedness, deftly incorporating History Channel footage from that era into the songs to show the effects of a war-torn country—showing the general suffering that mirrors the individual tragedy in Kim’s story.

It’s hard to imagine a similar story today. Prostitution’s better monitored in Iraq, and more stringently enforced against in Islam, though I’m sure it won’t stop composers twenty years from competing to write the first drafts of Miss Bagdad. And while it’s tough to imagine anyone romanticizing current events in the Mideast at any time, I’m glad that this fall we had Cline’s production of Miss Saigon: a tragic, spectacularly performed story of love and devastation brought to life on the Media stage.

Review of "Company B" at the Pennsylvania Ballet, published in Edge Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened their 44th season with Paul Taylor’s Company B, the featured work in an evening that also offered George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, and As It’s Going, by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan. Though the dancers upheld their consistently high standards of performance (for the most part), contrasts—both between the works and within them—both delighted and annoyed.

If it’s possible to describe choreography as “Baroque,” where each movement matches one of the notes, Concerto Barocco fits that definition. In Balanchine’s piece, set to Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, two principal dancers (during this evening, Arantxa Ochoa and Amy Aldridge) play the “violins” of the piece, mirroring the score of the music in their movements.

To keep pace with the music, the dancers mimic the progressions of Bach’s chords through their sharp, nearly explosive, but perfectly controlled movements. There’s no plot or story, just a bare stage and a blue background, but Balanchine’s choreography nonetheless achieved a spiritual brilliance, an enchanting embodiment of Bach’s work. To see Ochoa and Aldridge dance to Balanchine’s choreography truly exhilarated, and the visual effect of their performance mesmerized.

Neenan’s As It’s Going offered an equally athletic, mostly in pairs choreography, with lots of lifts and tremendous physicality of motion and a structure that seems to echo the style of Concerto Barocco. But the plotless choreography here marks a frustrating difference between the first and second pieces of the evening. Where Balanchine does away with plot, he still keeps an overall structure, using Bach’s music as the backbone that structures the sequence of movements.

Neenan, by contrast, has one movement follow another in the way a bipolar sufferer (touched with a mild case of ADD) would suddenly express one contradictory emotion after the next. Only here, we see this affliction in movement, and while the effect sometimes pleases, it’s more often than not simply ridiculous, showcasing lots of technical artistry, but very little art.

His work does offer powerful images, utilizing the physical, aerial style of his choreography, combined with the ending moments of each of his pieces to great visual effect (John Hoey’s lighting helped out tremendously). However, even this is mere cleverness of style, as what Neenan effects at the end of each movement stands at a stark disconnect from the rest of the piece.

It’s not that Neenan can’t produce a coherent work either, as his seventh movement makes clear. Here he combines the physicality of his work with well-patterned ensemble choreography to produce something that’s harmonious visually and artistically.

Taylor’s Company B, paired to the 1930’s and 40’s hits of the Andrews Sisters, is engaging, spirited, and lots of fun. The music’s great to hear (I walked home humming the signature “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”), and the dancing incorporates or touches upon swing, jitterbug, and polka styles from that period. Santo Loquasto’s charming period costumes (think polka-dots and chinos), and the great hairstyles added to the overall feel of being carried back in time.

Many of the themes—love and loss, young men marching off to war during the heartbreaking “There Will Never Be Another You” number (captivatingly danced by Lindsay Purrington)—still resonate today. Though devoid of an overall story line, Company B offered some of the best-acted performances of the night, and how could it not? These songs of youth and free-spiritedness from a more optimistic time fit right in with the qualities that these dancers both posses and emanate in abundance.

But I’m puzzled as to why a ballet company should perform some of the numbers, especially the ones that either incorporate little classical (or even 20th C.) technique. Some rough spots make the differences in the training clear, as none of the ensemble in “Oh Johnny” can bob their heads convincingly, except Barette Vance. Her attitude throughout suggests that she’s one of the few who captures the overall spirit of Company B, and her sizzling and sultry dancing to “Rum and Coca-Cola” marked the best performance of the piece.

If only they had performed the Balanchine piece last (rather than first), the evening would not only have achieved a better style of presentation, but provided more enjoyment as well. Though ending on the Andrews Sister’s music puts the catchiest piece last, Balanchine’s superior choreography provides the best performances of the night, giving balletomanes what they came to the ballet to see.

Review of "Amadeus" at the Wilma Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

In his landmark study on envy, the Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck alleged that “the greatest civilizing effect of Christianity lay in its ability to temper the destructive influences of envy.” Of course, Schoeck wrote this before he could have seen Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, especially the tersely-crafted, mesmerizing production now onstage at the Wilma Theatre.

In Amadeus, Christianity's instead the force that motivates an envy-driven hatred—at least for Salieri (Dean Nolen), the Viennese Court Composer who believes in a God that makes real and irreversible bargains with men. As a 16 year old, he promises the heavens that he will lead a life of virtue in exchange for musical ability, so that he can speak the pure language of God, and serve as a vessel to glorify Him on earth.

However, years later, when the younger, more brilliant (though less successful) Mozart (Drew Hirshfield) arrives in Vienna, Salieri instead hears God’s voice “spoken through an obscene child. Accusing God of reneging on their agreement, Salieri vows to destroy Mozart, and thereby block God’s presence on earth.

Or so this 18th C. composer of operas claims in his final composition, performed for a “conjured audience,” and entitled, “The Death of Mozart,” or “Did I Do It.”

In Shaffer’s drama, Mozart comments on the difference between plays and opera, arguing that the latter—by using music to intensify and evoke dramatic action—represents the supreme form of drama. With many other plays I’m inclined to agree, but to director Jiri Zizka’s credit, the caliber of his production of this stage play entranced me as much as most of the operas I’ve ever seen. His lightning quick pacing, the inclusion of Mozart’s music to intensify Salieri’s anguish, his choice of how to have Hirshfield play Mozart, and stunning projected backdrops take a play infused with esoteric stretches of narratives where the central conflict is fought between Salieri and an unseen God, and ignites it into an emotionally-charged sensory explosion on the stage.

While the Oscar winning movie (and many stage productions I’ve seen) focus on the “Mozart-as-boy-genius” aspect of his character—with “boy” as the operant term—Zizka and Hirshfield’s approach instead portrays him as a musical talent who can’t fully make himself a servant to those he considers incompetents that should rightly get out of his way. Hirshfield’s Mozart—almost a boy Nietzsche—can’t (or won’t) control his tongue, offending everyone, not only increasing the tension by enraging Salieri, but also lessening the effects of Salieri’s wickedness.

This choice clearly pays off, when toward the end of the play, Salieri asks the audience, “which of you would refuse the opportunity to block a disliked human rival?” and the barely controlled silence showed at least a partial belief in his justification of a wickedness that carried the evening’s tension.

Of course, the production would suffer by more than degrees without Nolen’s Salieri. Compelling from his first throaty-voiced moments on stage, he proves no less a maestro dramatically than the much-maligned composer was musically, and makes it difficult to believe that someone so charming and sparkling could behave so viciously. Moreover, he balances these elements with such precision—only allowing the scales to tip decidedly in the closing moment of the play—entrancing with a subtle evolution of character that’s a devilish delight to watch.

The remainder of the cast serves to either increase the humor— Christian Kauffmann’s delightful stooge of an Emperor, and Pete Pryor and Jared McLenigan’s “little winds” blowing rumors through Vienna while updating the chronological backdrop of the play—or function as the obstacles Salieri sets along the path of Mozart’s destruction. Only Mary Rasmussen, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, shows the sense of defending loyalty and sympathy to Mozart’s plight (that perhaps we should all feel), in her apt portrayal of a boarding-house owner’s daughter unsure of how to function when elevated to a world above her upbringing.

Robert Pyzocha’s set design festooned the entire theatre space with long white draperies, fittingly contrasting the sense of innocence in Salieri’s rendition of his story with the cobwebbed sense of history conveyed in the dust and spider web covered chandeliers hanging above the audience. And though the text has someone call Mozart’s coat “vulgar,” Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes capture nothing less than the spirit of pure pageantry that dominated the aristocratic era.

In our age, we’re used to seeing men war with other men because of God; Shaffer’s play provides an intriguing example of one man warring against another to spite Him. While there’s something initially admirable about a man who engages in pitched combat with a deity (even if today we lack the pleasure of justifying our envy-driven abuse in this manner) the Wilma shows everything that’s admirable about a production that brings this battle to life.

Review of "Beyond Therapy" at Villanova, published 10-08-2007 in the Main Line Ticket

Long before the films of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, (playwright) Christopher Durang perfected the genre of zany comedies driven by over-the-top characters thrown into otherwise usual/normal situations. Case in point: his hilarious early 80’s comedy “Beyond Therapy,” now receiving a slightly updated, slightly imbalanced production at Villanova University.

Prudence (Rachel Anne Stephan) and Bruce (Carl C. Granieri), two imperfect thirty-something’s, use online personals to look for love and maybe another marriage. She’s a homophobic uptight perfectionist, he’s an overly emotional bisexual living with his lover Bob (Luke Moyer). Both struggle through the relationship on the advice of their respective therapists—Dr. Framingham (Jeffrey S. Paden), a slimeball who bases his advice on trying to sleep with her again, and Charlotte Wallace (Amy Walton), who absentmindedly occupies the session with her own problems. Durang’s approach echoes through Wallace’s advice: “If you take psychological suffering in the right frame of mind, you can find humor in it.”

Dina Amin’s direction attempts to capitalize on the topical humor by updating the script (though not enough—it still feels like a period piece), but veers wildly between comedy that’s neither consistently frantic and over-the-top or consistently straightforward enough. Some lapses in timing further tarnish the production, particularly the stilted ending, which rather than giving one last explosion of absurdity or tapering off the play’s comedic high, falls apart entirely. Her best choice of the night: writing in a café singer for the adorably corny, vocally talented Janet McWilliams.

Some of the production’s imbalance lies in the cast, as only Walton’s blisteringly funny performance truly understands her part (even though in this production, her apt playing seems almost out of place). Granieri’s emotional dexterity produces one laugh after another, and finds a fitting compliment in Moyer’s pouting and ridiculously straightforward portrayal. By contrast, Stephan, whose character is fraught with indecision and constantly frazzled, plays her part too confidently. Whenever she declares, “I’m going,” I expected her to do anything but stay put. Meanwhile, Paden’s womanizer is never ridiculous or sleazy enough to effect the humor of his role.

While not the laugh riot Durang intended, the production nonetheless illustrates both the absurdity of imperfect professionals helping their imperfect clients, and Durang’s commentary on the silliness built into every relationship. If you’re longing for a comedy that’s delightfully off-kilter, or that nostalgically pokes fun at an era when patients solved their problems by lying on couches rather than popping pills, Villanova’s production will prove quite therapeutic.

Review of "Boy Gets Girl" at Celebration Theatre, published 10-17-2007 in the NEWS of Delaware County

Don’t meet for a blind date at Celebration Theatre. At least not during their current run of Rebecca Gilman’s psychological thriller “Boy Gets Girl,” where the question, “What’s wrong with pursing a woman?” only finds a tragic answer.

In Gilman’s play, slightly misanthropic journalist Theresa Bedell (Jennifer Summerfield) meets the socially awkward Tony (Jim Hopper) for a blind date. After a few missteps, the evening ends a qualified success, and she agrees to date number two. Here, his lack of sensitivity (“so, are you like a feminist?”) fails to conceal a smothering pushiness, and Theresa uses the familiar “it’s not you, it’s me” to end the evening and refuse any future engagements.

But he won’t hear it. A few dozen phone calls later, she tells him to get lost, and he turns from creepy annoyance into threatening stalker, interfering with her life, both at home and work.

Coinciding with Tony’s escalating intrusions, Theresa’s magazine requires her to interview Les Kennkat (Ben Kendall), an aging cult-figure and producer of B-movie sexploitation films. He initially becomes the target of her misdirected anger, as do her sympathetic coworkers Howard (Ed Gretz) and Mercer (JP Timlin), but when the stalking intensifies to violence, she finally seeks the help of Officer Madeleine Beck (Laura Cevallos). Beck’s pitiless policewoman advice: get a new number, apartment, and identity, because in her experience, these problems only end in tragedy.

Celebration’s superb effort marks one of the best non-professional productions I’ve ever seen. Dave Ebersole’s direction engages immediately, effectively exploiting Gilman’s Hitchcockian device (can’t give that away), while crafting a performance that mines the script’s latent humor only to escalate the tension further.

However, little competes for, or captures the attention more than Summerfield’s penetrating portrayal of a woman under siege. Even the quality of her laughter changes under the crippling stress, as the tremendous depth she brings to this role conveys the ever-intensifying degree of the simmering terror she experiences.

The solid ensemble performances radiate outward from her tremendous portrayal, most notably Kendall’s intentionally scene-stealing humor, Gretz’s and Timlin’s amiable protectiveness, and the harmless looking Hopper, who deftly turns surface-level awkwardness into venom.

Rodney Bruce Warren’s well-structured set, Ebersole and Bill Bansbach’s score-like sound design, and especially Paul Peyton Moffitt’s chilling lighting all enhance the force of this electrifying production.

Only Gilman’s script interferes, veering off into quasi-feminist politics and cultural analysis as she tries to insert the theme that “Tony is not alone in how he sees women.” While some of her points ring true—Theresa argues that saying, “he’s a good guy who can’t deal with women” no longer counts, as it really means that a man “can’t deal with half the population”—the majority of Gilman’s message only impedes the play’s second act.

Thankfully, Ebersole diligently handles the thematic distractions, enabling the cast to make Gilman’s arguments believable extensions of their characters, while Summerfield’s ever-more brittle responses never allow a drop in the tension that deflects from the thrust of the plot.

This hard-hitting play represents a powerful season opener for Celebration Theatre. As Theresa clings to the last shards of her identity, Tony reduces her to one final humiliating option. In this disturbing production, boy gets girl after all.