SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Admissions’ Pierces the Veil of White Male Privilege

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller and Michael Kaye in SpeakEasy Stage’s Production of “Admissions.” (Maggie Hall Photography)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Joshua Harmon’s terrific new play “Admissions,” now making its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 30, packs a timely wallop. Set at and near Hillcrest, a toney progressive New Hampshire prep school, the plucky drama starts out poking fun at Sherri, Hillcrest’s white admissions director who is not happy with the draft of the Admissions Catalog she has just received.

It seems the catalog does not bear adequate witness to the milestone achievement of her 15-year tenure: tripling the diversity of Hillcrest’s predominantly white student body from 6% to 18% students “of color.” She knows this because she has counted all 52 pictures, and only three feature non-white faces. That is precisely 5.7%, and Sherri is livid. She has summoned Roberta, the veteran development officer responsible for the draft, to point out her glaring blunder.

Roberta is Sherri’s opposite. She is a frumpy, plain-spoken woman who calls a spade a spade. She is from another era, when personal qualities and merit mattered more than mathematical quotas. Roberta defiantly defends her work, pointing to a photo that features Perry, the son of a biracial teacher. “Perry’s black, isn’t he?” Roberta asks, confused. “Of course he is, but he doesn’t read black in this photo. He looks whiter than my son,” Sherri counters, exasperated. “I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem,” Roberta says.

Cheryl McMahon, Keiller

That exchange sets the stage for Harmon’s intelligent and riotous drama that exposes the raw nerve of hypocrisy among white people of privilege who hide behind political correctness, loudly trumpeting an abstract policy of affirmative action and diversity right up until the moment they are personally impacted by its application. Then, these same folks sing a “not in my backyard” refrain. They may talk the talk (and talk-and talk they do), but when push comes to shove, they would never walk the walk.

Sherri’s husband, Bill, is head of school at Hillcrest, where their 17-year-old high-achieving son, Charlie, is a student hoping to attend Yale with his best friend, the not-visually-black-enough Perry. Perry’s white mother, Ginnie, is Sherri’s best friend, neatly tying a bow that encircles and intertwines the play’s characters.

Ginnie and Sherri hang out a lot. Later that day, in Sherri’s kitchen, both sip white wine and wring their hands over their sons’ fates. Today is the day they will find out if they got into Yale. Harmon’s razor-sharp dialogue reveals the first cringe-worthy chinks in their personal moral codes. Ginnie has brought Charlie a cake from Martin’s Bakery, the same one she bought for Perry, despite evidence the baker is a pedophile. “What are you gonna do? His cakes are great,” she says with a shrug. Sherri shares her catalog fiasco, lying to Ginnie that she couldn’t use the picture of her son because it was blurry.

Marianna Bassham, Keiller

Ginnie receives “the” phone call first – Perry, whose application classified him as black, was accepted. When Charlie is deferred, the victim, he believes, of reverse discrimination, Harmon goes to town as Charlie’s parents’ liberalism and personal ambitions for their son collide. “How did I not see this coming,” Charlie wails, as he points an accusing finger at his parents, the architects of the very quota-driven system that denied him his due. “I don’t have any special boxes to check.”

Later in the intermission-less 105-minute production (no spoilers in this review), Harmon asks his audience the same question faced by Charlie’s horrified parents: what would you do if your child became a casualty of the system of ethics and fairness you champion? Would your moral True North shift?

“Admissions,” with its double-entendre title, captured both Drama Desk and Outer Circle awards for 2018 best play, and the SpeakEasy production is a bases-loaded home run with Nathan Malin (Charlie) as its runaway star. This 20-year-old Boston University College of Fine Arts junior brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have become a caricature in less capable hands. Cheryl McMahon is equally outstanding as the well-meaning and misunderstood Roberta and Maureen Keiller (Sherri) and Marianna Bassham(Ginnie) bring humor and humanity to their parts. Hopefully, Michael Kaye (Bill) has smoothed out the edges since press night.

Malin Keiller

Harmon, who’s “Bad Jews” took a whack at religious dogmatists, is gay and Jewish and knows a thing or two about life as a minority. “So much of what I think about revolves around questions of identity,” he said in an interview published in SpeakEasy’s program notes. “This play is trying to hold up a mirror to privilege and white liberalism, while remaining very conscious that this is just one narrow slice of a larger conversation.” For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

This review first appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

‘Admissions’ – Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Stage Managed by Stephen MacDonald. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 30, 2019.

Two Decades Later, ‘Rent’ Is Still Going Strong

Cast of ‘Rent’ at Boch Center/Shubert

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Rent’ – Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Directed by Evan Ensign; Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements by Tim Weil; Choreography by Marlies Yearby; Scenic Design by Paul Clay; Costume Design by Angela Wendt; Lighting Design by Jonathan Spencer; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano. Produced by Work Light Productions at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center through November 10, 2019.

Rent, the quintessential rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a full-throated revival at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center. One of the longest-running shows on Broadway (it ran for 12 years), Rent garnered a shelf full of awards in 1996, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards.

The almost three-hour long production tells the tale of a group of young, penniless artists living in Lower Manhattan’s pre-gentrified East Village. They are determined to remain true to their Bohemian souls despite their struggles with HIV/AIDS, drug addiction and poverty. Their relationships to each other and to the “outside world” form the backbone of the plot. There are so many characters and moving parts, however, that it’s sometimes hard to keep straight who’s with whom. Fortunately, the music is the real star of the show, and after a while it’s easy to let go of the need to really follow every plot twist and just enjoy the powerhouse vocals.

Act I opens with the house lights still up. Whether this is artistically deliberate or merely indulgent of late comers, the effect is an immediate intimacy between the actors and the audience. We meet roommates Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins), a filmmaker, and Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings), a songwriter and rock musician, on a cold Christmas Eve. Their former roommate Benny Coffin III (Juan Luis Espinal) has gone over to the dark side, marrying a rich girl from Westport whose father owns lots of real estate, including Mark and Roger’s building. Benny originally promised his buddies they didn’t have to worry about being behind in the rent. Now he has changed his tune, threatening to shut off the electricity if they don’t come up with last year’s rent. He also plans to evict the homeless from a nearby lot where he hopes to build a cyber arts studio.

Rounding out the gang are: Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks) a gay anarchist New York University professor; his cross-dressing drag queen lover, Angel Schunard (the spot-on, scene-stealing Joshua Tavares); and exotic dancer, neighbor and junkie Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash, whose acting and singing are a pleasure to behold).

“Rent,” the play’s namesake musical number, is the full company’s response to Benny’s demands. Compared to the pressure of trying to follow “Hamilton’s” lyrics, the song’s simple rhymes and high energy, uncomplicated score are a refreshing relief. Intellectually taxing this show is not.

Meanwhile, Mimi shows up at Roger’s apartment to ask him for a match to light her candle (Benny followed through on his threat to shut off the electricity), and to flirt with him. Their duet, “Light My Candle,” is one of the show’s stand out numbers, Cummings’ voice shadowing and showcasing Smash’s gorgeous pipes.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (the spectacular Kelsee Sweigard) plans to stage a protest against Benny’s development plans. Her protest is really an over-the-top, avant garde cabaret act (“Over the Moon”), a funky rendition of the nursery rhyme, “Hey! Diddle Diddle.”  Sweigard, part Betty Boop innocence, part vamping torch singer, brings down the house. She is a real gem.

The protest turns into a riot when Benny retaliates by padlocking the apartment building where Mark and Roger live. Mark films the riot, which later leads to a corporate job at Buzzline, which he will eventually leave to follow his dream of making his own independent film.

Act II opens with “Rent’s” gorgeous signature song, “Seasons of Love,” which gives Rayla Garske and Benjamin H. Moore some well-deserved time in the vocal spotlight. The different couples and their coupling and uncoupling are closely followed: Roger and Mimi, Angel and Tom, Mark and his camera, and Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa). Maureen and Joanne’s duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” is tailor made for Sweigard and Mbolekwa, and their performance is hands down the show’s finest.

Written in 1996, “Rent” is certainly dated and its momentum struggles because of it. Many of its lyrics are trite and the score, save a few real stars, is forgettable and, at times, boring and repetitive. Nonetheless, the play’s core messages are still relevant. The menacing specter of HIV/AIDS that hovers over all (and eventually claims Angel) is a reminder of all those lost to a disease that was ignored because the population most at risk was societally and economically marginalized. And, following ones dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is as daunting today as 20 years ago.

Perhaps the most important message is found in the enviable camaraderie, compassion and shared happiness this group treasures. In “Your Eyes/Finale,” “Rent’s” last musical number, the entire company sings, “There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, No day but today.” No matter how little time they themselves have left, when these friends raise their glass in a toast to Angel’s untimely and unnecessary death, you can bet they nonetheless see their glasses as half full, not half empty. For tickets and more information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/rent-2019

Trayf is in Eye of the Beholder in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello) in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf,” are, at face value, typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational short cuts and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.

Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Crown Heights, Brooklyn community and Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) uniform of black hats, facial hair and black coats, they hardly blend in. The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with an ice cream truck-like banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.

New York based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform from which she launches her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.

During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the City, their individualiities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved and unquestioning. His is a world of bright lines: black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it draws him in.

Swimmer, Picariello

Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.

Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.

Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says. “Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.

For the first time in their decades long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular trayf tapes.

Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan) shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik, hat, beard and all. The granddaughter of survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. She has also just courted him through an intense period of mourning and feels betrayed by his sudden change.

Picariello, Kimberly Gaughan as Leah

Leah seems to want more of a therapy session that an intervention from Shmuel, her need more to vent than to be soothed. Shmuel, however, sees a parallel with his relationship with Zalmy and his tone and body language suddenly shift and soften. He tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.

From here, the characters’ paths diverge, merge and change course in ways both predictable and surprising. Picariello and Swimmer bring a chemistry and effortlessness to their roles that is helped by Joelle’s character development and dialogue. She is not as successful with Jonathan and Leah. They are two-dimensional, cardboard props, more symbols than flesh and blood. Their role is one of foil rather than relatable people.

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps the play moving and her choice to put Zalmy and Shmuel as front and center as the script allows is a wise one. Grace Laubacher’s set is minimal but effective, the Mitzvah Tank its main focal point. The backdrop of a Manhattan skyline has a Marc Chagall shtetl feel, an acknowledgment to Crown Heights as a bridge between the Chabad’s Eastern European birthplace and its modern digs. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.

She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she said.

A version of this review appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

“Trayf”. Written by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Scenic Design: Grace Laubacher. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Becca Jewett. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Stage Manager: Jenna Worden. Produced by New Repertory Theatre in partnership with Jewish Arts Collaborative, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through November 3.

 

What one Jewish educator did on her summer vacation

 

Yeshivagroup photo

Group photo of the Yeshiva students. Janis Knight is in the back wearing a hat

 

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva is still study time.

 

Veiled OrthodoxJewish women fashion mannekins1

Mannequins illustrate women dressed in full Orthodox cover at the Israel Museum exhibit.

 

Through the Looking Glass in “Nixon’s Nixon” at New Rep

by Shelley A. Sackett

Nixon

Jeremiah Kissel (right as Nixon) and Joel Colodner (as Kissinger) in ‘Nixon’s Nixon’ at the New Rep. ( Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

 

Like many baby boomers, I called in sick on August 8, 1974. My friends and I gathered in a sweltering unconditioned apartment outside steamy Philadelphia in front of a small black and white television. Arranged on a mattress on the floor, beverage and accoutrements in hand, we waited for the fulfillment of our hopes, the culmination of our dreams come true. The gongs sounded on from the FM radio softly playing in the background. At last, soon-to-be ex-President Nixon appeared strolling towards the helicopter that would whisk him off into political oblivion. An entire generation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

What we didn’t know was the historical backstory of what happened the night before.

Late on August 7, 1974, the night before he resigned, President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to join him in his favorite retreat, the cozy Lincoln Sitting Room. Republican senators informed him earlier that day that he would not survive an impeachment vote and Federal Judge John J. Sirica ordered him to turn over hundreds of hours of incriminating secretly taped recordings made in the White House.

Inspired by this historically factual meeting, “Nixon’s Nixon”, at the New Rep Theatre through October 6, tells Playwright Russell Lees’ version of what happened that storied evening in his intermission-less 90-minute play. Kissinger assumes Nixon is prepared to resign. He knows the inescapable political noose of impeachment and conviction is his boss’s only other option. But Kissinger assumes wrong. Instead, he walks in on an invigorated Nixon, intoxicated by brandy and denial, wildly dancing around to deafening classical music. “Americans like fighters. Underdogs. The scrappier the better,” the president croons, waving his brandy glass like a conductor’s baton. “That’s me now. I’m the underdog. Now I’m the guy to root for.” He insists his adoring public will someday embrace him as a hero, remembering his major successes (China, Russia) and forgetting his minor transgressions (Vietnam, Watergate).

Kissinger’s poker face melts and his body stiffens as he braces himself for what he realizes will be a bumpy ride. But the Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat also knows his fate hinges on successfully convincing the president to accept the inevitable and resign. Otherwise, Kissinger’s pursuit of his own geopolitical goals and quest for historical glory are in limbo at best and over at worst. He is not prepared to walk the impeachment plank to political oblivion. He will do whatever it takes to extricate himself from this sinking ship and, like a parasitic barnacle, attach himself to whatever will keep his political ambitions and projects afloat.

He lets Nixon lead him on a surreal journey reliving the top ten list of their association’s triumphs. The two world leaders play out the fantasy—Kissinger awkwardly pretends to be Chairman Mao and Brezhnev as a manic Nixon reenacts his moments of glory. It is an hour into the play before the word “resign” is even uttered aloud. Both care most about their legacy and how history will judge them. But even this prolonged gauzy delusion can’t hide the men’s distinct agendas.

 

Kissinger, impatient and manipulative, interrupts Nixon’s rants to coax him to put in a good word for him with Vice President Jerry Ford. “I can’t continue my work until you get out of the way,” he finally states. Nixon, who really just wants to be loved, isn’t giving in without a fight. He even beseeches God, whom he addresses on bent knees. “I feel like I should be asking forgiveness but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong,” he bemoans. “They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised I used it?” He relishes unnerving Kissinger by showing him a transcript from one of the tapes that would implicate Kissinger in criminal activity if the tape  were to be made public, which would only happen if Nixon didn’t resign. Even from his political death bed, Tricky Dick still has a few aces up his sleeve and he delights in tormenting his opponent by rubbing his nose in them.

As Nixon, Jeremiah Kissel is exhilarating and exhausting. He is all twitches and staccato gestures, one minute an overgrown child and the next a raving, paranoid fighter. Joel Colodner plays Kissinger as cool and conniving, an immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and ended up arguably more powerful than the president. A less compatible couple is hard to imagine.

And yet, the two have more in common than appears at first blush. Both worship at the altar of their legacies. Both are obsessed with how history will judge them. And both will stoop to anything to maintain the command they feel is rightfully theirs. They play off each other seamlessly, richly dancing a pas-de-deux that makes obvious their years as political bedfellows.

“It’s the great American story. Requited ambition,” Kissinger tells Nixon. “The son of a grocer and an immigrant boy rise to the highest levels of power and change the world.”

 

‘Nixon’s Nixon –Written by Russell Lees; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Aja Jackson; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, Stage Manager- Heather Radovich. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, through October 6. For tickets and information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/

Fact, Fiction or Something in Between? ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ Asks But Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers

(Lindsay Crouse in Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact – Photos by Jason Grow)

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through September 22, is such a work, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production.

The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum piece about Congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however, it must undergo fact checking and there is only the weekend to do it.

Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact checking for a 13-page essay.

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).

D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.

Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.

(Solis, Crouse)

By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised is the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.

Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable? Where do ethics come in? And editorial judgment? Is credible the same as true? Is there an acceptable margin of error in journalism? If so, what is it?

(Crouse, Speedy)

Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational.  Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.

At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.

‘The Lifespan of a Fact –Written by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Composer/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, Scenic Design by J. Michael Griggs. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through September 22.For tickets and information, visit: https://gloucesterstage.com/

‘Never Again!’ Teen Holocaust Legacy Fellows return from Poland and Berlin empowered and committed

Aus-Bir tracks

HLF teens walk the tracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie.

 

Shelley A. Sackett

On August 12, Marblehead High School incoming senior Jillian Lederman was not at the beach, enjoying the North Shore summer with her friends. Instead, she stood on the grounds of Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. She saw the dusty shoes piled to the ceiling and a massive mountain of human ash. Majdanek made the stories of abuse, anti-Semitism and genocide suddenly real.

 

“It didn’t seem that any human could commit such atrocities, that the rest of the world could just sit by and let it happen,” she said. “I saw all that remained of thousands of Jews who were brutally and mercilessly murdered and it clicked. The Holocaust happened. It was real and it was terrible.”

 

Majdanek-Schwartz

“I believe that this trip is to open our eyes and see first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive in order to counteract and spread the antithesis of spreading hatred.” -Jonah Schwartz, Framingham, Gann Academy

 

For Lederman and her 15 fellow teen travelers, their journey began in April 2018, when Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman stood in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah and promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action. The key to fulfilling their commitment, they decided, lay in creating future Jewish leaders in the community who would learn about and fully understand the Holocaust.

 

A mere 16 months later, they took a group of teens to Poland and Berlin on the first fully subsidized trip of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (a non-profit they created, funded and co-direct). The 16 HLF teens came from 10 Greater Boston cities and towns. None had previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

 

“Our biggest challenge was knowing that nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for a visit to Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek, or to stand in Buczyna forest where 800 Jewish children were murdered in one mass grave,” Kipnis said.

 

Veksler and Richmond

Victoria Veksler, Marblehead High School, and Danny Richmond, Needham High School, at the Wannsee Conference Center reading the Final Solution where, in just 83 minutes, the extermination of the Jews was drafted.

 

Participants were required to keep a journal during the trip as a means of coping with their mix of emotions and to record what they saw and heard from their tour guide, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “Keeping the journal was extremely helpful. It served as my personal therapist during the trip,” Victoria Veksler of Marblehead said.

 

 

The itinerary started in Berlin, Germany, where the teen fellows toured Wannsee, the site where high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials discussed and coordinated implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. “One of the teens said to me, “I can’t understand how this could happen here. This place feels so normal,” Ruderman said.

Chak

Alan Chak, Middleton, Masconomet Regional High School, outside the crematorium in Majdanek wondering why the world stood by while 6 million Jews were brutally murdered.

 

From Berlin, the group travelled to Warsaw, Poland where they visited the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp. For most, it was their first visit to the site of a concentration camp. “I visited Treblinka and I felt a strong sense of purpose. I understand why we are here. We need to teach the Holocaust so it won’t be forgotten,” Alan Chak, of Middleton, wrote in his journal.

 

On their way to Kraków, the group toured Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie. “The things I saw there will never escape my memory. This is where I realized the true inhumanity of the Nazi officers. Even more impactful, though, was hearing the testimony of the survivors. Listening to stories of children sacrificing the little food they had so they could keep their parents alive another day broke me,” Adam Zamansky, of Marblehead, said.

 

Nonetheless, their tour guide, Sara Pellach, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, filled the teens with hope that Jewish life can be re-built. She described her family for them: four children, 18 grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and another on the way.

 

All was not doom and gloom. While in Kraków, the teens visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, where they learned about his saving the lives of 1,100 Jews despite being a Nazi himself. They also experienced Kraków Old Town, the biggest market square in Europe, and visited the JCC, which coordinates programming open to the entire community and meant to foster Polish-Jewish relations.

 

And everyone looked forward to the daily respite of creamy, delicious Polish ice cream.

 

It was Majdanek death camp, however, that most horrified the teens, according to Kipnis. Unlike Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek is completely intact, from barbed wire to barracks, from gas chambers to crematoria.

 

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2019 Holocaust Legacy Fellows outside Majdanek

 

“There were countless people who could see the smoke from the crematorium, and others who saw Jews walking the 4km from the train station to the camp. They said nothing about it, pretending as if nothing were wrong at all. I thought a lot about all those bystanders,” Danny Richmond, of Needham, said.

 

Every night of the 10-day trip, group dialogue and role playing helped the teens transition back to everyday life. “The biggest reward for the teens in our opinion were the engagement and interpersonal relationships that formed. Their nightly discussions could have gone on for hours had we let them,” Kipnis added.

 

The HLF program did not begin or end in Germany and Poland. In preparation, teens attended mandatory educational meetings and met and heard from Holocaust survivors firsthand. Now that they have returned, they have to: write a post-trip reflection of their experience; prepare and deliver a presentation on the memory and lessons of the Holocaust; participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Service; pledge to transmit the lessons and memories of the Holocaust to future generations, and serve on the Holocaust Speakers Bureau.

 

“Holocaust Legacy Fellows was designed to create an empowered community of critical thinkers who will illuminate the world with hope, respect and responsibility. This alone sets our Holocaust education program apart from any other,” Kipnis said.

 

The HLF capstone is a graduation ceremony on September 8th at 4pm at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe columnist, will be the keynote speaker and the teens will read their reflection essays.

 

Kipnis and Ruderman’s goal of inspiring the 16 HLF graduates to take on the mantle of leadership and inform their communities about the Holocaust seems to have hit its mark.

 

“This trip changed my life in so many ways and has given me an important purpose in life. The post trip assignments do not feel like a burden. They are an opportunity for me to fulfill a deep desire to educate others and advocate on behalf of myself, HLF and the Jewish people,” Max Foltz, of Newburyport, said.

 

The trip was also transformative in intangible but indelible ways. “We saw first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive and to counteract and spread the antithesis of hatred,” Jonah Schwartz, of Framingham, said.

 

“For the first time, I truly thought of the Jewish people as my people,” Katie Hubbard, of Arlington, added.

 

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Ben Butler’ Is Much More Than A Historical Comedy

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson. All Photos by Jason Grow.

By Shelley A. Sackett

On May 23, 1861, smack in the middle of the Civil War, the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United States. The next day, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union-held Fort Monroe, VA, finds himself in an unusual moral and legal pickle. Three escaped slaves have showed up at the fort’s doorstep seeking sanctuary. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, settled federal law since its 1850 enactment, General Butler is required to return them to their owner.

Yet Butler wears more than just his military hat. A silver-tongued lawyer with a reputation as a champion of labor, abolition and naturalized citizens, he is reticent to follow the letter of the law and send the slaves back to the Confederacy. Are they not, after all, people seeking asylum from an oppressive regime? For Butler, this goes way beyond issues of legal or military might; it is a matter that goes straight to the core of who he is (or, is not) as a moral human being. At the same time, he is understandably reticent to rock the boat and sink his own career. Even scarier yet is the idea of leaving his fingerprints all over an incident that could affect the outcome of the war.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

The complicated matter becomes even more so when Butler actually meets Shepard Mallory, the slave who has demanded an audience to plead his case in person. Despite the stark black and white differences in their skin, station and status, the two soon realize they have more in common than not.

Both are expert verbal sparrers, and recognize in the other a familiar spunk and intellect. Both are, at their core, compassionate and humanistic. And bought are caught in the razor-sharp teeth of the cog that fuels the madness that has torn the United States in two.

If this sounds like the stuff of a heart-wrenching, angst-laden script, think again, for playwright Richard Strand has turned the tragic on its head. His lively comedy drives home all the important messages – that slavery is evil, that all humans are created as equals, and that war is bad, for starters – but clothes them in clever repartees and endless rounds of (mostly) delightful verbal gymnastics.

For it turns out that Shepard Mallory is no ordinary man. The runaway slave is literate, literary and able to run legal circles around General Butler who, in truth, is much more of a lawyer than military man. As they joust and brawl, they are shocked and then delighted to discover that they have each finally met their match.

 

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L to R: Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor

 

And this is where Strand’s script – flawed and bloated though it is – is both brilliant and brave. As Butler and Mallory get to know each other, the world’s artifice that separates them melts away. They become kindred spirits, united in their revulsion at the perversity that is at the rotten core of slavery. Strand shows the audience what “all men are created equal” really looks like. This is infinitely more effective and more powerful than a chest-beating diatribe against racism could ever be.

A fast-paced comedy about slavery is dependent on the caliber of its actors, and the Gloucester Stage production rises to the occasion. As Butler, Ames Adamson (who originated the role at the New Jersey Repertory Company and again Off-Broadway at 59E59TH Theatre) is clearly having the time of his life, practically chewing the scenery. He is the eye of the storm and both the audience and his cast mates know it. Shane Taylor holds his own as Mallory, delicately walking a fine line between enlightened erudition and bondage. And Doug Bowen-Flynn, as the by-the-book West Point graduate Lieutenant Kelly, is a perfect foil for Butler’s more nuanced version of life. His transformation from knee-jerk bigot to color blind humanist is masterfully graceful and poignant.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

Some might chafe at the idea of a subject as serious as slavery being handled with a light comedic touch, and in another playwright’s hands, they might be right. In the case of ‘Ben Butler,’ however, Richard Strand has brought home the very serious point that racism is evil and immoral, and let us have a jolly good time nonetheless.

‘Ben Butler’ –Written by Richard Strand; Directed by Joseph Discher; Scenic Design by Greg Trochlil; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Sound Design by Joseph Discher. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through August 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://gloucesterstage.com/

‘Private Lives’ a Classy Production of Classic Summer Fare at DTF

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Rachel Pickup and Shawn Fagan in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Nothing welcomes light summery breezes like a witty Nöel Coward comedy of manners, and the Dorset Theatre Festival is spot on in its choice of the timeless ‘Private Lives’ to open its 42nd season. “We believe ‘the play’s the thing’ here at Dorset, and this is one of the most fabulous plays of all times- full of wit and sophisticatedly funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love,” said Artistic Director Dina Janis by email.

The plot is deceptively simple. Divorced spouses Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Amanda (the sublime and worth-the-price-of-admission Rachel Pickup) have remarried and are honeymooning with their respective new spouses, Sybil (Anna Crivelli) and Victor (Hudson Oz). By the divine intervention of Coward’s wicked imagination, they end up in adjacent rooms on the night they are each to start their new lives. When they see each other across their shared balcony’s hedge, the sparks fly and they impulsively flee their hapless new partners to resume what they have idealized as their romantic destiny.

 

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Rachel Pickup, Shawn Fagan, Anna Crivelli, and Hudson Oz in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Back at Amanda’s posh Paris apartment, their fiery passion predictably devolves from love to the same incendiary anger from whose ashes desire was restored. Couches practically take flight, ashtrays become bullets and words are poison darts, aimed with years of practiced marksmanship to draw maximum blood. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ or as their tabloid selves (they actually played these roles in 1983 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater), and you get the picture.

Their aggrieved new spouses track them down, and the hit-and-miss slapstick ensues. By the curtain’s fall, the pendulum has swung back and forth so many times for Amanda and Elyot that it becomes clear they really are meant for each other. Anyone else would have been bedridden with a bad case of vertigo ages ago; these two enfants terribles are not only still standing, but actually relish the prospect of round three.

The production’s shining stars are two: Rachel Pickup as Amanda and Lee Savage’s gorgeous Art Deco sets. Ms. Pickup gives a Broadway-caliber performance (where, coincidentally, she recently appeared at the St. James in Coward’s “Present Laughter” with Kevin Kline). The impossibly willowy actress is all comedic physicality and glamor, delivering her lines and gestures with surgical precision. Hers is not your average summer theater performance and it is as welcome as it is mesmerizing.

 

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Anna Crivelli, Shawn Fagan, Hudson Oz, and Rachel Pickup in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Equally astonishing are the period sets Mr. Savage manages to create in rural Vermont; these too are Broadway worthy. The hotel terraces in Act One are as stunning as they are humorous in their mirror images of floor to ceiling blue draperies and wrought iron balustrades. The details of Act Two’s Paris flat are like a ‘Where’s Waldo” for the audience, complete with Victrola, piano, fainting couch and polar bear skin rug. Asked what was the biggest challenge in mounting this production, Ms. Janis replied without hesitation, “Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget!” Clearly, she succeeded.

Although the second act drags and the rest of the cast pales compared to Ms. Pickup, the production is a theatrical icon whose appeal is as timeless as pink champagne. “The play really gives it all to us, with its sparkling language and the collision of its characters, completely recognizable to a contemporary audience for their passion and for their capacity for selfishness, obstinance and even cruelty,” Director Evan Yionoulis said by email. One can almost hear Nöel Coward whispering, “Touché, darling. Touché.”

‘Private Lives’ – Written by Nöel Coward. Directed by Evan Yionoulis; Set Design: Lee Savage. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Costume Design: Katherine B. Roth. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Fight Choreographer: BH Barry.

Through July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org or call 802-867-2223.

 

 

‘Pride and Prejudice’ Gets A Gender-Bending Contemporary Twist

 

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Cast of Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s ‘Pride & Prejudice. PHOTO CREDIT NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

 

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Jane Austen, the 19th century author of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Emma’ did not hide the ball. Marriage in sexist Regency England is the central theme of all her novels, which she penned under the pseudonym “A Lady.” The laws of coverture, which governed marriage, stripped a wife of all her legal and economic rights, essentially making her a ward of her husband. In the absence of brothers, her family’s fortune would pass to her husband upon her father’s death.

Ironically, a young girl’s sole raison d’être was to secure such a union of legal indentured servitude.

And that is just the predicament the four Bennett daughters are in. Spearheaded by Mrs. Bennett, their storm trooper mother (played beautifully, but for the sometimes screeching exuberance, by Mara Sidmore), the four Bennett sisters are on a crusade: to find a rich husband who will save the family from destitution following the death of Mr. Bennet, whose estate will pass by law to his cousin, the slithery Mr. Collins (more about him later).

 

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ASP Pride and Prejudice – Doug Lockwood, Mr. Collins; Zoe Laiz, Jane; Anna Bortnick, Lydia; Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Louis Reyes McWilliams, Mary

 

The set (designed by Alexander Woodward) works beautifully to evoke 19th century grand drawing-room country life. The three moving panels with doors provide ample opportunities for entrances, exits and that old standby favorite, slamming doors.

 

The audience meets Mr. Bennet (played by Gabriel Kuttner in a standout performance), the anchor to the Bennett women who copes with his wife’s frenzy over marrying off their daughters by ignoring it. He is the one calm touchstone throughout the production, providing wry relief when Mrs. Bennet threatens to hurl us all over the edge.

 

She approaches prepping her daughters for a ball, where her recon has revealed there will be several eligible bachelors, as she would conduct paramilitary drills. Some of the play’s best lines (“We couldn’t be more poised for a victory,” she tells her husband) and some of the best- choreographed scenes are these preliminary family drills.

 

Each daughter, in turn, approaches the idea of marriage differently. Lizzy (played with solemnness and heart by Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) wants no part of it, either because she refuses to play the game or because she is afraid of making a bad choice. Jane (Zoë Laiz) is aware of both her biological ticking clock and her responsibility as the eldest. Lydia (played with tremendous physical and verbal comedy by a scene-stealing Anna Bortnick, who is equally as impressive in her role as Miss de Bourgh) is 14-years-old and in it for the sport. Mary (Louis Reyes McWilliams, who inexplicably plays her as part Nana-the-dog (from Peter Pan), part Lurch and part omniscient Greek chorus) rounds out the family female tree.

 

The rest of the play follows these four as they bounce from one romantic crisis to the next. As the level of desperation rises (“This is not a game,” Mrs. Bennet warns), even marriage to Mr. Bennet’s distant cousin Mr. Collins, who will inherit the Bennet estate, is considered.

 

As played by Doug Lockwood (and dressed by Costume Designer Haydee Zelideth), Collins is all menace and creepiness, his constantly moving hands itching to reach out and snatch the nearest female flesh within his reach. Lockwood plays the part brilliantly, with gusto and credibility. His is one of the few over-the-top performances that blends seamlessly into the rest of the play.

 

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(Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Omar Robinson, Darcy

 

Although marriage to Collins would be fine by Mrs. Bennett, the girls put their foot down and so the family future is even more imperiled. Lizzy eventually meets her match in Mr. Darcy (played with gravitas by Omar Robinson), Jane finds love with Mr. Bingley, and Lydia arguably gets whom she deserves. Since Mary’s eligibility for marriage is questionable, Mrs. Bennet can at last rest and Mr. Bennet can get some well-deserved peace and quiet.

 

Many of the actors play multiple roles, including some gender-bending ones. Garbriel Kuttner transforms his girth and baldness into a believable Charlotte Lucas (Lizzy’s best friend who makes the disastrous decision to marry Collins) and Doug Lockwood is brings great physicality to Miss Bingley. Since Mary, as directed, is of questionable species, the fact that she is played by Louis Reyes McWilliams is less noticeable.

 

Under Christopher V. Edwards’ direction, feminist playwright Kate Hamill’s brilliant female-centric adaptation takes on a slightly screwball character that is hit-and-miss. Although Hamill deliberately wrote the play as a farce, some of the slapstick and sight gags work, and some land like a lead balloon. By the end of two and a half hours, most of the freshness has faded.

 

That said, the acting is overall outstanding and the production is light-heated and fun. Hamill’s script is full of incisive and cutting quips, tacitly alluding to the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. “The heroines of Austen’s novels are often struggling with how to reconcile the dictates of their consciences with the demands of their society,” Hamill said. “And I think many of us identify with that.” Judging from the laughter and applause at Wednesday’s show, Hamill’s mission was accomplished.

 

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/plays-events/pride-and-prejudice/

‘Pride and Prejudice’ –Written by Kate Hamill; Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; Directed by Christopher V. Edwards; Choreography by Alexandra Beller; Sound Design by Ian Scot; Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Balch Arena Theater, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through June 29.