It’s Blue Collar versus Blue Blood in “Gloucester Blue”

By Shelley A. Sackett

Latham (Robert Walsh) closes in on Lexi (Esme Allen).
All photos by Gary Ng

If the purpose of theater is to entertain, Israel Horovitz has hit the nail squarely on the head in Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of his latest Gloucester-based play, “Gloucester Blue”. The founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, who directs this production, introduced his new play last Saturday evening to a packed house that greeted him with affection and applause.

“Let’s see how you feel after the play,” he said, chuckling.

The internationally honored and acclaimed playwright need not have worried. His black comedy with more twists and turns than Route 127 left the audience cheering amid thunderous clapping.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

In a nutshell, a young super wealthy couple (Lexi Carrington and Bradford Ellis IV, aka “Bummy”) is restoring an abandoned former fishing cannery in Gloucester’s Fort area as their summer home and display space for their collection of antique cars. They hire local housepainter, Stumpy, to do the renovation. He in turn hires a friend-of-a-friend, Latham, when the couple wants the house in move-in condition earlier than they originally planned. Both workmen are from solid blue-collar backgrounds and grew up in the working waterfront neighborhood of Eastern Point.

The play opens with Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) and Latham (the electrifying Robert Walsh, whose performance is worth the price of admission) in the drop cloth-draped attic loft where they get to know each other as they plaster and spackle. Although they are kindred souls geographically, their spirits are anything but.

Stumpy favors National Public Radio and Latham, at least ten years his senior, is an Aerosmith devotee. In one of dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, Latham says, “NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” First impressions prove deceiving throughout “Gloucester Blue”, and Latham’s unrefined patter belies a keen sense of observation and a razor sharp sense of self-preservation.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

The boisterous banter changes the instant Lexi (played by Esme Allen with a perfect, nasal Brahmin clenched jaw) shows up with paint samples. She is a knockout blond patrician clad head to heel in clothes that cost more than Latham and Stumpy’s week’s paychecks combined. From the get go, it is clear there is more than an employer-employee between her and Stumpy.

As Lexi complains to Stumpy about being sexually harassed earlier in the week, Latham relishes insulting Lexi as he mocks Stumpy. “I remember when harass was two words,” he says, clearly enjoying watching them squirm. Stumpy and Lexi get the upper hand when they ignore Latham and dash into the bedroom to “discuss renovation details.”

Latham continues to work, doing a slow burn that glows hotter with each passing minute. When Lexi’s husband, Bummy (played as a defeatist milquetoast by Lewis D. Wheeler) arrives, you can almost smell Latham’s scheming brain start to work overtime.

In addition to adultery, the noir-ish play brings in humor, a choreographed fight, blackmail, murder and betrayal. The plot coils and curls as secrets are spilled and transformed into lies and mayhem.

Photo_13_6557

Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler) gets a pointer from Latham.

The first half of the first act drags a bit as Stumpy and Latham establish their characters and stake their ground. Part of the problem is Solorzano’s flat and un-nuanced performance as Stumpy. Fortunately, Walsh is up to the task of taking up the slack. He brings physicality, impeccable timing and a believable delivery to Latham. Likewise, the choreographed fight between the two Gloucester workmen overstays its welcome.

Act two is another story, meandering into ridiculous plot twists and comedic staging. At times, it feels like we have wandered into a completely different play, one that resembles “Fractured Fairy Tales” form the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” more than a philosophical observation of class warfare between the 99- and 1-percenters.

“Gloucester Blue” is full of introspection, clever dialogue and inventive story lines. Most importantly, however, it is exceptionally entertaining. No doubt, its run in its home town will be as rousting a success as its previous runs in theaters in New York, Washington and Florida.

 

“Gloucester Blue” runs through October 3 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. Following the 2 p.m. performances Sunday, Sept. 20 and 27, audiences are invited to free post show discussions with the artists. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

 

Advertisements

“Strandbeests” on the Loose at PEM’s Groundbreaking New Exhibit

By Shelley A. Sackett / salem@wickedlocal.com

Americus Umericus, Scheveningen beach, Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis.

SALEM

When the Peabody Essex Museum’s Trevor Smith encountered Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s jaw-dropping Strandbeests (“beach animals”), he knew he had to bring them to PEM. Like most people, Smith first saw them on the Internet, “walking” sideways on Scheveningen Beach in The Hague. He was hooked on the spot.

“I wanted to show what makes perpetual motion possible and that there is great inspiration in the world,” Smith said. “We all have ideas; we all have creativity. Theo is the poster child for Present Tense Initiative. He is the personification of the blending of the arts.”

The PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, curated by Smith, celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping the world today, and pushes the boundaries of what a museum experience can be.

Four years in the making, “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” opens on Saturday, Sept. 19 and is the first large-scale presentation of Jansen’s Strandbeests in the U.S. With its multi-sensory approach that invites touching and playing, it is a must-see exhibit for all ages.

“I wanted an exhibit that would be hands on and contemplative with zones of the intellectual and experiential, which I hope will translate to our audience,” said Smith. With multi-media displays, large-scale kinetic sculptures, artist sketches, immersive video and photography by Lena Herzog, the Russian photographer who spent more than seven years documenting the Strandbeests’ evolution, Smith’s goal is exceeded.

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Jansen defies pigeonholing. He is a magician, a physicist, an artist, an engineer, a philosopher, a theologian, and a choreographer, and he calls on all these personae to create his kinetic universe where pistons, crankshafts and complex leg systems transform inert plastic tubing into living beings that dance at the ocean’s edge.

Using lightweight PVC, which is common in Dutch households, and zip ties, Jansen has invented a new species that he describes as “migration animals that have a lot of patience.” Visitors marvel and empathize with these fragile, skeletal creatures that capture imaginations and pull at heartstrings.

Twenty-five years ago, Jansen, wearing his physicist’s hat, set out to design a machine that could pile sand onto the Dutch eroding coastline. The utilitarian project was meant to take one year. Instead, his Strandbeests hit a very deep chord in Jansen’s psyche, reminding him of the origins of life and inspiring him to create an entire new species, complete with life cycles, evolutionary adaptations, fossil records and, despite their Star Wars appearance, deep roots in reality.

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

“I dreamed that I would give a new specimen to the world,” Jansen told members of the press at a preview of his exhibit. Normally, evolution takes millions of years to occur, but Jansen recently decided to share the genetic algorithm (the Strandbeest’s DNA, which he refers to as his “holy numbers”) that he created on his Atari computer in order to speed up and enrich the process.

“Thousands of students have been making Strandbeests since I published the DNA on the website. That’s how Strandbeests reproduce and survive the wind; they are sitting on students’ shelves,” Jansen said with the seriousness of a biology professor. “These mutants that are created by students might reproduce faster than mine, discovering a solution to survival on the beach.” He estimates that over the next 20 years, the animals will evolve to a point where they can exist on their own.

When Jansen talks about his creatures, the line blurs between fantasy and reality, invention and nature. His Strandbeests are “like my children. You create them, you nurture them, and then you kick them out of the house to live their own lives,” he said with a hint of a smile. He has created a phylogenetic family tree and evolutionary periods with names like the Strap Period, the Hot Period and the Less Hot Period. If Theodor Seuss Geisel had been an engineer, he might have been team-teaching with Jansen.

At the end of the presentation, Jansen stood in front of one of his Strandbeests and in what was the evening’s greatest understatement said, “You can see that I’ve been working hard the last few years.”

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen opens Sept. 19 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. The exhibit will run through Jan. 3, after which it will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. For more information, visit pem.org/strandbeest.

PEM Hires National Gallery of Art Curator

By Shelley A. Sackett / salem@wickedlocal.com

Peabody Essex Museum has appointed Sarah Kennel, Ph.D., as its new curator of photography. Kennel joins the PEM this month after a nine-year curatorial tenure at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where she helped oversee the National Gallery’s permanent collection and managed an active exhibition program.

“Sarah’s comprehensive knowledge of the artistic and technological history of the medium, combined with her appetite for the interdisciplinary and photography’s dialogue with multiple art forms, will advance PEM’s reputation as a top-flight cultural destination that provides fascinating, provocative experiences with photography,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator, in a press release.

Kennel, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of California in Berkley and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, is excited by PEM’s vast 800,000-piece photography collection.

“The sheer number of photographs in the collection is both exhilarating and daunting,” Kennel said by e-mail. “I am also intrigued by such a rich and unusual collection that has been formed so early, relative to other photography collections, and yet remains to be fully explored.”

She is particularly interested in the significant collections of 19th-century photographs made in Asia. Although the traditional history of photography centers on France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, America, it was, she pointed out, a global medium that traveled across the world and was adapted in many different ways for different purposes.

“I think the PEM’s collection can illuminate this complex story and also help us understand the widespread appeal and importance of photography from its origins to today — it was, from 1839 on, the most social of media,” she said.

Kennel is known for curating interdisciplinary exhibitions that pair photography with, for example, dance, costumes, textiles, film and music. While her primary focus will be on the photography collection and organizing exciting photography exhibitions, she looks forward to bringing this penchant for interdisciplinary displays to the PEM.

“After all,” she said, “the museum has been a leader in unconventional, exciting, mixed media installations. I think the first order of business will be to collaborate with my colleagues across the museum to integrate photography into mixed-media displays in the galleries, a goal that is already in place, but I am always thinking about how photography interacts and resonates with different forms of visual culture. I am especially interested in the rich relationship between photography, the birth of early film and the historical avant-garde — we’ll see where it goes.”

When Kennel was 4 years old, her father, a physicist, accepted a one-year sabbatical appointment in Paris. She recalled being dazzled by the cultural riches of Paris and its surroundings and is eager to collaborate with colleagues to come up with exhibitions that appeal to a wide range of audiences and offer different points of entry.

“Exhibitions that introduce us to different worlds — that help us enter an imaginative space, a different time, a different mindset — can be very powerful for everyone, but especially young minds as they seek to understand and interpret the world. And integrating a hands-on component somewhere is important — what better way than to learn than by doing? That being said, I didn’t need bells and whistles to fall in love with art when I was 4. I only needed the opportunity and access — so that’s the crucial first step. Every child should have the opportunity to explore and discover great works of art,” she said.

Kennel is excited to join the PEM team at a time when the museum is poised for a major expansion. “I love that the PEM is such a central part of the cultural life of the region, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. As a Los Angeles native, I also welcome tips on surviving the Massachusetts winters,” she said.

Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” Launches New Rep Theatre’s 2015-2016 Season

L-R: Anne Gottlieb and Jeremiah Kissel

All photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

New Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jim Petosa, chose Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced “Broken Glass” to open the 2015-2016 season. “The resounding authenticity of playwright Arthur Miller’s voice has left an indelible legacy on the American stage,” Petosa said. “We are proud to bring this Boston are premiere to our stage during the nationwide celebration of his 100th birthday,”

“Identity” is the theme of this year’s season, and “Broken Glass” certainly fits the bill.

Written in 1994,  Miller wrote this play 40-50 years after he had penned his best known and greatest plays (the American classics “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge”). During these later years, Miller began exploring his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew. His search resounds loud and clear in “Broken Glass.”

The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), one of the events in the run-up to World War II, in which windows in Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The title may also refer to the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings.

Sylvia Gellburg (played with clarity and wit by Anne Gottlieb) is obsessed with the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe and distraught by the fact that those around her can’t see the writing on the wall. She pores over the newspaper, returning again and again to the humiliation of a photo of two elderly bearded Jews forced to scour the sidewalk with toothbrushes. She fears that such brutality will somehow reach Brooklyn.

Her feelings of helplessness so overwhelm her that she suffers the actual physical helplessness of paralysis. “Somebody has to do something, or they will murder us all,” she wails.

Her gloomy, hot-blooded husband, mortgage banker Phillip (played with staccato nervous energy by the stellar and popular Jeremiah Kissel) insists she see their physician and friend, Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). After running a series of tests and referring Sylvia to a specialist, he concludes that Sylvia’s ailment appears to be psychosomatic. He likens her condition to soldiers who are so frightened they suffer shell shock.

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

Unlike Sylvia, Phillip is not at peace with his identity. He spends as much time trying to assimilate and shed his Jewish identity as he does bristling at imagined anti-Semitic remarks, caught in that no man’s land of identifying as a Jew and wanting to be anything else. Nonetheless, he isn’t so sure that Sylvia’s reaction to the horrors of Germany isn’t spot-on.

“What if Sylvia is the only one who is awake and her reaction makes sense and if the rest of us were aware of what she is, we’d be paralyzed too?” he asks Dr. Hyman. The doctor, who is Jewish but married to the bubbly non-Jewish Margaret (Eve Passeltiner), is convinced that all the political turmoil will pass. In his estimation, Sylvia’s problem boils down to the fact that she is desperate to be loved.

Against this backdrop of unhappiness, fear and repression, the Gellburg’s marital disintegration soon takes center stage as Sylvia and Phillip verbally spar with the intimate accuracy of two people well versed in each other’s Achilles’ heels. Sylvia, who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood and Manhattan, resents and regrets ever leaving Brooklyn. “I can’t seem to find myself in my life,” she says. Phillip echoes her disappointment: “I always thought I would have time to get to the bottom of me,” he says. These are two strangers in the strange land of their marriage.

While the cast is superb and the set inventive and effective, the play’s strident tone and length (two-and-a-half hours) eventually wears down even the most ardent theatergoer. “Broken Glass” is a tough slog. Unlike Willy Loman and the characters in Miller’s deservedly more famous plays, these characters are two-dimensional and that two-dimensionality keeps us at arm’s length, sadly making it impossible for us to feel the compassion they so crave.

Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

Jim Petosa: Up Close and Personal

Even over the phone, Jim Petosa’s enthusiasm is contagious. The New Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director since 2012 (he just “re-enlisted” with a second three-year contract) is excited to talk about the New Rep’s upcoming 2015-2016 season and its opening play, Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass”, which Petosa will direct.

“I’m really happy,” he said, adding, “It’s been great. I’m beginning my fourth year and am feeling my lengthening relationship with the theater.”

Petosa likes to draw an analogy between the way songs relate to each other on a concept LP and the way the artistic notion of a theater company can emerge through individual plays that relate to each other to create a larger mosaic of artistry. For the upcoming season, Petosa chose “Identity” as the “title of the LP” and selected plays that focus on characters who must discover who they are in the contexts in which they find themselves.

“Broken Glass” will to kick off the season both as part of the national celebration of the playwright’s birth and as a way to showcase a play Petosa fell in love with when he first directed it in 1996 while artistic director at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center for the Arts.

“This is a late play of Miller’s, and I find that as he got older, he became more revelatory and personal in his writing,” Petosa said. “There is an intimacy and an honesty that seems to come more directly out of our own humanity in a very revealing way.”

The Olivier Award-winning and Tony-nominated drama takes place on November 11, 1938, the day after “Kristallnacht” (literally, “Night of Crystal,” referring to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10,1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops).

Sylvia Gellburg has suddenly lost the ability to walk and her husband, Phillip, desperately seeks a cure. The play ostensibly examines the Gellburgs’ failed marriage, but in the process it also uncovers the inner conflicts of those straddling the worlds of their immigrant parents’ Jewish values and the modern American ideal of assimilation and material success.

“This play speaks to the theme of ‘identity’ so perfectly, but you really have to have a terrific company that’s perfect for the play. You can’t just do it with anybody. It has to be someone who connects to it in a visceral way” said Petosa.

When he got to know Jeremiah Kissel’s work in New Rep’s 2014 production of “Imagining Madoff” (see review at https://shelleysackett.com/2014/01/16/bernie-madoff-jewish-rogue-or-rogue-jew/), he had his Phillip. “Jerry was just born to play this role and I knew Anne Gottlieb would be splendid as Sylvia,” he said.

Also, “Broken Glass” had never been performed in Boston. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to do an Arthur Miller centennial piece, let’s do an area premiere,’ and that became very exciting,” Petosa added.

Wearing his director’s hat, Petosa reflected about which character most resonated with him. “For me, the central character is the marriage,” he said, noting that the Phillip-Sylvia relationship is the most compelling human aspect of the play. “How the other characters impact on the demise of that relationship is the engine of the play.”

Petosa delights in telling about his experience with Mr. Miller when he directed the play in 1996. “This is a great story,” he begins. “I’m always amazed by the times you have in the theatrical world where you get to touch people of significance or real artistic magnitude and by just how generous oft times those people are.”

Mr. Miller was living in Connecticut in 1996. He offered to make himself available everyday after 5 p.m. (he wrote every afternoon until that time) throughout the rehearsal phase. Petosa took him up on his offer many times.

“He sent a telegram on opening night in the old theatrical tradition and spoke so tenderly about what he called ‘the little play.’ You could just feel the affection he had for the characters and the play.

“That has become the experience that defines Arthur Miller for me. It just speaks volumes about the man.” Petosa said.

“Broken Glass” also resonates with Petosa in a personal way, with a message he hopes the audience will take away. For him, the play is about “the whole question of the tragedy of the common man and the potency of self-destruction, of not being comfortable in one’s own skin and of feeling a sense of one’s victimization, of ‘lost-ness’…,” he said, pausing.

He continued, “… and to fight against that and not be brought down because of a sense of not belonging in some main stream sense of power structure. I think it’s a hugely cautionary tale and one that makes you feel a sense of grief.”

As he begins his fourth season at New Rep Theatre’s artistic helm, Petosa is humble about taking credit for the company’s soaring popularity during his tenure. “We really are trying hard to bring interesting things to our stage,” he said.