Theater reviews

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

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.

02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

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

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 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.

02871, Localblogging, Theater reviews

Dark, twisty "Higher Methods" at Providence's Daydream Theater

Elyssa Baldassarri (Kayla) and Tony Amaral (Matt) in "Higher Methods" (photo: Daydream Theater)

If Antonin Artaud had written the screenplay for The Stunt Man, it might well have looked like "Higher Methods," the bracing, disorienting evening of dark drama offered by Providence's Daydream Theatre through Saturday, April 27. Written and directed by Rhode Island playwright Lenny Schwartz, this is an evening of in-your-face theatre that may not be for everyone, but those who can handle a bit of sjuzet with their fabula will not be disappointed. (A-and let me tell you, I don't crack out the narratology in the first graf of many theater reviews...)

The basic fabula is simple: 20-something Matt (Tony Amaral) arrives in Los Angeles in search of his sister, Katharine, who disappeared into fringes of the Hollywood machine some ten years earlier. He has caught a glimpse of her in the background of a film, and by retracing her steps (the clubs, the producers, the acting classes) he hopes to track her down.

Skewering the soulless anomie of Hollywood has been a perennial in fiction since Day of the Locust, but Schwartz manages to thread the needle of cliche with hard-edged dialog, a script that keeps us perpetually guessing, and strong performances from an ensemble cast

All the action is handled on a simple set: a blue backdrop, in front of which we see the back-lit letters of the Hollywood sign (from behind, of course, so we see the scaffolding that props them up). A couple of brick walls, a lamp, and a handful of chairs. As the scenes shift, the audience (and sometimes, Matt) may not know exactly where or when we are for a moment, but that's all part of the show. Schwartz wisely trusts his actors to just go there and take the audience with them.

The play opens with Matt landing at LAX, bantering with his seatmate, Kayla (Elissa Baldassari). Amaral delivers an appropriately muted, nuanced performance as Matt, who may be a naif, a tightly-wrapped obsessive with a secret, or, perhaps, a celluloid homunculus experiencing the entire action of the play in retrospect. Kayla is, in many ways, the axis of the show, as she accompanies Matt through a picaresque sequence of events where nothing is quite what it seems. Played with a delightful brash energy by Baldassari, Kayla is by turns a Tinseltown vamp, a cold-blooded killer, and a Beatrice in Matt's Purgatorio.

At what moment does Matt's journey go off the rails? Is it the first drink handed him by a Hollywood bartender/actor (played with just the right note of self-aware character-actor-ness by Daniel Lee White). Or is it getting high with Shannon, an actress who leads him to Katharine's acting class (Shannon Hartman, whose twisty repartee with Matt really crackles). By the time we find ourselves learning the Method from the "legendary" John Edward Marcus (who Aaron Andrade plays with extraordinary range, from whispering guru to menacing puppet master) we no longer know where to situate the reality of the action, as the first act ends with what is either a tortuous hallucination or a refreshingly simple mass stabbing.

Did Matt's sister Katharine become an acolyte of John Edward Marcus and his cult of murderous students (or is that all an acting exercise). Did she run into the big-time director Cameron Stark (played with grim intensity by John Campbell) and lose herself in one of the bags of the designer drug, "Midnight" that he tosses to aspiring actors? Certainly, once Matt has sampled the director's kindness, we can no longer trust what he's seeing or saying. Did Katharine have the twisted backstory Matt describes in his audition, or is that a fabulation? Does anyone in Hollywood even know the difference? (The reactions of Cameron's sycophantic assistants, played by Emma Fitzgerald and Christine Pavao, are spot-on and delightfully ghoulish.)

When Matt and Kayla break the fourth wall to watch a sunset -- prefiguring (or perhaps remembering) the final moments of the play where Matt appears in Stark's film -- all of nature itself has begun to look artificial to them. And in that last scene, does Matt finally meet his sister, or is that just an actress playing Katherine? "They thought they had us," she says, "But we fooled them."

Indeed. But Schwartz cleverly leaves us wondering whether that, or anything, can be taken at face value. This kind of theater is right in my wheelhouse: metafictional, irreducible to linear plot, and grimly sardonic. If you like this kind of stuff, I highly recommend catching the show this weekend.

But be aware: not for the kiddies. There are adult situations, extensive profanity, simulated drug use, multiple stabbings, and descriptions of sexual violence. As William Carlos Williams says in the introduction to Howl, "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." Or, in this case, just Los Angeles.

"Higher Methods," written and directed by Lenny Schwartz, produced by Daydream Theater at the Bell Street Chapel, 5 Bell Street, Providence RI through April 27. General admission, $10. More info on Facebook

Theater reviews, 02871, Localblogging

See shows that don't exist yet! CTC's "24-Hour Play Festival" is tomorrow night

Actors Nevan Richard and Meghan Rose Donnelly at a previous 24-Hour Play Festival. Photo courtesy of CTC.

Tomorrow night, the Contemporary Theater Company brings the high-wire, no-net magic of instant theatre to South County as they present their 8th annual "24-Hour Play Festival," a collection of short plays written, rehearsed, and performed in a single day. Yes, that's right — you'll be seeing shows tomorrow night that do not yet exist!

And I promise, they will be fun. Here's my review from last year.

The 24-hour Festival has been a staple of the company’s schedule since its early days, with many veteran actors, writers, and directors returning for the fun year after year. At the end of the performance, the audience votes on its favorites from Best Actor and Actress to Best Plot and Overall Show.

One show only, tomorrow night, January 5 at 8 p.m. at the South Kingstown High School Auditorium. Tickets are $12.

Information and tickets available at or by calling 401-218-0282.

Editorial note: Written partially from a press release.

Localblogging, 02871, Theater reviews

Contemporary Theater offers magical, musical "Tempest"

Shawn Fennell as Prospero in the CTC "Tempest." Photo: Seth Jacobson Photography.

Shakespeare's Tempest is his magnum opus, a densely packed confection of character, language, and stagecraft, and the fresh, energetic production by the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in Wakefield brings it to life with outstanding performances, immersive theatrics, and seven tons of sand.

It's a simple story: Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan (Shawn Fennell) and his daughter Miranda (Brynne Sawyer) have been trapped on an island whose only inhabitants are his servant spirit, Ariel (Amelia Giles) and the evil monster Caliban (Amy Lee Connell). Through magic, Prospero raises a storm which wrecks a passing ship carrying the sister who usurped him, Antonio (Tammy Brown) and her ally Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Stephanie Traversa), with her treacherous sister Sebastian (Christine Cauchon). Also washing up on shore are Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Patrick Keefe), Prospero's ally Gonzalo (Terry Simpson), and the Queen's servants Trinculo (Sami Avigdor) and Stephano (Meghan Rose Donnelly). Prospero, with Ariel's help, arranges that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, while thwarting the plots of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso and of Caliban and the servants to take over the island.

On the surface, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most conventional plays (boy meets girl, two groups scheme to seize power, all executed while preserving the three unities) but what makes it transcendent is the magical mastermind, Prospero, who — like Shakespeare himself — is arranging all the action with the aid of his all-important book. Fennell plays Prospero with a thoughtful modernity; not a classical larger-than-life magus, but rather an occasionally diffident, damaged genius. Think Steve Jobs. Or think of Shakespeare, writing a part for his younger self, thematizing the experience of writing. It's a role with range and heft, and Fennell lives up to the task, by turns a manic scribbler of enchantments, a doting parent, an introspective philosopher-king in exile.

Prospero's daughter, Miranda, is a similarly challenging part, but for a different reason: We've seen her a million times since Shakespeare scratched her to life on parchment. Sawyer succeeds in capturing the raw essence of Miranda's open-eyed wonder, a tricky task in our postmodern world, archetype rather than cliche.

In many ways, the pivot of the play is Caliban, the sole native of the island and an embodiment of humanity's base nature (the Id to Ariel's Superego, if you will). With this role — as with Antonio, Alonso, and Stephano — director Christopher Simpson has chosen to flip the gender, and it produces interesting collisions of text and action. Connell offers a Caliban more misguided than monstrous, with a fine tragic edge to her adoration of the sozzled courtiers, the delightfully loopy duo of Donnelly and Avigdor. (The beat where Donnelly ruefully pours swamp water from her boot is laugh-out-loud funny, and watch for the genuinely frightful demons that foil the drunken attackers).

Stephanie Traversa's Alonso is nicely fraught, with authentic cracks in her regal bearing that reveal anguish at the loss of her son (played with appropriate dash and brio by Keefe.) Cauchon and Brown are a cunning, charmingly evil pair of schemers, to whom Terry Simpson's obstinate Gonzalo offers a solid foil. Watch for the beat where Cauchon kicks over Miranda's rocks. Nicely done.

Threading through all of this (and often invisibly tweaking the action) is Prospero's spritely agent, Ariel, played with charm and wit by Giles. She steals a scene hovering over Ferdinand as he stacks logs, invisibly spiriting them back across stage in a Sisyphean loop. It's an inspired bit of staging, one of those perfect moments of theater. Giles brings a tremendous vocal talent as well. The Tempest is full of snippets of song, which often get shortchanged in performance, but not here, where Simpson's vision and Giles's voice combine to make this an evening where the melodies break through.

None of that would work without the outstanding soundtrack provided by Matthew Requintina, who tracks the action so well he should rightfully be mentioned as another cast member. From the whirl of the opening storm through the end of the bows, he perches on an off-stage riser with an electric guitar providing a near-continuous stream of incidental music, naturalizing the moments where Giles breaks into song. The rest of his score is an eclectic, highly effective mix of sonic effects and ambient motifs in the best Eno/Fripp/Belew tradition.

The set is equally magical, a three-quarter-round that packs literally every inch of the CTC space like a fractal. In a brilliant stroke of design, Donnelly (who also plays Stephano) has replaced the entire stage area with a pit, filled with seven tons of sand. Framed with a simple backdrop of canvas sheets and surrounded by a walkway of weathered boards, it offers a perfect, flexible milieu. Prospero's simple hut occupies the center bank of seats, putting the actors, at times, behind the audience.

Director Simpson has as many tricks up his sleeve as Prospero, and he puts a stake in the ground — literally — with a dazzling, kinetic opening storm that will have your head spinning. He has made inventive casting decisions, and coached excellent performances all around. In a refreshing departure from overwrought "stage British," Simpson keeps the action moving with dialog occasionally delivered at the frenetic pace of Paddy Chayefsky done by Ken Russell. And the dynamic, expansive staging — especially the gutsy decision to kill a whole section of seats to thrust Prospero's shack out into the audience — makes the show feel much larger than the physical space.

This is a wonderful production. Highly recommended.

At the Contemporary Theater, 327 Main St. in Wakefield, RI. Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 19 and 20, Oct. 26 and 27, and Nov. 2 and 3 at 7 pm, all (unreserved) seats $20. Thursday Oct 25, pay what you can at the door or $15 advance. Tickets available and more info at the CTC web site or (401) 218-0282.

Full disclosure: As you may have guessed, The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play (okay, it's actually my favorite play ever) and I'm admittedly a bit of a geek about it. Your mileage may vary.

Localblogging, 02871, Review, Theater reviews

Portsmouth Community Theater does "Carousel" this week!

Today through Sunday, the Portsmouth Community Theater is performing the classic Rogers & Hammerstein musical, "Carousel," at the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy on East Main Road. Shows are 7pm through Saturday with a Sunday matinee at 1pm. Tickets are just $9 and you'll want to call 683-1460 for a reservation (there's limited seating in the school theater.)


Localblogging, 02871, Theater reviews

Contemporary Theater 24-hour play fest offers six dazzling one-day one acts

Best Play winners: actor Miles Martin, writer Brandon Michael Lowden, director Christopher J Simpson, actors James Foley, Matt Royality-Lindman, and Emily Boyle

Last night, the Contemporary Theater Company staged their 7th-annual "24-hour play fest" at South Kingstown high school, featuring six one-act shows written, directed, and produced in one day, and the results were, by turns, hilarious, engaging, and thought provoking. It was an amazing evening of theater, made all the more special by the knowledge that none of it had existed on Saturday.

The audience voted after the show, and the overall winner for the evening was also the first one on the program, "The Long Play," a twisted comedy about a couple considering divorce, their naif and musical son, and a sudden visit from a long-forgotten high school classmate professing his love for the father. The script by by Michael Lowden was deft and surprising and the directorial choices by CTC's Christopher Simpson were inspired (as the mother watches a football game, the audience literally becomes the TV, as actors tossed footballs; in a later flashback moment, high-school field trip kids poke a stuffed possum and Simpson broke the fourth wall to invite the audience to join in.) Emily Boyle and James Foley did a wonderful job as the estranged couple, and their son, played by Miles Martin plinked along on an electric piano before supporting them in a parody musical number as they reconcile and rebuff the unrequited high-school crush, played by Matt Royality-Lindman. If that sounds like a truly gonzo one-act to pull off in a day, well, yes, it was. The award for best show was well deserved.

There were additional challenges for the writers: each had two writing prompts, such as, "a musical number abbreviated abruptly," "repeated nonverbal references to the weather," and "actor plays an inanimate object." As if cranking out a one-act overnight was not challenging enough. But wait, there's more. Each show also had to include six common bits of dialogue, and it was really fascinating to watch as the meaning of the phrases pivoted in each of the plays. There were lines like "Once you get to know me, you will know how absurd that question is," "I can make myself heard, but I can't make people listen," and "that moment where nobody speaks, but everyone understands what's happening," and then, as you heard them over and over in different contexts, there was a delightful dissonance. The six writers all did a wonderful job working within the constraints.

The second show was a futuristic dystopia, "Look in the Clouds" by Shawn Fennell, directed by Lily Matthews. Portsmouth's Andrew Katzman played the young tutor and suitor of Tammy Brown, a 16-year-old in a mega-high-rise of the future, whose designer father, Pat Keefe, is preoccupied with how to move the residents ever higher to escape global warming. I've got a soft spot for this genre, and the energy between Katzman and Brown was wonderful; there was one beat where he brings her a bouquet of balloons and she exclaims that helium is expensive. "Maybe I sold a kidney," he admitted, in a moment that was a beautiful mix of rueful memory and come-on. As they descend in the elevator, Rebecca Magnotta appeared in a delightful absurdist turn as Amelia Earhart.

Next up was "I Thought My Boyfriend Was a Vampire," by Shannon Lee Clair, directed by David Price, a darkly comic ghost story in a hotel room as Tonya Free discovers that her boyfriend, Grey Johnson, is visited nightly by the shade of his dead twin brother, played by Max Rosmarin — with the occasional intrusion of his spiritual guide, the classical Horace, played by Eli Roth, who speaks only in poetic forms. "Lucky I wasn't dead during his limerick phase," Max notes. The evolving dynamic between Tonya and Max was well played, and the play closes with her considering a revolver in her hand as she ponders which brother she loves. A wonderful beat.

"Relationship Rescues," written by journalist Liz Boardman and directed by Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, offered a fresh take on family counseling, with a delightfully over-the-top barefoot therapist, played by Max Matthews, whose blend of reiki woo and gnomic advice delivered in haiku won him best actor of the evening. Spencer Curry as the oblivious sports-obsessed husband ("Why I am here? The Pats have a by week") and Amy Lee Connell as the control-freak wife had a delightful chemistry, and Connell took home best actress of the evening. Christine Cauchon turned in a subtle counterpoint as another patient kept outside in the rain, who turns out to be the key to the doctor's happiness in the end.

The next show was "Spinning Spinach & Tasting Teacups Gives Dreadful Girls Painful Hiccups," written by Ashley Macamaux and directed by Amy Lynn Budd, and it was a minimalist fantasy about a man with a balloon. I'm one of those people who digs futurist theatre, so I loved the weird, absurdist interactions of Rico Lanni, Sami Avigdor, Meghan Rose Donnelly, and Steph Rodger, who may have been in a park, and then passengers on a train. Donnelly may have been a man. Or a woman. And the balloon may have gotten stuck in the rafters on purpose. Or maybe not. Weird fun.

The evening closed with "I Smell Bad and Can't Read Good," by Davidb Marchetti, directed by Judith Ross-McNab, a high-octane comedy that won for best plot, about two guys, a delightfully smarmy Pat Hayes and his nebbish wingman Kevin Killavey who try to pick up two women at the beach. There's a minor complication: a giant, rotting whale that Grace Danna convinces her friend Amelia Giles to use to their advantage, by playing the boys into trying to save the obviously dead critter as payback for a string of macho pickup lines. Killavey turned in a delightful long-suffering counterpoint trying to convince his pal to abandon the attempt to impress the women by playing marine biologists while ignoring the obvious: "Free Willy's bloated carcass is right there!" While the couples do find rapprochement, the local authorities blow up the whale with dynamite, showering the cast in a hilarious rain of red Jello.

It was a marvelous, magical, hilarious evening full of intense moments and human notes, and the entire cast and crew should be very proud of what they did in one day. This is what theater is about, and I highly recommend you make the trip to South County when they do this next year.

You can find out more about the Contemporary Theater Company on their web site, or like them on Facebook. Their next production, in late February, is Charles Mee's dark dramedy "Paradise Park," which, in the hands of this company, should be a fun ride indeed.

Full disclosure: Our family knows the Katzmans, but I had no idea that they had any connection to the show until after I had decided to attend.

Localblogging, 02871, Theater reviews

"Composition" offers mind-bending fun at the Contemporary Theater Company

Photo courtesy Contemporary Theater Company

What if Bertolt Brecht wrote The Matrix? (Or, alternatively, what if Philip K. Dick wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author?) It might look something like playwright Andy Hoover's Composition, which received its world premiere this month at the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in South Kingstown. Is it a clever play within a play, or an recursive allegory about a world where the creations have begun to speculate about their creator? However you interpret it, Composition is an absolutely wonderful evening of twisty, thought-provoking theater.

Beginning with a totally bare white stage, Composition weaves together two parallel storylines; in one, a Painter, a Composer, and two movers dress the set for the production of a show. Within the reality of the show that follows, a Professor and his musician niece interact with two black-jumpsuited guards as he struggles with a theory of everything. The points at which these two realities touch turn what is already a satisfying story into a delightfully enigmatic moebius strip.

The cast is uniformly strong. Curt Larson, as the Painter, creates a Colorado mountain backdrop for the evening before our eyes and responds to the other stagehands with just the right note of wry detachment. Amelia Giles brings authentic notes of vulnerability as the Composer. And Stepen Gueb and Christine Cauchon as the Old and Young movers provide both everyday reality and comic relief that helps keep the action grounded. And that grounding is definitely needed as the lights finally come up (lights, by the way, which the uncredited director of the show, Christopher Simpson, spends much of the first act hanging and focusing) to reveal the actors in what you might consider to be the play-within-the-play.

Theater that makes you consciously aware of itself runs a constant risk. Brown literary theorist Robert Scholes remarked in his book Fabulation and Metafiction, "When extended, metafiction must either lapse into a more fundamental mode of fiction or risk losing all fictional interest in oder to maintain its intellectual perspectives." Crawling the edge of this straight razor takes brains and guts, and both Hoover's script and Simpson's direction are up to the task.

As the professor who figures it all out, Shawn Fennell displays a perfect mix of detachment and quirky candor. There is a monologue near the end of Act Two where he ruminates on the future that is spellbinding. Laura Kennedy, as his niece, ably handles a complex role which requires her to evolve from a mute harpist into...well...something more. Jacqueline Barros and Sami Avigdor are the summer and winter guards, sent by the Office of Dystopian Deferral to watch the professor in his remote cabin. Barros has a delightfully arch delivery, and Avigdor makes us believe in his transformation from uniformed goon to human being.

What happens then, well that's the play.

Along the way, there are memorable lines ("Killing time? Time's better off dead."), wonderful details (the identical tattoos on the Movers' necks), a meditation on free throws and "smaller games within larger ones," a highly significant poster that sits, face-down, in the middle of the stage for the entire evening, several Chekhovian guns-on-mantles, obscure facts about curling, and a most delightful deployment of the phrase "Turtles all the way down."

It's a wonderful evening of theatre, and I highly recommend it. And if you do see Composition, ask yourself this question: Is it necessary that the chair squeaks? I mean, in all possible universes at all possible times. That's not a spoiler, but you'll know what it means when you see the show.

Playing at the Contemporary Theater Company Studio Theater in South County Commons, South Kingstown. Evening shows April 15 and 16 at 7 pm, Sunday matinée April 17 at 2 pm. Tickets: $15. Occasional cuss words and some stage violence. More info and tickets on the web site.

Editorial disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of metafiction and Brechtian theater, so this one was right in my kitchen. But our 11-year-old's one word review was "AWESOME!" so at least you have an n of two.

Localblogging, 02871, Review, Theater reviews

CTC's Godot shines, amazes at URI

Stephen Strenio and Nevan Richard are Beckett's lovable tramps, Vladimir and Estragon

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a challenging piece of theatre, a dark, austere comedy that depends entirely on the actors, and the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) production which opened this weekend at URI delivers an oustanding implementation, with insightful direction and compelling, nuanced performances.

The plot is deceptively simple: two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, pass the time on a bare stage (by the ever-present tree) waiting for the promised arrival of Mr. Godot. They talk. A haughty landowner named Pozzo and his slave Lucky stop by. A child appears with the news that Godot will not be there tonight but surely tomorrow. Night falls. Rinse, repeat.

This is theatre stripped to its esssence, with two actors on a bare stage much of the time, and Stephen Strenio (Vladimir) and Nevan Richard (Estragon) rise to the challenge. Strenio exudes a manic veneer that allows us to feel the hollowness within, beautifully balanced by Richard's doleful, impulsive Estragon. The pair are equally at home in the precision wordplay of the show's several verbal stretti and the broad slapstick that made our 10-year-old laugh out loud.

Christopher Simpson takes his Pozzo in a slightly different direction, but it is a brilliant choice. His bossy, glassy smile nicely layers a post-modern Hollywood sheen over the thoughtless aristocrat, to fracture satisfyingly in the second act. And Maxwell Matthews delivers a bravura performance as Lucky, for whom 90% of the role is mute, carrying Pozzo's bags, held by a rope. But that other ten percent — the "thinking" monologue — is stunning. When Lucky puts on his hat, he thinks out loud (Futurama fans will recognize the trope from Mars University) and it is one of the most difficult, gear-shiftingly complex monologues in the English language. Matthews throws a triple axel.

Director Ryan Hartigan has done a superb job at all levels of detail, from a brilliant overall arc (where the audience enters through the stage with the tramps already there, waiting) to the tiniest character movements and business: the angle at which characters lean, the tortured pantomime of Lucky's dance, the jerks of the rope as it's dragged offstage, the frenetic hat-swapping sequence. This is a show that lives or dies on its assemblage of tiny moments, and Hartigan has strung them expertly.

If you have seen the show before, you'll find this a delightful, inventive, and artistically insightful interpretation. If you haven't, prepare for an evening of theatre which is at least two standard deviations from the mean. Aquidneck Islanders: worth crossing the bridge for. :)

BTW, if you've seen the show before, you'll know that "Godot" is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, just as locals know the correct way to pronounce "Thames" street.

Fridays and Saturdays through the end of July at 7pm in the University of Rhode Island's Lippitt Hall; tickets $15 adult, $12 child.

About the show
Campus maps here
Read about the play on Wikipedia
Read the play at

Localblogging, 02871, Theater reviews