at me: (l-r) McAndrew and Burton in BTFs Eugenes
Details of Disease
Kathy Levin Shapiro, directed by Scott Schwartz
Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through
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
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
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
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.
by Play: Rites of Passage
Anton Chekov, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Albee and Alfred
de Musset, directed by Samuel Buggeln and Laura Margolis
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.
of the Fable
and the Sea of Stories
Salman Rushdie, Adapated and Directed by Evan Cabnet
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
Working Hard, but Hardly Working
Ought to Be in Pictures
Neil Simon, directed by Tim Foley
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.
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
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
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