THEATER REVIEW: “The Holler Sessions” @ Ancram Opera House [Berkshire on Stage]

July 20th, 2017, 1:30 pm by Sara
Frank Boyd, the solo performer and writer of “The Holler Sessions.”

Frank Boyd, the solo performer and writer of “The Holler Sessions.”

Review by Barbara Waldinger

Frank Boyd, the solo performer and writer of The Holler Sessions, now playing at the Ancram Opera House, so expertly weaves the improvisational aspects of his DJ’s obsession, jazz, with this live radio show that it’s hard to tell what is scripted and what is ad-libbed. Ultimately, this partly improvisational piece is a metaphor for the nature of jazz. The work was created in collaboration with the TEAM, a Brooklyn-based ensemble whose Artistic Director, Rachel Chavkin (serving as one of two Consulting Directors on this project), was nominated for a Tony award for her production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, now running on Broadway.

Boyd plays Ray, a Kansas City DJ, with such contagious exuberance and passion for the music he loves, that he forces even the uninitiated to listen to and appreciate the artistry of the celebrated jazz performers he worships, among whom are Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong. Ray apparently lives in the tiny studio where he works, sleeping underneath the table from which he broadcasts, drinking coffee (from what appears to be a working coffeemaker) and whiskey, and storing a few food items among the papers, boxes, books and file cabinets in this incredibly cluttered room.

His performance ranges from extreme physicality — stretching as he awakens, dancing, conducting imaginary performers, kicking, pelvic thrusting, miming drum solos – to stillness, as he stops the music and the movement to allow himself and the audience some dead air time. It’s hard to believe that Boyd, a theater actor, has not spent his life as a DJ.

At several points in the performance, Ray asks his listeners to call him so they can answer the questions he poses in his jazz trivia contest, whose winners will supposedly receive gift certificates to local barbecue restaurants. The listeners are played by… the audience. On each seat is a phone number and a request: “Please silence your phone, but LEAVE IT ON. You will have a chance to use it.” It takes a while and much exhortation from Ray – including allowing two guesses to a true-false question – for the audience to realize that they are being asked to use their cell phones to call in. But eventually they do, leading to general hilarity and ad-libbing.

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.

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THEATER REVIEW: “Where Storms Are Born” @ Williamstown [Berkshire on Stage]

July 18th, 2017, 3:00 pm by Sara
Christopher Livingston (Gideon), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Bethea). Photograph Daniel Rader.

Christopher Livingston (Gideon), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Bethea). Photograph by Daniel Rader

Review by Barbara Waldinger

The 2017 season underlines Williamstown Theatre Festival’s commitment to new work. Six of the seven plays at the Festival are new or world premiere plays. Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield, who connects playwrights with directors, actors and designers, invited established playwright Harrison David Rivers to join the Festival in 2016 as a Playwright-in-Residence, in order “to have a living, breathing artist responding to the world,” and to “let the festival respond.” Rivers said of his experience, “It was really inspiring in terms of my own writing.” This year he has returned with a world premiere production of his latest effort, Where Storms Are Born.

This work was a 2015 finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and the recipient of a 2017 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Rivers appreciates the support he has received from the Williamstown Theatre Festival: “Sometimes in a place outside of WTF, the mess of life still enters the room. And here, for the eight hours that we’re in the room together, the play is the thing, and it’s a luxury.” He adds: “The holistic nature of the art-making here contributes to the depth and the quality of the pieces on the stages.” At a time when the arts are becoming more and more marginalized, the Festival is offering a helping hand to artists.

Rivers’ depicts a loving family grappling with loss. The matriarch, Bethea (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is a widow raising her younger son Gideon (Christopher Livingston) in an apartment in Harlem, while her older son Myles (Leroy McClain), has been incarcerated at Sing Sing for the past 13 years after a drug deal spiraled out of control, leading to a fatality. Now Myles has died in prison, though he returns in flashbacks. His death is never explained or even explored.

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.

THEATER REVIEW: “Children of a Lesser God” @ Fitzgerald Main Stage [Berkshire on Stage]

July 7th, 2017, 11:00 am by Sara
Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff in “Children of a Lesser God” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff in “Children of a Lesser God” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Review by Barbara Waldinger

Who are the children of a lesser god?

Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, a play that focuses on the struggles of deaf people to deal with society at large, is as relevant to the problems facing minorities today as it was in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. It captured the Tony award for Best Play in 1980 and for its two leads, John Rubenstein and Phyllis Frelich. (Frelich was the first deaf performer to be so honored, and when the movie adaptation came out a few years later, Marlee Matlin became the first deaf actress to win an Academy Award.) Now the play is being revived to open the 89th season of Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzgerald Main Stage in Stockbridge, with direction by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon, featuring Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff.

A love story between a male teacher at a school for the deaf, and a female former student (subsequently a custodian at the school), the play seeks to make a case for deaf rights. The deaf woman Sarah Norman (Ridloff), takes a stand: she stubbornly, even angrily, refuses to learn to lip read or to speak. Graceful, elegant and breathtakingly expressive in her signs, Sarah understandably fears how she will look and sound if she vocalizes. She has never needed language, having lived in this cocoon-like school since the age of five, and having engaged in numerous sexual escapades that did not depend on language. The dedicated teacher James Leeds (Jackson), is determined to persuade Sarah, with whom he has fallen in love, to join the speaking world, which will offer her many more opportunities in life. On the classroom blackboard (which slides on and off the set) is written: “Speech is not a specious but a sacred sanction secured by solemn sacrifice.” He promises that with his help, Sarah will no longer be dependent on others to speak for her.

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THEATER REVIEW: “The Roommate” at Williamstown [Berkshire on Stage]

July 6th, 2017, 1:00 pm by Sara
S. Epatha Merkerson (Sharon) and Jane Kaczmarek (Robyn). Photo by Daniel Rader.

S. Epatha Merkerson (Sharon) and Jane Kaczmarek (Robyn). Photo by Daniel Rader.

Review by Barbara Waldinger

A play bearing the title The Roommate evokes visions of college dormitories or New York City apartments, unaffordable for young people living alone. Perhaps the characters started as friends, perhaps they are strangers, but for sure the sparks will fly between them before the first act is over. But Jen Silverman has written a play – currently on the boards at the Williamstown Theatre Festival – that defies expectations in many ways.

Here we have two middle-aged women: Sharon (S. Epatha Merkerson), a divorced Midwestern homemaker, has invited Bronx-native Robyn (Jane Kaczmarek) to move into her Iowa home. And although sparks fly, it is not in the way one might expect.

As playwright Silverman asserts, the play is about transformation — both characters choose to change their lives by making space for a new, completely antithetical person. Sharon’s son’s lesbian girlfriend, who lives with him in New York City (he’s a women’s clothing designer – NOT homosexual), describes her as boring and judgmental. Indeed, Sharon’s only activity, besides calling her son whom she misses terribly, is her book group or, more high-mindedly, “reading group.” Robyn, whose initial entrance signals trouble, thanks to her black leather jacket, jeans and boots (the costumes are designed by Anita Yavich), is a lesbian, vegan, slam poet, former potter and scam artist, who likes to “grow things” (like marijuana plants). While Sharon can’t imagine Robyn’s life in the dangerous Bronx, the seemingly fearless Robyn, upon hearing that there are tornadoes in Iowa, is ready to bolt. In the course of the play, the women influence each other to reinvent their lives.

The Roommate is a comedy of character, not heavy on plot. Silverman has a fine ear and a distinctive voice that is at once natural and very funny. Because Sharon has lived such a sheltered life, she is like a child eager to explore this new world that Robyn brings with her. A self-described “nosy and persistent” woman, she justifies her curiosity as part of a “mother’s line of work.” With her gift for dialogue, the playwright invites us to uncover with Sharon the many secrets that Robyn attempts to hide. (The only lines that don’t seem organic are those in which Sharon speaks out loud to herself, as when she rifles one of Robyn’s private cartons and announces what she finds.)

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.

REVIEW: “Some People Hear Thunder” @ Capital Rep [Berkshire on Stage]

May 11th, 2017, 1:30 pm by Sara

(Photo by Douglas C. Liebig)

Review by Barbara Waldinger

Some People Hear Thunder, a musical set in the midst of the Armenian genocide, purports to be something else. The director and star, Kevin McGuire, characterizes it as a “powerful musical love story,” and his co-star Joan Hess, agrees that it is a “triumphant human story” that is decidedly not about the genocide. But this production contradicts their protests, and that is not a bad thing.

Currently on the boards at Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre, the play was written by Gerson H. Smoger, a human rights lawyer, based on the 1916 recollections of Rev. Dikran Andreasian, an Armenian who managed to survive the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government starting in 1915. Tens of thousands were deported, driven hundreds of miles on forced death marches with no food or water. The Ottoman army used the occasion of World War I to decimate their civilian Armenian population, plundering their material wealth and expropriating all of their properties.

To this day, Turkey dismisses the charge of genocide and denies that the deportations and atrocities were part of a deliberate plan to exterminate the Armenians. The U.S. initially refused to get involved as part of our World War I neutrality and has still not referred to the episode as genocide, out of concern for alienating Turkey, a NATO ally and partner in fighting Middle East terrorism. For many years Turkey successfully waged a well-organized campaign to discredit any attempt to recognize the genocide in films, but recently “The Promise,” a film about these events, was able to secure financing outside of Hollywood.

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.

THEATER REVIEW: “The Whale” @ the Whitney Center for the Arts [Berkshire on Stage]

March 21st, 2017, 2:00 pm by Sara
The cast of “The Whale:” Nancy Schaffer (Mary), Sam Therrien (Ellie), Dane Shiner (Elder Thomas), Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon (Charlie), Meaghan Rogers (Liz) and director Jackie DiGiorgis (photo: John Kickery/Kickery Kreative Photography)

The cast of “The Whale:” Nancy Schaffer (Mary), Sam Therrien (Ellie), Dane Shiner (Elder Thomas), Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon (Charlie), Meaghan Rogers (Liz) and director Jackie DiGiorgis (photo: John Kickery/Kickery Kreative Photography)

Review by Barbara Waldinger

According to playwright Samuel D. Hunter, his award-winning play, The Whale – currently on stage at Pittsfield’s Whitney Center for the Arts – was conceived while he was teaching a course in expository writing to freshmen at Rutgers University. What he learned was that in order to teach students how to write a good essay, he had to teach them not only to think independently but to have empathy. Throughout the play, Charlie, his main character, recites a seemingly short, simple essay about “Moby Dick” that demonstrates these qualities.

Like Hunter, Charlie teaches writing, hoping to find moments of “naked sincerity” in his students’ work. A morbidly obese man bent on eating himself to death, Charlie seeks a connection with his teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a young child. Having left his family to live with his partner Alan, a Mormon and former student who has since passed away, Charlie begs and bribes his daughter to spend time with him. Rounding out the cast is Liz, Alan’s sister, a nurse who cares for Charlie, Elder Thomas, a young Mormon who claims to have been sent on a mission to northern Idaho, where the play takes place, and Mary, Charlie’s former wife.

The visits of each of these characters to Charlie’s home comprise the structure of the play. What do they each want of Charlie? What does he want from them? Why does he choose to end his life? How do they try to stop him? We explore these questions and many more in a play that, despite its premise, offers hope and empathy.

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.

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