Theater reviews

An evening with Edgar Allen Poe at PHS this weekend

poe.jpgThink current events are scary? For real terror, take in an evening with the master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe, performed by the Portsmouth High School Drama club. Witness the Tell-Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado, the Oblong Box and other blood-chilling tales from the pen of the writer who invented the genre.

The show opens tonight and runs through Saturday. Curtain at 7pm and tickets are $10/$5 student and senior, available at the door.

Hope to see you there!

Full disclosure: Our son Jack in in the cast. No objectivity here.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

Contemporary Theater offers dark, potent “Sweeney Todd”

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Jason Shealy as Sweeney Todd, Eden Casteel as Mrs. Lovett, Terry Shea as The Judge. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.

Ezra Pound once said that artists are the “antennae” of the human race, and when Stephen Sondheim was writing what some consider his finest musical, “Sweeney Todd,” back in the late 1970s, he was clearly picking up the grim meathook realities of the impending Reagan years, where unrestrained capitalism first found purchase in our national psyche.

The Broadway production, in 1979, literally opened with a huge illustration of the rigidly hierarchical “beehive of British society” on the curtain; unsuspecting theatergoers were treated to a macabre tale of revenge and class struggle fought with razors and rolling pins.

The show has a message that’s timely now, in an America where the top 1% own 40% of the nation’s wealth. And the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield pulls no punches, offering an energetic, unblinking version of “Sweeney Todd” that’s full of powerful voices, fine acting, sly comedy, and moments of inspired stagecraft.

The plot is probably familiar to many. Sweeney Todd (played by Jason Shealy with grim determination) is a London barber who has made his way back home 15 years after being transported to Australia by a judge who coveted his wife. Rescued by the sailor Anthony (wonderfully voiced by Alex Bermudez), he finds his wife has taken poison, and his daughter Johanna (Maggie Papa) is a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (the delightfully sleazy Terry Shea). Anthony and Todd arrive in London only to be immediately accosted by a beggar woman (an evocative, heartbreaking turn by Alison King Anthony). All Sweeney has going for him is his disguise (no one recognizes him as the deported Benjamin Barker), an empty barber shop, and his razors, which have been hidden by the owner of the pie shop below, Mrs. Lovett (Eden Casteel).

What happens then — as the opening number says — well, that's the play, and while it sounds like dark business indeed, there are leavening notes of humor, as Todd competes with a street barber (Robert Grady), worms his way into the graces of the judge’s beadle (J. Rick Casey), and discovers, with Mrs. Lovett, the powerful vertical integration possible between a barber shop and a meat pie bakery.

Yes, this is a show about cutting people’s throats and grinding them up into pasties. But it’s a delightful musical.

Shealy and Casteel are outstanding as Todd and Lovett. Shealy’s taciturn demeanor is the perfect foil for Casteel’s expressive, passionate turn as Mrs. Lovett. Their simmering relationship is played more openly than the Broadway production, full of clever bits of business. Their voices are uniformly excellent. This is a challenging score — most of the show’s two-plus hours is sung — and both Shealy and Casteel deliver with power, range, and expressive vocals. Their duets, particularly “A Little Priest,” are an absolute delight.

Musical director Jean Maxon-Carpenter has done an excellent job coaxing strong performances from the entire cast, and the five-member pit band does a solid job bringing the complex arrangements to life. This is a score where the accompaniment offers very little for the actors to cling to — or even clues for where to come in — but she has succeeded in making it all work.

Director Christopher Simpson has captured the essence of the show: Sweeney Todd is both a dark tragedy and a moral fable, and this staging, which brings the actors into — and through — the audience, implicates us all in a way no proscenium can. He’s also ensured that the energy of the show — which is as insistent and merciless as a Victorian clockwork steam whistle — never flags. The pacing is brisk but never hurried, and he has wrung every inch out of the Contemporary’s performance space.

One highlight, for fans of the show, is the staging Simpson created for Fogg’s Asylum. Originally done on Broadway with shadows on canvas, he brings the inmates out into full view, and ties in their oppression thematically in a very satisfying way. It’s a deft moment.

As someone who saw the original several times on Broadway — including once from the front row, close enough to see the tears in Len Cariou’s eyes in the final bakehouse scene — I have a high bar for productions of this show. Much as I admire Johnny Depp, the film version does not — and cannot — do this show justice because of the importance of the chorus and frame narrative. That said, I can recommend this production without reservation. If you remember the Broadway version, you will find much familiar and some fine new touches; if this is your first experience of one of the greatest works of American musical theater, well, you are in for one grisly, exhilarating, absorbing evening.

Tickets available at Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI, (401) 218-0282. Evening shows at 7pm on Oct 17, 24, 30, 31, Nov 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 with Sunday matinees at 2pm on Nov 1 and 8.

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Contemporary Theatre Company kicks off season with 24-Hour Play Festival

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Directing the CTC's 2012 24Hour Festival, Dave Price with cast members (l-r) Matt Royality-Lindman, Amelia Giles, Pat Hayes, Robin Deering, and Maggie Papa. Photo credit: Blacknight Studio.

Wakefield's Contemporary Theater Company kicks off its 10th Season with The 10th Annual 24-Hour Play Festival on January 10. This celebration of creativity and collaboration is a collection of six short plays written, rehearsed, and performed in a single day.

“The 24-Hour Play Festival is the event that defined our company in our early years,” says Artistic Director Christopher Simpson, “and the spirit of supportive, generous collaboration that it fosters has sustained us through ten years of growth and change.”

The playwrights begin the process at midnight, writing through the night until actors and directors arrive in the morning and begin casting and rehearsing the plays. Photos, videos and stories are uploaded to the company’s website and Facebook page throughout the day, allowing the audience to keep up with the process as it unfolds.

The event draws large crowds each year, and at the end of the evening, the audience gets to vote for their favorite plays, actors, and writers.

“The energy and excitement of the event really shows in the performances,” says the festival’s production manager, Maggie Cady. “With so many different styles from the writers and directors, we always end up with a great range of shows.”

As the company enters its tenth year, the play festival brings together the old and the new for a day full of theatrical mayhem and magic.

What can you expect from the 10th Annual? Simpson says, “Seeing veterans of all CTC eras sharing the stage for the anniversary of our first decade - it's going to be something very special.”

The performance is January 10 at 8 p.m. at the South Kingstown High School Auditorium. Tickets are $12.

A complete schedule of events and more information is available at contemporarytheatercompany.com or by calling 401-218-0282.

Editorial note: Written from a press release.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

Broadway "Side Show" offers poignant, powerful revival [update]

14nov16_side_show.pngBack in 1997, the musical Side Show, based on the life of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, ran for just 91 performances on Broadway, but received four Tony nominations and created a devoted following. Now Side Show is back, in a dazzlingly theatrical reboot at the St. James Theatre, directed by Academy Award winner Bill Condon and featuring a rewritten book and new songs by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger.

The Hilton twins occupied a weird cultural niche in the 1930s — abandoned as infants in the UK, they were exploited as a curiosity, brought to the US by their manager, toured in vaudeville as a musical act, and eventually appeared in Tod Browning's infamous film Freaks. The revived Side Show offers a deft, compelling biography of Violet and Daisy's challenges that illuminates fundamental human issues of acceptance, othering, and the fraught duality of attachment and escape.

Every moment of show — the majority of which is sung — is packed with bravura performances from an excellent ensemble cast, and intense, vivid theatrics. Krieger (Dreamgirls) displays a gift for haunting motifs, and paired with Russell's clever, twisty lyrics, provides a richly complex score that bears repeated listening. A new cast album is in the works for early in 2015.

The opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks," is a marvel of prosthetics and makeup as we meet the members of the sisters' traveling show: Dog Boy, Three-Legged Man, Human Pin Cushion, Bearded Lady, two Cossack little people, a Lizard Man, the Cannibal King, and "Sir," the sisters' owner and manager. A recent Wall Street Journal photo essay captures the amazing special effects, which were stunningly effective even from the front row.

Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padgett as Daisy offer utterly riveting performances. It is difficult to imagine anyone pulling off such a span of complex, synchronized movements, but they make it look effortless. Davie is tragically compelling as the introverted Violet, complemented by Padgett's brash Daisy. Together — and they are almost always joined at the hip, aside from a few startlingly effective frame breaks — the pair offer a heartbreaking character study. The 11-o'clock number, "I Will Never Leave You," is a beautiful ballad that was featured on the 1998 Tony broadcast. Their end of Act I duet, "Who Will Love Me As I Am," is an aching lament that will reduce you to tears, even in recollection. You have been warned.

Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor and Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster are wonderful as the would-be impresario and song-and-dance man who coax the sisters to move to vaudeville. Their complex relationships — Terry with Daisy and Buddy with Violet — provide much of the energy and tension. Silverman's darkly introspective internal fantasy "Private Conversation," and Buddy's over-the-top vaudeville number "One Plus One Equals Three" could not be more different, yet both perfectly capture the inner lives of this duo caught in the orbit of the sisters.

Another fine thematic doubling is offered by David St. Louis as Jake, the freak show African "Cannibal King" who makes himself the sisters' protector and Robert Joy as the heartless "Sir" who literally owns them. Jake's soulful warning about leaving the show, "The Devil You Know," comes as the sisters struggle to free themselves from Sir's protectorship. Joy's creepy, malevolent Sir contrasts beautifully with St. Louis's nuanced performance as stalwart ally and friend. "I wasn't always the king," he notes in a moment of mordant humor. "I had to eat my way to the top." His confrontation with Sir in the court battle to free the sisters is a rich, dramatic moment.

The courtroom, like the rest of the show, is executed within David Rockwell's spare, elegant set, comprising mobile structural pieces augmented with bold, clever banners. The lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer combines unobtrusive effectiveness with bravura effects (the "Private Conversation" sequence is a real standout.)

Without having seen the original production, it's difficult to quantify how much Bill Condon's direction and additional book material shaped the show, but the result is nothing short of magical. Right from the opening number, the audience is immersed in a richly imagined, thoroughly compelling vision, executed to the highest technical standards. Whether it's the terrifying shadow doctors in a childhood flashback, the appearance (and disappearance) of Harry Houdini, the romping vaudevillian numbers, or the eerie final sequence with Tod Browning, Condon surprises, delights, and chills the audience. And the book and music are just a continual delight. Krieger and Russell have tweaked the original material and composed several new numbers that are wonderful additions.

Side Show is not really about "freaks," unless it's about the way in which all of us experience the isolation of being alive in a world of difference. It is ultimately, and beautifully, about the things that connect us to each other as people — literally embodied as blood vessels and tissue for the sisters — and the continual challenge of growth and autonomy.

This is a dazzling, high-impact revival of a wonderfully, deeply human show, and an absolutely engrossing theatrical experience. You will come away changed. Highly recommended.

Opens Monday, Nov 17 at the St. James Theatre. More informtion and tickets at SideShowBroadway.com.

Editorial note: Review based on the preview performance on Saturday, Nov. 15. I paid for my tickets and did not receive anything of value in exchange for this review, although I did get to meet Bill Russell afterward and gushed like a fanboy.

Update, 12/12: After weeks of less-than-stellar ticket sales, Deadline.com reported this morning that the show is set to close Jan 4, 2015. I feel bad for the whole creative team (the Times had a good piece on how the revival came together; Broadway.com had a cool video) and depressed by what this says about Broadway as an institution.

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CTCs "Cloud Nine" subverts with dark hilarity

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Cloud Nine cast, click to embiggen. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.

These days, it's common to talk about the intersecting systems of oppression that comprise race, gender, and class — we even have a word for them: kyriarchy. But when British playwright Caryl Churchill wrote "Cloud Nine" back in the late 1970s, it was one of the first theatrical works to dissect such hidden power structures, and she did it with a ribald Brechtian comedy that earned her an Obie for its off-Broadway run in 1982.

Wakefield's Contemporary Theater Company, no stranger to challenging works, has mounted a spirited, engaging production that runs through May 3, and if you enjoy Churchill's work (or thought-provoking theatre in general) this is a must-see.

The play's two acts span 100 years, with the first in an 1880s British colony and the second in 1980s London, but for the several characters we follow, only 25 years have elapsed, just one of the many distortions Churchill introduces. She specifies that roles be cast against gender and race, with men playing women, women playing men, and a white actor as a black servant. Helpfully, director Ryan Hartigan begins each act with the players holding identifying cards (another layer of cultural inscription.)

The first act, set in Africa in the days of colonial power, plays like a Restoration comedy, as the veneer of an ideal British family is peeled back to reveal infidelity, repressed sexuality, and violence. Clive, the patriarch, is played by Birk Wozniak with a starched resolve; Andrew Katzman as his wife, Betty, offers a nuanced portrayal as the helpless and dominated anchor of the family tortured by unfulfilled desire. Their son, Edward (played with impetuous energy by Amy Lee Connell) tries to hide his attraction for both dolls and their visitor, the explorer Harry Bagley (Sami Avigdor). Mother-in-law Maud (Tammy Brown), governess Ellen (Stephanie Traversa), and servant Joshua (Ashley Macamaux) round out the household, which is thrown into conflict by native unrest and the arrival of Bagley and the divorced Mrs. Saunders (Traversa).

There ensues a round of assignations, rebuffs, and recriminations, made intentionally stranger by the cross-gender casting: Clive and Mrs. Saunders, Betty and Harry, Ellen and Betty, Harry and Edward (and Joshua, and Clive — well, he's an explorer, no?). Against this backdrop of sexual dalliance, the servant Joshua plays witness and informant, alienated from his own culture to the point that he cannot even grieve the death of his parents at the hands of British troops. But during the marriage that ends act one, we finally see him raise his rifle.

One hundred years later, we find Betty, Edward, and Victoria (now 25 years older) in Thatcher's London, where the veldt has been replaced with spraypainted cinderblock and the last remaining "colony" is Northern Ireland. Betty is now played by Stephanie Traversa (née Mrs. Saunders) and she wonderfully embodies the character's diffident emergence from the shadow of Clive. Tammy Brown, as daughter Victoria, nicely inverts her Act I role as Maud to become the lesbian partner of Lin (Amy Lee Connell, earnest and frazzled). Edward (now played by Andrew Katzman) has a fraught relationship with his partner Gerry (Ashley Macamaux, reprising Joshua's taciturn distance), who is more comfortable with bath house sex. Sami Avigdor turns in an exuberant performance as Lin's daughter, Cathy. Eventually, the loose ménage à trois of Victoria, Edward, and Lin hold a drunken ceremony to the Great Goddess, after which cross-temporal apparitions begin to manifest.

Director Ryan Hartigan has made wonderful choices in both casting and tuning the performances, and the result is satisfying, highly theatrical, and appropriately jarring. There are many fine moments spotlighting the transient and shallow escapes of Act II: Victoria's estranged husband Martin spouting psychobabble, Gerry's monologue on train station sex, Betty's discovery of masturbation. Audiences of 2013 are now as far separated from this time as the characters are from the rigid colonialism of Act I, and it allows us to see both how inscribed and overshadowed these explorations were, and to better appreciate the keen insight of Churchill in so well capturing them.

Accompanying the performance are Matt Requintina on piano and guitar and vocalist Meg Perry, who deliver languid, stylish period music for both acts. The set design, by Perry and Christopher Simpson, deserves mention: they have converted the three-quarter round stage into a raked square, peaked in the center and bevelled lower across stage left and right in a way that physically embodies the reflection inherent in the two-act structure and provides interesting opportunities for physical juxtaposition.

No way to sugarcoat this: Cloud Nine is a challenging, adult show. You'll want to keep your wits about you and your mind open. But if you want to see Churchill's penetrating farce handled with verve and depth by a highly talented troupe of performers, this is a very satisfying evening of theater.

"Cloud Nine" at the Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield RI. Performances: April 10, 11, 12, 25, 26, May 1, 2, and 3 at 7 pm and April 27 at 2 pm. Tickets $20 Fri/Sat, $15 Sun, available on the web or by calling 410-218-0282. Thursday performances are "Pay-What-You-Can." Contains adult themes, language, and sexual situations inappropriate for children.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

CTC mounts Churchill's "Cloud Nine"

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CTC actress Stephanie Traversa. Photo: Seth Jacobson Photography

The Contemporary Theater Company will bring Caryl Churchill's delightful gender-bending post-colonial farce Cloud Nine to their theater in Wakefield in April.

Cloud Nine challenges the audience to think critically, laugh and enjoy a wild and sometimes bizarre ride. When it first opened in New York, The New York Times called it “intelligent, inventive and funny,” while a reviewer from Daily News said, “I really don't know when I've had more fun. It blends farce, pathos into a work of total theatre."

In Act 1 of this time-shifting farce, we are in Victorian era colonial Africa with a seemingly normal British family, but with a twist. With men playing women and women playing men, it is a marvelous send up of rigid Victorian attitudes (and a non-stop round robin of sexual liaisons).

For Act 2, the audience is suddenly dropped into London in the 1980s, but for the surviving characters it is only twenty-five years later and all those repressed sexual longings have evaporated along with the Empire. The dirty secrets of Act 1 are the celebrated lifestyles of Act 2 as the characters explore their sexuality and finally accept themselves.

The cast includes many of the CTC's fine ensemble, including Amy Lee Connell, Tammy Brown, Stephanie Traversa, Ashley Macamaux, Andrew Katzman, Birk Wozniak, and Sami Avigdor.

Performances are April 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 25, 26, 27, May 1, 2, and 3 at 7 p.m. at The Contemporary Theater, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI. Tickets are available at contemporarytheatercompany.com or by calling the Box Office at 410-218-0282. $20 for Friday and Saturday, $15 for Sunday, and Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can.

Editorial note: Written from a press release.

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"Broadway" benefit returns to PHS

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Click to embiggen.

"Broadway From Then 'til Now" returns for a fourth encore at Portsmouth High School on Sunday, Feb. 1, bringing the magic of musical theatre to the PHS stage in a benefit performance for the Portsmouth Schools, Looking Upwards, and other local causes. Sponsored by the Robert A. Davidson Charitable Fund, this always-fun evening will be packed with talent.

The concert is organized by professional actor/musicians Laurie Davidson Spaner, daughter of Dr. Davidson, and her husband Craig Spaner of Portsmouth who have many years of experience performing in the Boston area as well as RI, NY, and CT. Joining the Spaners in the group of 16 singers, 3 dancers, and 8 band members will be Alexis Alvanas, Brittany Croston, Sara Moore, Abby Moore, Jenna Roderiques, Andreas Evangelatos, Katie Spaner, & Kim Kekligian Stamoulis of Portsmouth, Lily Ferreira and John Thomas Cunha of Middletown, Leslie Zeile of Newport, Bristol native Adam Cavalieri, & several Boston area professionals. Special Guest Mr. Richard Price, Portsmouth Middle School Band Director. Choreography by Leslie Zeile & Katie Ross.

The Dr. Robert A. Davidson Charitable Fund was formed in memory of Dr. Robert A. Davidson, known to most as Bob or Dr. D., who was a Portsmouth resident who practiced dentistry in Tiverton for 37 years. The fund is dedicated to raising money for local community causes. Bob was dedicated to his family and his community, especially children, so the organizations chosen seemed a perfect fit. Also, eight of Dr. Davidson’s grandchildren attend Portsmouth Schools, with one more to go.

Looking Upwards, Inc. helps adults with developmental disabilities and families of children with special healthcare needs as well as being a resource for school departments and a variety of professionals. They provide individualized services based upon each person’s needs through direct support workers, nurses, physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists,
behavioral consultants, family and individual therapists, service coordinators and support staff. More info at lookingupwards.org

Ticket info:
Broadway From Then 'til Now 4
A Concert of Broadway Showtunes, Old & New
To Benefit Portsmouth Schools & Looking Upwards, & other local causes

Portsmouth High School
Saturday, February 1, 2014 from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM (EST)
$20 Adults, $10 Children Under 10
Buy advance tickets on BroadwayPortsmouth.eventbrite.com or call 401-683-2824.

Editorial note: Written from a release.

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Contemporary Theater's dark, wickedly funny Assassins

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Assassins (front to back) Brian Mulvey, Shannon Hartman, Patrick Saunders, Joshua Andrews, Jesse Dufault, Jon Dyson, Rae Mancini, and Dave Sackal. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.

It sounds like an impossible writing challenge: A play about America's presidential assassins, where the the grim reality is leavened with authentic, character-based humor. Oh, and make it a musical.

In hands less sure than Stephen Sondheim's, that could easily become a Springtime for Hitler.

But the haunted, grinning book by John Weidman tap-dances right up to the edge, and coupled with Sondheim's score evoking and subverting period popular music, Assassins performs a soul-searching autopsy of the American dream. Perhaps a bit too avant for audiences when it premiered in 1990, it has since gained recognition as an increasingly relevant parable of the preterite and the elect(ed).

The Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield last weekend opened a production that runs through November 2, and it's a powerful, gutsy staging packed with authentic performances and rich vocals, delivered with a visceral intimacy that will leave audiences breathless.

Director Jimmy Calitri has leveraged every inch the Contemporary's 90-seat theater using a minimal, multi-leveled set with two video projectors providing backdrops. The action flows out through the audience, reinforcing the feeling of being inside the minds of the characters struggling with their personal demons (Once you see this production, you'll wonder why anyone would stage this with a proscenium). Calitri has coached superb performances from a high-octane cast who are all up to the challenges of both the complex roles and Sondheim's uncompromising lyrical twists and tempos.

The show opens with assassins from across history — outcasts, misfits, and the psychotic — lining up at a shooting gallery, welcomed and given their weapons with gusto by Proprietor Hannah Van Meter: "Step up and shoot a President," she sings. "You can get the prize with the big blue eyes."

The scene shifts to April, 1865, and the show's narrator, the Balladeer (played with amazing range and energy by Matthew Roality-Lindman), introduces us to the pioneering presidential killer in the "Ballad of Booth." The show is done with just piano accompaniment, and musical director Lila Kane does a fine job at wrangling the show's disparate styles from a solo instrument (if you're a familiar with the score, you won't believe it can be done without drums and the occasional banjo, but Kane delivers.)

Patrick Keefe brings the vain, deluded Booth to life, from the mournful rebel singing "the country is not what it was/where there's blood in the clover" to the penultimate moments of the show where he reappears in Lee Harvey Oswald's imagination whispering the slithery, silken siren call of eternal fame: "Lee, when you kill a president, it isn't murder. Murder is a tawdry little crime; it's born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a president gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed -- he was assassinated. And the man who did it..."

"Brutus," Oswald interrupts.

"Ah! You know his name," says Booth. "Brutus assassinated Caesar -- what? -- two thousand years ago? Here's a high school dropout with a dollar-twenty-five an hour job in Dallas, Texas, who knows who he was. And they say fame is fleeting..."

Patrick Saunders' Oswald is fractured, fragile, and deeply human. His transformation from desperate shipping clerk to presidential assassin happens before our eyes, as he struggles with the charming Booth (and the rest of the assassins who lurk, ghostlike, in the shadowed upper reaches of the Texas School Book Depository). The final, chilling sequence packs a devastating punch, and the company delivers it with palpable sadness and horror. You have been warned.

Between the bookends of Booth and Oswald, there are many fine performances. Joshua Anrdrews executes two sardonic monologues as Santa-dressed-protester Samuel Byck, who aimed to kill Richard Nixon with a hijacked DC-9. Jesse Dufault is a muted, pining John Hinckley who brings sad empathy to the guitar-strumming pop duet ("Unworthy of Your Love") with Squeaky Fromme. David Sackal offers a distant mirror of the Occupy movement in his stolid, working-class portrayal of Leon Czolgosz, fan of anarchist Emma Goldman and killer of William McKinley. Jon Dyson's turn as the dyspeptic Giuseppe Zangara is full of a brutal, fatalist humor: "Too cold for the stomach in Washington -- I go down to Miami kill Roosevelt." That number, "How I Saved Roosevelt," is a radio interview, John Philip Sousa march, dance number, and electrocution, featuring interpenetrating 'only Sondheim could do that' lyrical call-and-response, executed impeccably by the ensemble cast.

Brian Mulvey is a pitch-perfect larger-than-life Charles Guiteau, the imperturbable hero-in-his-own-mind who gunned down James Garfield when his request to be made Ambassador to France was rebuffed. He cakewalks to his execution in a head-spinning duet with the Balladeer ("The Ballad of Guiteau") that veers from spiritual to ragtime on the way to the gallows. (And you wondered why this only ran 73 performances in 1990...)

Two performances deserve special mention. Shannon Hartman is dazzling as Squeaky Fromme, the proto-Valley-speaking brain-fried acolyte of Charles Manson. And Rae Mancini totally owns Sarah Jane Mooore, the middle-aged, pantsuited middle-American housewife turned assassin; she has a powerful combination of unaffected reality and devastating comic timing that will leave you wondering: why did I just laugh at that? The scene between these two discovering their common history and shooting up a bucket of chicken is one of the best moments of theatre I've seen in a long while; funny, deeply weird, and subversively terrifying.

Assassins may not Sondheim's best-known show, but it is the one he feels is "closest to exactly what the book writer and I wanted," according to an interview on the original cast recording of Sondheim on Sondheim. "Every time I see it," he says, "I can't think of ways to improve it, and I can't say that about any other show."

This reviewer feels the same about the Contemporary Theater's performance. Very highly recommended.

Assassins, at the Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI October 11,12, 18, 19, 24, 26, 31, Nov. 1,2 at 7pm, Matinees Oct 20 and 27. Tickets $25/evenings, $18/matinees. Info at web site or (4101) 218-0282

Full disclosure: In addition to paying for my tickets — which I always do for shows I review — I also contributed to the Indiegogo crowd funding campaign for this show because I really, really wanted to see a live performance. So I paid even more for my tickets, with commensurately higher expectations.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

CTC mounts dazzling "Bob," launches indiegogo for "Assassins"

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Two Bob. Photo courtesy CTC/Seth Jacobson.

Saturday was the closing night of the Contemporary Theater Company's production of "Bob," Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's absurd existential comedy, and if you're not nodding and smiling at the memory, you missed one hell of a show.

The CTC always seems to pick ideal shows for their cozy space in Wakefield -- and for the well-honed talents of their regular players -- and "Bob" was no exception. A backdrop, a handful of props, a few well-chosen bits of costume, and the audience is whisked from birth in a White Castle bathroom (a balloon and a squeeze bottle of water) through a cremation on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, a love nest at the William Burroughs memorial rest stop, yearning at Mount Rushmore, bad breakfast at every diner in the Midwest, Der Ringtraum with animal trainers under the big top, boozy connections in a whistling hobo boxcar, a nose full of brush cymbal in a San Simeon-style casino-turned-mansion, and wise twilight years in a flea circus in Mexico. Along the way, we learn much about the central character of Bob, a naif in whose apparent random walk lies the secret, coded heart of America. (Think Candide or Celebration -- or, well, Pippin with a better second act...)

Director Ryan Hartigan has made bold, theatrical choices, including a multiple casting that cycles the five members of the company through the role of Bob in the course of the show, and has coached pitch-perfect performances in every scene. The program note about the decision says it all: "We like to hunt as a pack and work as a company." In addition to their turns as Bob, the players also serve as a chorus, surfacing as needed as Bob's foils (mother, father, lover, butler, cop, lion tamer, Girl Scout, seeker) and they do it with the exuberance and grace of a well-oiled improv troupe.

James Foley plays the dewey-eyed baby Bob with openness and wonder, Amelia Giles brings authenticity and heartbreak to the teen, Christopher Simpson bravely fights the Weltshmerz of well-traveled middle age, Rico Lanni takes us from hope to heartbreak and back, and Tammy Brown offers the solace and wisdom of years. And no review would be complete without mention of the "Sixth Man," Matt Requintina, who provides absolutely spot-on incidental music. That he makes it seem effortless shows amazing skill: this is a much harder task than playing accompaniment for a musical; it requires the preternatural sensitivity of a jazz musician to the heart of the moment.

The cast and crew of the CTC deserve the fine notices they received in the Providence Phoenix and Newport Mercury. Hartigan and crew have captured the essence of Nachtrieb's picaresque, compressed palimpsest of the American Dream. As the folks over at the Church of the Subgenius like to say, "Bob is. Bob becomes. Bob is not."

And next in the pipeline is the CTC's first full-scale musical, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. To help defray the costs of this major production while keeping ticket prices reasonable, they've launched an indiegogo campaign to raise $3,500.

If you know the show, you'll know why I'm excited. If you don't: it's a musical tour through the minds of America's Presidential assassins and wannabes. This is powerful, vintage Sondheim, and it delivers his unparalleled lyrical sensibilities and penetrating character insights in a package that's stripped down and minimalist, machined like a snub-nosed .38.

Right in the CTC's wheelhouse, and I literally can't wait to see what they do with it.

Full disclosure: After wrapping this review, I intend to contribute to the CTC's funding campaign. I hope you'll join me.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

Sachi Parker brings "Lucky Me" to life in New Haven

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Sachi Parker in "Lucky Me." Photo courtesy Joanna Keylock.

Throughout her 90-minute one-woman show, Shirley MacLaine's daughter Sachi Parker periodically looks at the audience and says, "That's the story," reminding us that much of we are hearing is — at best — subjective truth. And that's helpful advice, given that Ms. Parker was raised around the film industry, a profession not known for its connection with reality. Based on her recent bestselling memoir, "Lucky Me," written with Frederick Stroppel, the show runs through this weekend at the Off-Broadway Theater in New Haven.

"Story" really is of the essence here: the stories that Parker was told as a child, the stories she told herself, and the stories she tells us, the audience. In this delightful, minimalist production, those stories are front and center, and Parker tells them with a charming, animated honesty.

These stories all pose puzzling questions: Was Parker truly shipped across the Pacific to live with her father in Tokyo because the "Mob" had threatened to kidnap her? Did guardian Shinto kami really find her retainer? Were Canadian work rules the reason she didn't get a movie role with her mother? And, of course, did Shirley MacLaine really believe her father was a clone?

Bringing the audience along on this ride would be a challenge for any performer, but Parker delivers, in a performance with amazing range and energy. She is at once a confident, skilled actress and the painfully vulnerable child inside those stories, growing up amid a thicket of fabulation and multiple agendas. But this is not a bitter reminiscence; honest and unflinching, yes, but Parker does not look back with anger, rather, ultimately with a seasoned wisdom. We see, through the stories, a real person and their real life.

And that, to me, is the show's strength: it is not, fundamentally, a tell-all about how Parker grew up with a crazy mom and a con-man father; rather, it's about the stories we all tell ourselves in order to survive. Some are helpful and happy, like MacLaine snuggling with her young daughter during thunderstorms and concocting fairytales about "Princess Lightning." Some are charming, like the lucky seven pairs of underwear Parker's Japanese governess made her wear. Some are moments of grace, like a frightened adolescent evening in Trieste, being walked back to a hotel by a concerned prostitute. Some literally shake the foundations of remembered life, like unravelling her "true" father's deception in a lockbox of telegrams sent from his government mission in the Pleiades. And some are moments of bleak desperation, like the now-grown Parker pitching her mother the story of a possible future, trying to connect in a drunken, snow-bound evening in Santa Fe. The details may be extreme, but, as in the best theatre, each story unpacks to reveal kernels of truth. And it is Parker's performance that drives that recognition.

Parker's co-author, Stroppel, has done a thoughtful job selecting and shaping the material from the book. I deliberately didn't read it until after seeing the show, and found that Stroppel did an excellent job at converting "memoir" to theatrical experience (and for those who may have already read it, he's made cuts that bring the show into "okay for teen" territory).

Director Douglas Moser has done an outstanding job at shaping Parker's monologue into a true performance. With a minimalist set — two chairs, a rug, a shoji screen and a couple of benches — Moser has given Parker plenty of room to bring each story to life with well-paced action that is surprising and fresh, but never gimmicky. Add a handful of props: a few hats, a frighteningly evocative wig, ski goggles, and a memorable pair of pumps, and watch Parker deliver hard lessons and deep truths.

The production design, by Andrew Rubenoff, packs enormous sophistication into a typical "black cube" performance space. Rubenoff's skill is evident in the set, which is evocative of Parker's Japanese upbringing without being overly mimetic, the lighting design (don't think I've ever seen such a simple plot used to such powerful effect — and the red-carpet flash is a touch of brilliance), and the subtle, spot-on sound design which reinforces without calling attention to itself.

In the audience Q&A after the show last Sunday, producer Joanna Keylock said that they are aiming to take this to New York, and I hope that happens. There is some very good theater here, and it is not because of Shirley MacLaine. Oh, sure, that may be why people will come, but once they see this show, they'll understand something far more profound: how lucky we all are to have the stories we tell.

"Lucky Me" is at the Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway in New Haven, Saturday June 8 at 8pm and Sunday June 9 at 3pm. Tickets are $30 at the door with reservations available by e-mail at luckymetickets@yahoo.com. Pro tip: Set your GPS for Broadway, park in the public lot in the middle of the street, enter the Yale campus between the bookstore and the Apple store, and follow the right-hand path to get to the theatre.

Full disclosure: I have previously worked with Doug Moser in non-theatrical contexts, but I did not receive free tickets nor anything of value in exchange for this review.

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02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

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