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

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Rachel Pickup and Shawn Fagan in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Nothing welcomes light summery breezes like a witty Nöel Coward comedy of manners, and the Dorset Theatre Festival is spot on in its choice of the timeless ‘Private Lives’ to open its 42nd season. “We believe ‘the play’s the thing’ here at Dorset, and this is one of the most fabulous plays of all times- full of wit and sophisticatedly funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love,” said Artistic Director Dina Janis by email.

The plot is deceptively simple. Divorced spouses Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Amanda (the sublime and worth-the-price-of-admission Rachel Pickup) have remarried and are honeymooning with their respective new spouses, Sybil (Anna Crivelli) and Victor (Hudson Oz). By the divine intervention of Coward’s wicked imagination, they end up in adjacent rooms on the night they are each to start their new lives. When they see each other across their shared balcony’s hedge, the sparks fly and they impulsively flee their hapless new partners to resume what they have idealized as their romantic destiny.

 

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Rachel Pickup, Shawn Fagan, Anna Crivelli, and Hudson Oz in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Back at Amanda’s posh Paris apartment, their fiery passion predictably devolves from love to the same incendiary anger from whose ashes desire was restored. Couches practically take flight, ashtrays become bullets and words are poison darts, aimed with years of practiced marksmanship to draw maximum blood. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ or as their tabloid selves (they actually played these roles in 1983 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater), and you get the picture.

Their aggrieved new spouses track them down, and the hit-and-miss slapstick ensues. By the curtain’s fall, the pendulum has swung back and forth so many times for Amanda and Elyot that it becomes clear they really are meant for each other. Anyone else would have been bedridden with a bad case of vertigo ages ago; these two enfants terribles are not only still standing, but actually relish the prospect of round three.

The production’s shining stars are two: Rachel Pickup as Amanda and Lee Savage’s gorgeous Art Deco sets. Ms. Pickup gives a Broadway-caliber performance (where, coincidentally, she recently appeared at the St. James in Coward’s “Present Laughter” with Kevin Kline). The impossibly willowy actress is all comedic physicality and glamor, delivering her lines and gestures with surgical precision. Hers is not your average summer theater performance and it is as welcome as it is mesmerizing.

 

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Anna Crivelli, Shawn Fagan, Hudson Oz, and Rachel Pickup in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Equally astonishing are the period sets Mr. Savage manages to create in rural Vermont; these too are Broadway worthy. The hotel terraces in Act One are as stunning as they are humorous in their mirror images of floor to ceiling blue draperies and wrought iron balustrades. The details of Act Two’s Paris flat are like a ‘Where’s Waldo” for the audience, complete with Victrola, piano, fainting couch and polar bear skin rug. Asked what was the biggest challenge in mounting this production, Ms. Janis replied without hesitation, “Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget!” Clearly, she succeeded.

Although the second act drags and the rest of the cast pales compared to Ms. Pickup, the production is a theatrical icon whose appeal is as timeless as pink champagne. “The play really gives it all to us, with its sparkling language and the collision of its characters, completely recognizable to a contemporary audience for their passion and for their capacity for selfishness, obstinance and even cruelty,” Director Evan Yionoulis said by email. One can almost hear Nöel Coward whispering, “Touché, darling. Touché.”

‘Private Lives’ – Written by Nöel Coward. Directed by Evan Yionoulis; Set Design: Lee Savage. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Costume Design: Katherine B. Roth. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Fight Choreographer: BH Barry.

Through July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org or call 802-867-2223.

 

 

It’s a Family Affair: “Days of Atonement” Is an Emotional Roller Coaster

 

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(L-R): Ramona Alexander,as Fanny, Dana Stern, as Amira, and Jackie Davis, as Malka,​ and Dana Stern (behind as Amira) reunite at last in “Days of Atonement.” (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)​

 

By Shelley A. Sackett, Journal Correspondent

 

“Days of Atonement”, Mizrachi (Arab-Jewish) Israeli playwright Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s lean, emotionally-charged drama, explores the thorny and complex landscape of family dynamics against the backdrop of preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when only after woman has sought forgiveness from her fellow woman is she permitted to seek forgiveness from God.

 

In this case, the women who will atone and repent are three half-Moroccan, half-Israeli sisters who return to their childhood home in the Israeli city of Netivot — established by Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants in the 1950s —after their youngest sister Amira (Dana Stern) summons them to help locate their mother, who has disappeared. Estranged for decades, their reconnection will be fraught with friction.

 

The four Ohana sisters are a pallette of religious, ethnic and generational identities. The only Sabra, Amira is in her early 20s and attends film school in Tel Aviv. She sashays about in the stifling summer heat in spandex underwear, to the shock of older sister Evelyn, 44, (Adrianne Krstansky), who in turn is ultra-Orthodox from her dress to her life-threatening ninth pregnancy.

 

Fanny (Ramona Lisa Alexander), late 30s, is an assimilated, feisty, successful realtor whose teenage pregnancy got her thrown out of the house. The oldest, Malka (Jackie Davis) is a miserable busybody homemaker who was forced into an arranged marriage after Fanny shamed the family name.

 

Amira suffers panic attacks and is in danger of flunking out of school. Evelyn’s identity is so wrapped up in motherhood that she refuses the abortion that may save her life. Fanny tries to fill the hole left by the son she gave up for adoption by buying a Vietnamese baby and Malka obsesses over her husband’s imagined infidelities, mirroring their mother’s toxic behavior towards their father.

 

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​Jackie Davis, ​left ​as Malka, and Dana Stern, as Amira. share a quiet, calm moment. (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)

 

If it’s hard to believe they grew up under the same roof with the same parents, that is precisely the point Azoulay Hasfari is trying to make. Driving it home with a reunion triggered by a search for the mother each experienced through different multi-cultural lenses makes for brilliant theater.

 

Over the course of the day, the four sisters take turns laying bare their souls. “It’s Yom Kippur. No time for games,” Malka says without a hint of irony. As they inventory their transgressions and expose the hidden pain they silently cope with, the sisters ride an emotional roller coaster, lurching from hostility to love, from shame to humor.

 

We hear four sides to every childhood event, all (except Amira’s) also stories of immigrants and the hardships they faced as outsiders. Ultimately, though, politics are irrelevant to the sisters’ universal story of family and the female perspective.

 

The production is theater at its finest. Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction is minimalist; he wisely lets Azoulay Hasfari’s crisp script carry the load. Even props are token: all except three benches and a camcorder are mimed. The acting across the board is stellar, each sister unique, consistent and believable.

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Days of Atonement” is at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street through June 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com/

Scottsboro: Where Boys Will Be Good Ole Boys

“Scottsboro Boys” at the SpeakEasy Theatre: a Review

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

 

There is a tipping point moment about an hour into the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s sparkling and disturbing vaudeville-style musical, “The Scottsboro Boys”.

 

Wade Wright, attorney for the Prosecution, gives his summation at the second trial of the Scottsboro Nine, as the nine African-American boys and men falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931 became known. Their accuser has just recanted her entire testimony in open court. Samuel Leibowitz, a white Jewish New York criminal lawyer, is their defense attorney.

 

Wright decides to tap into another form of bigotry to win his now baseless case. “Is justice in this case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?” he sings to the all white jury in a song based on actual court transcripts.

 

The white jurors find the nine guilty and it takes two decades of re-trials and appeals (including two to the U.S. Supreme Court which resulted in landmark civil rights rulings) to reverse that injustice. Those cases exposed the dark underbelly of this nation’s racism and the continuing challenge of reeling in the deep South and its ingrained ways, even half a century after the end of the Civil War.

 

Most songwriters wouldn’t look to Jim Crow-era Alabama and this shocking incident for the subject matter of a musical. But John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, whose resume includes the prickly blockbusters “Cabaret”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and “Chicago”, have never looked to the usual suspects for inspiration. They have relished the edgy and subversive, and the opportunity to expose one of American history’s most shameful episodes of racial injustice was just their cup of tea.

 

Creating an entertaining show from such weighty raw material was a challenge. In an unconventional and daring move, they decided to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys as a play within a play. The audience is to pretend they are attending an old-time minstrel show. The subject of that show is the Scottsboro nine.

 

The conceit miraculously works. The play’s characters appear as Stepin Fetchit archetypes, cartoonish characters that are arm’s length enough to give the audience moral breathing room to laugh at the blustering sheriffs, duplicitous damsels and singing and dancing inmates. Simultaneously, discomfort hits, and the same audience cringes at the racist caricatures and demeaning blackface meant to debase blacks and sentimentalize slavery. It takes a little while, but eventually the message sinks in: the same people who made black anguish and white injustice the heart and soul of America’s most popular form of entertainment also created a world with the kind of unwritten law that the Scottsboro jury upheld.

 

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Members of “The Scottsboro Boys” cast in “Shout”.

 

At slightly under two intermission-less hours, the production showcases a zesty score of dark, barbed lyrics and ragtime-infused music. The opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey”, introduces us to the characters and acts as a primer about how minstrel shows work (which is a good thing, since most 21st century theatergoers are unfamiliar with the 150-year-old format). The audience is told to expect song, dance and comic sketches, and that’s exactly what they get, complete with tambourines and white-gloved open palmed hand flapping. The musical numbers pay homage to Dixie Depression-era style with a perfect blend of reeds, trombone, guitar and drums. Somewhere, Al Jolson’s spirit is smiling.

 

Director Paul Daigneault and choreographer Ilyse Robbins make the most of the compact stage, using the aisles and minimal set to creative advantage. Several numbers (especially “Electric Chair” and “Make Friends with the Truth”) are real showstoppers and Isaiah Reynolds is nothing short of flawless as Ruby Bates in “Never Too Late”.

 

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Brandon G. Green (left) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Tambo and Bones.

 

While mostly faithful to the minstrel form, “The Scottsboro Boys” departs from it in ways significant to the storytelling. The recognizable stock minstrel characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (usually white men in black face playing black stereotypes) are black men playing cartoonish racist white law enforcement officers and lawyers. Most importantly, the Scottsboro nine are never reduced to shtick or buffoonery. Their story is serious and their words are honest, raising the specter of lynching, fear and despair.

 

While each of the Scottsboro boys has his story and chance to shine, it is Haywood Patterson (played with grace and authority by De’lon Grant) who is the moral center of the show. He refuses to tell a lie, even when his false admission to a crime could mean his freedom. His part (and Grant’s delivery) is the show’s most lifelike, his dilemma the most universal. “Everyone believes me when I’m telling a lie, but nobody believes me when I’m telling the truth,” he laments.

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De’Lon Grant in “Shadow Play”.

 

Despite a catchy score that combines jazz, gospel and vaudeville and entertaining musical numbers that mix the comic and the monstrous, the show manages to make its critical and timely point. “You’re guilty because of the way you look,” a character is told, and the murmur in the audience brought to mind contemporary refrains of “Build A Wall!” “Black Lives Matter” and “Bad Hombre”. Perhaps things haven’t changed as much since the 1930’s as we would like to think they have.

 

The Scottsboro Boys is presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 26 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavillion, Boston Center for the Arts at 527 Tremont Street. For more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.