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Theater Blitz — An Attack of Catch-Up Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I needed a break from the keyboard. Apologies that shows that went uncovered, especially those that are about to receive belated favorable reviews, but critics, contrary to popular belief, are human too, and there was other writing I wanted to do.

Namely, finishing four creative pieces I’ve been working on, two fictional, one semi-fictional, the other documentary, and working on my latest enthusiasm, a play. I’m actually excited about it. It started out as a joke, between me and me, and it blossomed into a romantic comedy that accomplishes the satire I wanted. Now to get it, and the other compositions to where they are ready for daylight.

The theater hasn’t been forgotten. How could it be? My appetite for it remains ravenous. My interest in it has no limit. My thinking about it never stops. My appreciation is like a fan’s. I love a great performance, and I enjoy being exposed to a different mind 200 times a year.

I have the commentator’s bug, and though I kept it dormant for the summer, I am ready to resume.

The best way is to do a genuinely short blurb about everything, some of which might be running.

 

Here goes, as usual in alphabetical order.

 

BLITHE SPIRIT, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival — Nothing beats watching actors at the top of their game biting into crunchy material and whipping it into a tasty delight. Ian Merrill Peakes doesn’t miss a beat as Charles Condomine, the man who plans a séance and ends up conjuring his late first wife much to the chagrin of the second. The glory of Peakes’s performance is how well he holds his character and doesn’t give into posing or doing comic shtick while conveying all of the froth and laughter with which Noel Coward endowed this piece. Anne Lewis’s direction is crisp, finding the right tone between comic mayhem and the brittle sophistication of the wealth and well-education as devised by The Master. Peakes is the best of a great cast that includes the always reliable Eleanor Handley, constantly showing a new color of her acting palette as she creates characters for Pennsylvania Shakespeare and the Bristol Riverside Theatre, and wonderfully prim but equally discomfited Karen Peakes as Ruth, and the plausibly madcap Linda Thorson as Madame Arcati. Carl Wallnau and Joyce Cohen contribute as the Condomines’ friends and neighbors, but it the splendid timed and executed byplay between Peakes, Handley, and Peakes, that makes Lewis’s production such a rollicking and exhilarating a success. Especially in the scene in which Handley first materializes as Elvira, and Karen Peakes cannot understand when Ian’s Charles is talking to her or his difficult former wife. Thorson, sure hand that she’s always been, has some dishy moments when Madame A, goes into trances or gets giddy when she senses ectoplasm and knows how skilled she’s been at summoning a spirit from the undiscovered country from whose bourn a traveler named Elvira returned. Lewis and cast never flag. They get full mileage from Coward without ever forcing a joke or overplaying a line. Grade: A

 

Boeing Boeing -- interiorBOEING BOEING, Hedgerow Theatre — It’s difficult to tell which actor provides the most comic energy in Damon Bonetti’s lively and funny production of this farce, reclaimed from the trash heap of the discarded by a brilliant 2008 production that informs Hedgerow’s. Mark Swift has shown his dexterity and ability to move in a split nanosecond, but he adds to touch of small town innocence to his physical agility and wrings extra laughs from the innocence and ordinariness of his confused and ultimately disruptive character. While Swift plays with rubber legged zeal and puppyish ingenuousness, Andrew Parcell displays chic, if challenged urbanity, as a man who is successfully keeping three airline stewardesses, circa 1960, as mistresses by juggling their flight schedules. Parcell reminds of a young Robert Cummings or even Cary Grant, able to maintain his Parisian sangfroid while panicking and joining Swift in the physical aspects of Bonetti’s staging. Then there’s the amazing and thrillingly entertaining Trice Baldwin (a.k.a. Browns), who steals this “Boeing Boeing” from its astounding male leads with her deadpan turn as a housekeeper who enjoys being disagreeable but does everything as if Parcell’s hectic household was a paragon of orderliness. Baldwin is especially effective in scenes in which her character loses her cool and turns manic or even ecstatic. She excels as the formidable Gorgon but gives texture to her performance by being suddenly kind or turning more suddenly, and more uncharacteristically, into a coquette. One that outdoes the stewardesses. Bonetti paces his production expertly and Swift, Parcell, and Baldwin provide the consistent pillars that make each of the “stews” effective in their alternating sequence. Beyond pace, Bonetti creates suspense at perfect moments, suspense that is as hilarious as it is unnerving. All of the mistresses are played well, but Hannah Gaffney gets extra marks as the sexy but feistily temperamental Italian from Al Italia. Meredith Beck is boisterous as the shrewd American “fiancée. Allison Bloechl does some stormtrooping with both Parcell and Swift as a heady German from Lufthansa. Grade: A-

 

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, Delaware Shakespeare Festival — Uncharacteristically, David Stradley’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” runs away with itself, so the pith of the farce doesn’t take hold as firmly as it might. Costumes allow you to distinguish the twins Antipholus and Dromio, one from the other, but Stradley’s production never involves you in the plot. The emphasis is on the physical comedy, which is played well, especially by Sean Close, but at the expense of easily following all that is going on and whom it involves. No actor disappoints. The pace of the show is quick, and it hurries past some of the subtleties, few though they are, Shakespeare provides. Matters never seem to have the time to settle or take hold. It isn’t so much that the production is confusing as it speeds by so quickly, it doesn’t invite you to pay attention or follow along. Farce overrides substance, which if played more carefully, would have the production funnier. The actors, in general, do well. Luke Brahdt continues to impress with his range. He has been this season as an adolescent, as a fop, as an intense politician in a musical, and now as the put-upon Antipholus who is thwarted and unrecognized in his hometown, Ephesus, because his lookalike brother, from Syracuse, has landed in Ephesus while on a journey searching for his twin. That search is begun to please a pining father whose life is in peril in Ephesus. In this production, all that is confusing seems too clearly logical. Two and two should be put together faster in the minds of the characters, especially because two of them know they are looking for their twin. Brahdt nicely anchors his scenes, as does Savannah Jackson as Luciana, sister-in-law to one Antipholus and wooed, disturbingly, by the other. Danielle Lenée is another who has shown range in several roles, most recently in Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” and she does a nice fussy job as the local Antipholus’s wife, Adrianna. As mentioned, Sean Close is great verbally and physically in his comic turn as Dromio of Syracuse. His Ephesian counterpart, Brian Reisman, is also deft and entertaining. Brendan Moser also has a sure comic touch as Antipholus of Syracuse. James Reilly is impressive in supporting roles. Grade: C+

 

THE DIVINE SISTER, Bucks County Playhouse — Charles Busch’s play has a plot, but is more a comic pageant simultaneously doing homage and lampooning numerous movies featuring nuns in leading roles. “The Trouble With Angels” (Rosalind Russell) in the main model, but smatterings of “The Song of Bernadette,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” and “The Sound of Music” find their way into Busch’s script that is a series of smart one-liners more than dialogue (although it has one marvelous speech, delivered magnificently by Jennifer Van Dyck as a bitter dowager who reminds one more of “Suddenly Last Summer’s” Violet Venable than any nun (although Gladys Cooper from “Bernadette” comes to mind). Busch makes camp entertaining both as a writer and an actor, and he is wonderfully abetted by frequent members of his company, Julie Halston, who has the truculence and patois of the Manhattan reporter and femme fatale her character, now cloistered, once was, and Alison Fraser, who speaks in a slushy German accent that isn’t always intelligible but constantly hilarious. Erin Maguire is excellent as a young nun that demonstrates exceptional powers (read “Agnes of God,” especially because Maguire’s character is named Agnes). One of director Carl Andress’s wittiest touches is to have Maguire enter, in a modern skirt and half wimple, both in a tasteful tweed accented by a white blouse, and whirl about the stage, arms outstretched, like Julie Andrews’s Maria von Trapp coursing through the Alps in “The Sound of Music.” Inspired! “The Divine Sister” does have a plot, and it’s actually a decent one, for all that it matters. Busch and company are having and providing fun. Heaven bless them, they do it with panache and aplomb. Grade: B

 

I AM NOT MY MOTHERLAND, Orbiter 3 at Christ Church Neighborhood House — Emily Acker’s play shares the same flaw I’ve noticed in so much new writing, whether in full production or it readings this season. It posits an idea and thinks the idea is enough to make a play, make a point, and hold an audience while the idea never develops, and you’re left with bald simplicity that has no outlet and no impact. Pardon me for being the Grinch here, but with the possible exception of Doug Williams’s “Moon Cave,” I’ve yet to a see a new piece by a Philadelphia playwright I’d agree to produce if I had a theater. This has to be said. We’re too easy on our young-un’s, and if they are praised beyond their due, they’ll never learn. (Bruce Graham is, of course, exempt from this lambast, especially since “Funnyman” and “White Guy on the Bus” are among his finest works ever. I am beginning to believe that to be an interesting young writer, you have to have the first name, Rachel, as if Kushner, Cusk, and Bonds, the last being the playwright and one of the few whose works are deep and complete and give hope to playwriting.) Tirade over, “I Am Not My Motherland” fails because, in spite of some interesting scenes, most of which involve a supporting character played by Brian Anthony Wilson, and some good acting by Hannah Gold and Isabella Sazak, the core of the play, how international politics may filter into non-political relationships, doesn’t take hold. There’s no sense that one character tried to sabotage another because one is Palestinian and one is Israeli. Acker’s attempts to make this case and make in poignant turns out to smack of the same simplisticness, naivety, and shallowness you find in most Facebook threads involving politics. The subject Acker chooses is interesting and certainly ripe for drama, but the fruit is not ready for the picking in “I Am Not My Motherland,” and Acker never convinces that the story she’s telling is the story that happened. Another thing Rachel Bonds does better than most new playwrights is use 90 minutes — I call most new plays “the 90-minute wonders. ” Acker uses a technique of starting and restarting scenes, sometime changing the tenor of the exchange, that is more flash than substance. I don’t mean to pick particularly on Acker or this play, but there comes a time at which a demand for real quality has to be made and, frankly, my dears, I have not seen it. Anywhere. (Even Williams’s “Moon Cave,” which had insight, seemed abbreviated and unfinished.) Grade: D

 

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival — Lightning, alas, did not strike two years in a row when it came to Pennsylvania Shakespeare’s grand experiment of mounting one of the Bard’s pieces without a director in a short time period (one week) while letting the actors decide all, including costumes, as they would have in Shakespeare’s time. Last season’s “Pericles” showed the grandeur and excitement possible in this approach. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” fares better than the initial attempt at shotgun Shakespeare, “Henry VIII,” but it seemed disjointed and often too jaunty for its own good. The comedy seemed self-conscious instead of natural, and while some individual performances — Spencer Plachy as the king, Justin Ariola as Dull, Christopher Patrick Mullen as Costard, Peter Danelski as Moth, and Wayne Turney as Boyet — showed distinction and moved the action forward, most of the production seemed haphazard and unfocused. You certainly get the gist of “Love’s Labour’s,” but you also see a young playwright working at his mechanics more than you should. The production did seem thematic, as the company’s “Julius Caesar” did. Ah, well, the experiment remains worthy, “Pericles” being a testament to its potential, and Pennsylvania Shakespeare had a four-for-five season, with the favorable four being outstanding, and certainly did not embarrass itself or cheat its audience with “Love’s Labour’s.” Grade: C-

 

RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH, People’s Light & Theatre Company — For the second season in a row, People’s Light, with the help of performer David Lutken and the direction of Sherry Lutken, has mounted a show that gives a light bio of a performer while presenting a catalog of his music. Last year, it was Woody Guthrie that benefited from the Lutkens’ magic. This year it was Johnny Cash, the Lutkens doing well with a script by a master, Richard Maltby, Jr. What worked in both the Guthrie opus and “Ring of Fire” is a sure sense of when to be folksy, when to be sophisticated, and when to let simple storytelling and diligent presentation of music speak for itself. It is the assurance of these Lutken shows that impresses. Nothing plays as corny even though there are sequences that can certainly lapse into that trap. Many things play as beautiful, even when they are homespun. These productions thrive on folk dance and the idea of having a good time with music. The entire cast can be found accompanying each other, and the stage often whips up into a hootenanny of generous proportion and fine-tuned talent. You savor these pieces. They are so smooth, so theatrically smart, and so varied, you go with them and look forward to the next sequence or beat. Several performers takes turns playing Mr. Cash. Sam Sherwood is especially good in the role and aces everything he does on the People’s Light stage. Fine work is also provided by Lutken, John Brown, Neil Friedman, Deb Lyons, and the always delightful Helen Jean Russell. Grade: A-

 

ROSEBURG, New City Stage at the Adrienne — In a curtain speech, the writer and director of “Roseburg,” Ginger Dayle tells the audience her play is a work in progress that took on steam in an intense week of creation, acquired more energy via cast input, and needs further editing and honing to be a finished product. Dayle’s was a worthy and cautionary warning because it prepared us for some disjointedness and clutter in “Roseburg” that needs fixing but doesn’t hide or mar the scope of all Dayle and company are trying to accomplish and that nonetheless addresses the subject of guns and gun control in the United States and the irony that Robert F. Kennedy made an impromptu speech that affected his outcome in the Oregon primary a month before his 1968 death, in Roseburg which would be the sight of a mass shooting decades later. Irony prevails in “Roseburg’s” script, but the salient, takeaway feature, is how far-ranging and complex the subject of guns and the 2nd Amendment are. Dayle offers all sides, including testimony from people who use guns safely and advocate the same. One of these is an instructor who refused to give shooting range access to the troubled young man who would eventually use automatic pistols and rifles to slaughter people in Roseburg. Dayle, while dealing primarily with the gun issue, also offers insight into RFK and his conduct of the Presidential campaign that could have propelled him to the White House following a victory in the California primary, after acknowledging which he was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan is a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. The perennially remarkable Russ Widdall scores as RFK. Joshua Tewell does well as his campaign advisor. The gem performance is given by Jackie DiFerdinando as the given-to-anger youth who become so distraught by various frustrations in his life, he is motivated to kill to make people pay for their alleged ill treatment of him before he perishes himself. Dayle, advertently or not, presents a character who shows the reason why mass murderers don’t just commit suicide but want to harm others as well. Kate Brighter and Kayla Tarpley also stick out in a generally fine cast. Grade: B

 

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival — Matt Pfeiffer is a gifted director who has a lot of ideas when it comes to staging comedy, particularly comedy that offers a cast the license to be physical. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” as in Pfeiffer’s production of “The 39 Steps” at Theatre Horizon, the director has to learn when half is enough and to edit some of his creativity. Every now and then, and more often now than then, Pfeiffer’s production of “Shrew” screamed of antics. These were well played by a deft and agile cast, but they often got in the way of an otherwise light but telling rendition of Shakespeare’s play led by Ian Merrill Peakes as Petruchio and Eleanor Handley as Katherine. Like Pfeiffer’s production, both are fine and move “Shrew” along entertainingly. This is a good production that benefits most when it puts farce aside and concentrates on the business of two people, but particularly Petruchio, using their will to create partnership and harmony in place of the petty tyrannies that characterize most marriages. Peakes and Handley are best when they are bedeviling each other, and the productions picks up steam when that happens. Although because of fine work from the supporting cast, some scenes in Baptista Minola’s house and the streets surrounding it are quite good. Dan Hodge is particularly remarkable as Tranio, the servant to Lucentio that is enlisted to take his employer’s place when Lucentio goes into disguise as a music teacher to better and more immediately woo Katherine’s sister, Bianca, with whom he has become smitten on sight. Hodge has none of the bumpkin in him. His Tranio takes on a tone that is superior, yet natural to the character and in no way self-consciously comic, to most of the learned gentry surrounding him in Shakespeare’s Padua. Hodge’s choices are especially felicitous because the breeding he conveys as Tranio playing Lucentio mirrors the sweetness and intelligence Brandon J, Pierce gives to Lucentio. With one addition. Pierce’s intelligence is youthful and sometimes impetuous and naïve. Hodge’s is seasoned and flourishing in reason and native common sense. (One point here. I have nothing against what is now called non-traditional casting, but when you have a script, even one by Shakespeare, which has a line that says two people resemble each other so closely, they can’t be told apart, e.g. Lucentio and Tranio, either cut the line that gives that information or don’t cast two actors, one black, one white, who can’t possibly live up to the textural advertising. Pierce and Hodge are highlights of Pfeiffer’s production, and there is no reason why both should not have their roles, but for logic’s sake, alter the script when you are making it illogical by otherwise worthy casting choices. No one had scruples about changing gender references or “father” to “mother” in casting Linda Thorson as Baptista Minola, written as a male character, so why be so sloppy about the line that says no one can tell Lucentio and Tranio apart when only an idiot would not be able to pick out their obvious difference. Anyone who mentions color blindness or political correctness about a matter so baldly preposterous can bask in his or her fashionable glory. Cast as you will, but notice when it foments stupidity and fix it.) Thorson, by the way, is a wonderful Minola, who conveys love and patience in tandem with frustration and exasperation. Grade: B-

 

THIRTEEN, Media Theatre — Jesse Cline has a knack for bringing out the best in performers and is especially good at developing young talent. Jason Robert Brown’s musical is a good one about coming of age, to the point of being more astute and more complete than much examples in the genre, and Cline and his young cast made it all affecting. The find here is Molly Sorenson, who bought a variety of qualities, musical and thespian, to the role of a town misfit who befriends a new kind only to be as disappointed by him as she is with everyone else. Sorenson was consistently genuine and never actory. Best of all, she delivered her lyrics in a way that showed she understood them and wanted her character’s feelings expressed fully. J.D. Triolo, the nonpareil of child actors locally, displayed his usual sincerity and sense of making material realistic. You can see him maturing into a more versatile performer, and he anchored this production beautifully. Two newcomers who had difficult roles because they had to find the humanity in the town tough kid and the comedy in the town’s disabled kid, come through wonderfully. Along with Triolo and Sorenson, I look forward to seeing further work from Michael Wells and Matt Saylor. Grade: B+

 

TOMMY & ME, Theatre Exile at Fringe Arts Theatre — Ray Didinger doesn’t have to prove he can tell a story. He’s been doing a magnificent job at that as a reporter for local newspapers and a commentator for Comcast SportsNet and WIP (94.1 FM). Didinger can speak on any sports topic, but the game that brought him fame and lasting attention is football. “Tommy & Me” is a lovely and elegiac look at how Didinger’s love for football developed — family tradition, discussions in his grandfather’s Southwest Philly bar — and his early admiration for one of the earliest of Eagles stars, Tommy McDonald. Although there are scenes with dramatic heft and value, “Tommy & Me,” in its finished form (or current draft, because I think there’s future life in it), smacks more of storytelling that playwriting. Matt Pfeiffer, as the adult Ray Didinger narrates much of what happens. Scenes intersperse with his talking, but it is the talking that propels the piece. It explains a lot while sequences with Tom Teti as the retired McDonakl add depth, interjections by Simon Kiley as the young (child) Ray Didinger adds humor and fun, and appearances by Ned Pryce as McDonald in his playing years add heart. In the long run, the narrative nature of the piece doesn’t matter, Didinger is so good, and received enough coaching from director Joe Canuso and consultant Bruce Graham, he keeps all that you hear compelling. Pfeiffer certainly aids in this. Kiley and especially Pryce are excellent, but the theatrical honors go to Tom Teti, who finds a line and a spirit for McDonald and holds it in a way the gives “Tommy & Me” texture and a character with dimension. Teti never makes you feel as if an actor is talking to you. He delves into McDonald’s character and gives you someone, and something, to watch, that goes beyond narration. Teti also scores with the Hall of Fame acceptance speech Didinger uses to frame his presentation. All satisfies, and that what counts. Especially, if like ma, and I think Tom Teti, you share Didinger’s adulation for Tommy McDonald, who never failed to make an Eagles game excited in the years when I was first learning to appreciate football. Grade: B+

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