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Look at me: (l-r) McAndrew and Burton in BTF’s Eugene’s Home.

The Details of Disease
By Ralph Hammann

Eugene’s Home
By Kathy Levin Shapiro, directed by Scott Schwartz
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 21

‘Why don’t you look at me?” Eugene demands of Talie, a new volunteer at the hospital.

It’s difficult to look at Eugene. It is also difficult to look away from him as one becomes fixated, against one’s will, on the viscous drool that hangs out of his contorted mouth. As we wait for it to drop or wish someone would wipe it away, the white spittle very nearly upstages the first several minutes of Eugene’s Home, a play about a man with cerebral palsy, and his caregiver. I think this is as it should be; we are made to experience the same aversion that Talie initially feels toward Eugene. There is power in such small, unpleasant details, and exhibited here is a courage that often fails plays about victims of diseases that assault human dignity.

Drooling as he sits in his motorized wheelchair, actor Arnie Burton twists his arms, hands and feet uncomfortably in unnatural directions. His labored speech is similarly distorted. That Eugene will evolve during the course of the play into a figure of wit and sensitivity is part of the play’s power and Burton’s supreme accomplishment. That he will also develop into a romantic figure is the play’s great challenge to its actors and its audience.

Playwright Kathy Levin Shapiro has patterned Talie after herself, and Eugene after the real-life Eugene she befriended some 14 years ago. Touching and often surprisingly funny, Eugene’s Home is concerned with the balance between compassion and pity as well as the boundaries of love. It also asks the question, “Where is home?”

For the lovely young Talie, home is where you belong. For Eugene, it is where you long to be. Shapiro details how each aids the other in finding home, and the journey that rivals the arrival in importance. On the way, each life is deepened, and two fractured people become whole.

It is a worthy play that mercifully avoids sentimentality or phony depictions of nobility in the face of suffering. Indeed, many of Eugene’s jokes about his spasms and comparisons of himself to retardates are edgy moments of gallows humor that produce hesitant laughs. The black, self-deprecating humor is entirely believable and most refreshing in an age where political correctness sanitizes too much of our would-be honest entertainment.

Director Scott Schwartz has coaxed a searing performance from Burton, who spends almost the entirety of the play in the aforementioned postures. The effect is almost exhausting for the spectator, and Burton suggests a sense of heroism in Eugene’s labors to communicate.

Talie may be the less striking role, but Kelly McAndrew is dynamic and provides as much implosive energy as Burton does explosive. Her role may actually be more difficult in terms of its dramatic arc and the complexity of her reactions, and McAndrew plays it with admirable subtlety and depth.

Kathleen Doyle skillfully plays five smaller roles, but the device becomes a bit of a distraction in a play that features two main characters who seem so thoroughly lived in by Burton and McAndrew. Whenever Doyle comes on stage, good as she is, one remembers this is a performance, not reality.

The final moments of the play are uncharacteristically heavy-handed and border on the laughable as McAndrew is asked to speak in a manner that, prompted by emotional distress, comes to resemble Eugene. Even worse is a bit of action with a pin, echoing an earlier piece of business, in which Talie pricks herself and registers great surprise and relief at her ability to feel pain. Whether a director’s or writer’s choice, it is a painful betrayal of trust in the material that precedes it.

Nonetheless, for its portrait of a remarkable relationship and for its deeply committed, vigorous performances, Eugene’s Home is another highlight of the BTF’s impressive season.

Promise of Beginnings

Play by Play: Rites of Passage
By Anton Chekov, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Albee and Alfred de Musset, directed by Samuel Buggeln and Laura Margolis
StageWorks/Hudson, through Aug. 22

In the past, StageWorks plus its annual Play by Play production of new one-act plays usually equaled success. The new plays were fast and furious, and even when of less-than-stellar quality, the juxtaposition of themes, characters, setting, and dialogue always fascinated and entertained. During its Kinderhook sojourn, StageWorks’ Play by Play always amounted to one of the most adventurous nights of theater in the area.

Now, StageWorks has opened its own theater, the Max and Lillian Katzman Theater in Hudson, and instead of its usual original one-acts, it has presented four classic short plays: Chekov’s The Celebration, Shaw’s A Village Wooing, Albee’s Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville and Alfred de Musset’s Journey to Gotha: You Can’t Think of Everything. Though the material and locale and even the name of the troupe (StageWorks has added a slash and “Hudson”) are different, the result still adds up to excellence.

The new 100-seat, air-conditioned theater affords innovations not available to the company in the former setting; Rites of Passage features rear-screen projection for the set, and the video component adds some depth and contemporary staging that couldn’t even be dreamed of previously. The four comedies receive a background that changes for each one-act, sometimes for each scene; and the chessboard set, done in somber hues of gray and muted black, heighten the edge of these explorations of matrimony. The chessboard is framed by eight legs, each emblazoned with a quote from one of the four playwrights: “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry”; “Lack of money is the root of all evil”; “Only fools and frauds think they understand everything”; “The mouth keeps silent to hear the heart speak.” It’s a new beginning at StageWorks/Hudson, and it’s an auspicious one.

Chehov’s The Celebration, set in a prestigious bank in Moscow, 1892, features some very good physical comedy, especially by Chris Swan as the misogynistic accountant Hirin and the redoubtable Eileen Schuyler as the shrewish Mrs. Merchutkin. (As with all four pieces, The Celebration exhibits the humor in male-female relationships: It’s informative to note that “comedy” comes from the Greek work “komos,” meaning “revel song,” and full-length comedies typically end in a marriage celebration.) Swan’s and Schulyer’s faces become ever-shifting comic masks, and the glee Swan’s Hirin reveals when propriety finally snaps and he “assaults” the woman is the stuff of which slapstick is made.

The verbal wit of Shaw’s A Village Wooing, featuring the encounter, pursuit, and negotiation to marriage of ill-suited A (Swan) and Z (the versatile Ashley West) is handled with a clarity, exactness of accent, and specific blocking that keeps the piece moving.

The hit of the evening is Edward Albee’s Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville: Twenty rapid-fire scenes done before a screen that is simply a scorecard for the the scene’s number. Albee creates dizzying spins that whirl from funny to biting to aching to sorrowful and back in permutations that keep the audience engaged: You sit back and laugh, then lean forward stunned at the reversals between She (Schuyler) and He (Robert Ian Mackenzie). Counting the Ways is a tour de force, and Schuyler and Mackenzie are thrilling. Counting the Ways alone is worth the evening, both for Albee’s daring and Schuyler’s and Mackenzie’s talents.

Unfortunately, when Rites of Passage hits the last piece, Journey to Gotha, the overall running time has caught up with both the audience and the cast, and this piece lags into broad, annoying caricature. More than one audience member beat a none-too-discreet exit, and only friends or critics could make the dead march to the piece’s annoying end. But for the first two and a half hours, Rites of Passage adds up to one of the most engaging and entertaining evenings StageWorks/Hudson has ever presented.

—James Yeara

Reconstruction of the Fable

Haroun and the Sea of Stories
By Salman Rushdie, Adapated and Directed by Evan Cabnet
Williamstown Theatre Festival at the Buxton School, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 14

Director Evan Cabnet has done a wonderful thing in bringing Haroun and the Sea of Stories to children. Libraries shelve Salman Rushdie’s only children’s story with the adult novels, and according to Amazon.com’s customer reviews, most readers come to the book via high school or college assignments. But Rushdie actually wrote Haroun, in part, as a message to his 11-year-old son, Zafar, after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa over The Satanic Verses sent the author into hiding. The problem with Haroun for kids is that, like Gulliver’s Travels or Don Quixote, it’s more allegorical fantasy than children’s tale proper. So it takes an adaptation like this one by Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “prestigious Non-Equity and Apprentice Company” (others have been done by various children’s theaters and by Rushdie himself) to bring the kid-friendly elements to the fore.

Set in the India-influenced mythical land of Alifbay, in a city “so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name,” Haroun is about a boy and his somewhat overblown storyteller father, Rashid (the marvelous Michael Braun), “the Shah of Blah” whose obsession with his work causes his wife to bolt with the whiny-voiced, mingy, upstairs neighbor Mr. Sengupta (Jeremy Strong) and his son to blame him. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Haroun shouts at his father—causing Rashid to lose his famous gift of gab. With the assistance of a host of magical creatures, Haroun travels to the source of his father’s stories, the Ocean of the Streams of Story on the moon Kahani, where the language-loving people of Gup City are at war with the silent but deadly Chupwallas, restoring both the two countries’ balance and his father’s career.

Rushdie tells us that old stories are constantly being recycled into new ones, and this Haroun fits right in to the long tradition of kiddie culture. Audiences will have no trouble relating to a genie as blue as the one in Disney’s Aladdin (Edi Gathegi), with a delivery as smart as Eddie Murphy’s. And the wild ride on the Mail Coach (perfectly suggested by the onstage passengers’ choreography) will remind Harry Potter fans (who receive a playful dig at their hero) of the perilous Knight Bus. Butt (James McMenamin), the driver, is a funny stoner version of Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper. And when the good guys defeat the enemy of stories, Khattam-Shud (a very whiny, mingy Jeremy Strong), it’s hard not to expect to hear, “I’m melting!” as he sinks into his robes.

Among the show’s many highlights, not counting the way it uses Rushdie’s own words to tell the tale, are excellent costumes and makeup like the blue Water Genie and green, leafy Water Gardener (Ian Unterman, who as the Ninja-like Mudra also engaged in some slo-mo martial arts with Mudra’s autonomous shadow, played by Maggie Loughran), the clever use of the minimalist set to indicate sundown and twilight, well-chosen sound effects and music, and playful touches like the sprinkler-induced rain shower. Though this free production is presented on the lawn at the Buxton School (down the street from WTF’s indoor venues), there was no trouble hearing or seeing any of the action, except for the normal noise of picnicking families.

I had no problem with Stacey Yen as Haroun, despite the age discrepancy between actor and character. After all, as Rushdie imagines him, he’s not really a child—more of a savvy adolescent who’s more than usually attuned to the nuances of adult relationships. What I had trouble believing, despite the baseball cap, was that Yen was a boy. Although it would have meant a big departure from the text, it would have been interesting to see Haroun played as a female. I don’t think it would changed the adventure of a storytelling father who gets himself in hot water with the powers that be, and the child who comes to rescue—and appreciate—him.

—Kathryn Ceceri

Working Hard, but Hardly Working

I Ought to Be in Pictures
By Neil Simon, directed by Tim Foley
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through Aug. 28

Oldcastle Theatre Company seems to have a penchant for producing lesser efforts by Neil Simon. I Oughta Be in Pictures, about an estranged father and daughter, offers scant evidence of Simon’s deserved status as one of our preeminent comic writers. Given two of the performances here, Oldcastle ought to have done the more deserving piece, The Gingerbread Lady, to which this bears similarity.

Herb Tucker is a has-been screenwriter living in a West Hollywood bungalow that he shares once a week with his lover, Steffy Blondell, a makeup artist who would like to make Herb into an honest man. As the play opens, Herb is about to be reintroduced to Libby, the daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years. Now 19, Libby has traveled cross-country from Brooklyn to establish a relationship with Herb and become a movie star. The former is the action of the play; the latter is a pipe dream suitable for a calabash.

The expected one-liners telegraph their arrivals with disturbing regularity, and the punchlines have more paunch than punch. Neither is the comedy very effective as a tale of reconciliation. There’s a sort of disingenuousness and rather too-obvious manipulation that robs the writing of its intended heart.

Nor has Kenneth Mooney aided matters with his set design. While the layout of the bungalow works admirably, for some reason Mooney has allowed brown to dominate the muted color scheme. Brown. Not a rich fertile brown, but a dull, slightly bilious brown. Brown is just not an innately funny color.

It thus falls on the abilities of the actors to give the show life and carry it as far as it can go. Oldcastle has assembled one of the stronger casts I’ve seen there in the past couple of years, and they work hard.

Hard work isn’t quite enough to make Herb much more than a collection of quips. I’ve much liked Bill Tatum’s performances at Oldcastle and can’t imagine who among their stalwarts could deliver a better portrayal of Herb. I don’t know how one can honestly deal with the dialogue dealt Herb, but it might help to casually throw some of the one-liners away. It would also help to ease a bit more nervously into the new relationship with Libby and to then display more palpable warmth, something missing in his final hug. A more experienced director might have helped, given that Simon has pretty much marooned the actor playing this role, but it is to Tatum’s considerable credit that he acquits himself respectably.

Nan Mullenneaux is genuine as Steffy, and although the role may be brief, this formidable actress imbues it with a long history. She ought to play a lead here.

When Meredith McCasland played Laura in Oldcastle’s The Glass Menagerie, she was something of a revelation. The range of this young actress is further displayed here as she deftly handles the demands of comedy and creates a first-rate performance from second-rate material.

—Ralph Hammann

Raise High

Fiddler on the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, based on the short stories of Sholom Aleichem, directed by Michael LoPorto, musical direction by Dale A. Zurbrick, choreography by Geoffrey Doig-Marx
Park Playhouse, through Aug. 15

Fiddler on the Roof has been a crowd-pleaser since winning multiple Tony Awards for its initial 1965 production. It’s a guaranteed money maker, an idiot-proof show that fills the stage with joy and characters that audiences can’t help but empathize with. From the initial production starring the incomparable Zero Mostel as Tevye to the 1971 film version starring Topol to the current Broadway revival featuring Alfred Molina, Fiddler on the Roof may be the best musical ever created. Its large cast assures large audiences, the simple folk dances move an audience, and the pleasing score proves an infectious hum that accompanies the audience on exiting. Furthermore, the plot is easy to follow and the theme is rich on faith—all this makes Fiddler on the Roof a sure winner.

The play is set in Anatevka, Russia, in 1905 and centers on the ephemeral triumphs and lasting tribulations of Tevye ( Mark A. Burgasser), his wife Golde (Vanessa Lyn Cea’), and the three eldest of his five daughters—Tzeitel (Jessie Alois), Hodel (Melissa Sgambelluri), and Chava (Rachel Rhodes-Devey)—as they struggle with tradition in Jewish life, the promise and threat a matchmaker may bring to the three eldest daughters, and the ambiguous relationship the family and the community of which they are a part have with their increasingly anti-Semitic and intolerant homeland. It’s a show filled with pleasure and song.

Park Playhouse’s version hits all the elements in a production that once again focuses on the singers and not on the stagecraft (this is the second year in a row where the focus wasn’t on the tech but on the performer). While this Fiddler doesn’t match the sterling ensemble voices and singing of last year’s wonderful My Fair Lady, it is still a winning production that more than fulfills the audience’s expectations and leaves them feeling like they got their money’s worth. Particularly excellent was Joshua Modney as the titular fiddler, whose perch is part of an excellent wood-on-wood set by longtime PPH impresario Venustiano Borromeo. Coupled with June P. Wolfe’s excellent costume design of earthy vests and aprons, caps and prayer shawls, this is a Fiddler on the Roof that seems to organically spring from the earth to delight its audience.

—James Yeara


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