What one Jewish educator did on her summer vacation

 

Yeshivagroup photo

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

 

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva is still study time.

 

Veiled OrthodoxJewish women fashion mannekins1

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

 

Advertisements

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

by Shelley A. Sackett

Nixon

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

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

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

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

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

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

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

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

(Solis, Crouse)

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

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

(Crouse, Speedy)

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

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

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

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

Aus-Bir tracks

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

 

Shelley A. Sackett

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

 

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

 

Majdanek-Schwartz

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Veksler and Richmond

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

 

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

 

 

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

Chak

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Majdanek-2019HLF

2019 Holocaust Legacy Fellows outside Majdanek

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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/

‘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/.