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Selective memory: (top-bottom) Maxwell and Cherry in Crumbs From the Table ofJoy.

But an Hour Later, You’re Hungry

By James Yeara

Crumbs From the Table of Joy
By Lynn Nottage, directed by Laura Margolis
Capital Repertory Theatre, through March 27

The 1995 play Crumbs From the Table of Joy, making its regional premiere at Capital Repertory Theatre, tries mightily to live up to its billed “pairing . . . between Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry”; this is most immediately noticeable in scenic designer Harry Feiner’s expressionistic scrim background, which tries to combine Williams’ fluidity of memory with Hansberry’s gritty realism.

As a memory play, Crumbs From the Table of Joy plays out in a past-as-present time. Feiner’s colorful backdrop of Brooklyn features blurry images of bridges, buildings, pavement, pipes and people. Raked fragments of the black protagonists’ basement-apartment doorways, and of their white neighbor’s second-floor apartment, are foregrounded. The shifting lights of lighting designer Stephen Quandt bring a rosy haze to the background images, as toplighting brings a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic burst of color to the nostalgic ruminations and reflections. The shifts between past happenings and present evaluations occur frequently in Crumbs From the Table of Joy.

That’s both the strength and weakness of the play and this production. The ambitious intentions create dueling plays: a surprisingly funny comedy about the black Crump family moving into a Jewish neighborhood in 1950s Brooklyn, and a disappointingly tepid drama of the black Crump family dealing with life post-tragedy (the death of a mother) in a racist America. Crumbs’ dueling theatrical natures are less a melding of playwrights Williams and Hansberry than they are parallel universes inhabiting the same space.

Chanda Hartman is excellent as eldest daughter Ernestine Crump, who regales the audience through prism-colored spotlighted evaluations of the events surrounding the Crumps’ move to Brooklyn, then lives the plot in almost sepia hues; Erin Cherry’s Ermina Crump is all arms, legs, smiles and frowns in the equal measures of a young teen discovering boys; Ron Scott creates a Godfrey Crump believably struggling between the frustrations of being a black laborer in a white-collar world and those of a heaven-focused, born-again father with earthbound, boy-focused daughters; Melissa Maxwell creates Godfrey’s boozy, tawdry sister-in-law Lily Ann Green, who belatedly discovers her role as an aunt; Stina Nielsen tackles the unenviable role of German immigrant Gerte Schulte, who left war-ravaged Germany and married Godfrey while he was in the throes of a three-day midlife crisis, and must then move into an apartment with three black women and attempt to make it a home. Director Laura Margolis maintains a quick pace and strong concept.

But pace is not an adequate substitute for rhythm, and one must bemoan the missed opportunities here. The physical humor takes precedence over any genuine sparks: The easy pleasures of shtick (Maxwell’s Lily Ann guzzles a bottle of coke in one belch-inducing gulp) please an audience, but the inherent drama in Godfrey’s choices might have moved an audience. The hallmarks of director Margolis’ StageWorks’ productions have been the full-spectrum commitment and the risk taking of actors in edgy plays; the performances in Crumbs have a measured, safe quality, as if presenting the mannerisms of a character were good enough. In most area theaters during the non- summer seasons, they would be.

Full of humor that zips from the characters, Crumbs From the Table of Joy is a family drama that keeps the audience laughing until it rises to its feet applauding. Capital Rep takes its annual commitment to theater focusing on race relations seriously, boldly going where no other area acting company dares to go.

But I would ask for more evidence of Williams than just memory, and more of a nod to Hansberry than the protagonist’s ethnicity. While the German lady caller brings about some consternation in the Crump household, it’s not a fragile menagerie, for not enough is at risk here. While Jim Crow is mentioned and some white trash attack Godfrey while on a movie date with Gerte, many more racial themes hum with potential here—but Crumbs From the Table of Joy dares none of them. Instead of dirty dancing with honest controversy, it two-steps with pleasant diversion.

Revenge by Rote

Agamemnon
By Aeschylus, Directed by Frank La Frazia
Main Street Stage, North Adams, Mass., through March 14

Main Street Stage gets credit for attempting a play in keeping with its mission of engaging audiences with works that reveal truths rather than simply going for commercial appeal. That said, its current production of Agamemnon, the first act of the ancient Greek classic Oresteia trilogy, presents many interesting ideas but in the end fails to make the leap from the printed page to compelling drama.

Written in fifth-century-B.C. Athens, Agamemnon tells what was at the time the well-known story of the Trojan War hero who returns home only to fall victim to the family curse. The history of the house of Atreus, named for Agamemnon’s father, is a saga of murder and revenge that begins with Atreus’ grandfather Tantalus feeding his own son to the gods and ends only when Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, is pardoned for killing his mother to avenge his father’s death.

Agamemnon’s downfall begins when, to help reclaim his brother Menelaus’ wife Helen—she of the face that launched a thousand ships—he takes command of a fleet of ships to sail to Troy. The winds are against them, and the cost of turning them around is the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. Enraged by her daughter’s death, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra teams up with his cousin Aegisthus, who’s got his own grudge against Atreus (he killed Aegisthus’ brothers and fed them to their father).

But that’s just backstory. When Agamemnon opens, a chorus of three old men are waiting for Agamemnon’s return in Argos to see how the thing with the queen will play out. We meet Clytemnestra, but Agamemnon himself doesn’t arrive until Act II, bringing along a little present from his troops, the captured Trojan princess Cassandra. King and Queen confront each other at the door of the palace, but from there all of the action again takes place offstage. Not until Agamemnon and Cassandra are slain do we even find out about Aegisthus’ role in all this.

The uncredited modern prose translation used by director Frank La Frazia is easy to understand. The production itself is austere. The stage in the blackbox-style theater, defined by white paint, is set with two columns, a small shelf, and a lantern. Clytemnestra, played by Alexia Trova, and Cassandra, played by Alyssa Sklar, the two brightest spots in the play, are dressed in basic gowns and scarves. But the men’s wear is a puzzle: Designer Sarah Mikulis has put Shaun Fogarty, in the triple role of watchman, herald, and Aegisthus, and Jeremy Clowe as Agamemnon, in unhemmed, fraying skirts, Army surplus workboots and fishing hats, jarring anachronisms that don’t seem to serve any purpose.

Ironically, the chorus—Ann Vieira, Peg Malloy, and Andrew Bemis, garbed in unobtrusive gray pajamas with animal-head canes—do all the heavy lifting. With the minimalist set, practically no movement and only brief opening and closing bits of music, it is their words that have to carry the play. The named characters merely step in, have their moment, then retreat again. But despite the trio’s efforts to render their lines with some individuality, this static rendition of an ancient classic never really comes to life. It is a starting place, perhaps a staged reading; but whatever it is, it’s not quite theater.

—Kathryn Ceceri

If It Ain’t Broke

The Fantasticks
Book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt, directed by Jim Charles
C-R Productions, Cohoes Music Hall, through March 21

The Fantasticks is such a staple of the musical theater that it’s almost impossible to review. With its deliberately one-dimensional characters—a boy, a girl, two feuding fathers, a handsome bandit, a pair of timeworn actors, and a wall—and bare-bones star-crossed-lovers plot, there’s not much a new production can bring to its interpretation. (Add the mantle of World’s Longest Running Musical, and it would be a foolish director who tried to tinker with success.) So in a way, the most you can say is, if it wasn’t great, the company didn’t do its job. C-R Productions has stacked the deck in favor of authenticity by involving five former off- Broadway cast members (including C-R artistic director Jim Charles), as well as the show’s creators, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. What they came up with is as close to the original as you’re gonna get. They did their job.

Despite its wonderful excess of ornamentation, the Cohoes Music Hall is really a small space, a fact that makes staging a show with scenery that consists of a platform, four poles, a box and a big white sheet a possibility. And the hall’s excellent acoustics mean there are no mics to distract from the show’s simplicity. Ignore the cherubim and you can almost believe you’re at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, circa 1960.

Since so much of The Fantasticks’ appeal comes from its timeless score (the standards “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” got their start here), the music of pianist and musical director Barbara Musial and harpist Elizabeth Huntley gets credit for laying the foundation that holds the rest of the play together. As singers, the actors have fine voices that blend nicely. Rebecca Minor as The Girl nailed the coloratura trills in “Round and Round.” Daniel Lee Robbins as The Boy displayed a good, if trifle thin, tenor. As the fathers, David Kieserman’s smooth voice was complemented by Kim Moore’s rougher vocals. In general, instruments and voices were well balanced, but a little more power from the singers (especially when Rob Richardson, as The Narrator—a role immortalized on the original cast album by a young Jerry Orbach—hit the lower notes) wouldn’t have hurt.

All the actors, Equity and younger players alike, performed flawlessly.

Jim Charles, who also directed the production, stood in for Robert Vincent Smith as The Old Actor on opening night. Given Charles’ 18-year association with the work, it’s not surprising his performance went off without a hitch. But in a play so familiar most actors could probably do it in their sleep, Robert R. Oliver as The Man Who Dies stands out for bringing down the house every time he stepped on stage. His hammy loose-limbed gait and cute-ugly smile were absolutely hysterical. At the opposite end, Aaron Fisher as The Mute, a role that’s barely noticed, displayed timing and style that was completely professional.

The rich, dramatic colors of Andrew Gmoser’s lighting brought life to Patrick Lemiszki’s set. Karin Mason’s costumes were quietly mid-20th century, except for the uproarious rags of the two old actors.

This was my first visit to the Cohoes Music Hall, and it certainly has the potential to become a major theatrical destination. I suggest that C-R’s Charles and partner Tony Rivera get on the city’s back right away to have street, building and parking signs installed to let outsiders know just where this treasure is.

—Kathryn Ceceri


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