The Huntington’s ‘The Art of Burning’ Smolders and Sparks

Adrianne Krstansky, Michael Kaye and Rom Barkhordar in The Huntington’s ‘Art of Burning’
Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

“The Art of Burning” by Kate Snodgrass. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Scenic Design: Luciana Stecconi; Lighting Design: Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Costume Design: Kate Harmon. Presented by The Huntington, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through February 12.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky), a frumpy middle-aged painter, opens Kate Snodgrass’ ‘The Art of Burning’ mid-conversation with her friend Charlene (Laura Latreille). “Sometimes we have to kill the things we love to save them,” she announces seemingly out of the blue. Charlene adds critical context. The two have just seen a production of “Medea” and are debriefing outside the theater.

In the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, Medea takes vengeance on her unfaithful husband Jason by murdering his new younger wife as well as her own two sons, after which she escapes to Athens to start a new life. To Charlene’s discomfort, Patricia not only sympathizes with Medea, she praises her.

“She saves her children,” Patricia explains. “She doesn’t want to but she has to. The world will make their lives miserable and she doesn’t want that. She loves them.” Patricia may look mousey, but she is a mouse that roars.

Under Melia Bensussen’s fast-paced direction, the audience is quickly brought up to speed as the brilliantly designed (Luciana Stecconi) and lit (Aja M. Jackson) set morphs into a conference room. This is the divorce war room. Patricia’s husband Jason (groan…) has – you guessed it! – left her for a younger woman (Vivia Font). Jason (Rom Barkhordar) has enlisted Mark (Michael Kaye), a family friend and Charlene’s husband, to mediate their contentious divorce despite glaring and unethical conflict of interest.

Adrianne Krstansky, Michael Kaye and Rom Barkhordar

While waiting for Jason to arrive, Patricia continues her tribute to Medea, much to Mark’s discomfort. The more Mark squirms, the more Patricia rhapsodizes. Adding to the slow burn are these facts: Patricia recently torched Jason’s antique desk on their front lawn and their divorce hinges on who will have custody of their 15-year-old daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis). As the animosity and toxicity of their marriage is revealed, the audience feels increasingly sorry for the teenager who must choose between these two. “Custody” in this context feels more like incarceration than protective caregiving.

Through Patricia’s unhinged tirades, Snodgrass seems to want us to wonder whether she is grandstanding or has become so untethered that she imagines herself a 21st century reincarnation of the Greek cuckolded princess. Unfortunately, the characters are too undeveloped and the play too full of clichés and tropes to create the kind of tension required to pull off this level of subtle, emotion-driven drama. Instead, the audience is served up a contemporary look at conflicted, flawed characters who are doing the best they can, more of a slow roasted marshmallow than daring flambé.

Which by no means suggests that the 85-minute intermission-less play should be ignored. Snodgrass raises important issues and the cast capably rises to the occasion. She adds meat to the play’s bones through the interactions between mediator Mark and Charlene (played with comic spunk by a splendid Latreille), who are going through their own marital bumps. Their scenes together bring a chemistry and ease that underscore the tedium of Patricia and Jason’s cardboard, rancorous  communication.

As Patricia, Krstansky delivers her pithy lines with a deadpan earnestness and impeccable timing that hints at the blaze raging inside her. The more controlled she appears, the more hysterical her character reads. Kudos to the talented actress for pulling off this marvelous feat.

Clio Contogenis, Krstansky

Her scenes with daughter Beth (Contogenis brings a welcome multi-dimension to the role) are among the most meaningful and poignant. Beth tries to explain to her mother that her anxiety and discomfort go way deeper than reactions to her parents’ divorce and normal teenage growing pains. She is that Gen-Z “woke” teen who viscerally feels the existential crisis of the world with every pulsating neuron in her body. She lives in a constant state of fear and disgust and marvels at the psychological trauma inflicted upon her by her clueless parents’ irresponsible childrearing.

Poor Beth, it seems, is the fulcrum of her parents’ dysfunctional marriage. How and why the two ever got together, let alone thought they could parent, becomes even more a mystery as Beth fills in the gaps.

Unlike Jason, Patricia finally listens — and really hears — her daughter after a pivotal interaction where she faults her Beth’s outfit for provoking sexual date abuse. “Guys never get blamed, Mom. You don’t know. You don’t get anything!” Beth cries. All Patricia can demurely offer is a heartfelt, “I’m just trying to help.” By the end of the play, the path these two bravely forge together is the most inspiring and meaningful of all the characters’ relationships, and the coals post-theater discussions love to fan. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/whats-on/the-art-of-burning/

Swampscott’s former Poet Laureate is always ready for inspiration

Lee Eric Freedman / SHELLEY A. SACKETT

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — The path of Swampscott Poet Laureate Emeritus Lee Eric Freedman’s life journey has been paved with happy accidents.

These stepping stones span more than 40 years. While attending Hadley School, his fourth-grade teacher (Mrs. Barrett) opened his eyes and ears to poetry. Her class had to memorize a Robert Frost poem, sparking a young boy’s lifelong love affair with poetry. To this day, Freedman can still recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Frost remains his favorite poet.

Later, when his high school best friend started a basement band, he listened to them play a song they had written. Freedman decided he could do better. His first poem was a song for them, a “rip-off” of Robert Frost and a new-wave band.

“I thought it was pretty good and that I could just keep writing poetry,” said Freedman.

While a biology major at Salem State, he worked as general manager of its radio station. There, he met the editor of the school’s literary magazine, “Soundings East,” who encouraged him to submit one of the many poems just sitting in folders in his dorm room. It was accepted, and he was invited to give a student reading.

“I thought I was the greatest poet ever,” he admitted with a shy grin.

It was the first time Freedman had wielded a microphone, sharing words he had penned with a live audience, and the headiness he experienced electrified him. He was hooked.

He started frequenting open mics in Salem, Marblehead, and Lynn and wrote for Salem’s Deacon Giles Café’s “This Magazine.” He is a charter member and current president of Tin Box Poets, a poetry workshop group that still meets once a month at Panera in Swampscott. “I’ve become such a better poet through them,” he said of the group he helped start in 2017. He remains active in the North Shore poetry scene, performing regularly at the Lynn Walnut Café’s Speak Up and other venues.

Freedman’s love for live readings and for his native Swampscott would soon share common ground. In 2017, ReachArts, Swampscott’s new artistic hub, signed a two-year lease with the town for the former senior center on Burrill Street. When a board member reached out to him about starting an open mic, Freedman jumped at the chance. He has hosted the monthly First Friday Open Mike Night since 2018.

Which leads to Freedman’s most recent “happy accident” and COVID silver lining: The expansion of his open mic from its community audience to a global network that recently included 31 participants from India, Denmark, Greece, Singapore, Scotland, Canada, and the United States. Like most in-person gatherings, ReachArts open mic had to transition from live to virtual meetings after March 2020. Although mastering the ins and outs of running Zoom gatherings was a challenge, Freedman is overjoyed by the rewards.

“We went from this tiny local thing to a global thing,” he said. Freedman has attended open mics in other countries around the world, making connections that yielded additional rewards. His poems have been published in anthologies in Bangladesh through an Indian publisher he met online.

Freedman is no stranger to accolades; the three-time Naomi Cherkofsky Memorial Contest winner has been published in magazines, anthologies, and curated poetry quarterlies. When asked what he’s proudest of, he doesn’t hesitate: being Swampscott’s Poet Laureate.

The brainchild of educator and Swampscott resident Sami Lawler, the town’s Poet Laureate program was launched in 2014. Lawler became aware that many towns in Massachusetts had Poet Laureates and, as an elementary school teacher in Swampscott, wanted to support and encourage her students to enjoy writing while also recognizing community writers.

“Our town was noted for its fine athletic programs and Marblehead was known for its support of the arts. I felt that writing was also a gift many of our own residents possessed,” she said.

Candidates for Poet Laureate would submit three poems that a panel of three judges would rank. Lawler approached the town selectmen and received approval for both an adult and K-4 student Poet Laureate. For the first few years, the winners would open Town Meeting by reading their poems. Freedman, who, as a Pisces, attributes much of his inspiration to Fisherman’s Beach, read, “Fisherman’s Beach Wet.”

Lawler was happy when Freedman was chosen by the panel in 2016. “Aside from his dynamic and versatile poetry writing, Lee Eric is a vital town poetry organizer and supporter through his oral poetry and leading the Tin Box poets,” she said. “Lee Eric’s dedication to the art and expression of poetry makes him a perfect town poetry representative.”

She and Freedman worked together after his Poet Laureate tenure to keep poetry at the forefront in town. Freedman also ran poetry workshops in Lawler’s classes, where the students would create poems and then read them out loud. “It was a blast,” he said.

Growing up, Freedman and his family (parents Norma and Sherman and brothers Gary and Brad) attended Temple Beth El in Swampscott, where he continued his post-Bar Mitzvah education through confirmation. Although Freedman describes himself as “not religious,” his Jewish identity is important to him and crops up from time to time in his poetry.

Freedman is not one of those disciplined poets who set specific times and places to write. “I can’t follow a rule. It doesn’t work for me,” he said. Instead, he waits for inspiration to strike. He has taken lots of notes during his current job as a school crossing guard, and might mine that trove for future poems.

“It’s just the luck of the draw. I don’t plan it. I can’t help it. It’s just the way I work,” he said.

For more information about ReachArts and First Friday Open Mic Night, visit reacharts.org

Lyric Stage’s Genre-Defying ‘Preludes’ Is A Trip

Cast of ‘Preludes’ at Boston Lyric Stage

by Shelley A. Sackett

I readily admit I am one of those theatergoers who enjoys plot, dialogue and purpose. You can throw in all the special effects, time warp gimmickry and non sequiturs you want, but they are the icing, not the cake. You can give me experimental, but don’t leave out the context.

So it took me some time to figure out exactly what was going on in ‘Preludes.’ In fact, it took me until intermission when I both googled a synopsis and read the playbill’s fine print.

The setting of Dave Malloy’s mash up of musical and drama is inside the mind of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. The play opens in 1900 Moscow. “Rach” (Dan Prior) is having a bad day. In fact, he’s had a bad three years’ worth of bad days, starting with the ruinous premiere of his “First Symphony.” Critics viciously panned the piece (and the drunk conductor), leaving Rach in a creative void, wondering if he would ever write again.

Dan Prior and Aimee Doherty

He also fears that his wildly successful “Prelude in C-sharp Minor,” which he wrote as a 19-year-old, was the sum total of his career. Does he have talent or only luck? Was that the best piece he will ever pen? And most importantly, how did he do it?

At the urging of his frustrated fiancée, piano teacher Natalya (Kayla Shimizu), Rach visits hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (Aimee Doherty) for help clawing his way out of this black hole of asphyxiating self-doubt and paralyzing writer’s block. Dahl puts him into a trance and, with the audience in lock step, Rach takes a tour of every trauma that paved his path to the present.

Although this is no yellow brick road, the journey is peppered with its own version of winged monkeys, wicked witches and ruby red shoes. People float in and out of Rach’s internal world of jumbled stream of consciousness and disorienting ordeals. Chekhov Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy (all played by the always fabulous Will McGarrahan) show up, offering varying degrees of encouragement and torture. Where does art come from? they ask unhelpfully.

Prior, Kayla Shimizu

Against the gossamer confusion of Rach’s mind are shimmering tidbits of actual plot. His impending marriage to his first cousin Natalya requires the permission of the Czar, and the two discuss and plan their audience with him. Rach’s personal and professional struggles are likewise real and earthbound.

And then there is the brilliance behind Malloy’s use of music and musicians as integral parts of his theatrical vision. A Liberace-worthy white piano occupies center stage. Dan Rodriguez (also Musical Director), in formal attire, plays a combination of Rachmaninoff, Malloy and Rachmaninoff/Malloy hybrid pieces throughout the two hour (one intermission) production. (Thank goodness the volume was lower during the second act. It drowned out the actors during the first half, adding to audience frustration).

A heartbeat like rhythm is a cloud cover for the stage. The use of classical, electro-pop and musical loops lend an excitement and wildness. The 13 musical numbers give Malloy and the actors a chance to show their musical chops. Every duet is resplendent, especially those with Prior and Shimizu. Anthony Pires, Jr. is a showstopper as Chaliapin, his movements as lithe as his baritone is full-bodied.

Although ‘Preludes’ floats in the metaphorical ephemeral, it also celebrates Rachmaninoff’s music, legacy and determination to find his own creative agency. Malloy and Lyric Stage Company have given us an opportunity to expand our theatrical horizons, loosen the reins and just go with the flow, and for that we thank them. For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/show-item/preludes/

‘Preludes’ — Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestration by Dave Malloy. Directed by Courtney O’Connor; Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design by Shelley Barish; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through February 5.

Fablemeister Spielberg Spins Gold With ‘The Fablemans.’

Gabriel LaBelle stars in “The Fablemans.” COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES

By Shelley A. Sackett

According to Tolstoy, all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Since his cinematic directorial debut in 1974, Steven Spielberg has explored that notion with “The Sugarland Express,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and more. He is arguably as known for capturing the slow burn of internal stories about broken families as he is for thrilling with his explosive, external, blockbuster special effects of sharks, UFOs and ferocious dinosaurs.

With “The Fablemans,” Spielberg turns his master storytelling camera inward and recreates his own Jewish middle-class upbringing. Through his films and in countless interviews, he has made no secret that his parents’ divorce when he was 19 left an indelible mark, and that comes through loud and clear in the film. Yet, in inimitable Spielberg style, this fictionalized autobiography seamlessly fuses a child’s wide-eyed, tender sentimentality with an adult’s unblinking eye that pierces through the gauzy coziness to reveal an underbelly of dysfunction.

This being a movie – cowritten with the brilliant Tony Kushner – by and about Spielberg, it begins at the exact place and moment where he considers his life began: at the movies. It is 1952, and 8-year-old Spielberg stand-in Sammy is being dragged to his first film by his father, Burt (Paul Dano) and mother, Mitzi (the always luminous Michelle Williams). That film, Cecile B. DeMille’s epic “The Greatest Show on Earth,” ends with a spectacular train crash that was created with miniatures.

Sammy is speechless, which his practical, computer engineer father and imaginative, classically trained pianist mother interpret according to their temperaments. Burt, who assumes Sammy is frozen with fear, scientifically explains about persistence of vision and 24 frames per second. Mitzi, tuned in to the magic and mysteries of life, gets why Sammy is thunderstruck. “Movies are dreams,” she knowingly whispers in his ear.

Sammy remains obsessed with the train crash, and for Hanukkah receives what he has unambiguously requested – a model train set. Burt is delighted his son has taken an interest in something mechanical. That delight evaporates, however, when Sammy unveils the real reason behind his request: He wants to recreate the finale train crash sequence over and over again.

In the first glimmer of family tension, his parents react in different ways. Infuriated, Burt chides Sammy for not appreciating “nice things.” Mitzi encourages her son’s creativity and suggests he shoot the train crash with Burt’s Kodak movie camera so he can rewatch it as many times as he wants without pummeling the trains into dust.

Sammy shoots his film with the multiple, dynamic angles and innate editing skills that Mitzi recognizes as genius and that will set the trajectory of his life’s passion and profession. One can’t help wondering what Spielberg’s career might have looked like if his first film had been “High Noon,” “Monkey Business” or “Singin’ in the Rain,” also 1952 mega releases.

When the film switches gears and decades and enters the Fablemans’ home in New Jersey, we are introduced to the rest of the tight-knit family through teenage Sammy’s eyes. Played by the sensitive and understated Gabriel LaBelle, he now has better filmmaking equipment, which he uses to chronicle the clan and their unguarded interactions.

Burt’s kvetching mother, Hadassah (a spot-on Jeannie Berlin) is sharp-tongued, immune to boundaries and insightful. She is a toxic foil to her daughter-in-law’s mercurial ways. Williams plays Mitzi, the heart and human dynamo of the film, with open translucence and an uncanny ability to channel her emotions onto her face. Burt (Dano) is exquisitely subtle – decent, stable and boring – and is no match for his wild-child wife. Filling that role is hale and hearty Bennie (the affable, huggable Seth Rogan), Burt’s work friend and an honorary Fableman. Only Hadassah, who is also part soothsayer, picks up on the chemistry between Bennie and Mitzi, foreshadowing the trouble to come.

Burt’s promotions take the family (and Bennie) to Arizona, where Sammy continues to hone his skills and figure out the power his movies can have to placate, manipulate, woo, glamorize and humiliate. His introduction comes when Burt demands he postpone shooting a scheduled war film and instead make a film about their recent camping trip to cheer up Mitzi, whose mother just died. “You’ll learn how the editing machine works,” he coaxes, adding as an irresistible kicker, “It’ll make your mother feel better.”

While editing, Sammy uncovers indisputable proof of the intimate relationship between Bennie and his mother, unleashing what he recognizes will be gales of destruction rather than the gentle winds of healing his father envisioned.

Shortly thereafter, Burt moves the family to California (this time without Bennie) and the film shifts gears and focus, becoming more plot-driven as Sammy navigates life as the only Jewish kid in a school dominated by antisemitic jocks and Mitzi tries – and fails – to navigate life without Bennie.

Scene-stealing cameos by David Lynch (as movie director John Ford) and Judd Hirsch (as Mitzi’s circus performer and storyteller Uncle Boris) play to a crowd Spielberg already has eating out of his hand.

More than a stroll down one man’s memory lane, however, “The Fablemans” is also a magical mystery tour about life and its inherent beauty and messiness. It’s about figuring out who you are, what makes you happy, and then going for it, full steam ahead. “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth. But it’ll tear your heart out and leave you lonely,” warns Uncle Boris. “Art is no game.”

Luckily for his gazillions of fans, Spielberg was up to the challenge. He recognized his own talent and followed his passion, leaving his mark on his own brand of cinematic gold in crowd-pleasing films – like ‘The Fablemans’ – that leave audiences sated, entertained. and smiling through their tears. Θ

High Spirited ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ Marks Front Porch’s First Solo Production

Cast of ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ by The Front Porch Arts Collective at Suffolk University Modern Theatre

By Shelley A. Sackett

The architectural bones of Suffolk University’s Modern Theater are a set made to order for ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ the first solo production by The Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company whose previous presentations have been in collaboration with other larger companies.

With its dark wood pews and balconies and Cluny-esque murals, we feel like part of a congregation even before the setting shifts from Reverend Reginald and Baneatta Mabry’s New Haven home to the sunlit church where Reginald will preside over the funeral of revered Pastor Bernard (“B”) Jenkins, his former father-in-law.

The play opens in the Mabry home, with Baneatta and Reginald preparing to attend Bernard’s funeral. Baneatta sits alone, having a private tête-a-tête with God, with Whom she is on intimate and joking terms. Within easy eavesdropping distance, the audience gets the lay of the land. All is not peace and love between Baneatta and her younger sister, Beverly, who buttoned-up Baneatta describes as a wild woman. The two have not seen each other in a while and, based on that most recent encounter, Baneatta anticipates the worst.

Reginald comes downstairs, interrupting Baneatta’s conversation. With B’s passing, Reginald inherited his pulpit. Bernard’s funeral is his first lead sermon in this new role, and he’s as nervous as his wife, but for different reasons. B was the glue that held both family and church together, leaving Reginald with pretty big shoes to fill. That his opening act will be B’s eulogy is daunting enough without the threat that the two rivalrous sisters will be at each other’s throats.

“Today should be a day of memory and healing for the family, not chaos,” he reminds Baneatta, offering her the chance to talk.

“I already talked about it with Jesus,” she replies, to her husband’s visible relief.

The scene shifts to Beverly and her 15-year-old daughter La’Trice as they get ready for the funeral, and we immediately understand the Mabry’s trepidation. Beverly is smoking a cigarette in her nonsmoking hotel room, defiantly blowing the smoke out an opened window. She is as brazen, brassy and flamboyant as Baneatta is proper, reserved and patrician. She is a spitfire to be reckoned with and she is also VERY loud.

For her father’s funeral, she has chosen a sausage-casing tight and revealing blue lounge singer dress and rhinestone studded belt and stilettos (Costume design by Zoe Sundra) . Even her aspiring rapper daughter, dressed in raggedy chic hip hop, asks if she maybe should tone it down a bit. Beverly will hear none of it. This funeral is a celebration, she says; and besides, there may be some good husband hunting to be had.

Rounding out the family are Kenny, Reginald and Baneatta’s gay son, and his sister Simone.  Kenny has brought his white, Jewish partner Logan to the funeral, hoping that his mother and sister will finally accept him for who he is, as his grandfather did. Simone, unlucky in love and as serious and perfection-obsessed as her mother, is nursing a recently trampled heart, searching for her lost self-esteem.

There is also a shadow lurking in the wings, a mysterious series of phone calls from someone Baneatta does not want to hear from, especially not on the day of her daddy’s funeral. (No spoilers here!)

As the family gathers, each member’s backstory is exposed, along with their strengths and Achilles’ heels. The conversations leading up and after the funeral service are meaty and thought-provoking. La’Trice confides in Simone that she wonders if she would have turned out a different person if she had known her father, whom she has never met. Simone confesses to Kenny that after her Black boyfriend dumped her for a white girl, she stopped eating for three months. “I can’t understand why God would want me to hurt this way,” she tells him.

For his part, Kenny wants to be open and accepted, something his mother and sister have refused to do. “A life style is something you choose. My sexuality is who I am,” he explains to Simone. “How do you find yourself while you’re trying to hide yourself?”

While the family may present as dysfunctional and unhealable, Reginald’s brilliant eulogy and each member’s parting words show how much their father and grandfather touched each of their lives. “You weren’t perfect, but you loved us perfectly,” Baneatta shares.

The play, however, and especially this production, is a lot more than somber reflections on family dynamics. God, shame, love, loyalty, joy, secrets and empathy are all given their moment in the sun.

It is also a hilarious dramedy with a script full of belly laughs. When the mysterious caller shows up at the funeral, a slow-motion meltdown of destruction set to a Rap song ensues. Thanks to Lyndsay Allyn Cox’s direction and her talented cast, there are also engaging performances all around. Robert Cornelius brings his honeyed baritone and charismatic presence to the role of Reverend Reginald Mabry. Jacqui Parker plays Baneatta with grace, gravitas and soul. She is the cornerstone of ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ and Parker commands the stage, grounding and centering the play from start to finish.

Thomika Bridwell gives it her all — and then some — when playing the irrepressible side of Beverly, but truly shines when modulating and portraying her quieter, more contemplative counterpart.

Lorraine Kanyike brings a freshness to La’Trice, and Adrian Peguero and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer stand out as siblings no longer rivalrous. But it is Mishka Yarovoy who chews up the scenery as Logan, Kenny’s neurotic Woody Allenesque partner whose spot on physical comedy is matched by his impeccable timing.

Erik D. Diaz’s economical and effective set magically transforms the Mabry home into a church by removing of a few panels to replace windows overlooking a tree-lined street with stained glass panes. M. Berry’s lighting design and Anna Drummond’s sound design complete the effect.

By the end of the one hour and 45 minute (no intermission) performance, the audience has bonded with this family and is ready to join them in their cathartic denouement of digging into chicken, biscuits and all the fixings, Bernard’s favorite dinner. After all, we’ve been riding shotgun on the messy journey that pulled them apart. It’s only fair that we share the glory too.

Chicken & Biscuits’ — Written by Douglas Lyons. Directed by Lyndsay Allyn Cox; Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by M. Berry; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by The Front Porch Arts Collective at Suffolk University Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., Run has ended.

‘Little Women: The Broadway Musical’ Is Another Home Run for Greater Boston Stage

Cast of ‘Little Women’ at Greater Boston Stage Company – L to R Sarah Coombs, Liza Giangrande, Amy Barker, Abriel Coleman, Katie Shults

‘Little Women: The Broadway Musical’ – Book by Allan Knee based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and Music by Jason Howland. Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Music Directed by Matthew Stern. Scenic Design by Shelley Barish. Lighting Design by Katie Whittemore. Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound Design by John Stone. Presented by the Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham through December 23.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Greater Boston Stage Company has a knack for picking the perfect material and director for its holiday offering. Last year, the musical, ‘All Is Calm,’ also directed and choreographed by the talented Ilyse Robbins, was a crowd pleaser that raised the bar and spoke to audience members of all faiths with a message that transcended the usual Christmas pablum. This year, with its flawless production of Little Women: The Broadway Musical, that bar got even higher. At 150 minutes (including intermission), the play didn’t seem too long, a feat in and of itself.

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four respectable sisters growing up poor but honest in Civil War-era Concord, MA, the musical follows the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. Their individual personalities bubble up from the get go. Meg (the riveting Sara Coombs) is the eldest and most traditional of the sisters, prim and proper but romantic and sweet-natured. Jo (Liza Giangrande, giving a grand performance), the willful, spirited center and Alcott proxy in her novel, “Little Women”, is a perfect musical-theater heroine. Equally driven to become a published author and challenge stereotypes about what it means to be a woman, she belongs on the masthead of Ms. Magazine.

Beth (third year Boston Conservatory at Berklee student Abriel Colemanis) is timid, musical, and selflessly encouraging and helpful. By contrast, Amy (Katie Shults) is the spoiled baby of the family, overindulged and used to getting her own way. Shults plays her perfectly, capturing her pouty, tantrum-prone outbursts without erasing her underlying puppy-like irresistibility. At the helm of this brood is Marmee (the rock solid Amy Barker), the backbone of the March family who manages to remain strong in spite of the difficulties she faces.

The play opens in New York, where Jo is living at Mrs. Kirk’s boarding house, trying to peddle her wild, swashbuckling stories to anyone who will listen to her pitch. Fritz Bhaer (subtly and effectively played by Kevin Patrick Martin), the sensible German professor also boarding with Mrs. Kirk, tries to persuades Jo that she is better than the “blood and guts stuff” she has chosen to write. She should try, he urges, to write more from her heart about what she knows.

In a magnificent flashback that establishes the cast’s astonishing vocal and physical abilities, Jo tells him about the “Operatic Tragedy” she wrote and had her family perform on Christmas one year. The actors bring Jo’s story to life in true melodrama form. Coombs, in particular, shines.

Thanks to a well-designed triptych set (Shelley Barish) and spot-on lighting (Katie Whittemore), the audience has no trouble following the action as it moves from the March home to New York to the March attic, which is Jo’s special writing cave.

Along the way, we are introduced to characters who add spice while moving the plot along. Wealthy Aunt March (a terrific Deanna Dunmyer) wants to take Jo under her wing and treat her to a tour of Europe, but only if she agrees to change from a tomboy to a proper society lady. Their duet, “Could You?” is as musically stunning as it is hilarious. Dunmyer steals every scene she is in with her acerbic wit and perfect, sing-song cadence.

When Meg and Jo are invited to a St. Valentine’s Day ball, they meet Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Kenny Lee, talented and poised beyond his years), the lonely and guileless boy next door who infiltrates the March sisterhood and becomes an honorary brother. He and Jo share an ease and intimacy that, unfortunately for Laurie, doesn’t translate into romance.

While hardly the most sophisticated or musically unforgettable show to hit Broadway (critics gave it a lukewarm reception when it played in 2005), the cast and crew at Greater Boston Stage hone in on its strengths and wring it dry. Robbins’ director and choreographer chops are on full display and Music Director Matthew Stern is worth his weight in gold. Gail Astrid Buckley’s period costumes add just the right touch.

But the real standing ovation goes to the universally airtight performances by an impeccable ensemble cast. What a gift to their audience, especially to this viewer, who has the enviable pleasure of writing an effusive review of a not-to-be-missed show. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Twas the Night Before…’ Is True Family Holiday Fare

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Twas the Night Before…’ at the Boch Center

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Twas the Night Before…, Cirque de Soleil’s first Christmas show, delivered a sunny holiday respite from the blinding rain last Wednesday night. But the 85-minute intermission-less show was more than just shelter from the storm — it was a family-friendly retelling of the familiar Christmas classic with all the thrill, glitz, and mind-boggling contortions that have become Cirque de Soleil trademarks.

The lighting, set design and costumes were nothing to sneeze at, either.

Inspired by Clement Clarke Moore‘s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicolas,” the updated Cirque version tells the story of teenaged Isabella (Alicia Beaudoin) and her journey from world weary self-absorbed indifference to renewed wide-eyed reverence and appreciation for the magic that is the Christmas spirit.

The show opens on Christmas Eve, and Isabella and her father (Benjamin Thomas Courtney) are set to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” as they do every year. Only this year, Isabella feels she is too cool for such an old fashioned and boring tradition. She is simply too trendy for her father and his outdated ways.

Alicia Beaudoin and Benjamin Thomas Courtenay

Her dad is frustrated that his once close relationship with his daughter has been disrupted by smart phones and social media. He hopes reading the poem together will rekindle Isabella’s passion for Christmas. He tries everything, but not even the gift of a bow-adorned bicycle can snap her out of her Scrooge-like mood.

Suddenly, like magic, the poem comes to life. A snowstorm comes out of nowhere, , separating Isabella and her father and sending them on a fantastic journey full of — you guessed it — circus performers.

And this is where the show really takes off.

Isabella wanders through this wonderland, and we walk in her shadow through an enchanted wonderland of tinsel arches (12,200 linear feet of garland) and piles of glistening snow (5,000 cubic feet, or five large dump trucks’ worth). Each change of hue in the lighting creates a new mood and dream-like charm, signaling a new act that is inspired by separate lines from the poem.

In the Land of the Poem, Isabella encounters the Straps Duo, an aerial act performed 20 feet in the air. Jolly the Juggler is a colorful and comedic character who befriends her and becomes her guide. The Acrobatic Table Act features naughty children who make a ruckus while waiting for Santa to arrive. Their charming striped pajama costumes with animal ear hoodies evoke children’s cake toppers come to life.

There is the saucy and spoiled starlet, Ava, who performs remarkable feats on a gilded luggage rack in a sequined outfit that makes her look like the gift she thinks she is. Two disco-clad green-haired roller skaters reach speeds up to 30 mph on a platform just six feet in diameter. Most remarkably, an artist is suspended by her hair, performing 100 turns at a top speed of seven turns per second. Clad in a silver sequined costume and palming globe lights, she is breathtaking, part spritely ballerina, part sexy Tinkerbelle.

There is a snowball fight that overflows into the audience, disco dancers, performers in the aisles and other tricks guaranteed to thrill the youngsters and keep them engaged. In short, it is good old-fashioned family entertainment with something for everyone.

Eventually, Isabella and her father reunite, and together they read aloud the familiar lines that introduce Santa’s reindeer — and the Cirque Hoop Divers, acrobats dressed in charming and effective gold lamé. They look like globs of human mercury as they sail through hoops as high as 10 feet and as small in diameter as 18 inches.

Although the recorded soundtrack is an energetic mixture of original and traditional Christmas, it is way too loud to enjoy. (I wish I had had earplugs. It was that loud). The costumes are, as always, superb and the makeup and hair departments bring life to the show’s colorful characters.

There would be no Cirque de Soleil without the remarkable cadre of Cirque performers who exact the super-human from their human bodies, and ‘Twas is no exception. “How do they do that?” my friend and I kept asking each other, knowing full well that for our earth bound selves, these questions were merely rhetorical.

‘Twas the Night Before…’ – Conceived and Directed by James Hadley. Production by Cirque de Soleil at Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., Boston through December 11.For more info and tickets, go to: https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/twas-the-night-before

Jewish Americana band Nefesh Mountain will light up the Shalin Liu stage for Hanukkah

Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg (with mandolin) and their band, Nefesh Mountain. NEFESHMOUNTAIN.COM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Doni Zasloff has always felt like a “spiritual cowgirl.”

The songs she and her husband, Eric Lindberg, write and sing for Nefesh Mountain – the band they co-founded – draw from Jewish history, tradition, and religion, but they work in a musical idiom that wouldn’t seem at all Jewish – bluegrass.

It all started in 2010, when Zasloff met guitarist and banjo player Lindberg. Raised in Brooklyn, he attended Hebrew school and synagogue. He also spent summers with his father’s relatives in North Georgia, playing music with his uncles and learning their southern traditional styles, like Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues.

Jewish music was a big part of Zasloff’s traditional Jewish childhood in Philadelphia, where she attended synagogue, Jewish schools and camps. She joined all the theater productions from her Jewish youth groups and learned to chant from the Torah and lead services at a very young age.

In 2010, the two started playing music together and Lindberg opened Zasloff’s eyes and ears to the beauty and depth of old time Americana music. They see their music as the perfect expression of their love and identity as American Jews.

“For us, these are all fragments of who we are as Jewish Americans,” Zasloff said by phone from her Montclair, N.J., home during a break from the band’s busy tour schedule. “It’s our story of wanting to be authentic and honest while putting love out into the world.”

Since 2016, Nefesh Mountain has released four albums: “Nefesh Mountain” (2016); “Beneath The Open Sky” (2018); “Songs for the Sparrows” (2021), and “Live From Levon Helm Studios: A Hanukkah Holiday Concert” (2021).

On Nov. 29, they will illuminate the Shalin Liu Performance Center stage in Gloucester with the kickoff concert for their 2022 Hanukkah Tour.

The tour grew out of the couple’s desire to stay on top of their careers as musicians during the pandemic lockdown of late 2020. They wanted to live-stream an event into people’s homes, and Hanukkah seemed like a good time to do it.

“Hanukkah is a celebration, and we wanted to bring some light into a very dark year and dark time for everybody,” Lindberg explained by phone.

The band got together at the Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. After their live presentation, they had all the audio recordings. “We thought, ‘Let’s just get it out there,’ ” Lindberg said, and they imprinted a CD and started streaming it on Spotify and other social and music media. In 2021, they took the album on the road with their first Hanukkah Holiday Concert Tour, which also opened at the Rockport venue.

“Touring is harder now than even before the pandemic, but it’s the only way to make a sound living as a musician,” Lindberg said, referring to the financial impact of streaming on artists. The model, he says, hasn’t changed in 100 years. “You come up with an album, go out on the road and meet people, and it becomes part of your career.”

Their repertoire (and the album) includes “Donna, Donna” and several by American folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie – who penned the music to a “baker’s dozen” of Hanukkah songs. “We’re kind of an Americana folk band, and it’s fun to bring this music to life within the context of what we do,” Lindberg said.

Lindberg specifically recalls recalled one Hanukkah from his youth when his parents played Harry Belafonte’s 1959 Caribbean version of “Henei Ma Tov” right after they lit the Hanukkah candles. He remembers listening to this song, watching the candles and feeling “this otherworldly thing. Wherever music transports us to is a place I feel lucky to go,” he said. “Donna, Donna,” based on an Eastern European Yiddish folk tale, has that same spirit that, to Lindberg, “fits the vibe of Hanukkah.”

Their 2012 album, “Songs for the Sparrow,” also evolved out of the couple’s shared experiences and Jewish heritage. American Songwriter described it as “arguably some of the best bluegrass ever made.”
In 2018, Zasloff and Lindberg took a trip to Poland and Ukraine, visiting many of the cities and towns where their ancestors had lived and met violent deaths during the Holocaust.

At the cemetery where Lindberg’s great-grandfather was buried, a huge swarm of sparrows suddenly flew overhead. “There was something in that moment that we thought about until we got home. The song, ‘A Sparrow’s Song’ is for them – the lives that were lost, the voices silenced,” Zasloff said.

A few months after their they returned home, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people. The next morning, Lindberg, still shaken, woke early and started working on a melody. Zasloff joined him, and “Tree of Life,” a somber banjo song that ends with the words, “Oh sweet spirit hear my prayers/help these words heal someone out there,” poured out of them. The song also appears on the album.

“We’re not politicians. As musicians, this is what we do,” Zasloff said.

The Nefesh Mountain website, nefeshmountain.com, calls their music “the place where American bluegrass and old-time music meet with Jewish heritage and tradition.” Zasloff chafes at attempts by others to label their music as Jewish Bluegrass, “Jewgrass” or other mash-ups.

“There’s no kitsch in our music,” she said. “It’s our truth.” Θ

Visit rockportmusic.org/nefesh-mountain.

With ‘The Orchard,’ Arlekin Players Theatre’s Igor Golyak Continues To Push The Artistic Envelope 

Cast of ‘The Orchard’ at Emerson Paramount Center

by Shelley A. Sackett

Anton Chekhov’s play, ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ opened at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904, under the direction of the actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski. During rehearsals, the director rewrote Act Two, changing the play from Chekhov’s intended light and lively comedy into a tragedy. Chekhov is said to have disliked the Stanislavski production so much that he considered his play “ruined.”

One can’t help but wonder what the Russian playwright would make of ‘The Orchard,’ Igor Golyak’s creatively incomparable and technologically unparalleled reimagining of this iconic classic.

The live version (there is also a simultaneous livestream version with many bells and whistles and interactive options) takes place on a surreal, stylized stage anchored by an enormous white robot arm that is strangely animate and huggable, like the Pixar hopping desk lamp on steroids. It also has the less endearing quality of a giant dental X-ray machine or unipedal CT scan.

The stage floor is covered in fluffy piles and the entire area is flooded in a blue light that feels like a cross between a dreamy moonscape and a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Are these mounds of fallen cherry blossoms or radioactive fallout? A Holo-Gauze screen (a highly reflective and transparent projection net which supports 3D polarized projections) separates the audience from the players. Large scale projections connect live and virtual audiences with feedback loops that expand the otherworldly sense of chaos and charade.

This is not a production for literalists, purists or those unable or willing to let go of the notion of control when it comes to live theater viewing. It also helps to have a cursory familiarity with Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ to keep from getting totally disoriented when Golyak takes us on a chaotic journey down the rabbit hole of his inventive artistry.

There’s so much happening onstage that looking for plot threads is as frustrating as it is fruitless.

In a nutshell, the Chekhov version revolves around Madame Ranevskaya (played by the ethereally luminous Jessica Hecht), an aristocratic Russian land-owner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of a former serf named Lopakhin (played by the prodigiously talented Nael Nacer). As they struggle with the destruction of their world as they knew it, Ranevskaya’s family leaves their home to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down.

Chekhov intended his comedic farce to dramatize the socioeconomic forces in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of serfdom in the mid-19th century, and the decline of the power of the aristocracy.

Seeing a new riff on a Russian classic, however, is hardly what packed the house on opening night.

The real reason many attended the performance was, of course, to see the extraordinary Mikhail Baryshnikov in person performing as Firs, the 87-year-old former serf turned manservant. The esteemed actor and ballet genius did not disappoint.

The opening moments of the black-clad Firs twirling dervish-like and being blown about by the wind are worth the price of admission. Baryshnikov pirouettes across the stage with breathtaking grace and ease. For the remainder of the play, he handily steals every scene he is in.

The problem is that watching him is like trying to drive at night through the cloudy lens of a cataract. While the Holo-Gauze screen adds immeasurably to the virtual production, it is an annoying impediment for those watching live, like sitting in a seat marked “obstructed view.”

Nonetheless, ‘The Orchard’ is worth seeing if for no other reason than to follow the contemporary take the extraordinary Golyak has on the ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ His production reimagines both the classic and the ways in which the theater experience itself can be reinvented.

It is also great fun. There is a mechanical dog (Robotics design is by Tom Sepe), the captivatingly whimsical performance of Darya Denisova as Charlotta, and Anna Fedorova’s set enchantingly lit by Yuki Nakase Link. Oana Botez’s costumes are added eye candy.

Having seen both the live and online versions, I must say that rather than being duplicative or fungible, they are actually complementary visions of a single experience. Neither is complete without the other and each sheds light on its counterpart.

In the online version, for example, viewers can choose the camera angles from which they want to see the action and can exit the main stage to various other virtual rooms of the old house in which the play occupies but one part. It’s as if the audience has been put in charge of its own theatrical experience.

The live version has the opposite effect. With all the projected images and splicing in of the zoom gallery shots of the online audience, we are not only aware of the play’s concomitant virtual experience; we are captives in it.

When one of the actors say, “I have this strange feeling that I’ve just landed on the Moon,” the audience nods in agreement.

Golyak, whose family fled the Ukraine’s antisemitism in the 1990s, is a global leader in the virtual theater movement. In a press release, he highlighted the play’s personal and ongoing relevance as an analogy for so many current societal ills.

“This is a story about the delicate relationships at the center of a family facing the end of the world as they know it,” Golyak said. “We are living through an unimaginable time of change and destruction with the war in Ukraine. As humans, we are perpetually losing our cherry orchards, losing our worlds. This play is about us today.”

‘The Orchard’ — Conceived and Directed by Igor Golyak, based on ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekhov. Anna Fedorova, Scenic Designer. Yuki Nakase Link, Lighting Designer. Oana Botez, Costume Designer. Alex Basco Koch, Projection Designer. Tei Blow, Sound Designer. Jakov Jakoulov, Composer. Tom Sepe, Robotics Designer. Presented by Groundswell Theatricals and Arlekin Players and its Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab, at Emerson Paramount Center, the Robert J Orchard Stage, 559 Washington St., Boston through November 13.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.arlekinplayers.com/the-orchard/

SpeakEasy’s ‘English’ Explores The Tipping Point Between Identity and Heritage

Cast of ‘English’ at Speakeasy Stage. Photos by Nile Scott Studios

by Shelley A. Sackett

SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Sanaz Toossi’s ‘English’ starts out simply enough. Four Iranian students are studying in Karaj for the Test of English as a Foreign Language Exam (TOEFL) , an English proficiency exam they must pass if they hope to pursue university study abroad, immigration and more. Their teacher, Marjan (a first-rate Deniz Khateri), rules her classroom with an iron fist. They will speak only English during class, and when anyone slips into Farsi, she posts a strike against them on her giant blackboard, practically snarling with scorn.

This is language immersion that is the equivalent of throwing a baby into the deep end to teach them to swim. Yet, her motive, at least in the beginning, seems pure and altruistic. She studied in Manchester, England, an experience that changed her life for the better and one she speaks of with near religious veneration. She believes that she and she alone can help her flock find this same path that opened her world, and she takes her role as their shepherd with the seriousness and zeal of a missionary.

[An effective and engaging scripted touch is that when the actors speak their native Farsi, they do so in fluent conversational English. When they practice English, their speech is more staccato, with a heavily accented cadence of a beginning foreign language student.]

Marjan insists her students leave their Iranian identities outside her classroom door. “English Only!” is underlined twice on the blackboard. The implication is clear — Farsi and all things Iranian are baggage that need to be shed if one is to “make it” in the global arena. “Speaking English is one of the greatest things two people can do together,” she coos, and she means it with all her being.

Her students don’t always agree. Roya (the splendid Layla Modirzadeh) needs to learn English so she can join her son and his family (including a granddaughter whose English name Roya can’t pronounce) in Canada, where they have emigrated and assimilated. She is the oldest of the students and the one with the longest and deepest roots in Iran.

When she learns that Marjan happily gave up her identity in England, letting others call her “Mary” for their convenience and ease, she chafes. People should not have to give up their names to learn a language, she says. “Our mothers get to name us. Not foreigners.”

Zaven Ovian, Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood

Elham (compellingly played by the feisty Josephine Moshiri Elwood) has taken the TOEFL before and failed. More than the others, she needs to pass this test to pursue her goal of studying gastroenterology in Australia. In addition to her thick Farsi accent and lack of facility with languages,  she faces two other barriers: she despises English and how her voice sounds when she speaks it, and she can’t stand Marjan and her autocratic ways. That Marjan deliberately humiliates and picks on her adds fuel to her hot-blooded flame.

Goli (Lily Gilan James, a senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee) is a compliant and reticent 18-year-old who happily does as she is told. She is the least interesting, with no axe to grind and nothing to prove. She just wants to pass the exam so she can go to a university outside Iran.

On the other hand, 29-year-old Omid (Zaven Ovian) is an enigma. His English is better than the teacher’s, and he comes up with complex and specific vocabulary, like “windbreaker” during a word game. He and Marjan bond inside and outside class over their seeming shared love of all things foreign, but Omid has a secret he keeps tight to his vest until the play’s end. Ovian splendidly plays out the mystery.

Director Melory Mirashrafi, a first generation Iranian-American, makes the most of Janie E. Howland’s well-designed set and a script that at times moves slowly.

Playwright Sanaz Toossi (who won this year’s Lucille Lortel Award for “English”) takes her petri dish of varied and complex characters and, over 100 intermissionless minutes, seamlessly interweaves engaging theater with an existential examination of identity, heritage, assimilation and alienation.

She poses many important and timely questions. Is there is a tipping point at which the loss of cultural identity outweighs the materials of life in one’s non-native land? Is voluntary immigration something to be encouraged or grieved? What about the generations, like Roya’s granddaughter, who will grow up without hearing Farsi or understanding her cultural heritage?

Is it worth leaving your homeland voluntarily, Toossi questions, to forever be branded a foreigner with an accent, the “other” who will always be asked, “where are you from?” [Toossi’s mother immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in the mid-1980’s following the Iranian Revolution].

When Elham returns to the classroom after taking (and passing with 99%) the TOEFL, it is not to gloat or thank Marjan, but to offer by example a lesson of how you can gain English language proficiency without losing your Iranian soul.

“You are Iranian but your English is a lot of things. It wants to be American and some of the time British and now it does not know what it is. When I speak English, I know I will always be a stranger,” Elham tells Marjan. “I hear my home. What do you hear?”

English’ –Sanaz Toossi, Playwright. Melory Mirashrafi, Director. Janie E. Howland, Scenic Designer. Nina Vartanian, Costume Designer. Amanda E. Fallon, Lighting Designer. Ash, Sound Designer. Emme Shaw, Props Designer. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. Boston, through November 19, 2022.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/