‘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.

 

 

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‘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.

 

 

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

 

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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.”

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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