Hovey is better than Ruhl’s “Cell Phone”

Katie Gluck as Jean and Jon Nuquist as Dwight fall in love in his stationary store. Photo by Reid Gilman.

By David Brooks Andrews

(Published in Waltham Tribune)

Hovey Players often gravitates towards strange, quirky, mind-bending plays.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Grant, certainly is one of the stranger plays that Hovey has produced in recent years.

It opens with a young woman in a café noticing that a fellow diner isn’t answering his ringing cell phone.  She (Jean) answers it for him (Gordon) and soon realizes he didn’t answer it because he has died while sitting in the cafe.  Even though she had never met him before, she improbably continues to answer his phone, consoles the callers, and creates stories to placate his mistress, wife, mother, and brother, all of whom he alienated when he was alive.

Jean claims to have worked for Gordon—much to the shock of his family members—not realizing until later in the play that he was an illegal trafficker in human organs, who would pay donors very little while making huge sums for himself.

One of the play’s themes is how cell phones interrupt and take over our lives while we ignore the very people who are right in front of us.  It’s not quite so clear what Ruhl is trying to say about illegal trafficking of human organs, other than to show another way people dehumanize each other, treating them as mere body parts, and in the process she creates a truly despicable character.

Unfortunately, Ruhl doesn’t do enough to entice us to take the journey with her.  If playwrights are going to lead audiences down the rabbit hole into strange worlds and unusual perspectives, they need to capture our imaginations and hearts.  And Ruhl ignores many of the ways good theater does that, as if her only responsibility is to create a surrealistic world and expect us to enter it.

There’s very little reason or logic to what the characters do.  Why would Jean or anyone feel compelled to maintain the cell phone and answer the calls of a dead man she had never met?  It’s an intriguing idea, but it needs to be justified more.  Why would she create stories to make his relatives feel better about him?  Why would she travel to South Africa to help maintain his illegal organ trafficking?

Of all the characters, only Jean, and to some extent Gordon’s brother, Dwight, are sympathetic.  And with the play’s focus on the disconnection between people that’s ironically created by cell phones, there’s little opportunity for the very thing that makes theater compelling—emotional interaction between characters and between the actors playing them.

All that said, there are some real high points to the production, which is well directed by Kristin Hughes.  Katie Gluck brings a great deal of warmth, life, and naturalness to Jean.  One would love to see her in a play that makes better use of her considerable talents.  She offers a wonderfully timid and squeamish contrast to Nicole Dunn as Gordon’s deliciously sexy mistress.   Dunn is also good later in the play as a gun-toting mystery woman in a skin-tight bodysuit and speaking with the accent of a foreign spy.

There’s a transcendent, well acted scene in which Jean goes with Dwight to his stationary store, and he asks if he can braid her hair thinking that a braid involves two, not three, strands.   The stationary story is represented by a display on wheels, beautifully designed by Cinda Lavely, that opens up to reveal evocative rows of stationary and light coming through a rippled window at the top.  During the scene, houses constructed of paper are dangled and bounced from strings. The scene gives a magical feeling of real connection, until Gordon’s cell phone rings and Jean insists on answering it.

Gluck is so irresistible and emotionally alive when she returns to Dwight at the end of the play finally ready to give herself wholeheartedly to him.  Jon Nuquist as Dwight has an appealing understated manner as he falls in love with Jean.

Edmund Golaski as Gordon is excellent at making us believe he’s alive as we look at the back of him, and then dead when Jean gives him a little nudge.  He’s no-nonsense direct as he speaks from beyond the grave.  One wonders if he might have given the evil character a little more dimension, even if the play doesn’t call for it.

Karen Dervin makes Hermia, Gordon’s widow, feel as odd as the rest of the family, as she should.  She has a touching drunken scene in which she imagines she’s Gordon’s mistress rather than his wife.

Christine Connor plays Gordon’s mother, Mrs. Gottlieb, as a formal, imperious woman who’s emotionally attached to Gordon even after his death.  This is part of the mythology Ruhl creates in this play—that after death we end up with whomever we’ve given the most attention and love to in this life.  If we’ve loved only ourselves, we end up alone.

One looks forward to Hovey finding plays more worthy of its efforts and talents than this extremely strange and not terribly rewarding piece.

WHAT:

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl

WHEN:

Through November 24

WHERE:

Hovey Players, 9 Spring St. at Joel’s Way, Waltham

COST:

$18; $15 for students and seniors

INFO:

781-893-9171

www.hoveyplayers.com

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Lyric’s “Chinglish” flies non-stop to China

Celeste Oliva as Xi Yan confronts Barlow Adamson as Daniel Cavanaugh.

By David Brooks Andrews

(Published in Boston Tab Newspapers)

Any business person who has salivated at the thought of traveling to China to set up a mega deal would be wise to head down to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston to see their production of David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish.”

It’s all a little more complicated than you might think.  And in those complications, anyone who has ever traveled abroad or dreamt of doing so will find plenty to laugh at.

The play begins a little flat-footedly with the America businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) addressing us as if we are the Commerce League of Ohio, telling us the story of traveling to Guiyang, China, three years earlier to seek a deal to create signs for a new international art center.

Suddenly, the framework fades, and we are in China on his trip as he negotiates assistance from Peter Timms (Alexander Platt), a British ex-pat business consultant.  With his help, Daniel pitches a proposal to Minister Cai Guoliang (Michael Tow) and Vice Minister Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), as Miss Qian (Tiffany Chen) translates.

Humor erupts with signs that have been mistranslated into awkward and embarrassing English and quickly moves on to ludicrous gaps between Cavanaugh’s English and how it’s translated into Mandarin Chinese, with the English meaning of the Mandarin projected in supertitles above the stage.  A lot happens at a quick pace, and you’ll be hard pressed to catch every joke as you watch the actors, listen to the English and Mandarin, and read the supertitles.  But being a bit lost is sure to make you feel like you’re smack dab in the middle of the action, not to mention China itself.

The show takes off when Xi insists on meeting privately with Daniel, without Peter there to translate for him.  It’s such a realistic scene as the two of them struggle to communicate, resorting to sign language and Xi’s broken English.  She tries to persuade Daniel to dump Peter and not do business with Cai.  We don’t know whether to believe her any more than Daniel does.  Before long nobody is exactly who he or she seems to be, and that only adds to our pleasurable confusion.  Trying to say that both of their tongues have been made tired by their conversation, Xi says, “I am sleeping with you.”  It’s not at all what she meant to say or did she intend to plant the suggestion?

It quickly becomes clear that Oliva as Xi has a terrific emotional range from tough outrage to tender, sensuous love.  She radiates pure emotion whether she’s speaking English or Mandarin or not speaking at all but simply letting her face and body do the talking.  She’s the emotional heart of this production.  Without her it could feel too much like a comic sketch, albeit with intelligent points, but she gives it rich life and dimension.

Adamson as Daniel has a direct American quality in contrast to the inscrutable manner that Tow appropriately gives to Minister Cia.  Platt as Peter has a believable British accent and self-assurance that makes him seem well put together.  Tiffany Chen is delightfully playful as Miss Qian, particularly as she obviously flirts with Alexander.

Chen Tang clearly enjoys his cameo as an extremely swishy male translator who gives a sexual twist to everything he translates.  And Liz Eng as Zhao performs a beautiful, traditional dance that she has choreographed.

Mixed in with the frequent mistranslations are glimpses into how business agreements work in China (by friendship rather than contracts) and how love prospers (by saying less rather than more).

Set designer Dahlia Al-Habieli makes us feel we are in China with an atmospheric backdrop of beautiful Chinese doors, grills, and a multi-sided window.

Director Larry Coen has a good feeling for the script and keeps the pace moving at a rate that makes us feel like we’re in the midst of a living experience as much as watching a play.  It’s Lyric’s unsappy way of celebrating the holidays, and it has the right fizz and sparkle to do the trick.

WHAT:

“Chinglish” by David Henry Hwang

WHEN:

Through December 23

WHERE:

Lyric Stage Company of Boston

140 Clarendon St., Boston

COST:

$25 to $58

INFO:

617-585-5678

www.lyricstage.com

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New Rep’s “Chesapeake” barks like a dog

Georgia Lyman as Kerr in "Chesapeake." Photo by Christopher McKenize Photography.

By David Brooks Andrews

(Published in Boston Tab Newspapers)

What would it take to persuade a conservative southern senator the likes of the late Strom Thurmond to consider supporting federally funded grants for performance artists, particularly those who do such provocative things as strip naked in public?

This is the improbable question that playwright Lee Blessing apparently set before himself when he wrote “Chesapeake,” a one-actor comedy that’s essentially a shaggy-dog story with some very funny lines.  The title refers to the breed of dogs called Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, one of which is central to the story.

The answer Blessing ultimately comes up with is delightfully otherworldly, as it would have to be.

The talented Georgia Lyman takes on the role of the performance artist Kerr and the voices of everyone else in New Repertory Theatre’s lively production of “Chesapeake” in their black box theater.

From the get-go, Lyman and her director Doug Lockwood clearly want to make us feel as if we are watching a performance artist in action rather than a typical one-person show.  As the audience enters the theater, she warms up, prepares the stage, and informally talks with a few audience members before introducing the show herself.

Lyman doesn’t actually do the things that performance artists would to provoke and offend audiences. She simply tells about them.  She doesn’t take off her clothes, for instance, but tells how Kerr would put on 100 garments so each member of the audience could remove one until she’s left standing naked in what she claims is a non-titillating fashion, although admitting with a wink that she makes sure the lighting is flattering.

An incident at one of these performances is exactly what Senator Therm Pooley—with echoes of Strom Thurmond’s name—needs to boost his failing campaign and win election by a mere 2% of the votes over his rival.  The idea that Kerr inadvertently helped him get elected is enough to set her on the path of revenge, focused on his Chesapeake Bay Retriever that he used on the campaign trail to make himself seem likable.

As Lyman tells this story and how she became committed to performance art at the age of 10, she’s terrific at conveying the emotional nuance and capturing the informal tone of a young free spirit.  She has a harder time, as any actor would, with occasional lines that are rather formal, sounding as if they’re coming more from the playwright than her character.

The first act is long and could use some cutting.  But you’d be making a mistake to think it’s not worth coming back for Act II, which really is the highlight of the show as Kerr finds that she’s magically become half dog.  It’s a stroke of creative genius on the part of Blessing, and Lyman makes the most of it.  She’s wonderful at taking on doggy mannerisms, like frustration at not being able to chase a squirrel and finding herself lapping water out of a cup as well as another unmentionable doggy act, while she remains part human.

She’s superb at trying to sort out the confusion of exactly what’s happening to her and at giving distinct voices with believable accents to Pooley, his formal wife, and his very willing assistant/mistress.

Lyman uses every element of Deb’s Sullivan’s simple set, at one point tossing the chair, stool, and music stand that holds the lengthy script in case Lyman needs to refer to it, which she didn’t early in the run.  At another point, she draws around her a canvas floor covering on which a map of Chesapeake Bay is painted.  Sullivan’s lighting is dramatic, helping to shift setting and pace.

This play probably won’t make you rush out to see performance art, though it may make you appreciate it’s role in shaking things up.  It’s also unlikely to make you sympathetic to a certain breed of Southern Republicans.  But it’s sure to make you appreciate its doggyness, and it may even make you wonder if you aren’t half Chesapeake Bay Retriever yourself.

WHAT:

“Chesapeake” by Lee Blessing

WHEN:

Through December 16

WHERE:

New Repertory Theatre

321 Arsenal Street, Watertown

COST:

$36

INFO:

617-923-8487

www.newrep.org

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Huntington’s “Betrayal” has us all ears


Gretchen Egolf as Emma in a tender moment with Alan Cox as Jerry.

By David Brooks Andrews

It has been 34 years and numerous productions since Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” was first staged by the National Theatre in London, followed by a successful Broadway run two years later, but none of this dampens the freshness and appeal of Huntington Theater’s current production of the play.

What “Betrayal” is best known for is how it tells the story of an affair, and its interlinked betrayals, largely backwards in time.  There are a few small steps forward, but the overall movement is from the end of the affair to its beginning.

The play opens in 1977 with Emma (Gretchen Egolf) and Jerry (Alan Cox) meeting in a London Pub two years after their seven-year affair has ended.  Although Emma doesn’t readily admit it, the meeting is prompted partly by the fact that she and her husband Robert (Mark H. Dold) had it out with each other the night before and decided to end their marriage.  She tells Jerry that in the course of the all-nighter she admitted their affair to Robert.  Jerry is devastated, since he and Robert have been close friends, from long before either of them met Emma.

What draws us on is the desire to know how the affair developed and who is telling the truth when characters give different versions of events.  By going backwards in time, Pinter allows, even forces us, us to be more analytical about the affair than if he had taken the normal chronological direction.  He strips the events, with a few exceptions, of what’s most commonly associated with love affairs—irresistible passion and explosive anger.  In their place, he gives the characters what seems like direct, transparent language, but in fact it rarely is as they use their words to disguise their feelings with typical British reserve, all the while circling each other and thrusting and parrying beneath the surface.  More than anything, this use of language is what the play is about, and it’s what provides its sizzle.

Just as the characters listen for and try to ferret out what’s being said beneath the lines, so do we.  Throughout the opening scene, Emma and Jerry ask each other how they are, trying to get at something that neither of them is quite revealing.  In a later scene, after Jerry makes an oblique statement, he defends it:  “I’m not trying to say anything.  I’ve said precisely what I wanted to say.”  If so, and we’re not totally sure, that’s rarely the case in this play.  Along with the characters, we’re all ears as we try to determine the actual intent beneath the words.

Director Maria Aitken has created an elegantly clean production that allows us to focus on the characters and what they’re saying on the surface and beneath it.  She has her actors deftly play the double meaning of their lines.  Egolf brings a sophisticated beauty, strength, and world-weariness to Emma that unwinds to a simpler, more innocent self as the play proceeds.

Cox catches the bumbling dimension of Jerry, who assumes nobody could possibly be aware of what he’s up to while being equally unaware of what others are up to.

Dold gives Robert a tough, hard-edged directness, but tends to repeat the same vocal patterns.  He could afford to explore more of what’s going on beneath the emotional surface of his character.

Aitken has chosen to give this production a cool emotional temperature.  To be sure the words themselves are cool, but it would be possible and probably more interesting for the actors to have warmer more intense emotions rather than such icy ones bubbling beneath the surface.

Among other things, it might help us to feel more of the ruins of the friendship that was once genuine between Jerry and Robert.  In addition to being friends, Jerry is a literary agent to authors who Robert sometimes publishes and other times turns down.  While Robert claims to be unaffected by his friend’s affair with his wife, he frequently tries to revive the squash games they used to play, while at one point acknowledging that it is a violent game.  Little wonder Jerry never quite finds time for squash with him.

Luis Negron gives a delightful cameo performance as a waiter with a sunny, Venetian disposition.

Allen Moyer’s elegant scenic design and Philip S. Rosenberg’s beautiful lighting design help to concentrate our focus on the characters and make a very large stage feel like an intimate one.  This is done with large scrims behind the actors lit in single pastel colors and with a curtain that closes down on the actors as if framing them between scenes.

Nancy Brennan’s costumes subtly move us backwards in time between 1977 and 1968, making one wonderfully obvious leap at the end when Emma wears a very short dress and Robert a Nero jacket to a party they throw.

Aitken and her scenic designers have put a stunning, unexpected punctuation on the end of the show that alone is worth the price of the ticket.  The show itself, which is only 80 minutes long without intermission, goes by surprisingly quickly while keeping one totally engaged.

Pinter has based many of the events in the play on his affair with Joan Bakewell while they were both married to other people.  They kept the affair mostly under wraps long after the play was first produced, but later both of them wrote freely about it in their autobiographies.  It makes for a stronger and more interesting play that Pinter doesn’t explore the initial thrill or exciting danger of the affair, but rather focuses on the betrayals that are involved.  To the play’s credit, its sober look at the subject does not make an affair feel promising or appealing.

WHAT:

“Betrayal” by Harold Pinter

WHEN:

Through December 9

WHERE:

Huntington Theatre Company

264 Huntington Avenue

COST:

$25 to $85

INFO:

617-266-0800

www.huntingtontheatre.org

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Gloucester’s “‘Master Harold’” challenges the heart

Peter Mark Kendell as Hally takes a call from his mother while Johnny Lee Davenport (rear left) as Sam and Anthony Wills, Jr. (rear right) as Willie watch on in Gloucester Stage's production of "'Master Harold.'"

Johnny Lee Davenport as Sam raises a fist to Peter Mark Kendell as Hally while Anthony Wills, Jr. as Willie tries to restrain him. Photos by Gary Ng.

By David Brooks Andrews

Athol Fugard’s masterpiece “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys” is one of those rare plays that deserves to be seen, with few exceptions, whenever it’s performed, especially when it’s tackled by a cast as superb as the three actors in Gloucester Stage Company’s current production.

What makes the play so compelling is that it’s not a political statement confined to apartheid—though it is set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. It’s really a call to the human heart that will be deeply relevant as long as people try to hide their own weaknesses, anguish and sufferings by being cruel to others, sometimes extraordinarily cruel.

The story features two black waiters—Willie and Sam, who work in a tea room in St. George’s Park—and Hally, a 17 year-old white student, whose parents own the tea room.   Willie and especially Sam, have more or less raised Hally in the absence of his father, an alcoholic who lost a leg during World War II and is an unapologetic racist.  Fugard has admitted basing Hally at least partly on his adolescent self.  His scathing self-examination contributes to the play’s enormous power.

Hally’s fondness for Willie and Sam, as well as the start of his distancing himself from them, can be felt throughout much of this one hour and 40 minute play without an intermission, as the characters recall their past together, often playfully.

The show opens with Willie practicing for a ballroom dance contest that he plans to enter in two weeks time, as he and Sam clean up the tea room that is empty of customers, due to thunder and rain that evocatively streams down the window panes of the front door.  Sam coaches Willie in a rather superior manner, advising him to relax and enjoy the dance, and later tells him to stop hitting his dance partner, if he wants her to participate.  Each of the three characters has significant lessons to learn about how to treat others.

Almost as soon as Hally enters the tea room, he receives a phone call from his mother who’s considering bringing his father home from the hospital for a three week stay.  It upsets Hally terribly for reasons we begin to understand more fully as his mother continues to call.  We soon realize that the calls will provide a dramatic turning point in the play.

An early debate between Hally and Sam about which historical figure is the most important, the one with the most magnitude, feels as if it’s written a bit didactically.  Its purpose is partly to establish how Sam helped him with his school lessons.  But the play soon returns to fuller life as Hally recalls sneaking down the hallway to the servants’ quarters in a boarding house where they all lived.  Hally and Sam’s recollections of flying a kite together when Hally was a young boy are deeply moving and serve as one of the key metaphors in the play.  So, too, does the ballroom dancing, as Sam explains that it shows what the world could be—a dance floor without accidents, without people bumping into each other.

Anthony Wills, Jr. as Willie and Johnny Lee Davenport as Sam provide a lovely contrast to each other.  Wills gives Willie a delightful sense of life and good-natured humor as he practices the ballroom steps.  He also clearly plants Willie in a world of conventional expectations and actions.

Davenport, on the other hand, gives Sam a gravitas and a willingness to challenge society’s boundaries.  Davenport bursts with life as he describes the upcoming dance contest for Hally.  And he’s got a great sense of humor as he dances with a circular table, in spite of Hally’s insistence that they stop horsing around.

If you’ve seen Davenport on stage before, you’re likely to suspect that a big emotional scene is coming, because that’s his forte and a primary reason a theater would cast him.  He is absolutely explosive in a fiery confrontation with Hally, but he also clearly shows that by the end of the face-off he knows the danger and anguish he has caused himself, exquisitely illustrated as he lifts his feet one after another as if from hot coals.

Both Wills and Davenport have the black South African accent down beautifully.

Who would have thought that a student in his final year of Brown/Trinity Rep’s MFA acting program would be so good in the role of Hally.  But Peter Mark Kendall is terrific as Hally, very much holding his own with Wills and  Davenport?.  Every thought and feeling he experiences are distinct and precisely rendered with nuance, making Hally’s inner world transparent to us.  Born to a family that emigrated from South Africa in 1985, Kendall perfectly captures the accent of the white ruling class.

Benny Sato Ambush has directed the play with a deep understanding of its issues and emotional dynamics as well as the tensions of life in South Africa under apartheid.  His director’s note, an insert in the program, is a work of poetry and grasps what’s possible for these characters and mankind, even in the midst of the “self-made mess we make of living.”  He quotes from a note Fugard wrote him some time ago:  “If there’s one area where miracles are possible in this world, it’s in the human heart.  Logic doesn’t govern the human heart.”  One small quibble with the direction:  he might have had Wills dance more in place while Davenport is eloquently describing the dance contest, so we aren’t quite so distracted from the words.

Jenna McFarland Lord’s set beautifully conveys a 1950s tea room equipped with an old-fashioned juke box in South Africa.

It’s hard to imagine a better, more satisfying production of “‘Master Harold’” or a play that cuts more closely to the heart of issues that demand our fullest attention.

WHAT:

“‘Master Harold’…and the boys”

WHEN:

July 26-August 12

WHERE:

Gloucester Stage Company

267 East Main St.

Gloucester, MA

COST:

$35-$40

INFO:

www.gloucesterstage.com

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Tackling “Coriolanus” on Boston Common

Nicholas Carriere (left) yells at the Roman crowd while Fred Sullivan, Jr., and Karen MacDonald look on during a rehearsal of "Coriolanus."

Karen MacDonald comforts Nicholas Carriere while Fred Sullivan, Jr., (in rear) looks on.

Nicholas Carriere takes a contemplative break from rehearsing "Coriolanus." Photos by David Brooks Andrews.

By David Brooks Andrews

Nicholas Carriere couldn’t land an audition with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company for this summer’s production of “Coriolanus” on Boston Common.

His agent approached the company in late winter but he couldn’t get them to bite.  Carriere has good credentials—graduate of Yale School of Drama, toured in a national production of “The Lion King,” and performed in numerous stage productions, a film, and a couple of television series.

And then in early June, a week and a half before rehearsals were to begin, he received a phone call from his agent saying CSC wanted him to audition for the title role of “Coriolanus.”  An hour or two after the audition, he was offered the role.

“There are things in life that are so terrifying that you have to do them,” said Carriere.  “For some people it’s sky diving.  For me it’s Coriolanus.”

“Coriolanus” is a Shakespearean play about a brilliant Roman general who’s pushed into politics but believes democracy is dangerous and destructive.  His views get him driven from Rome, and he collaborates with the general of an army that he recently defeated, in an effort to seek revenge on Rome.

“He’s a guy that has a lot of swagger,” said Carriere.  “He’s not moderate at all, not really a contemplative person, doesn’t think through decisions.  We don’t see him thinking like Hamlet.  He isn’t afraid to do anything.”

Carriere said he often plays more contemplative or refined characters, and so he likes being stretched by taking on someone who’s brash, loud and doesn’t apologize for himself.  “In life we can’t live that way,” he said.  “So it’s really cool to live in a place where you can do what you want to do.”  He loves the emotional size of Shakespeare’s characters who often do things we dream of doing but don’t, like scream at the gods or rave at enemy armies as they run through Rome.  “I think Shakespeare is an opportunity to live large,” he said.

Living as large as Coriolanus has its challenges, as Carriere is the first to admit.  “I talk a lot,” he said.  “That’s difficult.”  But he’s getting his lines down.  In the middle of the play, he has a scene in which he pleads with the nobles not to let the crowds take control of the city.  When they end up banishing Coriolanus, Carriere finds it extremely difficult textually and emotionally to have his world ripped away from him as 20 people scream at him to leave.

Carriere is approaching the role in a pragmatic fashion.  First he’s learned the role and lines, and what every word means.  Then he’s connected what he calls the “dots of the language” so he understands the arc of his lines.  And finally he said he’s been working on getting the physicality of Coriolanus and his world so “I move through space like a general who has 30 wounds to his body.”  It’s then he feels he can give his fellow actors something to work against.

Carriere said he arrived terrified of the role and was extremely grateful for director Steve Maler’s calming influence as well as the support of fellow actors Karen MacDonald and Fred Sullivan, Jr., among others, who have worked at CSC before.

Carriere grew up in East Bridgewater as the youngest child in a family of nine.  He has four brothers and four sisters who are all a bit older than he is, so in some ways he feels they’re like aunts and uncles.  Growing up in such a large family, he learned how to be heard, which helps him on stage.  “I’m not a big, boisterous person in a crowd,” he said.  “But I do know how to get attention when I need it.”

He modeled his approach on his father, whom he calls the “coolest guy on the planet.”  “My dad commands attention by his presence and a few well placed words,” he said.

Carriere developed a love of music from his mother who taught piano.  And when he was 10 years-old, she took him to the Capachione School of Performing Arts in East Bridgewater where he first started to act.

After graduating from college, he studied at Yale School of Drama, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree.  There he learned to multi-task as he sometimes worked on three to ten productions at once.  “It was like a dismantling of ego on some level,” he said, as he learned to work very collaboratively with other actors.

He’s just turned 32 and thinks he will probably move from New York City to Los Angeles in the next five years so he can dive into film and television acting.  But he won’t be leaving theater any time soon.  “I’m in it for the distance,” he said.  “I’m a marathoner.”

Reflecting on what he’s learned from Coriolanus, he said, “Give compromise a chance.  Think about it.  Otherwise you will die at the hands of the enemy.”

WHAT:

“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare

WHEN:

July 25-August 12

Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.

Sundays at 7:00 p.m.

Matinee on July 28 at 2:00 p.m.

WHERE:

Parkmand Bandstand on

Boston Common

COST:

Free of charge

INFO:

www.commshakes.org

WEATHER HOTLINE

617-426-0863 (ext. 6)

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“Billy Elliot” lives up to promises

Kylend Hetherington as Billy in "Billy Elliot The Musical." Photo by Kyle Froman.

By David Brooks Andrews

The national tour of “Billy Elliot The Musical” comes toe- tapping, back-flipping, and pirouetting into Boston, trailing 10 Tony Awards the Broadway production picked up along with endless praise.

Is it as much of a must-see as we’ve been led to believe?  Absolutely, especially for anyone who loves big musicals, is touched by the soaring power of dance, or has a heart for the downtrodden and a child’s struggle to carve out a life utterly different from his family’s and the community he grows up in.   That should include most of us.

The musical closely follows the film “Billy Elliot,” made in 2000, on which it is based.  Both were directed by Stephen Daldry, written by Lee Hall, and choreographed by Peter Darling.  The musical production’s one new creative face is Elton John, who not only wrote the music but persuaded the other three, against their initial doubts, that the film could be transformed into a successful musical.

There are a couple of weak spots, but they are more than made up for by the musical’s dazzling strengths.

It’s a bit slow to build up steam as it opens with several large crowd scenes to establish a northern British town with its coal miners on the verge of striking, as British miners did in 1984-1985.  You may find yourself yearning for a deeper emotional connection earlier in the show, even as it takes us into Billy’s home that his father runs with an iron fist after Billy’s mother has died.

The first big emotional punch comes with the number “Solidarity.”  And it’s a doozy.  We’re plunged into the emotional turmoil of the town by a moving anthem and surrealistic dance number as the miners and police merge, exchange helmets, and are separated as Mrs. Wilkinson’s young dance pupils come between them.

We’re punched in the gut once again when Mrs. Wilkinson asks Billy to bring a few objects that mean something to him to one of their private dance lessons.  She hopes to help him understand that dancing is as much about discovering and expressing himself as it is good technique.  Billy has left behind the boxing lessons he detested in order to join, reluctantly at first, her dance class of all young girls.

She is left speechless when Billy presents her with a Rubik’s Cube, a “Star Wars” brochure, a soup packet and a can of baked beans.  Then he hands her a letter his mother wrote to him shortly before dying.  You’re likely to need a tissue as she and Billy’s mum, who appears as a ghost figure, sing the letter aloud.  This musical unabashedly pulls out all emotional stops, which is one of its strengths.

In one sense, the show is about Billy defying the expectations of his family and community as he studies dance and as Mrs. Wilkinson encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School.  And it’s about Billy facing his own doubts, which are expressed in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act.  He stomps out his fury in a tap dance to a rock number at the top of a spinning tower and eventually hurtles himself against a wall of the policemen’s plexiglass shields.  What makes the show so moving is how many of the characters begin to change their attitude towards Billy and his devotion to ballet.

Billy is played on a rotating basis by four young men who are about 13 years-old—Ben Cook, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske and Noah Parets from Sharon.  On press night, Hetherington took the role and was truly a triple threat as an actor, singer, and dancer.  He captured the emotional dilemmas of a young boy facing many pressures, and he did it without forcing it.  His singing voice, still a high boy’s soprano, was plaintive and cut to the heart.  But most impressive was the extraordinary fluidity and ease of his dancing.

One of the most beautiful dances of the show is largely a mirror ballet of “Swan Lake” with Billy and Maximilien A. Baud as Billy’s older self .  They start by dancing in mist rising from the floor and end with Billy soaring and spinning above the stage from a wire.

Billy certainly carries the show, but nearly as essential is the dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson.   Janet Dickinson is brilliant in the role with a street-tough exterior and a foul mouth that hides a heart of gold.  Like all of the actors, she speaks in a Geordie (northeast English) accent that you need to listen carefully to.

Cameron Clifford was totally delightful and uninhibited as Michael, Billy’s cross-dressing young friend, who unlike Billy, is gay.  One some nights he’s played by Ethan Major.

As Billy’s future opens up before him, the miners’ shuts down, just as it did in England to the point that they now import most of their coal.  The show couldn’t have arrived in Boston at a better time, for the hope it offers and its resonance with our country’s own economic troubles.

WHAT: “Billy Elliot The Musical”

WHEN: Through August 19

WHERE: Boston Opera House

TICKETS: $33-$110

INFO: 1-800-982-2787

www.ticketmaster.com

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Mourning a soldier by way of his car

Playwright Lawrence Kessenich (front left) discusses "Ronnie's Charger" with director Jess Viator (front right) and actors Frank Bartucca and Kate Blair.

Actors Frank Bartucca and Kate Blair remember their son who died in Vietnam.

Frank Bartucca listens to Kate Blair tell how she polished their son's car after he died in Vietnam in "Ronnie's Charger."

By David Brooks Andrews

WALTHAM—“Ronnie’s Charger” is sure to be one of the emotional anchors of Hovey Summer Shorts 2012, an annual festival of ten-minute plays produced by Waltham’s Hovey Players.

“Ronnie” features a man and a wife who deliver alternating monologues about how they each dealt with the death of their son in the Vietnam War some 25 years earlier.

At the center of the short play is the boy’s Dodge Charger, a muscle car that he bought the summer he graduated from high school for one final fling before joining the Marines. “Hey, Ronnie!  Nice car!” the girls would call out as he drove by, turning more than a few heads.

His parents, Barbara and Wayne, have their own evolving relationships with the car, first when Ronnie was sending letters to them from Vietnam, then when they were told he was missing in action, and as it became increasingly clear he will never be coming home.

Playwright and poet Lawrence Kessenich said that he got the idea for the play one day while walking to the Watertown Savings Bank on the Waltham/Watertown border.  “I passed this house in a nicely kept area,” he said.  “Next to the garage was a rusting hulk of a car, literally rusting into pieces.”

He asked himself why would anybody leave a wreck in such a nice area.  He concluded maybe it was because the car had belonged to someone very important to them.  “The two big questions that get you started as a writer are “why” and “what if,” said Kessenich.

From there he imagined the story of Ronnie and his parents.  He first wrote it as a poem some five or six years ago and then saw the possibility of it becoming a short play after friends had pointed out that his poems often have strong narratives.  The play has all the beauty, vivid images, and exquisite word choice one would expect from a poet who is frequently published and who won Ireland’s Strokestown’s International Poetry Prize in 2010.

Kessenich has written a dozen ten-minute plays and three full-length ones.  “Ronnie” was first produced last summer at a short play festival in Durango, Colorado, where it won the People’s Choice Award.  Kessenich, his wife, and two adult children went to see the production after vacationing in the area.

Here in Waltham, Hovey Players held two evenings of auditions for actors interested in performing in the five comedies and five dramas that make up this summer’s festival.  Some 40 actors appeared.  About ten of them were an appropriate age or could have acted old enough to play Barbara and Wayne, said director Jess Viator.   “I had Kate (Blair) and Frank (Bartucca) read together, and immediately I loved them.”

“I read with Frank and knew I could trust him,” said Kate.  “We did the hug and it was very organic.”

“You always hope you get a good scene partner when doing these auditions,” said Frank.

Everyone associated with the production has his or her own connection to the Vietnam War.  Kessenich received draft number 198 and came very close to being drafted in 1970.  His father worked full-time for the National Guard.  His brother went to West Point and Vietnam.  “I had great respect for the military, but not for that war,” he said.  “I would have gone to Canada.”

Before Bartucca left for Vietnam during the height of the war, he was training officers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and one day was assigned the task of driving up to the home of a soldier who was in Vietnam and telling his parents their son had been killed.  “It’s a blur at this point, maybe purposefully,” he said.

Kate is the mother of two sons, one 26 and the other 22 years-old.  “I really connect to the mother part of Barbara,” she said.  “I would have very similar reactions.”

Jess was eager to direct the play because she was born after the war had ended and wanted to learn more about it.  “I’ve been in love with the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said.  “The protest movement sounded romantic to me as I grew up without understanding it.”

Kessenich met the actors and director for the first time at a recent rehearsal.  “We were nervous you were going to be mad,” Kate said to him, after he saw a run through.  Hovey’s production has the two actors connecting more with each other than the Durango production did.

“I love the interpretation,” said Kessenich, “that people interpret it in different ways.”

Other productions in the festival involve, among other things, a suicide hotline, a bride’s best friends arguing over who gets to be the maid of honor, a dramatic monologue by a teddy bear who’s fallen on the side of the road, and the same person in four parallel universes.

WHAT:

Hovey Summer Shorts 2012

WHEN:

July 13, 14, 20, and 21 at 8 p.m.

WHERE:

Hovey Players, 9 Spring St. at Joel’s Way, Waltham

COST:

$15

FOR RESERVATIONS

781-893-9171

Reservations@hoveyplayers.com

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Will Bouvier brings new blood to Wellesley Summer Theatre and their “Nightingale”

Will Bouvier and Margaret Dunn rehearse a scene from "And a Nightingale Sang." Photograph by David Brooks Andrews

By David Brooks Andrews

WELLESLEY—When Wellesley Summer Theatre opens its production of “And a Nightingale Sang,” the cast will be familiar to audiences who have followed the close-knit company over the years, with one exception.

Will Bouvier will be a new face, unless you happened to catch him several months ago in the Wellesley College Theatre’s production of “An American Wife.”  Bouvier lives in Shirley with his wife and his five-year-old stepson, whom he calls his best friend.

He was returning from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, where he had attended a screening of “Black Rock,” in which he’s featured with Katie Aselton, who also directed the film, when he received an e-mail from his sister about auditions at Wellesley College.  “I wanted to keep the ball rolling,” he said.  So he went to the auditions and was cast in “An American Wife,” which led to his current role in WST’s professional production of “Nightingale” by C.P. Taylor.

“Nightingale” is a bittersweet comedy about a family in Newcastle upon Tyne, on the northeast coast of England, during World War II.  “The family is a group of eccentrics who love each other but are over the top with their lives and problems,” said Bouvier.  “It is a comedy of amazing personalities in the midst of the tragedy of World War II.”

He plays Norman, a British soldier who takes an interest in Helen, a woman with a limp who never thought of herself as appealing to men.  “Norman is not forthcoming,” said Bouvier.  “He tries to hide things from people as long as he can, until the jig is up, but he doesn’t do it maliciously.”

The title of the play was taken from the song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square,” which Vera Lynn sang to the troops during the Second World War.  The father of the family, George, plunks the song out on a piano as he and others sing it.  But the show is a comedy/drama with music sprinkled in, not a musical with characters bursting into song.

As Bouvier has worked on the role of Norman, he’s struggled with disliking him and liking him so much that he finds it hard to admit that what he does is wrong.  “He parallels myself so much it scares me,” he said.  “Not that I’ve made mistakes like his, but I know that he means so well while he’s doing it the wrong way.”   Bouvier won’t reveal what Norman’s mistakes are so audiences will be surprised.

All of the actors, except for Bouvier, speak in Newcastle’s Geordie dialect, which sounds Scottish.  He has to speak with a Brummie accent, since his character is from Birmigham.  He said it sounds a like a Liverpool or Cockney accent.  He loves accents and dialects and won an award for using them in plays while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  But he’s finding it a challenge to preserve his Brummie vowels while the others use their Geordie ones.

One of the reasons for the two different accents is to underscore how much of an outsider Norman is to the family.  Bouvier found that being a newcomer to a cast that has worked together for years, in spite of their warm welcome, helped him to understand something of Norman’s position as an outsider to Helen’s family.  After several weeks of working with the cast, however, he said, “We’re a family now.”

Bouvier has deep family roots in the entertainment and theater industry.  His grandfather, Mickey Alpert, was a casting agent and a bandleader.  He had just started to conduct the National Anthem at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub when the terrible fire broke out on November 28, 1942.  He survived by breaking out a basement window and helped to save several people.  His mother is host of the weekly talk show “Around Town with Jane Bouvier” on the Groton Channel, a local community access station.

Bouvier’s first role in theater was as a young street urchin in “Oliver!”  He turned to a fellow child actor and asked, “Is this the way it always is?” referring to the lights, costumes and excitement.  He knew immediately it was what he wanted to do with his life.  And now he’s waiting for this summer’s opening of the film “Black Rock” and the boost it could give his career.

As Bouvier makes his first appearance with Wellesley Summer Theatre, Derek Stone Nelson, a founding member and mainstay of the company, will be making what’s probably his last stage appearance for a while as the father in “Nightingale.”  Nelson recently accepted the position of director of drama at Roxbury Latin School and expects to have his hands full as he gets established there.

Nelson has performed in many WST shows, often playing the male lead.  Some of his favorite productions include “An Ideal Husband” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”  He won an Independent Reviewers of New England Best Actor award for his work in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“It has been a great artistic home for me,” said Nelson.  “ I value the solid friendships with people I’ve worked with there.”

Even with a company as close as WST’s, occasionally new actors arrive with their gifts, and deeply loved ones, who’ve been with the company for a long time, step into the wings for a while as they take on new assignments.

WHAT:  “And a Nightingale Sang” by C.P Taylor

WHEN:

May 24-June 24

WHERE:

Wellesley Summer Theatre, Wellesley College

Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre

COST:

$20/$10 for students and seniors

INFO:

781-283-2000/www.wellesleysummertheatre.com

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Hovey proves “Bent” still packs a wallop

Kurt Lusas (center, the Captain) screams at Ian Schleifer (Horst) while Evan Bernstein (Max) watches. Photo by Reid Gilman.

By David Brooks Andrews

Thirty-one years after “Bent” opened on Broadway, it no longer has the same shock value nor does it carry quite the same political banner that it originally did.

But Hovey Players’ staging of Martin Sherman’s play about the Nazis’ treatment of homosexuals proves that it still has tremendous value.  It puts us right into the middle of other people’s unimaginable experience, and makes us feel we are there.  By showing us the awful dehumanization of them, it humanizes us.

“Bent” was a derogatory term used in Europe at that time for homosexuals, but as this show drives home, it’s clearly the Nazis who were bent.

At the heart of the play is Max, a young homosexual who does little to hide his dangerous excesses while living in Berlin in the mid-1930s.  When the play opens, he has just awakened with a severe hangover from a night of boozing and cocaine and no memory of how he had embarrassed himself.  To the dismay of his partner, Rudy, he brought home a stranger, Wolf, for a night of sexual pleasure.

The timing was fateful.  It was the Night of the Long Knives, in the summer of 1934, when leaders of the paramilitary Brownshirts, the Stormtroopers, were rounded up, because Hitler saw them as a threat as did the official German army.  Up to that point, Hitler had tolerated homosexuals, given that a number of the Brownshirt leaders and soldiers were homosexuals, but suddenly the winds changed.  This shift is captured by an SS captain and a fellow soldier coming after Wolf in Max’s apartment.  Max and Rudy flee for their lives

This is the point at which the play kicks into gear, first in an encounter with Greta, a closeted male homosexual who runs a cabaret, performs in drag, and has little empathy for them.  And then in a tense scene between Max and his Uncle Freddie, who calls himself a fluff and preserves his place in the family by being discrete about his homosexuality.

It slowly becomes clear that this play, among other things, is about how hatred breeds hatred, as victims try to protect themselves by turning on those even less fortunate than they are.

This vicious cycle reaches its nadir on a train to Dachau concentration camp as Max tells of winning a yellow Jewish star, which he has reason to believe will make him safer than a pink homosexual triangle, by committing an utterly degrading act.  All his life, he has survived by deal making.

And then we see him carry out one of the most morally repugnant deals imaginable.  This is not a play for children or the squeamish.

The second act addresses the issue of how the endless cycle of hatred can be broken.  It takes place in a corner of Dachau where Max, with his yellow star, and Horst, wearing a pink triangle, are forced to move a pile of rocks from one place to another and back again, over and over, for no reason other than to wear them down and drive them mad.  We slowly see the humanization of Max.  It involves a scene for which this play is known in which Max and Horst have a sexual experience with each other while standing at attention unable to touch.

Director Mark Usher has done a superb job of keeping the play extremely intense most of the time and drawing great performances out of a number of his actors.  Evan Bernstein is terrific as Max, mining his character’s many emotions, most of them dark, with tremendous honesty.  He clearly understands that his job is not to impress us with his performance, but make us feel as if we are there by his embodying Max’s emotions with all of their grit and nuance.  In doing so, he’s more convincing than I remember Richard Gere being in the role of Max on Broadway in 1980.

Ian Schleifer as Horst is excellent at creating the sense of a more frail inmate than Max who persistently and playfully tries to pry open Max’s heart.  Both he and Bernstein make us feel the severe heat, cold, and exhaustion their characters experience.

Ed Siegal is brilliant in his cameo performance as Freddie, capturing all of his restraint, superiority and fear.  Kurt Lusas gives the Captain a chilling, sophisticated ruthlessness.

Kevin Morin is a little one-dimensional as Rudy in the opening scene, but he becomes considerably more layered and focused as the danger increases.  Will Todisco is poignant as Greta but also might have plumbed the depths of the role a little more.

The production drags a bit in the second act, partly due to the endless moving of the rocks.  But for the most part, this show is incredibly compelling and one of Hovey’s best in quite a while.

Doug Cooper’s set is appropriately simple, with moveable sets of poles attached to benches in the first act and a large pile of heavy rocks with an ominous fence as a backdrop in the second act.  Portraits of Hitler and the Nazi swastika and flag on the sides remind us how one person can set so much hatred into motion, if it’s not resisted.

Intellectually, we know many of the tragic facts of this chapter of history.  But experiencing them emotionally by empathizing with characters on a stage reaches us at an entirely different level.  Especially when the show is as well done as Hovey’s “Bent.”

WHAT:

“Bent” by Martin Sherman

WHEN:

Through March 26

WHERE:

Hovey Players, 9 Spring St. at Joel’s Way, Waltham

COST:

$16; $14 for students and seniors

INFO:

781-893-9171_www.hoveyplayers.com_

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