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

Photo_1_GSC-BENBUTLER-0004

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.

 

Photo_13-GSC-BENBUTLER-4140

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.

 

Photo_24-GSC-BENBUTLER-4562

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.

 

Photo_17-GSC-BENBUTLER-4369

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/

Advertisements

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

TahrO8ql

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.

 

l-AhJSEP

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.

 

CfOwOwwb

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

 

Pride-and-Prejudice-10WEB-RES-Ensemble-1024x683

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).

 

pride-1024x683

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.

 

Pride-and-Prejudice-05-1024x683

(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.

 

 

North Shore Music Theatre’s ‘Oklahoma’ Is A Rollicking Kick Off to its 64th Season

 

thumb-nsmt-oklahoma-ensemble-1_2

The cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! at North Shore Music Theatre thru June 16, 2019. Photos © Paul Lyden

By Shelley A. Sackett

Just when the cold, wet slog of spring 2019 was about to wear down all hope that summer would ever arrive, NSMT comes to the rescue with a first-rate production of the 1943 classic, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Perfect for theatre-in-the-round staging, this Broadway masterpiece has everything: a snappy, foot-stomping score, impressive choreography and a captivating story that is more complex and bleak than many may remember.

Under the direction of Mark Hartman, the orchestra is spot on. The opening overture is an immediate reminder of all the hits that came out of this show (‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,” ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,’ ‘I Cain’t Say No,’ ‘People Will Say We’re in Love,’ and, of course,‘Oklahoma!’) and last Wednesday night, the near capacity audience lip synched to almost every song. But when cowboy Curly McLaine (played with a perfect mixture of cockiness and aw-shucks-ma’am by the talented Blake Price) entered the stage astride an actual horse, the crowd predictably went wild with appreciation.

Born into a prosperous German Jewish family in Queens, New York City, composer Rodgers was the son of Mamie and Dr. William Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Rogazinsky. Librettist/lyricist Hammerstein II was also born in New York City.  His father was from a Jewish family, and his mother was the daughter of Scottish and English parents.

“Oklahoma” was their first collaboration and the first of a new genre, the musical play, which they created by melding Rodgers’ sophisticated style of musical comedy with Hammerstein’s innovations in operetta.

The narrative is simple on its face. Set in the Oklahoma territory in the 1900s, the musical lays out the story of two sets of lovers. Curley and the feisty, independent farmer Laurey Williams (played by the gifted Madison Claire Parks, whose dazzling singing is a delicious treat) are as in love as they are stubborn about not admitting their feelings to each other. They are early settlers building new lives on the wild frontier, and their pioneering spirits unsurprisingly clash.

Laurey’s Aunt Eller (played with zest by the buoyant Susan Cella) has some of the script’s best lines as she tries to knock some sense into Laurey and Curley, using every trick she knows short of actually knocking their heads together. The chemistry between the actors feels real, and their voices blend beautifully during their one duet, “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

thumb-nsmt-oklahoma-laurie-curley-1_orig

Madison Claire Parks (Laurey) and Blake Price (Curly).

 

Ado Annie Carnes (the Olive Oyl-like and spectacularly hilarious Melissa Carlile-Price), one of Laurey’s friends, and her boyfriend, cowboy Will Parker (Sean Bell, a terrific tap dancer) are the other couple. Or, at least they were. While Will was away on a trip to Kansas City, Ado Annie has fallen for the peddler Ali Hakim (the fine Cooper Grodin), who is a ladies’ man with zero intention of marrying her. Carlile-Price is a side-splitting enchantress, stealing every scene she is in.

But all is not innocence and trivial entertainment. Meatier topics like patriotism, impending statehood, and a spirited rivalry between the local farmers and cowboys provide a backdrop of danger and excitement. Add to the mix Jud Fry, the creepy farm hand that harbors nefarious designs on Laurey (darkly played by Alex Levin, whose baritone is operatic), and the plot truly thickens.

Mara Newbery Greer’s choreography elevates the show to greater artistic heights. In particular, the tap dancing in “Kansas City” and the dream sequence, “Ballet” (Bella Calafiura is a standout as Dream Laurey), are superb.

If there is any criticism of the production, it is that there is too much of it. At 3 hours, it is uncomfortably long, especially Act I (105 minutes).

Nonetheless, if you’re looking for an evening of thoroughly entertaining, (mostly) light summer fare, “Oklahoma!” fits the bill.

 

‘Oklahoma!’ is presented by North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, through June 16. Visit nsmt.org/ or call 978-232-7200.

 

 

 

‘The Nature Plays’ Bring Mt. Auburn Cemetery to Life in a Spectacular Plein Air Tour de Force

 

Namesakes

Ed Hooperman (as Louis Agassiz), Jacob Oommen Athyal (as Elizabeth Agassiz) and Theresa Hoa Nguyen (as Jane Gray) debate their legacies in “Namesakes.”

 

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

This review first appeared in The Theater Mirror. theatermirror.net/ All photos by Corinne Elicone.

 

Mt. Auburn Cemetery and its rich, natural environment is a heaven-made set for Playwright Patrick Gabridge’s spectacular first set of five site-specific one-act plays, collectively titled, “The Nature Plays.” Each ten-minute play touches on a topic germane to its particular setting in the 174-acre cemetery, which is also an arboretum and National Historic Landmark District.

The plays run through June 9 with another series of five short plays, “The American Plays,” scheduled to run September 14-22.

Gabridge, who is also Mt. Auburn Cemetery’s Artist-in-Residence, chose the topics based on “whatever interested him.” The result is five works, each stunning in its whimsicality, creativity, craftsmanship and depth. They seamlessly blend big-picture topics like global warming and the role the present plays in shaping history and legacy with slapstick and zingy one-liners.

Courtney O’Connor directs and cast members, all members of Actors Equity Association, include: Lisa Tucker, Jacob Athyal, Ed Hoopman, and Theresa Nguyen.

Over the course of the 75-minute production, the audience travels about a mile from site to site with the actors, wandering from pond to gravesite to secret mushroom trove to birding hot spot to sheltered glen. Chairs are set up at each site and there is not a bad seat in the house.

 

Patrick MAC umbrella close up

Patrick Gabridge, Playwright and Mt. Auburn Artist-in-Residence

 

Last Saturday at 5 pm, the stroll through the park-like setting was as magical as the plays themselves. Gabridge was on hand to offer bug spray and a brief introduction to the 35 people lucky enough to have scored a ticket to the sold out show.

The five plays are: “Hot Love in the Moonlight,” about the strange mating habits of spotted salamanders (“but it’s also a play about choosing to have children in a dangerous world,” Gabridge told Theater Mirror); “Namesakes,” which shows the 19th century naturalists Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz confronting the impermanence of their legacies; “Sworn to Secrecy,” a peek at the hidden world of mushroom hunters; “Cerulean Blue,” about the inner lives of bird watchers; and “Love and Loss in the Glade,” a play about healing and loss told through the words of three trees.

 

Hot Love

Jacob Oommen Athyal (as spotted salamander Jeremy) courts Theresa Hoa Nguyen (as spotted salamander Samantha) in “Hot Love in the Moonlight.”

 

Along with a natural soundtrack of chirps and tweets, bird recordings of warblers, orioles and warbling vireos chime in during the bird-watching play.

 

The Nature Plays - Cerulean Blue2

Ed Hooperman (as deaf birdwatcher Dan) and Lisa Tucker (as blind birdwatcher Leanna) share their observations in “Cerulean Blue.”

 

Each play provides both charm and a deeper message, and the actors clearly revel in delivering their clever lines. “So much life in a place dedicated to the dead….I never expected to feel so much less lonely here,” one bird watcher tells another.

Playwright Patrick Gabridge is an award-winning writer of historical and contemporary stage plays, novels, audio plays, and screenplays. His short plays have been produced more 1,000 times in theaters and schools in 14 different countries around the world and appear in various anthologies. His recent site-specific works include “Blood on the Snow” and “Cato & Dolly” for The Bostonian Society/Old State House, and “Both/And: A Quantum Physics Play” for the MIT Museum.

In 2018, Gabridge launched Plays In Place, a new company that works in partnership with museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions to develop and produce site-specific theatrical plays and presentations to help engage, entertain, and enlighten visitors in new and vibrant ways.  Gabridge’s Mount Auburn plays are presented in partnership with Plays in Place as one of the company’s inaugural projects.

The Theater Mirror caught up with Gabridge, who answered these questions.

TM: How did you decide on the topics for “The Nature Plays?”

G: One of the cool things about being artist-in-residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery is the freedom we get to choose what to create, and also the richness of the history and environment of the place. There are 100,000 people buried there, but it’s also a world-class arboretum, an important stop on the migratory bird pathway. It has lots of interesting wildlife and some very smart programs to get people involved with science and nature.

As I got to know the Cemetery, it quickly became apparent to me that I’d have to write about BOTH history and nature. There was just so much to write about, so many different elements, that I decided to write two series of plays. And even then, The Nature Plays cover quite a bit of ground. The plays themselves also have different styles and takes on their subjects. I love the ability to experiment and play, and I think the audience is going to have a good time, too.

 

TM: What are the challenges of working/performing in an outdoor environment? What are some of the rewards?

G: The hardest thing about outdoor work is unpredictability, especially around weather. We’re fortunate at Mount Auburn in that we have an indoor rain backup space, at Story Chapel. You also have a lot less control over passersby, random environmental noise, etc., that you don’t have to worry about in the controlled space of an indoor theatre.

However, the rewards are great. We get a vividly real, three-dimensional environment, better than any set we could ever create. In Mount Auburn, we get an incredibly beautiful venue in which to perform and it comes with great spatial depth that we can use.

One thing I love about site-specific work like this is that it’s super intimate—often the audiences and performers are quite close. The formal barrier that exists between actors and audience in a traditional space is much more permeable, much less rigid. This enables more engagement, and I don’t necessarily mean the actors are talking to the audience, but there’s a sense of connection that’s deeper. This kind of experience often has great appeal for people who are less comfortable in a formal theatre environment. There’s a sense of shared experience, even among the audience themselves, that creates a memorable and engaging event.

 

TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

G: I hope they’ll see Mount Auburn a little differently than they did before. That the specific spots where we perform will have a new resonance for them. I hope that they’ll be drawn to visit again, and when they do, they’ll look at the birds and trees and the place with a new curiosity, and also with a sense of belonging. They’ll know something about this place, and I hope they’ll feel like they’re a part of it, and it’s a part of them, in some small way.

 

TM: What initially inspired you to develop site-specific works?

G: I started creating site-specific plays in Colorado, in 1993. I had co-founded Chameleon Stage, with a bunch of other writers and a director friend, and we had no money, but wanted to experiment with creating new short plays. So we made plays for wild spaces in the mountains of Colorado, just west of Denver. It was called ‘Theatre in the Wild.’ It was so much fun we did more of them, toured a tiny bit (to Aspen and Golden), and then did Asphalt Adventures, a set of parking lot plays. I learned a lot about creating and producing site-specific plays.

TM: Anything you want to add?

G: I hope people will also keep an eye out for the second set of Mount Auburn plays, which will be in September.

THE NATURE PLAYS (30 May to 9 June)

Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA

617-607-1980 or mountauburn.org

 

Teen Legacy Fellows preserve and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust 

by Shelley A. Sackett

In April 2018, Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman visited Auschwitz with their dear friend David Schaecter, a 90-year-old survivor who spent over two years of his youth in this indescribable death camp. “While standing in front of David’s bunker, he turned to us and said, ‘Hear me, understand me, and let me tell my story,’” Kipnis said. By the end of their trip, she and Ruderman began to understand what their friend was asking.

“The imminent passing of survivors will occur during your and our children’s lifetimes,” Ruderman explained, noting the alarming results of a survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that showed the Holocaust is fading from global memory. “While no one alone can change this disturbing trend, by the conclusion of our visit, Jody and I committed ourselves to do what we could to assure this does not happen.”

The two made a pledge while standing in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah in April 2018. “We promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action,” Kipnis said.

When they returned home, they conceived of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (HLF), whose mission is preserving and perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations by inviting teens throughout Greater Boston to meet survivors, learn about the Holocaust and make the trip to the places that forever changed Kipnis and Ruderman’s lives. Kipnis and Ruderman are its co-directors and funders.

By coincidence, Kipnis’s daughter, Gann Academy student Gillian Pergament, was on the 2018 Y2I trip and told Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin about the Holocaust travel program her mom and Ruderman were interested in starting. “I said I would love to know more and asked her to tell her mom,” Coltin said. She and Kipnis connected within days of her returning from the Y2I trip and, together with Ruderman, their ideas came to fruition.

“Debbie is an expert on teen travel and engagement. With her help, we pulled this together in just three months,” Kipnis said. She and Ruderman also enlisted the assistance of the Lappin Foundation (which has run the Youth to Israel program since 1971) to administer and implement HLF, and hired Coltin as education and program development consultant.

David Schaecter shows his tattooed number from Auschwitz.

Kipnis said HLF is in the process of becoming its own stand-alone non-profit organization.

Eligible teens for the 2018-2019 HLF pilot year needed to be juniors in high school; have participated in an organized Israel experience; be able to attend all pre- and post-trip meetings; agree to complete all homework assignments; and not have previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

As HLF Educator, Coltin, who has three decades experience teaching the Holocaust, created the curriculum, and will be one of the staff on the fully subsidized August 4-13, 2019 Poland and Berlin trip. She plans all meeting lessons, teaches the classes, and schedules survivors to speak to the teen Fellows.

“The curriculum reflects the human face of the Holocaust. The Fellows meet survivors in person, the last generation to do so. They bear witness to the Holocaust by hearing the survivors’ testimonies about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and what the enormous price in particular Jewish people paid for such hatred that went unchecked,” said Coltin.

The 16 inaugural Fellows represent Lynnfield, Middleton, Newburyport, Beverly, Arling­ton, Marblehead, Newton, Needham, Framingham and Swampscott. “I wanted the participants to be from ‘Greater Boston,’ not just one area. These kids have a responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. How else will we get the word out?” Kipnis said.

After attending an orientation and hearing survivor Schaecter speak last October, nominated teens wrote a paragraph describing why they wanted to be a Fellow. “In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is more important than ever that we continue discussing the Holocaust. I want to be part of the movement that ensures that nothing even close to it ever happens again,” wrote Dina Zeldin, a junior at Newton South High School.

“I hope to gain a new level of knowledge about the Holocaust and use that in my community, my country and someday even the world. I want to bring a sense of hope in such a dark trip,” Max Foltz, a junior at Newburyport High School, wrote.

For Coltin, the HLF trip will be her first time traveling to Poland and Berlin. While she admits that going to these sites so deeply connected to the Final Solution is “way out of my comfort zone,” she is thankful for the opportunity to open up and learn more.

“The Holocaust journey should be personal. We will be learning our history, our story. Knowing who we are as Jews puts us in the best possible position to support and promote the mission of Holocaust Legacy Fellows,” she said.

“Jody and Todd had a phenomenal idea and they followed through. Our community is truly blessed,” she added.

For more information, visit https://holocaustlegacyfellows.org/.

Stellar ‘The Return’ marks Israeli Stage’s final production

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

“I think I may have done something wrong,” the Jewish Israeli character known as Her says to the Palestinian Israeli character known as Him. “I want to understand and make it right.”

“The Return,” the provocative and extraordinary two-character play performed by Israeli Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion through May 19, slowly unravels the mystery of love and betrayal that underlies the relationship between these two very human beings trapped within a politically complicated country. Their backstory is a roadmap that examines Israel’s establishment and its contemporary social and political order through a Palestinian lens.

Because it is impossible to avoid spoilers in a full-throated review, broad brushstrokes must suffice. The writing (Palestinian-Israeli Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast), acting (Philana Mia and Nael Nacer) and directing (Guy Ben-Aharon) are brilliant. The set design (Cristina Todesco) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) are powerful, yet unobtrusive, subtly evoking an interrogation room. And the post-performance moderated dialog last Saturday evening was as thought-provoking and engaging as the play itself.

The 65-minute intermission-less show is a product of the ongoing 20-year collaboration between the Seattle-based playwrights, who met through mutual friends soon after Mast returned from his first trip to Israel. The two talked a bit that night. The next day Hanna asked Mast if he would be interested in teaming up on a project he had in mind. “Aside from being a good playwright, Ed is an activist for human rights,” Eady said.

That project became their first play, “Sahmatah: Memory of Stones,” based on interviews with refugees from the Palestinian village destroyed during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In 1998, it was produced in Arabic in the Masrahal-Midan Theater in Haifa, and on the ruins of the village of Sahmatah in the Upper Galilee.

Eady, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts in drama and directing from the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in Buqayah, a small village similar to Sahmatah, also in the Upper Galilee region of Israel. “A mixed population of Palestinian Druze, Christians, Muslims and Palestinian Jews lived there together for thousands of years. In 1948, Israel was established and the harmony of their life in the village was destroyed,” Eady said. A large part of his family fled and are now scattered around the world in five continents.

His intent in writing “The Return” is twofold. “I would like the audience to feel the tragic reality of daily life of the Palestinian people, to see they are deprived of the most simple and natural thing in life, which is normal human contact,” he said. He also wants theatergoers to notice the play’s message of hope and spread it. “A good play changes attitudes and motivates the audience to take action,” he added.

Mast, who grew up in California, was “a very typical uninformed passive supporter of Israel” when he befriended a Palestinian coworker. “Through their eyes, I began to see things differently,” he said. He and Hanna have much in common. They both act and direct, and are compatible personally, politically and artistically. “We know a lot of beloved people who are in danger every day because of a system that places one people in power over another.”

When Guy Ben-Aharon founded Israeli Stage in 2010 as a 19-year-old Emerson College student, his goal was to expose American audiences to Israeli plays. Over nine seasons, the company has become known for its commitment to diversity, empathy and building community bridges through shared dialogue. “It’s so easy to exist in echo chambers, and have our own thoughts and opinions regurgitated for us. It is much more challenging to confront dualities and a multiplicity of experiences,” the Israeli native said.

“The Return” marks the last play of his company’s final season, and Ben-Aharon is “really glad” to share this Palestinian-Israeli perspective on the reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It is the very first time we will have done that in nine seasons’ worth of work. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit.”

The Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts is located at 527 Tremont St., Boston. For tickets, visit IsraeliStage.com or call 617-933-8600.

Pastries for Pesach

SWAMPSCOTT – Sara Winer stood in her recently redecorated kitchen emanating the serene aura of a person who is in the right place at the right time. “My kitchen is my happy place,” she said as she took a loving glance around the gray-toned sleek yet warm sanctuary, which has been kosher since the day she got married 49 years ago.

The Swampscott baker comes from a long matrilineal line of bakers, starting with her Russian Bubbe Sara, for whom she is named. She is renowned for her creative and delectable creations, which are decidedly not low-calorie. “There really is no substitute for butter if you want a rich cookie or cake,” she said.

Finally succumbing to repeated suggestions from friends, Winer decided it was time to test the waters and start a baking business. She launched “Sara’s Baked Goods & Specialties” last Passover, when she decided to offer a few of her personal favorites items to a few friends.

Baking for Passover can be challenging and tedious because no leavening agents are used, Winer shared. She makes sure all ingredients are kosher for Passover and she uses only her Passover dishes and cooking implements. “I buy eggs five dozen at a time,” she said.

This Passover, she again is selling desserts and kugels. Some she can bake in advance and freeze; others, like her chocolate-dipped meringues and sponge cake, are made just prior to delivery. New to this year are the vegetable farfel kugel and her personal favorite, Passover granola, loaded with nuts, coconut, raisins and honey.

The response so far has surprised her. “I always think people could do this themselves, but they either like what I make or don’t have that same excitement about baking,” she said.

Creativity is also in her genes. Her mother, sisters, nephews and son excelled in painting, photography and animation. Winer tried her hand at fine arts, but found her medium – and her calling – in baking. “It is also therapeutic, meditative, and fun. It satisfies my need to give, to nurture and to care for my family and friends,” she said as she poured a cup of tea and set out a plate of her favorite cookies: hermits, pecan sandies, chocolate chip and poppy seed.

The science of baking fascinates Winer, and she loves working with yeast. “A couple of ingredients and voilà! You have a challah!” she said with a broad smile.

She worked for 18 years as a sales rep at Rivkind Associates, a large printing company in Stoughton, and gifted her clients with baskets of handmade cookies at the holidays. “They all came to look forward to it every year,” she said.

After retiring in 2013, she had a lot of time on her hands, which translated to a lot of time for baking. Friends celebrating birthdays receive cupcakes or a cake, and her mah jongg friends know not to eat dessert on game nights, because Winer always provides an assortment of homemade goodies. “My freezer is literally full of cookies, cakes and breads,” she said.

Although Winer’s nuclear family is a great reservoir of talent, she credits her mother-in-law, Ida Winer, as the biggest source of her inspiration. “She taught me how to entertain and how to make everything look nice. She just had a real flair. I like to think I am following in her footsteps,” she said.

For more information, email sewiner48@gmail.com.

This year’s Jewish Film Fest will leave you on the edge of your seat

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – Jewish film festivals are wildly popular, and according to jewishfilmfestivals.org, moviegoers had 170 to choose from worldwide in 2018 in locations ranging from Nebraska to Nepal. For the sixth year, local residents need travel only a few miles to Marblehead and Salem to view 13 films offered by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival from April 28 to May 9.

While films about the Holocaust are natural candidates for a Jewish film festival, this year’s lineup features several films that – although set during World War II – are more character than history-driven. Bookending the 12-day festival are opening night’s “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a thriller starring Paul Rudd based on the true story of Moe Berg, the Red Sox catcher who became a WWII spy, and closing night’s “Prosecuting Evil,” a gripping documentary about Ben Ferencz, the remarkable 99-year-old and last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.

Gordon Edes, an award-winning sportswriter and Boston Red Sox historian, will speak and answer questions following “The Catcher Was a Spy,” and both films include a post-screening reception.

The remaining 11 films are a well-balanced mix of documentary, drama, and comedy. In “Winter Hunt,” a riveting German contemporary psychological thriller, a young woman on a personal mission of vigilante justice goes to extremes as she seeks reprisal against a suspected ex-Nazi. Powerful performances, an edgy score, and a tight script fuel the suspense.

Jewish women are front and center in three films that look at dilemmas they face as they struggle to forge their own paths in a world complicated by religious tradition and social conformity. “Working Woman” addresses the complexity of contemporary life in Israel, chronicling the predicament faced by Orna (played by the remarkable Liron Ben-Shlush) as she juggles motherhood, marriage to a struggling restaurateur, and a meteoritic rise in the corporate real estate world. When her boss relentlessly sexually harasses her, her entire world is brought to the brink of disaster.

Life for women in pre-state Israel was no less complex, as illustrated by “An Israeli Love Story.” Based on a true story and set in 1947, the well-shot and edited film explores the relationship between an aspiring actress and a kibbutznik who is also a member of Palmach, an elite fighting force. In “Leona,” a young Jewish artist in present day Mexico City finds herself torn between her traditional, observant family and a forbidden love.

On a lighter but no less poignant note, the award-winning “Shoelaces” traces the relationship between Reuven, a surly parent, and Gadi, his charismatic adult son with special needs, as the two slowly develop a tender and life-affirming bond of devotion. The popular film is thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny.

Three documentaries reveal different facets of present-day Jewish life. “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” follows two local men on the cusp of middle age as they nosh their way through a series of classical eateries and share their community’s 100-year Jewish history. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” charts the underdog journey of Israel’s national team to the 2017 World Baseball Classic in a story of sports, patriotism, and growth.

“Sustainable Nation,” shown in partnership with CJP as a free community event in honor of Israeli Independence Day, follows three visionary Israelis as they bring water solutions to an increasingly thirsty planet.

Poland and France are the settings for the rest of the line up. “Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary set in 1940, after Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of Oyneg Shabes, a group of journalists, scholars and community leaders who resolved to fight Nazi propaganda with pen and paper, is told through writings, new interviews, rare archival footage and dramatizations.

In her deeply personal documentary, “Chasing Portraits,” filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki travels to Poland to find the remaining work of her great-grandfather, a prolific impressionistic painter who captured scenes of pre-war Jewish life.

“A Bag of Marbles,” based on a true story, follows two young Jewish brothers as they fend for themselves, making their way through German-occupied France to reunite with their families.

Many films have post-screening guests who will speak to issues raised by the films.

For information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org or call 781-631-8330.

An interview with Joan Nathan

What do you plan to speak about at Friends of Hillel Library event?

I plan to speak on the revolving “bagel” of Jewish cooking from King Solomon’s times to our times.

What do libraries mean to you?

I love libraries. They mean history, finding nuggets of history, for me Jewish history, I love the quiet of them and the fact that everyone can use them, and what they reveal in wonderful books.

What current trends do you see in Jewish cooking?

Jewish cooking is really hot right now, especially Israeli cooking in New York, LA, Berlin, Paris, and many small places in between. Of course, much of it is due to what I call the “Ottolenghi” phenomenon – this wonderful Israeli chef, living in London and using pomegranate paste, date jam, chickpeas, etc. in his colorful cuisine. It raised the idea of Israeli cooking and I believe inspired all kinds of chefs and restaurateurs. In LA there is Bavel; in New York there is Nur, Mint Village; in Philly there is Zahav; in New Orleans there is Saba; and in Buenos Aires there is Meshuganah. Out of this is also coming Diaspora cuisine in restaurants everywhere.

Any “words of advice” to young Jewish people?

Learn as much as you can now. When it comes to cooking, go to your parents and grandparents and watch them cook and ask them their stories and the stories of the foods that are in your family. Write everything down and make a little booklet out of them or do a paper for a class on them. You will keep them and learn from these recipes for the rest of your lives.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Every Jew has his or her own history. Food is so much part of it because of the repetitive: Enjoy it, celebrate it, and learn from your table what the history of each ingredient is. Food is just as important as music or prayer and in many families it is absolutely the last to leave our culture. Catch the recipes for you and the next generation.