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Angel of Harlem: Leslie and Taylor in Blues for an Alabama Sky.

Great Depression
By Ralph Hammann

Blues for an Alabama Sky
By Pearl Cleage, directed by Timothy Douglas
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 10

The Berkshire Theatre Festi- val’s Blues for an Alabama Sky celebrates the human spirit’s ability to survive in hard times. It also recognizes the paradoxical force that despair can have on creativity. Rather than stunt the creative impulse, it can spur it on in defiance of the negative forces.

Pearl Cleage’s remarkable play is set in Harlem during the summer of 1930, just as the Harlem Renaissance is waning in the aftermath of the stock-market crash of 1929. Tony Cisek’s setting dramatically conveys this moment in time when the great brownstones became dark oppressive traps as opposed to havens overlooking a rich cultural explosion. Cisek’s stone-framed windows remain significantly unlit through nearly the entire play, and one can sense a slum forming where once was a vital neighborhood. But in this descending doom one area of the stage glows with warmth, color and vibrancy.

This is the apartment of Guy Jacobs, an irrepressible homosexual costume designer who knows the Renaissance is irredeemably lost. Rather than surrender to the Depression (Great or personal), Guy pins his hopes on an escape to Paris, the home of Josephine Baker, the famous expatriate who sang and danced her way out of Harlem into the heart of European society. Guy’s dream is to create costumes for Baker and the Paris cabarets; his plan is to appeal to Baker and use her influence to thread his way into this rarefied world. To this end, he is sending Baker a box of five colorful creations born from an intoxicating mix of talent, need, passion and champagne. His entire future lies in that one box.

And as masterfully acted by Darryl Theirse, Guy’s dream carries great suspense as we alternately feel hopeful and hopeless about the venture and its slender chance of success. Theirse fairly dances through the role, and it is to his credit that the dance seems born equally from joy and a delicately masked desperation. And even when he entertains with flowery gestures and postures, the familiarly fey never becomes a gay cliché.

Also tied to the box is Angel Allen (Rachel Leslie), Guy’s best friend, who lost her job as a blues singer in Harlem’s Cotton Club. Guy promises he will take her to Paris, but Angel sings the blues and has trouble sustaining faith in Guy’s hopes. For Angel, more reliable salvation may come through the intercession of a newly arrived Alabama rube, Leland Cunningham, whose surname belies wit and who falls hard for Angel.

Cleage paints a rich portrait of the tender relationship between the (seemingly) carefree designer and the toughening singer. It is rendered in hues that range from bold reds to subtle roses and unfolds in front of a larger-than-life painting of Baker, who oversees the proceedings with a constant smile. At once a beacon of hope and a stingingly ironic—even mocking—counterpoint, it is a marvelous contrivance that, like Cleage’s writing, keeps us ever on edge even during the play’s many humorous moments.

For her part, Leslie sings the blues with clarity and beguiling smokiness, but the real mark of her accomplishment lies in her ability to realistically and dynamically underscore Angel’s tragic elements. Feeling Angel’s desperation and understanding the roots of her selfishness, Leslie compels our empathy even as she will ultimately deny our sympathy to create an arresting figure of rueful self-awareness.

With a hint of something amiss, something in his eyes that doesn’t quite focus into familiarity, Shane Taylor is fine and subtly disturbing as Leland, the interloper who doesn’t fit into Angel’s and Guy’s extended family.

Representative of the blacks who migrated from the South to Harlem and who created bonds that went beyond mere blood ties, that family is completed by Sam Thomas (David Alan Anderson), a doctor, and Delia Patterson (Cherise Booth), a social worker who lives across the hall from Guy and Angel. No mere subsidiary characters, Sam and Delia take on full lives of their own and endear themselves to us.

Judging from the lighter-than-usual attendance opening night, I suspect the usual main-stage patrons accustomed to the usual season opener of a comedy or musical may have felt threatened by the race-specific subject matter. This is a terrible shame, as the play contains rich moments of character-driven comedy, fast-paced dialogue that sparkles with wit and musicality, and, most importantly, a universality that puts Cleage in the company of Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams.

Victor/Victorian

Boston Marriage
By David Mamet, directed by Martha Banta
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Charles R. Wood Theater, through July 4

During the post-performance discussion that followed the opening of Boston Marriage, Adirondack Theatre Festival director Martha Banta echoed the surprise expressed by the audience that the “vulgar” David Mamet wrote this rollicking drawing-room comedy set in Victorian Boston. The fact that the play features three female characters was not the least of reasons for the surprise: Mamet, author of testosterone-heavy plays like the Pulitzer-prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross, is noted for his verbal wit, staccato rhythms, and earthy diction as much as he is for the masculine competitiveness in his works. There’s an old Broadway joke in which an arrogant star steps over a beggar as the he walks into the theater where he is performing, fatuously saying to the street person, “ ‘Neither a borrow nor a lender be’—William Shakespeare.” To which the beggar shouts, “ ‘Fuck you’—David Mamet.”

So the refinement of a Victorian salon—nicely conceived by scenic desinger Eric Renshler, with scrim fabric walls and 23 gold portrait frames of various sizes, and lit with a palpable sensuality by Matt Frey, who uses shifting cyclorama lights to change the background pastel hues to fit the mood of each scene—seems an alien setting for Mamet’s gifts. Not to mention the all-female cast (“Boston marriage” is an old term for two women living together).

Yet the claws are out between the closeted former lovers, Claire (Megan Hollingshead) and Anna (Lise Bruneau). The two scale verbals heights with pseudo-Victorian verbiage and simile, piling on allusions worthy of Oscar Wilde; then Mamet exposes himself as the playwright with an as-funny-as-it-is-vulgar set piece about Claire’s muff. That’s “a small cylindrical fur or cloth cover, open at both ends, in which the hands are placed for warmth,” but during an exchange between Claire and Anna while the latter very pointedly holds the muff before her loins, the comic misprision is laid bare: “Is that my muff? You gave it to me years ago.” Anna’s sensuous eyes widen, and Claire’s arched smile almost becomes a leer. And when Catherine the maid (played to guileless perfection by Marina Squerclati) almost moans with breathless anticipation, “While I was admiring your muff, the parts came,” Mamet’s face almost seems to smile from the divan.

Boston Marriage isn’t for the prudish or the homophobic, but is hysterically funny and a delight to those who appreciate farce. Banta is a director who typically creates a clarity of stage picture and a tight pace to serve the plot, but here the plot is so archetypal that the production wisely centers on the characters’ verbal flights, which the three actresses deliver with a breathtaking clarity and a sense of timing that lets the audience catch up with the laughs.

Banta and her actresses also bring a physical exactness to each character that is a marvel to witness. The three actresses place such finely crafted physical work into their scences that the audience is sometimes stunned before bursting into laughter. Mamet has created a play that may seem atypical for his canon, but has his verbal rhythms, predation and theatricality.

—James Yeara

The Next Stage

As You Like It
By William Shakespeare, directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 29

If one of the chief pleasures of Shakespeare & Company’s former Mainstage at the Mount was the yearly creation of a marvelous landscape painting, then Shakespeare & Co.’s productions at the Founders’ Theatre are becoming a surrealist’s playground. While the scope and depth of the outdoor space at their former digs provided a rich, never changing background that the company filled with a variety of characters in the foreground, the Founders’ Theatre has been adapted and changed for each production, becoming more than just backdrop. At the Mount you anticipated how the troupe would fill the stage, what concept would be revealed by costumes and movement; at the Founders’, the stage itself becomes a player that adapts to the themes of a production, surprising an audience. And if A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the masterwork that began and ended the company’s tenure at the Mount, then the current production of As You Like It marks its first master use of the Founders’.

The black-and-white chessboard stage floor, the numerous abstract groupings of green swirls that are moved around the stage for the Arden Forest, the white paper strips tied to strings and pulled up the many iron poles framing the stage or dropped as a canopy of “leaves” across upstage, all these create a complete union among actors, play, and stage that the Mainstage rarely afforded. This As You Like It is a sight to behold, a stirring masterpiece. You’ll laugh, but there’s a melancholy ache that hangs around the fringes of the comedy.

One of Shakespeare’s “middle” comedies, written in the same span as similarly titled and themed plays as Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, the play centers on two deadly sibling rivalries: Oliver (Jason Asprey) plots to murder his virile younger brother, Orlando (newcomer Michael Milligan); while in the other pairing, younger brother Duke Frederick (James Robert Daniels) usurps the dukedom from his older brother (Daniels again, in one of the many dual roles in this production).

One of director Eleanor Holdridge’s many brilliant strokes is the antithesis created by the set and costumes: The court, a sort of 18th-century milieu, is black-on-black and literally changes hue to white-on-white when characters enter the Arden forest. “Dazzling” is a poor adjective to describe the effect. Holdridge and company fill the Founders’ with three hours of magical moments and images that alternatingly stir the souls and tickle the funny bone. There is a stunning moment when Orlando and his faithful servant old Adam (the always dependable Dennis Krausnick) ease down a trapdoor dressed in courtly black and then pop up out of an upstage trapdoor dressed in the identical costumes in white: We are in the Arden, and it’s breathtaking—without a word being uttered.

As You Like It has company stalwarts Kevin G. Coleman (the clown, Touchstone), Jonathan Epstein (the melancholy Jacques), Ariel Bock (the country slut, Audrey) and Dan McCleary (a blustery Charles the Wrestler and a simpering Silvius the country lover) acting with their usual intelligence and vigor: Coleman in particular shows that there is in deed and word no fool like an old fool, and there is a hysterical moment when Jacques butts into the impending country marriage of Touchstone and Audrey that resonates with more than laughter. But it is in the work of the four newcomers—Milligan’s Orlando, Rafferty’s romantic and lusty Rosalind, Gottlieb’s slightly peevish and mischievous Celia, and Susannah Millonzi’s wench Phebe, a hilarious bundle of horny hormones—that Shakespeare & Company proves its future is in good hands.

—James Yeara

They Should Have Danced All Night

Sweet Charity
Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, conceived and originally staged and choreographed by Bob Fosse, directed by Rob Ruggiero, Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
Barrington Stage Company, Sheffield, Mass., through July 17

Left with fond memories of Bob Fosse’s great choreography and a couple of Cy Coleman’s tunes, I had forgotten what a dismal, empty and thoroughly forgettable musical this really is.

Chief culpability rests with Neil Simon’s shoddy adaptation of Federico Fellini’s early film Night of Cabiria. A masterpiece of neorealism, it probably never should have been adapted into a musical comedy, particularly one that substitutes glib one-liners for rueful humor and bland plotting for cinematic poetry.

The original gave us Giulietta Masina’s transcendent performance of Cabiria, a sad-comic streetwalker, more reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp than the sexually promiscuous sort. Cabiria was a survivor who retained a childlike innocence and dogged optimism despite her occupation and serial humiliations from men. While it may have essentially been a character study, the film was also an examination of illusion and reality, and it took a major swipe at hypocrisy and the Catholic church.

Rechristening Cabiria as Charity Hope Valentine, and too timorous to make her a prostitute, the musical recasts her as a dancehall hostess who provides other services when required. As in the film, we first meet Charity when she is victimized by her intended fiancé, who turns out to be a gigolo and makes off with her savings after dumping her in a river. From there onward, the script is all wet and sustains about as much interest as a boiled noodle.

The musical lacks dramatic tension. Whatever struggle it has is awkwardly served up in the final scene where, frankly, one doesn’t give a damn whether Charity’s new beau, shy Oscar, will prove a keeper. One could find more conflict in a Buddhist monastery.

Even with the weaknesses of the adaptation and the humdrum lyrics that fail to develop Charity as a character, one could expect a resourceful actress to imbue the role with a dollop of pathos—to at least deepen the inner conflict and offset Charity’s game pluckiness. About all that Valerie Wright’s Charity can muster is a brave smile. There is no depth, no empathy, not even any cheap sympathy.

Wright can, however, sing and dance, which is where she and this production succeed, albeit fitfully. Thankfully, the spirit of Fosse is alive in Ralph Perkins’ choreography, which is replete with the requisite isolations and sinuously informed steam heat. Abetted by a bevy of leggy dancers in the seedy dancehall, “Big Spender” is this production’s raison d’être. Standouts here, and elsewhere, are Kenya Massey, Mary McLeod (the show’s valuable dance captain), and Mindy Haywood.

Following close on the high heels of “Big Spender” are “Rich Man’s Frug,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and the infectious “Rhythm of Life,” which is given vibrancy by Bobby Daye. “Rhythm” opens Act Two, and apart from a brief reprise of “Big Spender,” it’s all downhill from there.

As Vittorio Vidal, the vain movie star who befriends Charity, Nat Chandler does bravura work with “Too Many Tomorrows,” but like too many of the songs in the show, it is unnecessary. Like the entire show, it is middlingly miked, which robs the voice of warmth and which shouldn’t be required in a theater the size of the Consolati Performing Arts Center. The whole thing may as well be lip-synched.

—Ralph Hammann


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