A Very Tamarie Christmas – Review

19 Jul

photo: Anthony Rathbun - www.anthonyrathbun.com

The cast of A Very Tamarie Christmas. Photo Credit, Anthony Rathburn.  

 

A Very Tamarie Christmas

Conceived and Directed by: Tamarie Cooper

Book By: Patrick Reynolds

Music by: Miriam Daly and Joe Folladori

Lyrics by: Tamarie Cooper, Miriam Daly, Joe Folladori and Partick Reynolds

Company: Catastrophic Theatre Run Dates: July 18 – August 30, 2014

 

As the new theatre critic in town it’s inevitable (and a bit daunting) that you’ll bump up against a beloved annual show and be asked to comment. Yes, you come to the experience with new eyes and a sensibility not sated with anticipation, but it would be a lie to say that the heft of the thing doesn’t factor if even just a bit. Will you align with your new city and embrace the show or will you drink the Kool Aid and conclude that it’s simply sugared water? So it was with this carry-on baggage that I found myself at Catastrophic Theatre’s annual Tamarie Cooper show, A Very Tamarie Christmas. Cooper ( Catastrophic’s Associate Director) has been running these summer shows for well over a decade and from what I gather no matter the subject matter (age, doomsday, 3D revue) irreverence is the name of her game. This time Cooper’s cheek is focused on Christmas and the myriad of other holidays in our yearly cycle. The result is in an uneven show that occasionally leaps to smart comedic heights but all too often mucks about in low hanging fruit territory.

Set on a minimal stage adorned with oversized Christmas packages and hanging Calder-esque snowflakes, it’s apparent right from the start that this is a show not expected to rest on impressive production values. Or a complex premise – the gist of which is that Christmas (played with Dean Martin panache) is fed up with the aggravation of the gig and quits. This propels Cooper to search for America’s next great holiday by meeting with impressively costumed incarnations of all manners of celebrations and rejecting them as her most favourite holiday for one reason or another. Setting up the show is the opening number, It’s Christmastime!, a rather pedantic song explaining Cooper’s obsession with Christmas and her desire to do a holiday show in July. We get pat zingers such as, “Christmas is a special time and if you don’t agree you’re a dick” and it’s also noted that the holiday is about, “Jesus and stuff if you are into that.” Added in are some easy laugh jokes involving Australia’s baby eating dingos and Catastrophic’s dark holiday programming schedule. While there is no doubt that the Christmas-costumed cast is doing their enthusiastic best with lovely vocal results, it’s an alkaline bath instead of an acidic romp.

What follows from there in the overly long hour-forty minute show does occasionally bring some terrifically caustic and dark jabs at our collective obsession/glamorization of minor and major holidays. Most notably, “It’s a Secular Commemoration of an Unspecified Event” which notes that December 25 might instead be lauded for being Jimmy Buffet’s birthday, does a spectacular job of taking the piss out of our Political Correctness gone wild. Similarly, “Up With Earth Day”, not only features some of the evening’s best vocal talent, but its sarcastic anti-environmental message which has mother earth herself positing that global warming is a fantasy, is brilliantly conceived and executed. Cooper’s Thanksgiving number (featuring Kyle Sturdivant in full Turkey costume) has minor success exposing stereotypical family dynamics that allows the cast to play some truly funny characters. But in total just doesn’t have the bite of the other two numbers.

The rest of the show introduces us to a seemingly endless parade of celebrations including the Union of Lesser Know Holidays – i.e. Flag Day, Administrative Assistant Day, Susan B. Anthony Day, Veterans Day, Arbour Day and some of the bigger players, Valentine’s Day, July 4th, Easter and Halloween. These musical numbers play out with overly obvious sit-comy sensibility in a no moment feels unplanned enough to be shocking or no moment feels campy enough to be outrageous manner. So sure the Easter Bunny is a horny devil, Valentine’s Day smokes and is jaded and July 4th is a brash, loudmouth American. Nothing new here.

Yet I do need to mention that for all my tut tutting re the missed scurrilous opportunities in the play, the majority of the audience seemed quite content to laugh heartily whether or not they too saw the jokes coming a million miles away. This was most definitely a crowd coming to be entertained (as they probably have been with Cooper’s shows for many years already) and they weren’t going to let familiar barbs or instances of heavy-handed writing get it the way of their good time.

In the end, while I can absolutely appreciate the love Houston feels for a show that has embedded itself into the culture of the city, I just can’t jump on the bandwagon with this year’s offering. So I guess for now, this critic remains an outsider.

 

RATING

For the sit-com with a soupçon of dark humour lover – This show is just darkly comedic enough to keep you laughing throughout without every really offending. The costumes are great fun, the performers are all grand and you’ll easily settle into the familiar humour. SEE IT

For those that like sharp bite with their comedy – There are some impressive moments/numbers that dig below the obvious jokes but you have to wade through a lot of padding to get to them. SKIP IT

For song and dance fans – The music (played by a live 4 piece band) is fine but not in any way memorable. Dance numbers do shine in several places. This is not a glitzy show by any means – but the large cast, the terrific costumes and the well populated stage make this visually enjoyable. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – This is a talented cast directed with enthusiasm and a nod to a good time. Plus it’s a Houston institution and perhaps that alone is reason to add it to your cannon. But the writing often fails to impress resulting in an uneven tone to the show that overall feels like a bit of a slog. MAYBE SEE IT

Spaghetti Code – Review

7 Jul

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L-R Drake Simpson,  Ivy Castle, Mischa Hutchings and Andrew Love. Photo credit: Adam Baker. 

 

Spaghetti Code
Written by: Abby Koenig
Directed by: Jacey Little
Company: Horse Head Theatre
Run Dates: Saturday, Sunday & Monday, July 12 – 28, 2014

 

Eighty thousand dollars to adopt a Chinese baby, sixty thousand for a surrogate or twenty thousand for a medical treatment that has only a slight chance of creating a successful pregnancy. These are the choices Milly and Tim face in their desperate attempt to get pregnant in Abby Koenig’s new show, Spaghetti Code. Directed by Jacey Little, this dark comedy (which to my mind was successfully more of a dramedy) examines the agony of failing to get pregnant and the often insane measures couples will go to in their attempts to conceive.

Milly (an emotionally resplendent Ivy Castle) has tried everything from ovulation monitoring to warming her uterus via yoga to spending hours on pregnancy chat rooms hoping for the one magic piece of advice that will solve her reproductive challenges. Her science-geek, quirky husband Tim (played with terrific nuance and comedic ease by Drake Simpson) posits that maybe she’s simply suffering from Spaghetti Code – a type of computer code that should be correct but isn’t. You think only one teeny line in the code is off but really it’s the whole thing that’s a mess. Trust me, this comes off better in person. Tim’s biological clock may not be ticking with Milly’s ferocity, but his love and support is strongly evident and tenderly constructed. All this guy wants out of life is to make his wife happy. Which is why he steals her chart and takes it to his best friend/Milly’s high school ex, Phil, a top-tier fertility doctor who we later learn still holds a torch for Milly.

A quick insert here. The play begins wordlessly in the couple’s living room where Milly falls asleep on the couch and Tim walks off with the chart. Little then makes the very jarring directorial decision to break from the play and allow a Horse Head Theatre rep to come on stage and address the audience about such things as cell phone silencing and company back-patting. This removal from the narrative felt tremendously indulgent and ill-timed, leaving us wondering what the intrusion was really for. Thankfully, Little takes back the reins for the remainder of the show and cleverly navigates a difficult stage bifurcated by a huge post that divides the set up into two distinct parts – the couple’s living room and Phil’s office.

But back to Phil (a disappointingly wooden Andrew Love), who tells Tim that Milly’s chances aren’t good, who in turn goes home and tells Milly the bad news. Furious that Tim has shared their troubles (“it’s easier to hide it if no one really knows”) Milly begins to hatch a plan. Unable to afford adoption, surrogacy or event the iffy fertility treatments, Milly calls upon her sexually aggressive, seemingly carefree, pretty and single best friend, Stacy (a confidently nimble Mischa Hutchings) to do the kind of favour that most wives would consider their worst nightmare – sleep with her husband, get pregnant, have the baby and give it to them.

To Koenig’s credit, what could have been a ridiculous plot twist lands swimmingly due to smart writing that doesn’t take the easy comedic road. This is no “Hall Pass” Part Two. Koenig’s characters believably embrace and struggle with the sex/pregnancy decision before, during and after Stacy agrees to do it with wonderfully amusing results. Little’s direction of the sex scene further develops the bittersweetness of the situation by switching back and forth between Stacy and Tim’s awkward encounter (“I don’t want to kiss you”, says Tim. “That would feel like cheating”) to Milly cooling her heels in Phil’s office starting to question if she’s really ok with all of this. We watch and laugh but it’s the near surface discomfort and the audience’s ability to see that all is not going to be peachy that keeps us engaged.

At just over one hour, the first half of the play feels a bit long from a moment by moment standpoint even if in total it’s a nice set up for what’s to come after a short intermission. Little moves her cast into the dead middle space around the post and more interestingly into the audience for a baby shower scene that comprises much of the final Act. Once again Koenig gives us comedy to take us through the pain of unraveling. Milly’s jealousies and confusion bubbles to the surface and spills out in all directions, Tim loose lips himself into creepy contradiction, Stacy plays the martyr but is stung by the realization of what she is missing and Phil takes his lust to a problematic level. Koenig allows the comedy to take a back seat here as she lifts the veil and shows us just how broken her characters really are. It’s a beautifully conceived and performed scene that takes the show up a notch despite some surprisingly cliché lines. When Milly and Phil finally have it out, Milly declares, “I am a wife and will be a mother. That’s all I need”. It’s a shame after such subtly intriguing dialogue that hackneyed lines such as these slip into the mix. It’s as if after resisting all the trappings a story like this suffers, Koenig just couldn’t help herself anymore.

But to my mind, any mild failings fall away due to Koenig’s bravely ambiguous ending to the play. No spoilers here, but I will give a hearty bravo for not tying this intelligently funny, emotional and uncomfortable story up into a pretty hermetically sealed bow at its conclusion. Instead Koenig let’s the narrative be messy, just like the subject matter and it made the distinction between a play I would have breezily liked to one that I respect.

 

RATING

For those trying to conceive, pregnant or past pregnant – While I hope you won’t relate to the crazy circumstances the play examines, no doubt you will empathize with many of the issues faced and laugh in camaraderie. Which is not to say that you won’t also be uncomfortable along the way. In fact, maybe a lot. But then wouldn’t it be oh so trite to have a shiny happy infertility play? SEE IT

For those of us without kids by choice or other happy circumstances – A whole play about infertility may sound like torture. I know whenever I go out with my breeding friends and they start in on what doctor they are using and the latest pre natal vitamins my eyes cloud over and I start ordering large glasses of wine. But regardless where you are on the baby continuum, this show appeals. On the surface it’s about fertility, but scratch a little and you’ll find lots to chew on about relationships, our ability to deal with jealousy and the strings we pull with those we care about for our own selfish reasons. Plus it’s funny. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Dark humour must be in your wheelhouse for you to enjoy this one. And then if you’re good with that there is also the possibility that the inconclusive ending will throw you. But if you are open-minded you’ll be treated to some great performances, many laughs and a script that takes you places you weren’t expecting. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – As with all new works, this show could benefit from a little breathing room to settle and get tweaked. Not much, however. Yes some of the dialogue needs to smarten up and there is the odd dropped thread (why is Milly the only character that doesn’t seem to have a job?).  But the minimal failings are greatly overshadowed by some superlative performances, intelligent comedic writing that doesn’t shy away from pain and many instances of splendid direction. You’ll want to say you saw it when. SEE IT

Fallen Angels – Review

7 Jul 20140707-134431-49471284.jpg

20140707-134501-49501087.jpg L-R: Julia (Crystal O’Brien) and Jane (Lisa Villegas) in Fallen Angels. Photos by RicOrnelProductions.com

 

Fallen Angels Written by: Noel Coward

Directed by: Claire Hart-Palumbo

Company: Main Street Theatre

Run Dates: July 10 – August 3, 2014

 

Two married women in happy but passionless marriages find their libidos in overdrive and their friendship strained by competitive jealousy when a mutual former lover sends word of a visit. This potentially juicy story could easily be the synopsis for a modern-day reality TV series or Desperate Housewives spin-off. Instead it’s Noel Coward’s 1925 drawing-room comedy, Fallen Angels, a thin wisp of a play made most enjoyable in this Main Street Theatre production thanks to Claire Hart-Palumbo’s deft direction and several knock out performances that allow Coward’s language to shine and his state of marital attraction humour to land.

In this period piece ‘Girl Gone Wild’ type tale, we meet best friends, Julia (a wonderfully naughty Crystal O’Brien) and Jane (played with a terrific mix of child-like excitement and womanly lust by Lisa Villegas). When their perfectly decent but overly chaste husbands Fred (Bobby Haworth) and Willy (Dain Geist) go off to play golf, the ladies receive word that their shared lover and “one great passion in life”, Maurice (a disappointingly limp Joel Sandel) will be paying a visit. Thus begins the women’s decent into moral quandary and lustful appetites. Should they stay to receive him or leave town to avoid temptation? And if they do stay, will they share Maurice or let fate decide which woman gets to luxuriate in his affections once again. And what of their husbands? Should the women be faulted for wanting to break out of a life where “Passion and adoration subsides to tranquility and a lack of violent emotions?” One’s things for sure, alcohol is called for. And as any ‘bad girl’ genre fan knows, this is where things get nasty. Not only does the liquid courage threaten to unravel Jane and Julia’s friendship, but their marriages as well. However, unlike similar modern tales where real damage is done, we’re living in Coward’s world here where comedy, not tragedy is the aim. So we watch with great amusement knowing that somehow it will all work itself out.

But even if Fallen Angels doesn’t have the heft of Coward’s later works such as Private Lives or Blithe Spirit, it does create grand performance opportunities for the two leading ladies and O’Brien and Villegas are more than up to the task. They preen and banter and bicker and yearn with both feet in, looking dashing all the while in Margaret Crowley’s luxuriously flowy jumpsuits or smart skirt suits. Both talents are a delight to watch as we laugh heartily with and at them the entire show. As a side note, it is a personal relief not to have to call out performers on their poor accents. Here O’Brien and Villegas do a terrific job of keeping the cadence ambiguously British with their forays into French admirable as well.

If it’s possible to steal the show from these powerhouse women, then Elizabeth Marshall Black as Julia’s maid Saunders gets the nod. Don’t let her servant uniform fool you, Saunders is no shrinking violet maid. Instead she inserts herself constantly into the action giving advice in a know it all fashion and bragging about her VIP former employers. Everything from which golf club to use to what key is correct in a piano composition to why one sucks on stones to assuage thirst is in Saunders bag of tricks. Near perfect comedic timing is the particular bag of tricks Marshall Black brings to this role. It’s her borderline caustic looks and remarks that get the most laughs and we are ever grateful for an actress confident enough not to have to play over the top to damn near steal the show.

Fallen Angels plays in three short acts made to feel even shorter thanks to Hart-Palumbo’s snappy direction that keeps the flow moving liquidly on the small, sparsely adorned theatre in the round stage. So it is a shame then in the final moments of the final act that things sputter out. Part of the fault must go to Coward himself for writing a non-twist twist into the plot finale that isn’t nearly as interesting as where we thought the play might go. Part of the blame also lies with Sandel’s underwhelming portrayal of the lusted after and greatly anticipated Maurice. Rather than being treated to a charismatic, larger than life lothario, Sandel’s Maurice lacked the oomph we needed to believe his mystique.

But when experienced in whole, the sag at the end becomes a minor blip in what amounts to a very enjoyable ride. Coward’s musings on the difficulties of maintaining passion in marriage are just as relevant today they were in 1925. I have no doubt there were many attached ladies in the audience laughing on the outside yet taking stock within. And if emotional depth or introspection is not your thing, the terrific leading ladies strutting their stuff along with a feisty maid is reason enough to grab a seat and be prepared to laugh.

 

RATING

For the occasional theatre goer – A comedic plot that moves quickly and effortlessly with several strong performances makes this a fun romp of an evening. Feel free to choose whether you examine the moral and marital underpinnings of the plot or simply sit back and be amused, it’s entertaining either way. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – No, it isn’t one of Coward’s best and yes characters can seem far too one-dimensional to ring true as is especially true of the husbands. But a fun night of theatre is still, well, fun. The female performers in this production are well worth your time and strongly trump any issues with the play as a whole. SEE IT

2014 Critter Award photos

20 Jun

So I just spent my afternoon sifting through hundreds of photos of gorgeous smiling faces from the 2014 Critter Awards and it was as though I was living that fantastic night of community and congratulations all over again. Thank you to all who came out to celebrate with us. I hope you had as much fun as I did! Sure seems like it. Take a look and see below. All photos by Christina Ryan.

The Winners

Haysam

Haysam Kadri accepting on behalf of Best Featured Actor in a Play, Graham Percy, Twelfth Night.

Gwen for Natasha and Katey

Diane Goodman accepts the award on behalf of Best Featured Actress in a Play, Katey Hoffman in You Will Remember Me and Best Actress in a Play, Natascha Girgis, Around the World in 80 Days.

Susan

Susan Gilmour accpets the award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Mary Poppins.

Andrew for Jack

Andrew Macdonald-Smith accepts the awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Jack Forestier and Best Director of a Musical, Michael Shamata, both Mary Poppins.

Kyall

Kyall Rakoz accepts the award for Solo Performance, Ludwig and Lohengrin.

Anton winner

Anton de Groot with his award for Best Set Design, Travels with my Aunt.

DVB for Mathew

David van Belle accepting on behalf of Matthew Waddell for Techincal Design, Tomorrow’s Child.

Christain

Christian Goutsis accepts his award for Best Actor in a Musical, Touch Me.

Selina

Selina Wong accepts her award for Best Actress in a Musical, Touch Me.

Greedy Loach

Christopher Loach with many Theatre Calgary awards including the one for Best Touring Production, Kim’s Convenience.

Duve

Duval Lang accepting the award for Best Actor in a Play (and giving the best epic acceptance speech EVER), You Will Remember Me.

Better Owad

Steven Owad accepts the award for Best New Script, The Basement Boys.

DVB Fighting Age

David van Belle accepts the award on behald of himself, Col Cseke and Christopher Duthie for Best Creative Concept, Of Fighting Age.

Craig for Simon

Craig Hall accepts the award for Best Director Play on behald of Simon Mallet, Travels With My Aunt.

Forte winners

Joe Slabe (centre) with his award for Best Production of a  Musical, Touch Me.

Ellen Braden

Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths accepting the award for Best Production of a Play, My Family and Other Endangered Species.

JG award

Me, being surprised by an award given to me by the other critics to say goodbye. Sniff!

Better Nenshi and Doug

Mayor Nenshi handing out the Evans Award to co winner, Doug Rathburn on behalf of the Mount Royal Theatre Program for  outstanding contribution to the Calgary theatre community.

Nenshi and Vicky

Mayor Nenshi award the Evans Award to co winner Vicky Strioch on behalf of ATP playRites Festival.

 

And of course lets not overlook some photos of all the fabulous talent and support  in the audience!

 

crowdcrowd 2Crowd 3crowd 6crowd 7Crowd 8crowd5crowd 10

crowd 11Sponsors

 

Our fabulous MC for the evening – the dashing and always entertaining, Dave Kelly.

Dave Kelly

 

And finally, the Calgary Theatre Critics (l to r) Jenna Shummoogum, Louis B Hobson, Jessica Goldman and Stephen Hunt.

Critter gang

 

2014 Critter Winners

19 Jun

2014 Critter Award Logo

This year’s Calgary Critics’ Awards were a huge success with almost 200 theatre-loving Calgarians in attendance to hear us announce our winners for the 2013/14 theatre season.  Truthfully though, all our nominees were winners as each and every one of them impressed us in one way or another gave us those wow moments in the theatre that we live for. So as difficult as it was to pick just one award-recipient in each category – that was our task. Therefore, without further ado, I give you the winners of the 2014 Critter Awards…….

 

Featured Actor in a Play:
Graham Percy – Twelfth Night (The Shakespeare Company)

Featured Actress in a Play:
Katey Hoffman – You Will Remember Me (Alberta Theatre Projects)

Featured Actress in a Musical:
Susan Gilmour – Mary Poppins (Theatre Calgary)

Featured Actor in a Musical:
Jack Forestier – Mary Poppins (Theatre Calgary)

Best Solo Performance:
Kyall Rakoz – Ludwig and Lohengrin

Best Set Design:
Anton de Groot – Travels with my Aunt (Vertigo Theatre)

Best Technical Design:
Matthew Waddell – Tomorrow’s Child (Ghost River Theatre)

Best Actor in a Musical: 
Christian Goutsis – Touch Me: Sings for a (dis)connected Age (Forte Musical Theatre Guild)

Best Actress in a Musical: 
Selina Wong – Touch Me: Songs for a (dis)connected Age (Forte Musical Theatre Guild)

Best Touring Production:
Kim’s Convenience (Soulpepper)

Best Actress in a Play:
Natascha Girgis – Around the World in 80 Days (Alberta Theatre Projects)

Best Actor in a Play: 
Duval Lang – You Will Remember Me (Alberta Theatre Projects)

Best New Script: 
The Basement Boys – Steven Owad (Theatre BSMT)

Best Creative Concept:
Of Fighting Age – Col Cseke and Christopher Duthie (Verb Theatre)

Best Director Musical: 

Michael Shamata – Mary Poppins (Theatre Calgary)

Best Director Play: 
Simon Mallett – Travels with my Aunt (Vertigo Theatre

Best Musical:

Touch Me: Songs for a (dis)connected Age, Forte Musical Theatre Guild

Best Play: 
My Family and Other Endangered Species, Downstag

Evans Award Winners:

ATP playRites Festival

Mount Royal University Theatre Arts Program

Now, no doubt some of you will start to tally up the award counts for this company or that play. Frankly, these stats don’t interest me all that much. What does float my boat is that our winners hail from companies large and small and represent some of our most beloved artists as well as those at the beginning of their careers. This to me is what is so wonderful about the theatre scene in Calgary – the way that established and new co-exist and equally blow our socks off.

As many of you know, this was my last Critter awards due to an imminent move to the USA. Three years ago when I first approached the other critics with the idea to hold these awards, I had no idea if they would bite or if the community would be interested at all. My hope was that the awards would bring us together as colleagues, enable us to laud those productions that spoke to us as critics and most importantly, give back to the Calgary theatre community that were all so privileged to work with. I’m thrilled to say that three years later, all my hopes about the awards have come true.  I’ve heard from so many of you what great fun the Critters are and I can assure you that we have just as much fun discussing the work and handing out the well-deserved kudos.

I feel terribly sad to be leaving Calgary’s theatre scene behind but I’m overjoyed at the thought that the Critters will live on. I’d like to thank my colleagues Stephen Hunt, Louis Hobson and Jenna Shummoogum for helping to make my last Critters my best and I wish them loads of luck with the awards and event for next year.

To the Calgary theatre community, thank you for all your talent and effort and risk. I’ve had many joyous moments watching your work and I feel honoured to have been able to think, write, broadcast and discuss what I’ve seen.  I leave here with a huge respect for the talent in this city and the hope that boundaries continue to get pushed and new ideas work their way onto the stage with even greater force. Now get out there and make the 2015 Critter decisions the hardest ever for the critics!

Good People – Review

5 Jun

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(L-R) Chris Hutchison as Mike and Elizabeth Bunch as Margaret in the Alley Theatre’s production of Good People. Photo by John Everett.

 

Good People

Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by:  James Black

Company: Alley Theatre

Run Dates: June 4  – 29, 2014

 

You have to like a playwright who can go from writing the emotionally heart wrenching drama Rabbit Hole, about parents dealing with their child’s death, to penning the book and score for the cartoon turned stage version of Shrek The Musical. Not to mention that both efforts were prestigiously awarded –  Rabbit Hole with the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Shrek The Musical with a Grammy and two Tony’s, just to name a few. But if you think that David Lindsay-Abaire’s talents are dichotomously enviable based on these two successes alone, then you will turn even greener than, well Shrek himself, after taking in the Alley Theatre’s production of Good People, Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 Tony nominated comedic drama. Directed with raucous energy by James Black, Good People allows Lindsay-Abaire to terrifically blend his talent for pain and humour while acerbically examining the class divide and considering if we ultimately are where we come from.

The where for consideration in Good People is Boston. And not just any random part of Boston, but rather the ‘Lower End’ of South Boston where poverty reigns, thuggery abounds and those with any chance at all try their hardest to get out. It’s where Margie and Mike are both from, but not where they’ve ended up. Margie (Elizabeth Bunch) got stuck in her 20’s when she became pregnant and gave birth to a mentally handicapped daughter named Joyce. Dreams about getting out were quickly replaced by a series of low paying jobs to make ends meet, none of which she manged to keep for long due to the challenges of caring for a permanently dependant Joyce. Not that Margie ever had any big dreams or real potential mind you. That was the domain of Mike (Chris Hutchinson), a rough but smart boy who, thanks to a father that pushed him and the brains to follow it through, went to College and became a doctor.

Margie leans about “old Mikey’s” good fortune when her friend Jean (Melissa Pritchett) spots him giving at speech at the hotel where she works. Jean mentions Mike because Margie has once again been fired, this time from a dollar store for being “unreliable” and is hairline close to not making rent. Why not ask Mike for a job, suggests Jean. Agreeing that, “Mikey was always good people” and not wanting to have to work the factory line at the Gillette plant, Margie agrees that asking Mike for work is the best plan. But the Mike she knew twenty five years ago (and briefly dated) is the not the Mike she finds in his chic office with the pretty secretaries and a photo of his young and elegant wife and daughter on his desk. Mike hasn’t just moved out of Southie but he’s moved on and while tickled in a kind of nostalgic way to see Margie again, there is no room for her with her rough manners and shabby clothes in his practice. It’s the start of a test of wills based on income divide and life choices that plays out for the remainder of the show. Margie accuses Mike of becoming “lace curtain” while Mike protests  his change while trying to navigate Margie’s accusations which become increasingly problematic for him and possibly his marriage.

The first act of the play is a an entertaining romp through Southie humor filled mostly with light tension and many laughs. Margie and her friends Jean and her landlady Dottie (Jennifer Harmon) provide great chuckles as a kind of anti Sex and the City gal gang. Instead of discussing Manolos and drinking cosmos, these pals drink instant coffee and discuss who’s in jail, who owes who money and whether they can afford to go to bingo. Even Margie and Mike’s interaction stays precariously light-hearted in the first act. They rib each other, they take pot shots and by a turn of saving-face events, Mike invites Margie to the birthday party his wife is throwing him at his fancy house in Chesnut Hill. It’s Margie attendance at the party that kicks off the second act and shifts the tone of the play from blisteringly funny to a still comedic but darker place where both Margie and Mike have to face the uncomfortable truth of their pasts and the choices they’ve made.

Through both tones of the production, Black navigates his cast beautifully. His simple and uncluttered staging allows space for these energetic actors to yell and fight and fill up the theatre with their sass and resentment and hurt. The theatre in the round set up serves as a nice metaphor to Lindsay-Abaire’s notions that people’s lives can be viewed from all sides and that no decision is every truly right or wrong. Kevin Rigdon’s rotating minimal sets function well as place indicators without stealing the thunder of the actors. And ultimately it’s the cast in this play that’s the draw. Yes Lindsay-Abaire ‘s writing here is taut and biting and thoughtful, but in the wrong hands, it could have come off a just another Southie send up.

As the unquestionable star of the show, Bunch’s Margie is the perfect mix of tough and vulnerable, confident and insecure. Affecting a darn good accent, Bunch plays a woman a full of pride, beaten down by poor decisions but still swinging with suck pluck that we love her even when we want to strangle her. Hutchinson gets off to a somewhat shaky start accent-wise but blows the roof off the theatre once his indignation and discomfort gets going in the second act. Utterly believable in his squirming, Hutchinson takes the play up a notch and never lets it come back down. Krystel Lucas as Mike’s wife, Kate, does an impressive job playing the woman out of the loop but knowing too much. Her dressing down of Margie near the end of the play is one of the highlights of the evening. Margie’s ex-boss and now Bingo buddy Stevie is sweetly played by Dylan Godwin who gives the surprise punch at the play’s conclusion none of us saw coming. As Jean, Melissa Pritchett affects her best Rosanne Barr (if she were from South Boston) with perfect comedic timing and Harmon as the clueless but mouthy and nosy Dottie keeps us in stitches throughout the play.

By the time we get to the unfortunately too hermetically sealed ending (why oh why couldn’t have Lindsay- Abaire left us to wonder at the end of his splendid script?) we have laughed, changed our minds about characters and had our hearts broken just a little. Mostly we realize that while some people are called ‘good people’….nothing is quite that simple.

 

RATING

For comedy lovers – The laughs are fast, frequent, sometimes foul-mouthed but always genuine in this witty play. Yes the comedy has a darker more meaningful undertone as the play rides along, but that won’t stop you from laughing along with a deeper thought or two. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – This show is a powder cake from start to finish that will sweep you up and entertain you at every turn. The play may be set in South Boston, but the questions raised and the themes explored are universal. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – Lindsay-Abaire’s way with words – rough on one level but tenderly telling on another is a gift worth investing in. Yes, the ending is far more tidy that was necessary, but it’s a small flaw that an extraordinary cast and some strong direction overcomes with ease. SEE IT

 

 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Review

4 Jun

Alley Theatre

 

(L-R) Jay Sullivan as Spike and Josie de Guzman as Masha in the Alley Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by John Everett.

 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Written by: Christopher Durang

Directed By: Jonathan Moscone

Company – Alley Theatre

Run dates: May 23 – June 15, 2014

http://www.alleytheatre.org/Alley/Vanya_and_Sonia_and_Masha_and_Spike.asp

 

“Beware the Ideas of March…..beware the middle of the month…..beware of Greeks bearing gifts…..beware of chicken with salmonella”. The warnings come fast and furious out of the mouth of Cassandra, the sassy, voodoo practicing black housekeeper employed by 50-something brother and sister Vanya and Sonia in Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony-winning Best Play, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike now playing at the Alley Theatre. But if Cassandra was dolling out warnings, a more pressing one would have been, beware the shiny allure of award-winning plays as they are not always the gems they’re made out to be. Such is the case here, despite some sure direction by Gregory Boyd, a gorgeous Pennsylvania Farmhouse set by Douglas W. Schmidt and a cast that does it’s best to please us.

The overly obviously comedic Chekhovian homage centres around three middle age age siblings. Vanya (played with affable crankiness by Jeffrey Bean) and Sonia (Sharon Lockwood channeling a sweet but resentful spinster nebbish) have wasted their lives caring for ill parents and now shuffle the days away inside their family home with nothing better to do but bicker and sit in the morning room looking for blue heron. Their lives, such as they are, become disrupted when their third sibling, aging B-list movie and theatre star Masha (the gratingly Gloria Swanson-esque Josie de Guzman) and her young air-headed lover Spike (the washboard-stomached Jay Sullivan) come to visit. Masha is there both to attend a costume party and inform Vanya and Sonia that she is selling the home. After years of paying all the house bills (perhaps as penance for leaving the care of her parents to her siblings) Masha claims that the financial burden is too high for an actress on the down slope of her career. Add in additional characters, the voodoo housekeeper Cassandra (Rachel Holmes making the best out of an ill-fitting character) and Nina (the peppy Sarah Nealis) the pretty, young wanna-be actress from next door and that’s about as interesting as it gets.

Apart from the in your face Chekhov nods (the names of the characters, the farm near a pseudo a cherry orchard, the selling of the family home as subject etc.) there is little of the great writer in the script. Sure there are some giggles to be had (in fairness there were ribald clucks of laughter all around me). Spike’s constant need to disrobe is mildly amusing if not visually appealing. Masha’s Maggie Smith costume for the party and resulting impression is terrific. Cassandra even manages to hit occasional comedic notes despite the unnecessary and uncomfortable inclusion of her character in the play. But even in these mildly humorous instances, there is a distinct sense that no moment in the play feels unplanned or far enough away from the mediocre fare on sit-com television to warrant our attention.

Worse still is the out of left field inclusion of an overly long and angry rant by Vanya about the good old days that includes everything from licking stamps to Ed Sullivan to Ozzie and Harriet. Bean handles the befuddling monologue with aplomb but even he can’t make the writing feel like it has any business in this play. Nor to my mind can Boyd or his cast make it feel like Durang’s Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has any business commanding such a lauded place in theatrical history. Beware the promise of the Tony, my friends. Beware.

RATING

For Chekhov lovers – If you’re idea of a clever homage is having Vanya be referred to as “Uncle” at some point in the play, then I guess you’ll be pleased. But with nods this obvious and unoriginal, there is little to be impressed with. SKIP IT

For Chekhov newbies – There is no need to have read one word of Chekhov to get what you need out of this play. Which isn’t a recommendation so much as a fact. Your enjoyment will all depend on your palate for “see the joke coming a million miles away” type humour, nicely acted and neatly packaged. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer
– With humour that requires you do nothing but sit back and let the easily digestible story amuse you, this may very well be your cup of tea. Add in a beautiful set and a decent cast and money’s worth entertainment might be the verdict.  SEE IT

For the theatre junkie –  What’s worse? The overly broad humour? The painfully obvious dialogue and story arc? The limp noodle Chekhov nods? Or the inclusion of characters and monologues that simply don’t belong? SKIP IT

 

 

 

 

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