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Space dog: Lea Thompson is Caroline in Jersey.

The Ghost in Us

By Ralph Hammann

Caroline in Jersey

By Melinda Lopez, directed by Amanda Charlton

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through Aug. 16

Finally there is a play about something on the Nikos Stage.

Melinda Lopez has written a rather disarming fantasy that is part ghost story, part tribute to the theater, part meditation on letting go—and all intriguing. Hers is a singular new voice in theater that is well-served by the WTF production, but one can’t help feeling that there is still a bit more to be distilled from her dense text than the swift comedy that dominates the first act.

Our interest is piqued when Caroline, a 40-year-old New York City actress, arrives to check out a New Jersey apartment she saw listed in a newspaper ad that, as it turns out, is 10 years old. The owner of the house, Mimi (who also lives downstairs), placed the ad after the death of her father but, after bad experiences with renters, gave up hopes of finding a tenant for the rooms in which both her parents died. Mimi is rightly suspicious, but takes pity on Caroline, who is down on her luck and desperate to find a place to live.

On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Caroline is making ends meet by doing temp work and appearing in Petz, an off-off-Broadway musical written by her gay friend, David. If it weren’t bad enough that Caroline is singing the role of Laika, the first dog in space, she also finds out that she is sharing her living space with Will, a ghost who plays the piano and lives in the refrigerator. But at least the ghost appreciates good drama; after all, he was an accountant for playwright Arthur Miller and is eternally enamored of Death of a Salesman.

Such a summary would normally be cause to run from the likes of a new play, but Lopez somehow manages to juggle the seemingly disparate elements and craft a play that, despite some moments, proves good-natured, humorous and touching. And, as noted, it is about something, a yearning to hold fast to one’s past connections and a counterimperative to let go and form a new community. The yearning becomes visceral from the very outset of the play where Will LeBow, as the ghost of the same name, coaxes nostalgic melodies out of an upright piano, the one thing that doesn’t seem faded, stained or dust-bedecked on Andrew Boyce’s evocative set, which could easily do double duty in one of those Asian supernatural thrillers that is more about sadness and longing than actual horror. Both on the piano and in his characterization, LeBow hits just the right notes that lodge themselves somewhere in one’s upper chest cavity.

From almost the outset of her first frumpy entrance as the guarded Mimi, Brenda Wehle lets us realize that there is more to her than the tough exterior she assumes. A less skillful actress could appear superficial and eventually mawkish here, but Wehle works in an inveigling shorthand that compels our desire to see her change.

As David, the gay writer of a truly awful concept musical who readily disses such differing theatrical entities as Tony Kushner and The Laramie Project, Matt McGrath cleverly avoids stereotype while creating a very real type. Indeed, David’s sofa sleepover scene with Caroline is so winsomely played between the two that it provides the second act with an unexpected and welcome gratuitous second heartbeat.

At the heart of the matter, though, is Caroline, stuck in her inability to let her husband go, mired in an embarrassing and potentially career-killing role, and trapped with a ghostly roommate who is a metaphor for her own existence. It’s a big part that runs its actress through a gauntlet of emotions and technical challenges that Lea Thompson surmounts with poise, savvy and ceaseless energy. Whether singing and barking in Russian or letting down her defenses and revealing her vulnerability, Thompson is a striking stage presence. I wish she’d been given time to play more of the pathos and fear that she suggests in some subtextual moments, but her conviction is such that, even when the play charges comically ahead, Caroline is grounded in truth.

While I’d like to see a bit more exploration of the play’s emotional themes, Amanda Charlton deserves much credit for mounting this production which, to paraphrase Lopez, uses the ephemeral experience of theater to join and to heal. I generally dislike self-referential art, and plays about theater can become a mite precious. But as with Chekhov (whose Seagull is referenced), it is a world Lopez captures with authority and honest love, and Caroline in Jersey is ultimately a moving and a worthy venture.


Play for Laughs

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Croy

Founders Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 5

After a hearty welcome from the director, a threadbare Feste (Robert Biggs) enters from the shadows upstage left strumming a guitar while ambling toward center stage. Then Fabian (Alexander Sovronsky) glides in from the lobby behind the audience playing a mournful violin. The unlikely duo are playing a duet when a thundersheet is snapped and the lights flash, accompanied by the sounds of the wind and the rain that swamp the stringed notes. The rest of the cast materialize to move upstage curtains, which are tied to the metal pipes that are the spine of the Founders Theatre. The effect is a ship at sea, the distant sound of music swallowed by the thunder and the storm. Duke Orsino (a noble Duane Allen Robinson) commands center stage and sighs into the audience: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

It’s a promising beginning to Shakespeare & Company’s latest production of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s most mature and assured comedy, full of “merry madness” as Lady Olivia (the lively Elizabeth Raetz) sighs in Act 3. Since its first performance, Twelfth Night has pleased audiences with its unmatched mix of broad physical comedy, witty wordplay and romance. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. Sir Trevor Nunn, former director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, as well as the movie director of an excellent 1996 film adaptation, reportedly said that “the perfect Twelfth Night awaits us in Heaven,” and Jonathan Croy, director of Shakespeare & Company’s current production, declares, “I honestly believe Twelfth Night is the greatest comedy ever written.”

Croy’s Twelfth Night plumbs the depths of Shakespeare’s written word for the physical comedy to create huge belly laughs. This is the merriest, most accessible, Judd Apatow-ish Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen, and the audience howled with delight at the antics of Malvolio (Ken Cheeseman), Lady Olivia’s pretentious steward who wishes to knock her up, or at least “have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” The audience cackled over the madcap antics of serving woman Maria (a game Corinna May), Lady Olivia’s drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Nigel Gore, who marks the role by twisting the eponymous Belch to fart, a silent but deadly contribution to the rich history of the role), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the always hysterical Ryan Winkles), the flaxen-haired would-be-wooer of Lady Olivia and Sir Toby’s stooge.

Even the upper-class characters find their antic light. As Viola, disguised as the teen boy Cesario, Merritt Janson nimbly maneuvers through the amorous clutches, tackles, and maulings of Lady Olivia (the most physical wooing between the two I’ve ever seen). In the affectionate “bromance” pep talks with Duke Orsino, “Cesario’s” voice seems to creep into the verge-of-puberty range the happier Orsino is to see “him,” and Viola/Cesario’s not-so- (in this production) fraternal twin brother Sebastian (a robust Jake Waid) similarly is amused and amazed by the misprisions—the comic device in mistaking one thing for another—the groping Olivia (lots of package grabbing), the girly slaps of Sir Andrew, and the bear hugs of Toby. The audience simply surrenders in laughter.

Unfortunately, the production is so intent on making physical the merry mistakings that what makes Twelfth Night so heavenly and perfect is excised here: the melancholy, the sense that “youths the stuff will not endure,” as Feste sings. At almost three-and-a-half-hours’ running time, Croy’s Twelfth Night doesn’t cut much, but what has been cut is telling: Cesario’s praise for Feste, and the public rejection and humiliation of Sir Andrew by Sir Toby at play’s end. John Barton, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, emphasizes the importance of antithesis, the balancing of opposites, in acting Shakespeare’s plays, and that’s what’s been cut here. It’s like acting Hamlet and doing “To be, or to be.” That little missing “not” is important, and shouldn’t have been “untied” from Twelfth Night. As cast members are also either in Hamlet or Othello, muting the melancholy Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night and cutting it is understandable, but that’s muting “the greatest comedy ever written.” This Twelfth Night isn’t in heaven. With its broad comedy and frequent hootenanny singalongs, it’s closer to the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee.

—James Yeara

 


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