Angel of Harlem: Leslie and Taylor in Blues for an Alabama
for an Alabama Sky
Pearl Cleage, directed by Timothy Douglas
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July
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
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.
David Mamet, directed by Martha Banta
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Charles R. Wood Theater, through
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.
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.
You Like It
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.
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.
Should Have Danced All Night
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
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
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.