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Matters of Life and Death
By James Yeara

The God Committee
By Mark St. Germain, directed by David Saint
Barrington Stage Company, Sheffield, Mass., through Aug. 7

Anyone bemoaning the lack of social concerns or relevance in a summer season of fluff and piffle by local theaters should rush to see the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s very germane and trenchant The God Committee at Barrington Stage Company. As with St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle, a BSC hit last summer that later transferred for a successful off-Broadway run, The God Committee is a theatrical winner, a play as full of political substance as this morning’s headlines but four times as funny. St. Germain pulls off a rarity: a play that has heart, soul, brains and plenty of contemporary laughter.

The God Committee is as well- structured as an Agatha Christie mystery and features more meaningful twists and surprises than Christie could ever have dreamed of in her philosophy. Centering on the group at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Hospital who decide which patients will receive heart transplants and which will not, The God Committee focuses on one turbulent 90-minute meeting (logically enough, held on St. Patrick’s Day). The play is a heady mix of one-liners (“It’s like waving a welcome mat to a Jehovah’s Witness”); black humor (It’s like a Nazi Beat the Clock”); statistics about medical insurance; and philosophical wrestlings over transplants, drug use, suicide, God, faith, 9/11, liars in the White House (then and now), the benefits wealth demands and the injustices poverty imposes.

Like a classic war movie or any other ensemble flick (The Big Chill, X-Men 2), The God Committee has a squad reflecting contemporary diversity: the pompous-upper-class-white-male-prick cardiologist Dr. Alex Gorman (Armand Schultz); the innocent female newbie Dr. Keira Banks (Kelly Hutchinson); WASPy queen bee Dr. Ann Ross (the lovely Amy Van Nostrand); wisecracking, wheelchair-bound Dominick Piero (Ron Orbach, who handles his mechanized wheelchair as adeptly as he does his frequent punchlines); gold-hearted African-American nurse Nella Redwood (Michele Shay); stomach-cancer-ridden administrator Dr. Jack Klee (David Rasche); and Father Charles Dunbar (the excellent Gerrit Graham), former defense attorney, widower, and new priest. These magnificent seven run a meeting of the damned: deciding who lives, who dies, and why—all while a fresh heart is making a cannonball run to the hospital by helicopter, motorcycle and subway (as detailed through some fantastically funny frantic cell phone calls from Dr. Banks’ mentor). As Dr. Gorman says, cutting through the sentiment, “this isn’t a congeniality contest.”

The pros, cons, what ifs, maybes, and flat nos of patient care receive a full, chilling, but surprisingly funny airing before the final vote is cast on which patient receives the heart and lives. As Father Dunbar wonders at play’s end, after one revelation and reversal after another plays out, “Could any of you make an objective decision?” The God Committee leaves the question hanging: Objectivity is in the eye of the beholden.

The cast, despite some opening night gremlins that bear the signs of the under-rehearsed summer season, handle The God Committee’s mix of humor, partisan politics, and medical ethics with a believable sense of character and place; at times The God Committee seems to teeter on the edge of a Michael Moore-ish hyperbolic preachiness, but the cast humanizes what could have easily been a play called Bowling for Organs or Medical Donor and Me.

Director David Saint keeps the focus clear despite all the wrestling and juggling, the pace tight and the staging smooth—though he does give Shay the unenviable task of acting downstage of the long table that dominates scenic designer Eric Renschler’s very cool, raked, and clean hospital meeting room. The God Committee raises timely concerns with much humor and humanity, and the audience leaves laughing as much as they do thinking.

Quacking up: Golden and Fitzpatrick in ATF’s Mimi le Duck.

Coming of Strange

Mimi le Duck
Music by Brian Feinstein, book and lyrics by Diana Hansen-Young, directed by Thomas Caruso
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Glens Falls, through July 31

Only incredibly talented people could pull off a production as strange as Mimi le Duck, and luckily the folks at Adirondack Theatre Festival have the chops to do it. The idea that you could make a musical about a plain 44-year-old Mormon housewife from Ketchum, Idaho (Annie Golden), who decides to chuck her career painting ducks to sell on QVC and follow the ghost of Ernest Hemingway to Paris is so bizarre that it’s hard to believe even as you’re watching it.

Pursued by her husband of 25 years, Peter (Brian Scott Johnson), in his powder-blue leisure suit—who, as master of the household, is determined to bring his wife back to Idaho so together they can fulfill their destiny to “work, suffer and die”—Miriam takes her duck money and escapes to 22 rue Danou, a rickety old boarding house run by Mme.Vallet, an ancient chanteuse once known as the “Red Bird of Paris.” Here she meets Clay, a scary sculptress (Kristine Zbornik) with her own secret past; Ziggy (Donald Grody), owner of Le Club Fowl, where Miriam finds work and a new identity as the avian equivalent of a Playboy Bunny; and a postman who bears a strong resemblance to Ernest Hemingway (Allen Fitzpatrick). Along the way she is robbed by a Spanish gypsy (Louis Tucci) and rescued by a kindly oyster shucker named Claude (Robert Dusold), who harbors a secret ambition to chuck the family business and become a detective.

In a play filled with star turns and memorable, if deeply strange, moments, several stand out: Claude and his late forebears, who appear on the painting above his shop, singing about his whether he could ever try something new (“Why Not?”); Peter sampling his first glass of wine; the reunion of Clay and the thief, her estranged husband (“Is There Room?”); and the sweet coming together of Ziggy in his old Resistance uniform and Mme. Vallet (“The Only Time We Have Is Now”). For sheer impact, however, nothing beat “Welcome Home,” in which the manic Gypsy practically leaped into the audience to bring them right back into the action. Andy Warfel’s set, consisting largely of wheeled white benches with wainscoting backs, was an unusual solution to the problem of simultaneously showing the different rooms at 22 rue Danou (and looked a little uncomfortable, for that matter), and Chris Dallos’ lighting provided the proper “green flash.” Mimi’s duck costume by Randall Klein was great, yet didn’t hide a thing: She was still a housewife, even in feathers and high heels.

Feinstein’s music and Hansen-Young’s words have an edge, and will probably get even sharper as the show continues to evolve (this was ATF’s 12th world premiere of a work-in-progress in 10 years). Despite Mimi’s midlife crisis—or I guess you could consider it a belated coming-of-age—I was particularly interested to see how much her life stayed the same at the end. And it will be interesting to discover if this is how the authors decide to let Mimi’s life play out, as she makes her nightly trip from Idaho to Paris.

—Kathryn Ceceri

Swing and a Hit

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Directed by Alan Weeks, vocal and musical concepts by Jeffrey Gutcheon, musical arrangements by Jeffrey Gutcheon and William Elliott, originally choreographed by Arthur Faria, orchestration and arrangements by Luther Henderson
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Aug. 8

Not seeing Capital Repertory Theatre’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ would be a waste of the rhythm and soul God gave you. It’s a straight shot of pure jazz and syncopation from Thomas “Fats” Waller’s music from the 1920s through the ’40s. You won’t just tap your toes: This is a show that gets your feet moving, your head bobbing, and your shoulders waggling, and invites, no, welcomes and entices you to sing along. If you can stay in your seat while these five musical magicians—Kevin Neil Cheatham, Darryle Reuben Hall, Bonita J. Hamilton, Andi Hopkins, and Deanna Greene—sing and dance and conjure songs, check for a pulse. Thankfully, they’ve got the defibrillator handy with the next song, because this is a show that just swings.

Capital Rep is firming up its reputation as the best fluffer in the area, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets the blood moving from the first note to the deserved standing ovation. With their slick and rich costumes by Thom Heyer—a mixture of satin, velvet, silk, tiny rhinestones, and fur that does period bling-bling with style—the five glide, shimmy, shake and just plain step out in a two-hour show that gets the pulse rate humping even during a lazy Sunday matinee full of more white hair than you’d find at a Santa convention.

With almost no dialogue, save for some patter during the songs, this two-hour revue is a fireworks show of one highlight after another. The 30 songs create an infectious rhythm: There are the occasional quiet ballads (“Squeeze Me,” done with an amorous follow, “Mean to Me,” that caressed the lovely Greene even as she caressed the notes) but mostly Ain’t Misbehavin’ shot through the stratosphere, “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” as the Act II opener stated. It’s tough to pick highlights out of two hours of stellar songs, but Hall’s slithery “The Viper’s Song” (aka “The Reefer Song”) hit the spot. Right up to and including the finale, an ever- quickening medley of clapping and tapping including a sweet singalong of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” that was actually in rhythm (not surprising, considering the tutorial the five had just given), Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a smash. Come prepared to move, and wear your dancing shoes.

—James Yeara

Well-Timed Tragedy

Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare, Directed by Henry Fonte
Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Saratoga Springs, through July 31

Who remembered from high school that Romeo and Juliet was full of bawdy jokes and swordfights? Down among the 21st-century’s answer to Elizabethan groundlings in Congress Park, spread out on our blankets with our picnic suppers and our happily oblivious kids, we understood why Shakespeare felt he needed more than two gorgeous dreamy teenagers gazing into each other’s eyes to hold his audience’s attention (“Why does everyone keep rhyming?” my utterly unromantic male child demanded). Yet, as soon as the famous first lines of the balcony scene began, you could have heard a pin drop. It may not be the most transcendent production of the proverbial star-crossed lovers ever done, but the Saratoga Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet definitely has a little something for everyone.

Off-Broadway veteran director Henry Fonte has trimmed speeches (“That line about the ‘two hours traffic of our stage?’” he said afterward, “That’s a lie. It’s more like three hours and 20 minutes.”) and made heavy use of action and humor to keep his Romeo and Juliet moving along. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, R&J starts out almost as lightheartedly as one of his battle-of-the-sexes comedies. Romeo (Mark Thornton, in looks a little like the young Mel Gibson) pines after the dismissive Rosaline until being instantly smitten at a dance by the not-quite-14-year-old Juliet (the radiant Lori McNally) in a scene that reminds one of just how closely West Side Story actually followed the Bard’s storyline.

As Romeo’s friend and fellow Montague Mercutio, Shannon Michael Wamser smirks, jests and provokes—up until the moment hot-blooded Capulet cousin Tybalt (Brian Nemiroff) strides in with his paisans like one of the Sopranos and slips past Romeo to run him through. “Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man,” Mercutio jokes, before changing the tone of the play for good by spitting out, “A plague on both your houses.” Romeo slays Tybalt, and church bells peal out an alarm as the citizens pour out into the square to discover the news. By the time we see Juliet’s parents (the formidable Brian J. Coffey and Patricia L. Culbert) planning their daughter’s wedding to Count Paris (Michael Marinaccio), while the teenager and her new husband luxuriate in her bed below them, we’ve already given up any hope of their happiness.

Apart from veterans Coffey and Culbert, Matthew A.J. Gregory as the Prince of Verona and Skidmore’s Lary Opitz as Friar Lawrence, Fonte’s cast does not quite make Shakespeare’s words sing, but they do make the language understandable, which is always a good start. The fights, choreographed by Saratoga Shakespeare artistic co-director William A. Finlay’s, are outstanding, and the lush costumes by Lloyd Waiwaiole (like a chess set, subtly divided into red tones for the Capulets, blue for the Montagues) are a wonderful adornment for the simple but serviceable set by Michael Blau. After five successful seasons, it’s time for the company to work out its problems with miking, admittedly a challenge in the open air. On the other hand, you can’t buy the kind of serendipitous happenings that occur when theater takes place outdoors: As the lovers spend their final moments in their tomb, swarms of bats began to swoop overhead. A tragedy indeed.

—Kathryn Ceceri 

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