JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series goes virtual

Jason Rosenthal, seen with his late wife, Amy, will open the series on Oct. 6.

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – With hurricane season, daylight savings time and the election looming just around the corner, we could all use an engaging and stimulating indoor activity to look forward to during these trying COVID-19 times.

To the rescue is the 2020 virtual Jewish Community Center of the North Shore’s Jewish Book Month Speaker Series with a line-up of 12 outstanding authors who will literally travel right into your living room and share their books.

“Books are a way into people’s souls. Arts and culture are a non-threatening way for people to have a Jewish identity,” Suzanne Swift, Jewish Book Council Director of Author Network, told the Journal. JBC provides resources and support to Jewish organizations, including the JCCNS.

From Tuesday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 29, the annual JBM speaker series offers an especially broad selection of genres and topics, including memoir, history, fiction, humor and – of course – food.

JBM chair Diane Knopf acknowledges there is a silver lining to mounting the series during a pandemic. “There is no geographical barrier to participate in a virtual series” she said.

Jason Rosenthal, who will open the series on Oct. 6 with his memoir, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” lived in a romantic fairytale for the 26 years he was married to his bashert (soulmate), Amy, a writer and filmmaker until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her last project before she died in 2017 was an op-ed piece for the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” expressing her wish for her beloved Jason to remarry. It was published right after her death, catching Jason completely by surprise.

His book describes his life with Amy and their three children (the “Rosies”) and how he coped with his grief and loss. Judaism played a big role in his upbringing and in the family he and Amy raised in Chicago (regular Friday night Shabbat dinners, Jewish day school for his kids). “Shabbat dinners meant slowing down from a hectic week. Simple. Quietly reverent. And always full of gratitude,” he told the Journal.

After Amy’s death, however, he sought comfort elsewhere. “I look more to other spiritual elements in my life; mindfulness, meditation and yoga come to mind,” he said.

Although he shares some upbeat stories about women who wrote to him after they read Amy’s column, his aim is to help others. “Grief is a beast and a non-linear process,” he explained. “Ultimately, my book is filled with a message of hope and resilience. One never ‘gets over’ grief; we move through it.”

Other memoirs in the series include: “On My Watch” by local author Virginia Buckingham, who was head of Logan Airport on 9/11 and bore public blame for “letting it happen,” and “What We Will Become” by Mimi Lemay, a woman raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family who supported her transgender child’s odyssey.

On the fiction stage are Lynda Cohen Loigman’s “The Wartime Sisters,” the story of two estranged sisters reunited at the Springfield, Massachusetts armory during the early days of WWII, and Anna Solomon’s Good Morning America Book Club pick, “The Book of V.”

In “The Book of V,” Solomon intertwines the individual stories of three women: a Brooklyn mother in 2016; a senator’s wife in Watergate-era 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther in ancient Persia.

Solomon, who grew up in Gloucester and whose mother was the first female president of Temple Ahavat Achim, reconnected with the story of Esther when she read it to her own children. She was struck by how many questions the story raised, especially about Queen Vashti (executed after disobeying her husband, the king), who had fascinated her since she was a little girl.

“What did she do that was so bad? That was the mystery I wanted to unravel,” she told the Journal. “I also wanted to explore how our notions of a bad and good woman have and haven’t changed over time, and how we continue to reduce women to types.”

Solomon was born in the late 1970s when, for some women, it seemed gender equality had been achieved. “But anyone can see that’s not the case today. I wanted to play around with what it means to experience life in a way that doesn’t match what you’re being told. These three women all take charge of their own story in some way,” she said.

She hopes the book’s call for more connection and less competition among women resonates with her readers. “Let’s judge each other – and ourselves – less and reach out across our supposed differences more,” she said.

Fans of nonfiction and investigative reporting will also be thrilled. Longtime BBC correspondent Raffi Berg will discuss his “Red Sea Spies: The True Story of Mossad’s Fake Diving Resort,” the story of undercover Israeli spies who staffed a luxury resort on the Sudanese coast and secretly evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Local author Eric Jay Dolin covers the history of American hurricanes from Columbus’s landing to contemporary climate change in “A Furious Sky,” and Kristen Fermaglich’s “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” chronicles the impact of name change on American Jews. “The Last Kings of Shanghai” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Kaufman recounts the remarkable history of two wealthy and powerful Jewish families who helped shape China’s economic boom.

On a lighter note are Iris Krasnow’s “Camp Girls” (about the joy and lasting importance of the summer camp experience); Rachel Levin’s “Eat Something” (part comedy, part cookbook and part nostalgic journey). Alan Zweibel, an original Saturday Night Live writer who got his start selling jokes on the Borscht Belt circuit, shares his own stories and interviews with friends in the riotous “Laugh Lines.”

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

The 1938 Munich Agreement Is Unmasked in Gloucester Stage Company’s Inventive ‘The Battle Not Begun’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Those of us who eschew the national news in favor of mental equilibrium and spiritual health should be forewarned: it is nearly impossible to watch this historically grounded play and not draw some scary parallels to global current events. The points between 1938 and 2020 beg to be connected.

That said, ‘The Battle Not Begun,’ written by playwright and NPR news analyst Jack Beatty, is as artistically absorbing as it is factually repellant. Under Myriam Cyr’s tight editing and sharp-eyed direction, the audience becomes a fly on the wall at the fateful meeting between Adolph Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that gave Hitler a green light to launch what became World War II.

A little historical background may be helpful. (I offer this lengthy intro because, as one whose knowledge of WWII is admittedly gauzy, I wish I had this primer before sitting down to watch the play.)

After the First World War ended in 1918, the map of Europe was redrawn and several new countries were formed, including Czechoslovakia. As a result, three million Germans found themselves living under Czech rule in the Sudetenland. In 1938, when Hitler came to power, he vowed to reunite Germans into one nation, starting with the cessation to Germany of the “Sudeten German territory.”

Incited by Hitler’s rhetoric, Sudeten Germans rioted and deliberately provoked violence by the Czech police. Hitler falsely claimed that the police killed 300 Germans during these protests.  With this weaponized “fake news” as justification, Hitler immediately placed German troops along the Czech border and announced his intention to annex it. Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat to try to forge an agreement to bring “peace for our time” and avoid further Nazi aggression. (This meeting is the setting for ‘The Battle Not Begun.’)

Instead, Chamberlain caved to Hitler’s every demand about the Sudetenland in the naïve belief that, in exchange, Hitler would honor his end of the bargain and not seek additional territory in Europe. Hitler lied, astutely outplaying Chamberlain. Chamberlain loudly touted the pact as a personal triumph and Britain’s legacy for peace by negotiation. History has since dubbed the Munich Agreement shorthand for “a failed act of appeasement” and a symbol for the futility of placating expansionist totalitarian states.

An inventive film/theater/re-enactment hybrid, ‘The Battle Not Begun’ sets its period mood from the outset. TV/movie-like credits roll over a 1938 tinted photo, slowly panned in a Ken Burns-esque manner. Adolf Hitler (played with technicolor panache by the  supremely talented Ken Bolden) appears full frame in all his stereotypic glory. He paces, prances, preens and snarls, almost simultaneously. This is not someone who plays hide the ball. As Chamberlain waits offstage, he wastes no time telling the audience exactly what he thinks of this “Calvin Coolidge less the exuberance” who is all “grey competence.”

Enter Chamberlain (Malcolm Ingram, who maintains an implacably stiff upper lip and air of entitled aristocracy throughout the performance), as if on cue. He is as polite, deferential and serious as Hitler is insulting and crass. The worst that can be said of Chamberlain’s behavior is that he is a snob and a stick-in-the-mud.

For the rest of the 97-minute production, we have a ring-side seat as these two slug out a resolution to the situation in Czechoslovakia. Along the way, we learn much about these men and what makes each tick. Chamberlain, the white glove diplomat who grew up with a platinum spoon in his mouth, is dispassionate and clinical. He never had actual boots on any war-torn ground, and, while he is no humanist (he disdains the Czechs-and Slavs in general- as much as Hitler does), he is also no savage. He is petty and obsessed with his public image and avenging the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Prime Minister Lloyd George. But he also believes in the sanctity of human life. “When lives are at stake, every chance of peace must be explored,” he implores. “War is a nightmare.”

Hitler, on the other hand, grew up friendless, homeless and impoverished in Vienna. He found peace, meaning and acceptance as a soldier during WWI.  “War is not a nightmare to me. It is life unmasked,” he explains. “War is the great equalizer of class. All are equal in the trenches.” Avenging Germany’s defeat has been his life’s sole mission since 1918.

By the play’s end, we sense that anything negotiated by these two men is doomed to failure; they are simply too different, unable to speak the same language or play by the same rules. No matter what they draft and sign, it cannot be binding because it cannot be translated.

“I became me in war. You became you in a peace that ground every German face to the ground,” Hitler says, as if providing a proof text.

‘The Battle Not Begun-Munich 1938:The Brink of War’ – Written by Jack Beatty; Directed by Miriam Myriam Cyr; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space in collaboration with Punctuate4, an all-female led production company based on the North Shore, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online September 3-6 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/

Arlekin Players Theater’s ‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Turns Virtual Theatre on Its Head in a Groundbreaking Production

 

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Darya Denisova as Natasha in ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

If there are silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic (and I firmly believe there are many), the robust and varied ways in which live theatre has adapted itself to the digital Zoom era ranks at the top of the list. Some have opted to create a virtual replica of the silent, passive invisible spectator model, maintaining a masked cyber wall between actor and audience, with mixed and inconsistent success.

 

Not so Arlekin Players Theater’s production of ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’ Under Igor Golyak’s ground-breaking direction, his “live theater and experiment” audience is far from detached and anonymous. Digging deep into his interactive theatrical bag of tricks, Golyak uses graphics, animation and live viewer participation to erase the glass barrier between observed and observer and create a unique film/theater hybrid. The result is one thrilling corona coaster ride.

 

The 55-minute live production centers on the fate of Natasha Banina (brilliantly played by the 2020 Elliot Norton Award-winner for Outstanding Actress, Darya Denisova), a Russian 16-year-old incarcerated as she awaits trial for manslaughter in a crime of passion. During pre-show remarks, a masked Golyak addresses the spectators with the words, “Welcome to our virtual courtroom.”

 

The audience/participants (which last Sunday numbered close to 100) are members of the Zoom jury, Golyak says. We are encouraged to introduce ourselves in a pre-show chat room and take an interactive on-line poll to determine our eligibility to serve. The camera remains 2-way throughout the performance, with Natasha periodically addressing the “jurors” by name. The effect is electrifying.

 

We then enter Natasha’s cell, where we remain with her for the rest of the piece as she takes the virtual stand and testifies on her own behalf. She slowly unfolds her story, peeling back the layers of an onion that brings predictable tears to the eye. Raised in a small-town orphanage by abusive and hard-hearted “caregivers”, she describes a childhood laced with pain, populated by girls who bully each other and a mother who refers to her as “my abortion.” Unflappable, Natasha nonetheless remains optimistic. She has hope for a different future. She has faith in an imaginary pipedream. “Natasha, what is your dream?” she repeatedly asks herself, with increasing desperation and animalistic passion.

 

Her life went bad, she confides, when a journalist came to the orphanage and, in the course of his research, took a personal interest in her inhumane conditions. He asked her a question no one had ever asked: “What’s your dream, Natasha?”

 

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Natasha misinterprets this single moment of kindness (“It is the first time someone has been horrified for my life,” she says with puppy dog exuberance). She overreacts, and in her delusional and desperate infatuation, imagines him as her knight in shining armor who will marry her and lead her into a fairytale land of forever after. (Under animator Anton Iakhontov’s inspired genius, the knight is replaced by an astronaut who literally leads Natasha to another world amid cartoon hearts and clouds).

 

As the lines between inside and outside the stark white cell become blurred for the audience, so does Natasha’s grip on reality as she tells us what came next. She paces around the confined space, grinning all the time with a Cheshire cat grin that alternates among bestial, alluring, menacing and achingly vulnerable. Running black eye makeup and a half- blackened tooth amplify the effect.

 

Trapped by her fantasies, Natasha continues her self-defense. When she spies her imaginary lover with another woman, she becomes unhinged, encouraging her posse to savagely beat her as revenge. The woman remains hospitalized in a coma and for that act, Natasha faces trial.

 

And we, the Zoom jury, are to decide her fate.

 

Natasha takes it to an even more personal level as she addresses audience members by name and pleads with them to see her side of the story. “It’s just a dream I had,” she confesses. And with that, an interactive poll appears on the screen and we are asked to vote: guilty or not guilty?

 

Within seconds, the verdict appears. Last Sunday, Natasha was found guilty. Other nights, she has had more luck.

 

Denisova’s performance cannot be praised enough. Although she is alone throughout the entire performance, the audience is left wanting more, no small or standard feat. Her physicality is riveting: she prowls, growls, purrs and eventually claws her way into our hearts. Her jagged smile and trapped, beseeching eyes make us want to hug her and tame her, not necessarily in that order.

 

As engaging as the play was, the almost as long Emerson-facilitated talk-back was equally absorbing, as Golyak and Denisova fielded questions and took us on a tour of the apartment where the performance was filmed. The audience/jury participation in the live chat was rich with insight and nuance as the discussion veered to questions of morality, insanity defense, human pain and suffering, and judgment.

 

“The virtual medium is just another space where theater takes place and where audiences can share experiences,” Golyak explained. “Theater is one of those art forms that can be represented in many different environments.”

 

‘State vs Natasha’ has just started its global virtual tour. For more information, go to www.arlekinplayers.com.

‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Directed by Igor Golyak, based on Yaroslava Pulinovich’s ‘Natasha’s Dream;’ Performed by Darya Denisova; Translated by John Freedman; Animation by Anton Iakhontov; Video by Igor Golyak; Music composed by Vadim Khrapatchev. Produced by Arlekin Players Theater in partnership with ArtsEmerson and the Cherry Orchard Festival. For upcoming performances, visit arlekinplayers.com/state-vs-natasha-banina-online-interactive-live-performance-2/

 

 

 

Living Out Loud: Gloucester Stage Unmasks Isabella Stewart Gardner in a Tour-de-Force Production

Isabella

by Shelley A. Sackett

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s legacy is synonymous with that of her namesake museum, Fenway Court. Part arboretum, part concert hall, and part cultural repository, the building houses the eccentric millionaires’ collection of art, sculpture, tapestries and more in a gilded Italian confection that reflects its creator’s love affair with the Italian Renaissance.

 

Just as a visit to the museum titillates and seduces the visitor with romantic corridors and hidden treasures, so does Leigh Strimbeck’s spectacular performance as the spirited and indomitable Mrs. Gardner lead us down a magical path that unveils this complex firecracker of a Bostonian Brahmin’s wife. For just under an hour, Strimbeck (who wrote the one-woman script) is Isabella Stewart Gardner and we are her confidantes as she tells the story of her life from a 20-year-old newlywed in 1860’s Boston to the widowed hostess at the opening of her beloved museum in 1903.

 

What a story it is and was a terrific storyteller to boot!

 

Strimbeck is on camera in this “Theatre on Film” production during the entire 56 minutes, and  neither the camera nor the audience can get enough of her. By the end of the monologue, we feel like we’ve barely scratched beneath the surface of this enigmatic powerhouse.

 

As instructive as it is entertaining, ‘‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’’ introduces Isabella as she struggles with her life as an ebullient, headstrong and feisty young wife stuck in uptight, staid class-obsessed Boston. She quickly abandons any thought of reining in her temperament to “blend in,” and soon she is the belle of the ball and talk of the town- not all of it flattering.

 

To the woman bragging about her ancestors being among the first to arrive in Boston, Isabella cracks, “Yes. They were much less careful about immigration in those days.” She takes a lion on a walk on a dare and attends dances alone while her equally independent and modern husband Jack (a monied Peabody by birth, a banker by trade) takes refuge in his club. “I obey the rules when they suit me,” she dead pans, her playful eyes dancing roguishly.

 

Her life takes a U-turn with the birth and death at age 2 of her only child, a son. “My heart sweated,” she says. “Where is God in all of this?” When she suffers a miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy, her husband whisks her off to Europe and Egypt to recover, planting the seed of the second great romance that will dominate her life: a love for travel. “Travel is the way out and the way back,” she says.

 

She returns to Italy with a companion (she has many, mostly male and all allegedly platonic) and finds both her true passion and her voice in sensational Venice, the antidote to functional and stoic Boston with its 50 gloomy shades of wintry gray. When she answers the “call to the hunt” and purchases her first painting, Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” (which she hopes is “enough to turn any Puritan to a Bacchante”), she discovers her true calling: to collect art for art’s sake. Eyes ablaze, she triumphantly crows after bagging the prized Titian at her first auction, “I vow to live out loud.”

 

When she returns to Boston, her goals are straightforward: to bring the visual feast of Italy to Boston while, whenever possible, scandalizing its uptight Victorian inhabitants. She and her beloved Jack will build a palazzo to house her carefully curated collection. When he dies midway through the project, however, she decides to live there alone and  builds her cozy fourth-floor apartment.

 

Full-bodied and clad in the black velvet dress and ruby necklace made famous in John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Strimbeck channels Isabella and all her inconsistencies, quirkiness and charm. She wears both halo and crown and, in the blink of an eye, shifts from steely and unwavering to coquettish and fun-loving and back again to shrewd and fearless. Her voice is nuanced, the pacing interesting and intimate. All this makes for great storytelling and enchanting theater.

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art and her museum are her last dance and her last love. Above the entrance is the motto, “C’est mon Plaisir.” (this is my delight). After spending an hour getting to know and understand Isabella/Strimbeck, revisiting this literal palace in the hopefully not too distant future will also be nos plaisirs. Merci, Isabella.

 

‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’ – Written and Performed by Leigh Strimbeck; Directed by Joshua Briggs; Original Music by Jan Jurchak. Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online August 6-9.For tickets and information, go to: gloucesterstage.com.

 

Child Is Father to Man in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Children.”

 

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DRINK PARSNIP WINE. Karen MacDonald, Tyrees Allen and Paula Plum in SpeakEasy Stage’s production. All photos by Maggie Hall Photography.

By Shelley A. Sackett

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood had wanted to write about climate change for quite a while when the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan provided the impetus and inspiration. With “The Children,” a must-see production enjoying its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through March 28, she has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful and provocative three-character play that manages to raise profound existential and moral questions while slowing peeling back the layers of this three-some’s long and complicated history.

It is also one heck of a riveting eco-thriller/emotional detective story brilliantly acted by the inimitable stage luminaries Tyrees Allen, Karen MacDonald and Paula Plum.

 

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The lights first come up almost mid-sentence on a rustic kitchen where Rose (MacDonald) stands, trying to staunch the flow of blood as it gushes from her nose and stains her shirt. Hazel (Plum) enters with a towel, trying to assist, but Rose waves her away. Rose asks after Hazel’s children. Hazel casually mentions she thought Rose was dead. Their banter is informal and the tone almost familial, but it is clear from the get-go that theirs is a tricky relationship and that there is something uneasy and troubling in this cottage.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Hazel and her husband, Robin (Allen), both retired, have taken refuge in their country cottage because their pastoral English seaside community has been devasted by a nuclear power plant disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami. Their farm/home now lies in the toxic exclusion zone. All now in their 60s, the three met as 20-something physicists and engineers when they worked together building the power plant that just melted down.

 

Rose clothes her unannounced arrival—Hazel hasn’t seen her in 38 years—as concern about the disaster and how it has affected Hazel and Robin. But all is not what meets the eye and it soon becomes clear that the three share a complicated entanglement and that Rose’s visit is neither spontaneous nor agenda-less. Yet the question remains: Why is she there?

 

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Kirkwood masterfully delineates her characters, revealing their personality infrastructures slowly, deliberately and subtly. Hazel and Robin raised four children and Hazel, even in her new post-apocalyptic existence where the air is radioactive and electricity is rationed, maintains her rigid domestic and yoga regimens. She is dogmatic in her belief that one must adapt to survive. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” she practically spits at Rose. She is determined to live to a ripe od age and to die on her own terms. She is beholden to none; she has paid her dues.

Rose, on the other hand, never married, spent time in America and has been prescribed birth control pills to extinguish her fomenting libido. As it turns out, that treatment has been only minimally effective, as the smoldering embers of an old triangle soon reveal. She is the wild child yin to Hazel’s buttoned-up yang, mischievously clogging Hazel’s toilet by deliberately doing a “number two” after being asked not to and defiantly smoking cigarette after cigarette.

Robin is the fulcrum between the two, the double-dipper who ended up with Hazel but who still ignites in Rose’s proximity. He copes with his new reality by continuing to farm and care for his cows despite the risk posed by prolonged exposure to radiation. He seems rudderless and passive, going with the flow (including marrying Hazel when she became pregnant despite his arguable preference for Rose), creating no wake.

Over an hour into the 100-minute intermission-less show, Rose’s purpose is revealed: she has come to recruit Hazel and Robin to clean up the radioactive mess their shortsighted and negligent engineering knowingly created. “We built it. We’re responsible. I feel the need to clean it up,” she admonishes. Furthermore, she believes it is their duty to trade places (and, by implication, deaths) with the 20-somethings assigned the task of scrubbing away the radioactive debris. “It’s our duty to a child to die at some point,” the childless Rose chides. “I’ll know when I’ve had enough,” Rose yells back, later admitting, “I don’t know how to want less.”

No spoilers here about Robin and Hazel’s choices, but Kirkwood asks some deep and soul-searching questions. If we know the facts about climate change, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behavior? Is it enough to stop contributing to the damage or is there a duty to fix what we created and are leaving the next generation? And who are the real children referred to in the title: those who are the actual children, powerless victims inheriting a flawed world or their parents, who act like children with their selfish irresponsibility and assumptive impunity?

“The Children”. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 537 Tremont Street, Boston through March 28.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ Packs a Timely Wallop

“Mister (Lewis D. Wheeler), Moses (Kadahj Bennett), and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) in Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ – Photos by Nile Scott Studios

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Even before ‘Pass Over’ begins, as theatergoers blithely check emails and jockey for their seats, the actors make clear theirs is a production that will claim one’s full attention and engagement. Two young scruffy black men, dressed in hoodies, oversized footwear and hats, prowl around the sparse stage, demanding eye contact and flirting with the women in the front row. By the time the house lights go down and the stage lights go up, these two have established an uneasy arms-length rapport with the audience.

Moses (Kadahj Bennett) and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) hang out on their street corner under the watchful eye of a lone street light, to which they seem to be tethered by an invisible leash. They pass their unemployed time talking about their hopes and dreams, waiting for a sign that their life is about to start in earnest. They count off the names of those unarmed friends and family members killed by the police – “Po-pos”- while playing a game called “Promised Land Top Ten.” They take turns naming the ten things they would like to see when they “pass over” to paradise – ranging from clean socks to a brother back from the dead – but the undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding darkens the spirit of their light-hearted banter. The threat of violence from the police looms darkly beyond the four corners of their tight quarters and it takes all their energy to keep panic at bay. Lighting bursts and menacing sound eruptions add to the unease.

 

 

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has fashioned her blistering, complex and ambitious 2019 Lortel Award winner for Outstanding Play as a sweeping landscape to address systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, slavery and the Exodus story of freedom from oppression. She uses Samuel Beckett’s absurdist canon, “Waiting for Godot,” as a stylistic framework and while familiarity with that play is not required, it doesn’t hurt.

Yet, Nwandu imbues Moses and Kitch with such humanity and personality that they are hardly absurdist symbols, but rather fully fleshed out individuals whose plights are heartbreaking. Both Bennett and Cius  give award-worthy performances that paint an intimate camaraderie through dance, verbal games and elaborate bumps. Bennett’s Moses is a pillar of discipline, strength and optimism. He is resolved to escape this dead end. “You’re going to live up to your true potential. I’m going to lead you,” he tells Kitch. Cius plays Kitch as Moses’s sweet puppy-dog younger brother, full of frenetic, unfocused energy and blinding desire to please.

The play’s two white characters are “Mister,” a wolf-like dandy off to visit his grandmother with a picnic basket, and a racist, sadistic thug of a police officer. Lewis D. Wheeler plays both with a razor sharp but impersonal crispness that is both intimidating and merciless. Both are cartoonish, flat and soulless, especially compared to Moses and Kitch.

 

 

Much has been written about the play’s use of the “n-word” and the opinions are as numerous as the critics who pen them. When Moses and Kitch use it, the term is one of endearment, companionship and solidarity. When uttered by Mister or the policeman, the term drips with venom and malevolence. What is not ambiguous is whether Nwandu intends her  generous use of the word to indicate a green light for its acceptance in contemporary speech. “Aside from the actors saying the lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way, shape, or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word,” she notes in the script.

“Pass Over” is an important work by a playwright with a strong, smart, original voice, performed by an all-star cast. Anyone who values serious thought-provoking theater should not miss this  stellar production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

‘Pass Over’ – Written by Antoinette Nwandu; Directed by Monica White Ndounou; Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion through February 2.

 

‘White Christmas’ at Wang a Good Old-Fashioned Holiday Entertainment

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

From before the curtain rises until well after it has fallen, the live orchestra of ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical,’ infuses the stage and the audience at Boston’s magnificent Boch Center Wang Theatre with wholesome, happy, good vibrations. This is a grandly old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience, with tap dancing, fabulous costumes, stunning sets and, most importantly, an incomparable score by the equally incomparable Irving Berlin.

The plot is straight forward. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two World War II vets, have become partners in a song-and-dance act after the war. Looking for love, they follow Betty and Judy Haynes, a duo of beautiful singing sisters, to a gig at a Vermont lodge. By coincidence, the lodge happens to be owned by their former army commander, General Waverly, who is facing bankruptcy and loss of his property. The “boys” rally their fellow vets, and together the troops help save the General and his legacy. Along the way, of course, everyone pairs up (including the General, with his manager, Martha Watson) and the three couples seem destined to live happily ever after.

The cast is full of stand out performances, especially Lorna Luft (yes, THAT Lorna Luft, as in Judy Garland’s daughter by producer Sid Luft) as Martha. She looks like a cross between Bette Midler and Madge (the manicurist in the Palmolive dish-washing commercials who soaked her clients’ hands in the detergent) and belts out her songs like Ethel Merman. She steals every scene she is in.

David Elder (Bob) and Jeremy Benton (Phil) are splendid as the two vets as are Kelly Sheehan (Judy) and Kerry Conte (Betty) as the sisters. All four have the acting, singing and dancing chops their roles call for. As General Waverly, Conrad John Schuck brings particular sensitivity and a terrific baritone to the role.

The real stars of the show, however, are the songs, dances and ever-changing sets and costumes. The tap-dancing numbers are spectacularly entertaining, the dancers like gifts, their outfits like wrapping paper. No detail is overlooked; the lining of the men’s jackets even coordinates with their partners’ skirts, and creative lighting adds dimension and excitement.

The blockbuster numbers — “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” and “White Christmas” — are pure fun to watch, and the simple spotlights, white smoke and dancing stars in “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” create homespun magic. “I Love A Piano,” which opens Act II, is magnificent.

The entire production feels like a magic carpet ride to a carefree, innocent bygone era of Hollywood glamor and diversion. The icing on the cake is the full company curtain call of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” complete with snow, trees, tuxedos and glamorous gowns. A sugar plum of a show, ‘White Christmas’ is guaranteed to delight the young and give their parents a vacation from the news.

‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical’ – Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake; Based on the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner; Musical Direction by Michael Horsley; Scenic Design by Anna Louizos; Scenic Adaptation by Kenneth Foy; Costume Design by Carrie Robbins; Lighting Design by Ken Billington; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano; Orchestrations by Larry Blank; Vocal and Dance Arrangements by Bruce Pomahac. Presented by Work Light Productions at the Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., through Dec. 29.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/white-christmas-2019

Trinity Rep’s ‘Fade’ – American Dream or American Betrayal?

Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) in ‘Fade.’

 

by Shelley A. Sackett

Fade, a two-person play in production on Trinity Rep’s smaller downstairs stage through January 5, is a welcome respite from the same-oldness of the usual holiday theatrical suspects. Although a bit uneven and in need of serious editing (trimming 10-15 minutes from the 100-minute intermission-less production could do wonders for its pacing), Tanya Saracho’s script is a witty and perceptive antidote to sugar plum fairies and ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

Our two characters – Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) – both work in a Hollywood television studio. When we meet Lucia, all frenetic energy and stiletto prancing, she is setting up her office, unpacking her personal effects and placing them on a bookshelf. As soon as she places the last item on the shelf, it collapses as if on cue. The first time this happens, it’s mildly amusing, if trite and predictable. The third time, however, raises red flags that the next 99 minutes may be tedious indeed.

Enter Abel, a baseball-hatted office cleaner, to everyone’s rescue. He proceeds to fix the bookcase, in a matter-of-fact and business-like manner. His laid back, laconic style makes Lucia’s staccato mannerisms seem downright manic. Lucia takes one look at him and breaks into rapid-fire Spanish, eventually punctuating her monologue with enough English for a non-Spanish speaking audience member to glean her story. She tells the mute Abel that she is a novelist from Mexico who, after waiting for the idea for her second novel to germinate, realized she needed a steadier income. Although she has no previous experience, she nonetheless landed her first job as a television writer. She worries that she is a diversity hire, questioning her abilities, and also worries about the lack of light in her dingy little office.

When Abel is unable to ignore Lucia any longer and finally speaks, he turns to her and asks a question that goes straight to the heart of the play’s message. “Why are you speaking to me in Spanish?” he inquires. “We have to be militants about speaking our mother tongue. Why don’t you speak Spanish at work?” she counters. “Because I’m American. Because this is America,” he says.

Lucia, who grew up with a maid among Mexico’s wealthy, upper echelons, assumes that Abel, a lowly janitor pushing a vacuum cleaner, must be a Latino who speaks little or no English. She sidles up to him, purring about their common roots while intoning the beginnings of an “us vs them” refrain. When it turns out Abel was born and raised in Southern California, Lucia doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you know what’s the hardest thing about being brown and being from the barrio like I am?” she asks Abel. “It’s knowing I can never be one of them.” Eventually, Lucia manages to break down Abel’s defenses by preying on this sense of their shared “otherness,” and Abel begins to relax. He tells her of his stint as a firefighter as well as his time with the Marines. He talks about his six-old-daughter and her mother. He confides his darkest and deepest secrets, unleashing years of pent-up secrecy and shame. He is grateful for her company, grateful to trust. He is a simple man, but one of true substance.

Daniel Duque-Estrada, as Abel, is economical and precise, revealing his character’s complexity through a simple gesture, a small facial expression or a perfectly placed pause. He is a member of the Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company, and his experience and talent are as obvious as they are welcome.

Lucia, on the other hand, is a fascinating study in self-absorption, cluelessness and blind ambition. Saracho has given her some of the play’s funniest lines, but also some of the most clichéd. Elia Saldana plays her at a single volume (high) and almost as a caricature of a young Latina. Think Charo, Rosie Perez and a yippy chihuahua all rolled into one and you get the idea. It’s a shame that Saldana doesn’t seem to trust her own talent. A little subtlety and nuance could go a long way in fleshing out this woman who is simultaneously humorous, manipulative, charming, mean, erotic and unfair.

Saracho raises some interesting questions and one can only hope she will go back to the drawing room one more time and trim some of the script’s detracting fat. Much of the dialogue sparkles with biting humor and insight. (The scene about Lucia’s boss asking her to talk to his maid and translate his complaint is among the play’s best). Saracho deftly tackles universal ideas about human dignity, class and life itself through the lens of two people who are the “other” both to everyone else in their office and to each other. Most importantly, she leaves the audience to ponder several thought-provoking points. Are people who share cultural backgrounds obligated to stick together? What happens when one chooses to get ahead and join the ranks of “the other,” leaving their minority brethren to fend for themselves? Is this not, after all, the quintessential American dream? Or is it rather, Saracho suggests, the quintessential American betrayal?

‘Fade’- Written by Tanya Saracho. Directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo; Set Design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr.; Costume Design by Amanda Downing Carney; Co-Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago and Ginevra Lombardo; Sound Design by David R. Molina. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, R.I through January 5.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/

Israeli researchers offer new hope for cancer survivors suffering from side effects of treatment

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When Emil and Lili Berkovits moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, from Salem, Massachusetts, in 2014, they were excited to start their retirement after Emil’s long career as a cantor.

A fifth-generation hazzan who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia as a young child following World War II and grown up in Montreal, Berkovits spent most of his professional career in the United States.

He was a well-built, physically active man who played baseball professionally, but after an injury he gave it up for a career in musical and communal leadership. Berkovits helped bring generations of boys and girls to their bar and bat mitzvahs and made music that stirred the souls of many a congregant.

Decades later, after retiring to Florida, Berkovits, then 78, developed a persistent sore throat and noticed a lump on his neck. He soon was diagnosed with cancer of the oropharynx, near the back of his throat. Oropharyngeal cancer can be slow growing and, like many cancers, often spreads before any symptoms appear. By the time the cancer is detected it can be quite advanced.

The treatment was grueling. Over seven weeks, Berkovits received 35 radiation and seven chemotherapy treatments. He developed a heart infection and his throat became so inflamed that he couldn’t eat — both results of the radiation, doctors told him.

But the treatment was effective: For five years, well into his 80s, Berkovits lived cancer-free.

Yet he suffered dearly from the consequences of the treatment. He no longer could produce saliva, leaving his mouth permanently dry. He lost most of his ability to taste. He went on an exclusively liquid diet because regular food could cause him to choke. He lost 25 pounds, leaving him physically weak.

“Because he can’t eat normal food, he has no energy,” his wife, Lili, said earlier this year, shortly before Berkovits’ death over the summer. “Nothing can help these eating and swallowing issues.”

Berkovits’ experience was not unusual. Many cancer survivors find themselves struggling with health issues related to their treatment for years after they are declared cancer-free. Problems may include pain, fertility issues, infections, memory problems, sexual health issues, cognitive impairments and more, including increased risk of secondary cancers. For many, the health problems last a lifetime.

In Israel, a growing cadre of cancer researchers is focusing not just on cancer treatments but on improving life for cancer survivors by trying to mitigate treatment side effects.

“Quality of life is a subject of utmost importance as cancer patients go through therapy, and even once they complete their treatment,” said Dr. Mark Israel, national executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, or ICRF. “It is not enough to cure cancer. We must also address the patients themselves and their experience.”

ICRF is now investing in research that aims to offset the debilitating side effects of cancer treatments that linger even after the disease is eradicated.

At the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, its director of oncology, Dr. Irit Ben-Aharon, is studying how chemotherapy damages blood vessels, which can lead to vascular disease and fertility problems. By helping cancer patients avoid these toxic effects of their treatment, doctors can reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or infertility in the future.

Ben-Aharon is hopeful her work will be of special benefit to younger cancer survivors.

“As the incidence of cancer in younger individuals is increasing, survivors with very long life expectancy are emerging as a group with significant challenges related to treatment,” she said.

Ben-Aharon’s work is one of four research projects currently funded by ICRF focused on improving the lives of cancer survivors. Two of the projects are being supported by grants provided through the Brause Family Initiative for Quality of Life at ICRF.

Since its founding in 1975, ICRF has raised more than $72 million for Israeli cancer research, including groundbreaking work that has led to both treatment breakthroughs and improved treatment outcomes.

While cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy to the brain and immunotherapy are crucial for curing cancer, they may leave the patient with cognitive deficits. Up to 75 percent of cancer survivors suffer cognitive impairments, including problems with attention, memory and learning.

Dr. Yafit Gilboa, an occupational therapist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Medicine, is using her ICRF grant funded by the Brause Family Initiative to explore a novel approach to ameliorating that cognitive decline. This new approach, tele-rehabilitation, provides for the remote delivery of courses designed to diminish the cognitive effects of cancer therapy.

Gilboa’s strategy for treating patients with cancer-related cognitive impairment is comprised of 30-minute cognitive trainings several times a week using their home computer, supplemented by a weekly videoconference session with an occupational therapist.

Gilboa credits the Israel Cancer Research Fund for supporting not just research for cancer treatments, but also for treatment of side effects.

“This research makes a valuable difference in the quality of life for cancer survivors,” Gilboa said.

She and her team at The Hebrew University already have recruited patients from Hadassah Medical Center and completed a pilot study that showed encouraging results in cognitive and occupational performance. Patients also reported decreased depression and anxiety and an increased sense of well-being.

“One patient reported that since starting this therapy, he was striving to live the way he did before he got sick. Another said she felt more self-confident,” Gilboa reported.

Dr. Jacob Hanna of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot is focused on pluripotent stem cells, which are like the cells from which babies are formed in that they have the ability to become any type of organ or tissue. Hanna and his team are studying how cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells can be generated from a patient’s skin or hair follicles and then used to create an array of cell types for transplantation into cancer patients. This could be instrumental in helping cancer survivors whose treatment regimen destroyed tissue or damaged organs.

Dr. Avi Priel of The Hebrew University’s School of Pharmacy is working on the problem of chronic pain among cancer survivors. While opioids are the most powerful tools for managing pain, they can have debilitating side effects and may be addictive for those requiring chronic relief.

“In the last two decades, the misuse of opioids — powerful but problematic drugs — has shed light on the need for new, less addictive painkillers with fewer side effects,” Priel said. “This is precisely my lab’s research goal.”

Priel’s research team, another recipient of a grant provided through the Brause Family Initiative, is working to develop novel analgesics — painkillers — that will have a potency similar to opioids but with minimal side effects. The team is also investigating drugs that can be combined with opioids to reduce the frequency and amount of opioid required to achieve good pain control.

“We believe these will enable patients who suffer from cancer pain to enjoy a better quality of life,” Priel said.

Trinity Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ More Theatrics Than Theater

Ghost of Christmas Future (Taavon Gamble) visits Scrooge (Jude Sandy) in Trinity Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol. Photos by Mark Turek

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

 

Trinity Repertory Company’s 2019 musical version of A Christmas Carol starts out promisingly. Produced in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, Director Kate Bergstrom makes use of that venue’s intimate theater-in-the-round configuration by staging pockets of singing performers above every seat section. The pageantry of a live orchestra, quality-voiced actors in Dickensian-era costumes, and an excellent sound system is enough to enrapture a toe-tapping audience. Unfortunately, uneven performances and an over-reliance on gimmicky, ostentatious staging trickery will soon burst that magical bubble.

The story is familiar to most. It’s Christmas Eve in early 19th century London. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, miserable businessman, essentially holds his lone clerk, Bob Cratchit, hostage. The two are probably the only people not celebrating in all of London. Outside their barely heated office, children dance and carolers serenade. When Scrooge’s niece, Frederika, enters his office to invite him to Christmas dinner with her family, Scrooge turns her down without even a “Merry Christmas.”

“You keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine,” Scrooge bellows. On his way home, the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears amidst billows of smoke and yards of clanging chains. Clearly, Marley’s ghost is suffering a doomed eternity. He warns Scrooge that three spirits will visit him on this night and that if Scrooge wants to avoid Marley’s fate, he should listen to them and heed their advice.

Scrooge is convinced Marley is a figment of his imagination until the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives. Scrooge as a youth is sad and solitary and when as a young adult, he loses his fiancée Belle because he cares more about money than her, we feel Scrooge’s present-day pain as he rehears her say, “May your money comfort you as I would have.”

Christmas Present leads Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s tiny house, where he learns Bob’s young crippled son, Tiny Tim, will die unless his future changes. A visit to Frederika’s family celebration reveals that their favorite after-dinner game is ridiculing none other than their dear old Uncle Scrooge. It is the future Scrooge fears most, and after witnessing what lies ahead, he vows to absorb the lessons the spirits have shown him and change while he still has time. When he wakes up the next day, he immediately declares, “I will not be the man I was. I will make amends.”

There are some terrific performances by Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company members Timothy Crowe (Schoolmaster and Joe the Tavern Proprietor) and Rachael Warren (Fezziwig and The Ghost of Christmas Present). Their acting would stand out in a vacuum, but by comparison to Jude Sandy (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Ricardy Fabre (Bob Cratchit), it is a palpable and welcome relief. Sandy is tragically miscast in a part that has him in nearly every scene of a two-plus hour show. He plays Scrooge two ways: as loud, flat and belligerent (most of Act I); and, in reaction to the spirits, as loud, flat and trembling. His voice seems incapable of nuance.

Fabre is neither offensive nor annoying; he is simply bland in a role that should evoke pathos and empathy. Both could benefit from a few workshops with their two veteran colleagues.

On the bright side, Taavon Gamble’s choreography (especially the pewter mug-slamming number) and Michael Rice’s musical direction of orchestra and singers (the accordion playing in Christmas Present is delightful) give the musical a joyful lift in a production burdened by darkness. The staging tricks, such as Marley and his motley crew emerging from their hell hole and the flying bed of Christmas Past, feel like eye candy trying to distract the audience from noticing the overwhelmingly second-rate feel to the production.

In 1966, Trinity Repertory received substantial funds from the newly founded National Endowment for the Arts to launch its landmark Project Discovery program, which allowed high school students from all over the state to attend professional live theater for free. I was a 9th grade Classical High School freshman, and Adrian Hall’s masterful use of scaffolding and theater-in-the-round blew my 14-year-old mind. It was a peek through a keyhole to a world of pure wonder. Alas, that fairy dust was nowhere to be found last Wednesday night, spectacular theatrics notwithstanding.

A Christmas Carol has been a Trinity Rep staple for over 40 years, and every year returning audiences look forward to experiencing a new spin on a well-known tale. Alas, the overwhelming effect of this 2019 version was a nostalgic longing for the ghost of Christmases Past when the likes of the tremendously talented Timothy Crowe brought Scrooge to life in ways both credible and enchanting.  Let’s hope that A Christmas Carol 2020 will be longer on substance and shorter on showmanship. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/

‘A Christmas Carol’ – by Charles Dickens. Original Music by Richard Cumming; Directed by Kate Bergstrom; Music Direction by Michael Rice; Choreography by Taavon Gamble; Set Design by Patrick Lynch; Costume Design by Olivera Gajic; Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels; Sound Design by Broken Chord. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St., Providence through December 29.