Category Archives: Theater Reviews

Unpacking Anna Christie At The Lyric

Anna Christie
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Scott Edmiston
The Lyric Stage, Boston

Through May 6th

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

When Lindsey McWhorter first steps onto the stage in the role of Anna Christie she is carrying a suitcase. This single piece of luggage that doesn’t look particularly large or heavy,  Anna is toting as if it contains the weight of the world. And, symbolically, it does. Anna has returned to see her father after an absence of 20 years. She has had an undisclosed illness and to convalesce has made the trip to New York from Minnesota. She was sent to Minnesota to live with relatives after her mother died.

Nancy E. Carroll and Lindsey McWhorter
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

Chris (Johnny Lee Davenport), Anna’s father had received a letter from her announcing her planned visit. While excited about seeing her again, he is nervous and also has to adjust his living arrangements as he doesn’t want his daughter thinking ill of him. This means telling his live in girlfriend and drinking buddy Marthy (Nancy E. Carroll) she will have to move off the the barge they have been sharing. Marthy is at first angry but understands.

By chance, Marthy meets Anna before she has a chance to see her father. The two share drinks in the local bar. Marthy quickly picks up on the fact Anna is no stranger to hard drinking. She can also sense Anna has brought more luggage with her than what is in her suitcase.

The dialog is what you would expect of Eugene O’Neill, intense but not heavy. A lot is said but none of it is superfluous. These are the type of words I would imagine actors must savor working with. And this cast is made up of some very fine actors.

Johnny Lee Davenport, Lindsey McWhorter,Dan Whelton
(Photo Credit: Mark S.Howard)

Ms McWhorter is powerful from start to finish. Her Anna, with a hard exterior formed from years of abandonment and abuse from the men around her, still hasn’t lost the desire to be loved. She does struggle with her lack of self worth and suspicion of men, yet retains a strength and a desire to be accepted for who she is, faults and all.

Johnny Lee Davenport’s Chris couldn’t be better. From the moment he orders his first drink and starts speaking with his rich voice I felt I wanted to pull up a chair next to him and join in. Chris has not led an easy life either. He sent Anna off in hopes of allowing her to have a better life, one away from men who make their living at sea. Mr. Davenport conveys the love that Chris never lost for Anna. His pride for her shows in his body language and eyes when he speaks of, and anticipates, his daughter’s return.

Things become more complicated when an Irish seaman by the name of Mat (Dan Whelton) is washed ashore after a shipwreck and he and Anna begin to fall in love. Anna’s distrust of men is one obstacle, but other tings in her past are also something she struggles to deal with. It is now that her baggage begins to be unpacked.

Johnny Lee Davenport and Dan Whelton
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

Dan Whelton displays a wonderful Irish accent as he goes back and forth with Anna and Chris. Mr. Whelton and Mr. Davenport have a wonderful energy between them as they seem at times ready to kill one another, yet are very much alike; Stubborn, bullheaded, and kind hearted.

Unfortunately, Nancy E. Carroll’s Marthy is not on stage after the first act, but while she is, it is a joy watching her perform. She speaks the words O’Neill has written with a swagger reminiscent of a character from a 1930’s gangster movie; a touch of Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney. This conveys the rough edge she has from living and working on the waterfront as well as her way of dealing with the rough edged men in her life. And, as with the others, she betrays a tenderness and understanding. It works very well.

James R. Milord plays Larry the barkeeper. After having served Chris and Anna hard liquor separately, he shows subtle amusement when each tones down their wicked ways in order to put on a good face for the other.

Watching all of this unfold is sad, touching, and even funny at times. Director Scott Edmiston has pared done the script without losing any of the essential parts, leaving us with a Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in less than two hours.

I’m sure that many will read into this work issues of the power men have over women and how women deal with it. While that is understandable, it is also good to see this as what happens when people are able to accept each other with all their faults, face their own weakness, and allow better natures to prevail. This is a story that could have ended on a very ugly note. It didn’t, and we can all learn from that.

Eugene O’Neill’s works are among the greatest in American drama. They can be very heavy and usually are long but also amazing. This play is deep and filled with emotion, but it will not leave you filled with despair, and it certainly is not drawn out. Director Scott Edmiston has gotten it right, and I would encourage those who have not taken in a work by O’Neill to start here. It will stir your emotions but not overwhelm you. You will see five very fine actors working with the words of a great playwright. And, you will see it all at the wonderful Lyric Stage Theater, a warm and intimate performing venue.

Opening The Door To Talking About Depression and Suicide

Every Brilliant Thing
SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Every Brilliant Thing is a one person play about depression and suicide, two subjects that undoubtedly make most people very uncomfortable when talked about. But talked about they should be, and author Duncan Macmillan has shown us the way to do this in this charming, caring, and quite funny work that also conveys so much of what we should be hearing in any conversation about this subject.

Adrianne Krstansky
(Photo Credit: Maggie Hall)

The production now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage is set in the round with the lights up throughout the entire performance. It is billed as a one person piece, that one person being played by Adrianne Krstansky, but it also involves a tremendous amount of audience participation. Ms Krstansky, whose character remains unnamed throughout, is in the theater meeting with audience members as they take their seats. She is giving many of them slips of paper with a number and words written on them. She is also making eye contact with others to see who would be comfortable with being a part of the show but is careful not to make anyone feel uncomfortable as the whole point of this is to put people at ease while talking about difficult things.

The numbered slips of paper contain  entries from a list called Every Brilliant Thing, thoughts Ms Krstansky’s character began compiling at the age of seven as a way of coping with her mother’s depression and attempts at suicide. The list is not about material things, but is rather quotidian with thoughts such as “People who can’t sing, but don’t know or don’t care”, “Ice cream”, “Christopher Walken’s hair”, and “The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler”. You’ll find yourself making your own list as the play moves along.

Adrianne Krstansky
(Photo Credit: Maggie Hall)

Adrianne Krstansky moves about the stage and through the audience with calm and grace as she interacts with and has members step in to play various people who come into her life; There is the vet who euthanizes her dog, Mrs. Patterson who uses a sock puppet, the lecturer at university who has his students read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and her first love and future husband Sam. At the performance I attended, the young man who assumed the role of Sam became quite emotional at one point. The spontaneity made for a very touching experience, something that makes this work so powerful.

In an interview with the author in the program notes, Duncan Macmillan tells us he wants the work to show us a way to talk about the most serious things in a way that isn’t serious. Now, while that may sound a bit oxymoronic it is just what he has accomplished. Every Brilliant Thing does not leave you emotionally drained, but it does get a very serious message across, and while this isn’t a group therapy session you will feel a bond with the people sitting around you and especially with Ms Krstansky who speaks to and touches all of us.

If you suffer from depression or know anyone who does you will find comfort in this play. And for those of you who have known someone who has fallen victim to suicide or if you have had such thoughts you will find there are those who understand you. There is so much to learn from attending a performance. I didn’t know that whenever a high profile person takes his or her own life it cause a spike in suicides, something known as the Werther Effect. With depression it is, as Mr. Macmillan says, either “treated as a taboo and ignored, or it is fetishized and glamorized”. It should be neither. We have to learn to discuss it with the understanding and caring that is conveyed in this play, and that is why I believe the people who most would benefit from seeing it is those who think depression is something you can just will away, it isn’t.

Do not be afraid to see Every Brilliant Thing as you will not be forced to speak or play a part in it unless you want to. You will not be made to feel uncomfortable. The treatment of the darkness that touches so many of us is dealt with in a way that allows us to talk about it in order to dispel the shame that causes so many to withdraw to an even darker place. Putting words to suffering is such an important step in dealing with it. Having people with empathy and openness listening allows sufferers to feel unafraid to talk.

As I was exiting the theater I couldn’t help but think how leaving the stage lit during the play was a metaphor for us shedding light on a subject that has remained hidden for too long. For all of our so-called understanding of and openness about mental illness we are still miles away from removing the stigma attached to it. The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Adrianne Krstansky, Duncan Macmillan, and director Marianna Bassham have done much to change how we view this illness. This message should be heard. Every Brilliant Thing could be the most important play performed this season. It very well may change your life, and that is a good thing.

Every Brilliant Thing
SpeakEasy Stage, Calderwood Pavillon, South End, Boston
Written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Marianna Bassham
Performed by Adrianne Krstansky
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavillion, South End, Boston
Through March 31 617.933.8600

An Up Close Richard III In Cambridge

Richard III
Actor’s Shakespeare Project
Swedenborg Chapel
Harvard Square, Cambridge
Through March 11

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

One of the great enjoyments of Actor’s Shakespeare Project productions is they are held in different venues. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge for directors. In the decision to stage Richard III at the Swedenborg Chapel, director Robert Walsh was given both.

Upon entering the chapel and taking my seat in one of the pews, I was puzzled by how I would be able to see the play. After all, the only clearly visible place where an actor could be seen would be from the pulpit: Hardly the spot to stage the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The gothic architecture, shadowy lighting, and smell of incense in the air certainly created a fitting atmosphere in which to witness Gloucester as he plots and executes his way the throne. But again, there was the question of actually getting to see it all.

Steven Barkhimer as Richard III
Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots

Director Walsh answered my question from the moment the opening lines were said. This production would not take place on a stage, it would happen amongst the audience. The action, or at least 90% of it happens in the aisles alongside and in between the pews. Theatre does not get any closer or more personal than this. This works particularly well with Richard III as I do not believe there is another character in the works of Shakespeare who speaks directly to the audience as much as the title character does.

I have seen productions of Richard III where Gloucester comes across quite cunning and charming almost to the point where the audience members felt taken in by him and had pangs of guilt towards the end when his ruthlessness is on full display.

This is not the way Steven Barkhimer plays him. Dressed in black, walking with a limp, arm in a sling, and wearing a beret in the first act, and a headband representing a crown in the second, Mr. Barkhimer gives us a Richard whose phony charm is easily seen through from the outset. This approach allows us to see just how quickly the other characters are willing to compromise their morals in order to share in his power. They are not being taken in by his cunning, but instead willfully sell out to him. It is his power that corrupts the others, not his charm.

Steven Barkhimer and Mara Sidmore
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

The scene where Richard woos Anne while standing next to the body of her husband whom Richard had slain is a perfect example of this. The grieving Anne, played by Mara Sidmore, is disgusted by the overtures but also realizes the power she will gain by giving into Richard. Ms Sidmore plays this tension very well. It is morality versus practicality, and in spite of Anne’s protestations, we know early on what her decision will be. It’s not Richard’s talk, but rather what he has to offer that allows him to woo her in this way. Mara Sidmore is also excellent as Catesby. Wearing a black fedora style hat she elevates the role of Richard’s most loyal follower.

The cast is limited to six actors playing the numerous roles, and they all manage to move from one character to another along with their differing personalities seamlessly. Deaon Griffin-Pressley who plays Hastings, Rivers, Terrell, and Richmond also plays Murderer 2 opposite Paula Plum as Murderer 1. Mr. Griiffn-Pressley speaks with a Jamaican Patois while Ms Plum has the swagger of a 1930s movie gangster. It is an interesting combination and well chosen.

Ms Plum also plays Queen Elizabeth, and the scene where Richard attempts to get Elizaleth’s approval for marrying her daughter is particularly powerful in this intimate setting.

Michael Forden Walker plays Buckingham and Stanley, but is at his best in the role of the tragic Clarence. Clarence relating his dream is moving, and his plea for sparing his life is so dreadful and sad.

Jennie Israel
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

And now to Jennie Israel. Ms Israel comes close to stealing the show as she plays Brackenbury, King Edward, and Ratcliff. Her Margaret is just wonderful. Her presence is strong but not overwhelming, and her rhythm is beautiful. Ms Israel and Ms Plum are also impressive in red bows playing the two young and ill fated princes.

Richmond’s speech before the Battle of Bosworth Field is always powerful but more so in the hands of Deaon Griffin-Pressley as he walks through the aisles addressing the audience. Given in this setting it is particularly effective.

Richard gives his speech from the pulpit which is the highest spot in the chapel to perform from, it is a fitting place to have him speak just before his downfall. Mr. Barkhimer shows the failing despot giving it his one last try to keep the troops in line.

The battle itself is something to witness. It is a dance/fight scene brilliantly choreographed with drums playing in the background and the actors banging sticks together as they move through the chapel. I did duck for cover on more than one occasion.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Paula Plum
(Photo credit: Nile Scott Shots)

I doubt you will get the chance again to see such an intimate production of Richard III, nor one so creatively done. The chapel setting could not be more perfect. The lighting, which I was told was limited and challenging was also very effective. There was one scene where shadows are cast on the back wall that elicited a gasp from the audience. It was something to see.

It is also great for people like me who tend to fidget in their seats. While seating is in the pews, they are quite comfortable, and the ASP has also allowed quite a bit of seating room so audience members have no trouble shifting around to watch the action as it moves about them, and that is great news for us fidgeters.

For those of my readers who enjoy Shakespeare, you will be very pleased by this production. For those of you who have shied away from seeing these great works there could be no better introduction. It is helpful to read a synopsis of the play before going, but don’t be intimidated by it. Sit back and let it play out before you. You will be wooed.

Road Show At The Lyric Stage

Oh! Brothers!
Road Show
At The Lyric Stage

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Spiro Veloudos and Ilyse Robbins have teamed up to co-direct Stephen Sondheim’s newest musical Road Show, now playing at the Lyric Stage. The play, with book by John Weidman, is a fast paced 90 minutes of tightly woven theatre. It is the story of two rather sleazy brothers who, while they do hold a certain attraction, in the end make us feel glad we are leaving them behind as we leave the theater.

Neil A. Casey and Tony Castellanos
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall

Addison and Wilson Mizner were two real life characters who went in search of fame and fortune toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. They had big ideas with Wilson being the more daring, and at first seemingly the more unscrupulous of the two. There is a certain appeal to the stories of risk takers and those who follow their dreams, but by the end of the play we have had just about enough of these two. The Mizners, while rich in ideas, and in Addison’s case, talent, were also con men who were more than willing to take advantage of any poor sucker whom they came across. It is Wilson Mizner who has been credited with the now famous line “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

Even though their actions will leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth, it is still a lively and interesting story. The score by Stephen Sondheim is pure Sondheim from start to finish. And, I have to say I enjoyed every number. With a three member orchestra to back them up the performers are never competing with the instruments. Each song is clear and easy on the ears.

Tony Castellanos as Wilson gives us a character who is a fast talking con man, and like all con men, also quite charming much of the time. You’ll  find yourself smiling at him while at the same time checking to be sure your wallet is still in your pocket. Neil A. Casey as Addison is the more subdued, thoughtful, and apparently kinder of the two.

Neil A. Casey and Patrick Varner
Photo Credit; Maggie Hall

When Addison begins a relationship with Hollis Bessemer (Patrick Varner), the son of a wealthy industrialist, who dreams of starting an artist’s colony in Florida, it seems  we are going to see a stark contrast between the two brothers. Bessamer has been cut off by his father but is able to make introductions that enable Addison to put together real estate deals. The two begin a romantic relationship and appear to have found true love. The song You’re The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened is a very touching and tender moment in the play. Patrick Varner brings a warmth and a vulnerability to the role of Hollis that  makes it that much more tragic when Addison goes back into business with Wilson and they begin fleecing investors. Whether Addison had been using Bessemer all along or whether it was really true love is a question that is left to the audience. While it is obvious Wilson always savored taking advantage of those “suckers” whether mining for gold in the Klondike, producing Broadway plays, or selling real estate in Florida, it is more ambiguous when it comes to Addison.

Cast of Road Show
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall

There is a fine supporting cast that includes Sean McGuirk as Papa Mizner and Vanessa J. Schukis as Mama Mizner as well as various prospecters, poker players, marks, and even an appearance by World Middleweight Champion Stanley Ketchel (David Makransky). Will McGarrahan, last seen at the Lyric in Souvenir, is always a welcome stage presence.

As I have written before, the team at the The Lyric Stage really knows how to put on these small scale musical productions. Mr. Veloudos and Ms Robbins work very well together. But that should not come as any surprise as both know their craft and have given audiences many great productions.

These past few years I have been getting quite an education in the work of Stephen Sondheim thanks to both the Lyric Stage and the Huntington Theatre Company. It is a delightful journey I have been fortunate to be able to join in on. I am looking forward to many more stops along the way. In the meantime, I can say with confidence you will enjoy Road Show. You may not find a place in your heart for the Mizner brothers, but you certainly will for this production.

Road Show
Through February 11th
The Lyric Stage
Copley Square, Boston

This Play’s The Thing To Bring You An Early Spring

Shakespeare In Love
At The SpeakEasy Stage Company

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

We are in the midst of one of our cold and snowy Boston winters, but you don’t have to travel far to have your heart warmed and a smile brought to your face. The New England Premiere of Shakespeare In Love presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company and playing at the Calderwood Pavillon in Boston’s South End is delightful.

George Olecky and Jennifer Ellis
Photo Credit:Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

The Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard screenplay from their Academy Award winning best picture has been adapted to the stage by Lee Hall who has kept much of the original script while adding additional dialog including Shakespeare lines. With a cast of eighteen actors plus a dog it is remarkable how smoothly this work flows. Everyone is in synch and the dialog and action never miss a beat. This had to be a challenge for director Scott Edmiston who was clearly up to the task.

The SpeakEasy design team has done a masterful job of transforming the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood into The Rose Theater from Shakespeare’s era. The actors move into the aisles at times and the lights are turned up periodically to truly make the audience feel they a part of the performance. It is a wonderful touch that adds to the fun that is enjoyed by those in attendance. We are groundlings all.

Of course, what would a play be without the players? And the SpeakEasy has assembled a very talented cast to take the stage. With so many who deserve recognition I hate having to leave some out but space doesn’t allow for a full rundown. Just know they were all terrific.

Eddie Shields and George Olecky
Photo Credit:Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

George Olesky plays the young Will Shakespeare who, at the beginning of the play, is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block,”Shall I compare thee to a …something…”. Kit Marlowe (Eddie Shields) helps him  get his mojo back and even coaches him in finding the words with which to woo Viola (Jennifer Ellis) who has been masquerading as a male in order to gain a part in the upcoming production of Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter. Fortunately, Kit is able to convince Will there is a better title for the work.

Many audience members will be familiar with the direction this all takes from having seen the movie. If not, it is fun to experience it for the first time. And, if you are, you will find this treatment of it to be fresh and  enjoyable.

Olesky and Shields, who I at first thought were going to be too corny, settle into wonderful exchanges of banter that display the wit you would expect from these two poets. Their back and forth captures their rivalry, respect, and friendship. By the time of Marlowe’s murder you can empathize with Shakespeare’s pain and guilt at the loss of his friend.

Nancy E. Carroll as Queen Elizabeth has the gift of delivering very funny lines without cracking a smile. However, there is a twinkle in her eye that belies her stern countenance.

Ken Baltin
Photo Credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Ken Baltin takes on the role of the beleaguered theatre owner Henslowe who is struggling to stay one step ahead of losing an ear for falling behind in his payments to the loan shark Fennyman played by the very funny Remo Airaldi. Baltin’s expressions as he looks pleadingly to the audience are priceless.

As readers of this column know by now I consider Jennifer Ellis a remarkably gifted performer. In Shakespeare In Love she did not disappoint me. I have seen Ms Ellis performing going back to Urinetown at the Lyric Stage in 2005 and more recently in She Loves Me at the Greater Boston Stage Company as well as The Bridges of Madison County at the SpeakEasy. In a city that is so filled with talent (you get to see much it in this current production) Jennifer Ellis stands out as one who is destined for great things. My only concern is that one day we may lose her to the bright lights of Broadway, so I would strongly urge you to get to the Calderwood Pavillon and see for yourself what I am talking about before she moves on.

Ms Ellis radiates in the role of Viola. Her voice and her presence fill the stage.

Ms Ellis radiates in the role of Viola. Her voice and her presence fill the stage. There is also something very unique about the way lighting touches her face. I don’t know how to properly describe it, but it is amazing to see. Jennifer Ellis also carries a subtlety into her performances that allows her to always appear at ease and very natural.

So, forget about the cold weather and head over to the SpeakEasy stage for this delightful production. Oh, I forgot to mention one very important cast member, Spot the dog. As Nancy E. Carroll’s Queen Elizabeth says when encouraging Will on writing his next play “Remember, we very much like dogs”. You’ll very much like Spot. And yes, “Out damn Spot’ does make it into the dialog.

Shakespeare In Love
Through February 10th
The SpeakEasy Stage
Calderwood Pavillon
Boston’s South End

“Nobody Teaches You How To Do The Big Stuff”

Melinda Lopez In Mala
At The Huntington

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Melinda Lopez
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta

Watching the Huntington Theatre’s production of Mala, written and performed by Melinda Lopez, was a very emotionally stirring experience. The one actor play about Ms Lopez’s experiences dealing with the failing health and impending death of her 92 year old mother is an honest depiction of what many of us have, or will have to face with an aging parent. It is also a stark reminder of what awaits us as we age. It is not a pretty picture, and fortunately, this play does not romanticize dying. If this sounds pretty bleak it is, but the play is not.

Oh, it is tough stuff to have to think about, and as Ms Lopez points out so well throughout the play, we don’t pick up great wisdom from the dying. They are usually very angry and the caregivers are exhausted. The endless calls to 911, the verbal nastiness, the hard decisions, and feelings of guilt are all real and put in front of us. The play also has much humor in it. I wouldn’t call it gallows humor, but rather the laughter people break into at times when it seems all has gone wrong and helplessness has set in. You know, it is okay to laugh when bad things are happening. We are reminded of that while watching Mala.

Melinda Lopez is simply wonderful. Her work is wonderful. Her acting is wonderful.

The events in the play took place during the terrible Boston winter of 2015, the year of Snowmageddon. As her mother began to deteriorate physically and mentally Ms Lopez kept notes in an App on her iPhone. She did not do this with the thought of writing a play, but rather as a way to let off steam. When she later read the notes she was inspired to write this story. It is so good she did.

Mala is not Ms Lopez’s mother’s name, rather it is a Spanish word that means a person is bad. Not just bad but bad deep down in her soul. Her mother would shout that at her when she was upset. It is not uncommon for an ailing parent to lash out at a son or daughter when they are nearing the end. It is very unpleasant and hurtful, but understandable when you think about how helpless and hopeless we become at that stage in our existence. Never the less, it is awful to deal with.

Melinda Lopez
Photo Credit: Paul Marotta

Along the way Ms Lopez also touches on her father’s dying as well as sharing brief stories of other’s who have gone through similar experiences. As she moves about the stage relating her story I felt as if she was talking directly to me, and I am sure the other audience members felt the same way. Her honesty and straightforwardness come through clearly while never turning to self pity. The anger, the guilt, the second guessing are all brought out.

Near the end of the performance Ms Lopez talks about having her mother put under Hospice care. This touched me as it is a hard reality to face when you know the person you love is not going to get better. There is now a time frame. Of course, as Melinda Lopez points out, we have all started dying, but when you can begin to measure the time that is left it becomes very different.

In one very funny part of the play Ms Lopez talks about one of the times her nerves were frazzled from dealing with her mother. She started thinking about how she heard that Eskimos, or was it Inuits?, would set their elderly parents adrift on an iceberg to be rid of them. It is quite humorous as she tells it, but it also is a reminder of the terrible guilt a person can feel as the thought of wanting the suffering to end gets tied into the wish to see your parent die. Those thoughts are so painful.

I hope I haven’t painted too bleak a picture of this wonderful performance. You will not be sitting in the theater crying. In fact, you will spend quite a bit of time laughing. But, you will leave the theater thinking about what it means to get old and what lies ahead for many of us. It is something we should be as honest about as Melinda Lopez is.

It is so often I read about how courageously a person has faced illness and death, and we like to think of it happening that way. The reality is different. I know that as I was leaving the theater I was thinking of some of the words Ms Lopez spoke. She spoke of how dying does not make us wise. You don’t learn from the dying. They are angry, they can be mean. And most importantly “Nobody teaches you how to do the big stuff.”

Do not be afraid to see this play. Melinda Lopez is simply wonderful. Her work is wonderful. Her acting is wonderful. Her honesty and openness about this subject is welcomed and you will appreciate it. Mala touched me deeply. It stirred my emotions and brought back difficult memories, but I am so glad I got to experience this fine work. While it is true nobody teaches you the big stuff, it is nice to know we are not alone in going though such events. Thank you Melinda Lopez for sharing experiences.

Extended through February 4
The Huntington Theatre Company
At The Calderwood Pavillon
Boston’s South End

A Powerful Work About A Principled American Standing Up To Hatred And His Government

“We Hold These Truths”

Written by Jeanne Sakata

Directed by Benny Sato Ambush

Through December 31

Lyric Stage, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

When the lights first illuminate the stage for the opening act of We Hold These Truths now playing at the Lyric Stage, Michael Hisamoto in the role of Gordon Hirabayashi is sitting in a chair facing the audience. There is a very long pause before he begins to speak. This creates an expectation that what we are about to hear from Mr. Hirabayashi is going to be very important. In fact, not only what develops on the stage is important, it is also deeply moving.

Michael Hisamoto with Kurogos
Photo By Mark S.Howard

The story based on the real life Hirabayashi is about an American citizen of Japanese ancestry who had the courage to stand up to his government during the onset of WWII when citizens were being rounded up and placed into internment camps while being denied the due process afforded them by the Constitution. That they were denied their rights solely because of their ancestry is a frightening tale. Most of these citizens, and it must be remembered that these people were American citizens, also lost their homes, furnishings, and businesses. Some had relatives who at the same time were in the military defending the nation, and yes, its Constitution.

Michael Hisamoto commands the stage for a little over 100 minutes portraying a man who is both charming and steadfastly determined. Playwright Jeanne Sakata has included much humor in her work which makes this tragic story bearable. Using this humor, Mr. Hisamoto, with his infectious smile, is able to break the tension when it begins to overwhelm while at the same time using his eyes to covey the steely determination of his character. Make no mistake, Gordon Hirabayashi, though good natured, is tough as nails. And, as he points out using a Japanese proverb his mother taught him, “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.”

Mr. Hisamoto plays all the characters with the exception of those that are voiced from off stage. He is accompanied by three kurogos, characters from Japanese theatre whose faces  are fully covered and do not speak on their own. The kurogos move about while Hisamoto voices their lines. The use of lighting cast onto a minimally furnished stage along with some projections on the back wall and subtle mood music is all wonderfully effective. Director Benny Sato Ambush has done a masterful job.

As I watched We Hold These Truths I thought about the temptation to slip into feelings of self-righteousness as I felt a bond with Mr. Hirabayashi, but would I have felt the same way if I were there in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor? I would like to think I would have been, but it is easier looking back at this dreadful period with the emotions of the time removed.

What I did conclude was how important it is for our Constitution to be upheld by judges who will not be ruled by emotion or the temptation to legislate from the bench. In the Hirabayashi case, which he fought all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices ruled unanimously against him even though this was certainly a clear case of his due process being denied. The fact that there was little public support for these Americans who were being deprived of their rights should never have played into the judge’s decision, but it certainly did.

Michael Hisamoto
Photo by Mark S.Howard

Michael Hisamoto’s stirring performance not only honors Mr. Hirabayashi, but is also a reminder that while we may look back and like to believe we would have stood up for this courageous man, we should test ourselves as to whether or not we would do the same today in different situations. In this age where so many look to the courts to create laws we have to ask ourselves if we are able to respect the process, and if we can support decisions we are not happy with but are what is dictated by the Constitution. If that process had been followed in 1942 we would not have seen so many of our fellow Americans treated in such a shameful way.

I urge you to see We Hold These Truths and watch it with your eyes wide open. It is an important work, and one that should cause you to reflect no matter where on the political spectrum you fall.

This Man of La Mancha Is Not Quite The Impossible Dream

Man of La Mancha at the New Rep

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The New Rep Theatre’s current production of The Man of La Mancha directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman looked promising as the cast took the stage. It appeared it would be earthy and salty, but unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. I found this version to be disjointed and confusing. At times I wasn’t sure if it was reminiscent of a production done in Berlin in the 1920s or a Harvard Square coffee house in the 1960s. The transitions were choppy and it did not convey the edginess that it meant too.

Having the musicians playing instruments while acting their parts on a set that resembled backstage at a theater was a nice touch but the music was at many times tinny. Lead actor Maurice Emmanuel Parent who was superb in the Speakeasy Production’s Scottsboro Boys doesn’t seem able to quite settle into his role. I don’t think it is as much him as it is the material he is working with.

This is a production had a lot of potential, but it could be possible the director got too caught up in trying to send a message about the current state of politics today instead of letting the work be more subtle and allowing the audience to read into it their own interpretation.

Man of La Mancha
Through December 31st
New Rep Theatre
Watertown, MA

She Loves Me Is A Romantic Delight In Stoneham

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by holiday shopping I would suggest you take a couple of hours away from the madness and stop by to see the Greater Boston Stage Company’s production of She Loves Me. This very warm musical, which had its first run in 1963, will be familiar to many of you who have seen the movie The Shop Around The Corner. The story about a romance that began through letters and involves mistaken identity is funny, touching, and warm. It is also quite enjoyable.

Jennifer Ellis

Of course, with Jennifer Ellis in one of the lead roles you could never be disappointed. Ms Ellis is a positively outstanding talent with a superb singing voice and amazing acting ability. I would pay just to see her read the phone book. Yes, she is that good.

Ellis, as Amalia Balash,  an Sam Simark, who takes on the role of Georg Nowack, have an onstage chemistry that is magical. Having such a wonderful score to showcase their voices doesn’t hurt.

Sam Simahk

The play is set in Hungary as Christmas approaches and revolves around the romances both Amalia and Georg are having via mail (not email, but the ones you have to put a stamp on and deposit in a mailbox, remember those?), with people they have not yet met. It turns out the two have been writing to one another without realizing it, which becomes more complicated when Amalia gets a job at Maraczak’s, a perfumery, where Georg is already employed. The two do not hit it off well. The confusion draws in the other employees of the store as well as Mr. Maraczak (Tom Gleadow) who is also dealing with a case of mistaken identity.

Jared Troilo

Local favorite Jared Trolio plays the obnoxious Steven Kodaly who is pursuing fellow employee Ilona Ritter played by Aimee Doherty. Trolio is just wonderful in the number Ilona, which has a bit of a Mambo beat. Ms Doherty will have you smiling with A Trip To The Library.

A Romantic Atmosphere with Nick Sulfaro as the maitre d’ of a local restaurant is one of many stand out numbers that include Tonight At Eight (Georg), Vanilla Ice Cream (Amalia), and Where’s My Shoe (Amalia and Georg). Perspective sung by employee Ladislav Sipos (Robert Saoud) is filled with advice on how to keep your job. The delivery boy and aspiring clerk Arpad (Brendan Callahan) appeals for a promotion in Try Me. It would be very hard to refuse him after hearing this musical resume.

The story is not a complicated one, but it is so enjoyable to watch. The musical numbers are just wonderful and with Musical Director Matthew Stern at the helm the orchestration is tight. Choreography is by director Ilyse Robbins and is smooth and light.

While the entire cast and production are wonderful, Ms Ellis and Mr. Simahk are positively great. This is a play worth seeing. It will leave you with a big smile on your face.

She Loves Me
Through December 23rd
The Greater Boston Stage Company
Stoneham, Ma

Words That Sparkle

Tartuffe At The Huntington

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

You could sit through the current production of Moliere’s Tartuffe now playing at the Huntington Theater with your eyes closed and have a wonderful evening. Open your eyes and the experience is sublime.

…a fast paced feast of words that never lags, not for even moment.

Director Peter DuBois chose to use a new translation by Ranjit Bolt which is all in verse, done in octameter (eight syllables per line), with rhymed couplets. The result is a fast paced feast of words that never lags, not for even moment.

The play, set in a Manhattan style terraced apartment with Louis XVI furnishings, is about family patriarch Orgon (Frank Wood) who is conned by the religious charlatan Tartuffe (Brett Gelman). All around him are able to see through Tartuffe but none can convince him of what is happening. The opening scene sets the tone where Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), the outspoken servant and truth teller, is reporting to Orgon on what has happened at home while he was away. To Dorine’s frustration, all he wants to know about is Tartuffe. Ms Pfitsch is very strong in her role and never misses a beat.

Frank Wood (Orgon) and Brett Gelman (Tartuffe)
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

While Tartuffe is often described as a hypocrite, preaching fealty to God while trying to bed down his follower’s wife and steal his fortune, he is “a rare trickster” who has no convictions to be unfaithful to. He is fully aware of all he is doing and has carefully planned out his plot. Orgon’s weakness is his own hypocrisy. He has supposedly become a man of the Lord while now turning his back on his family, so much so that he is giveing his home over to Tartuffe and even promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to him. He also remains blind to the advances his idol is making towards his wife Elmire (Melissa Miller).

Brett Gelman’s Tartuffe is barely seen until late in Act I, but when he does arrive he is impressive. Wearing a black fez, long coat, and with religious symbols hanging from his neck, he is the picture of phony piety. Though obviously sleazy, he is also very funny as he manipulates Orgon while fending off being exposed by those around him. Frank Wood conveys just enough weakness to be vulnerable to a con man, but at the same time is someone who certainly should know better.

A scene where Orgon is hiding under a table while Tartuffe is attempting to seduce Elmire is sidesplittingly funny. Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman show off their wonderful comedic talent, while Mr. Wood is a positive riot as he is peaking out from under the table.

There is never a dull moment.

The words, the movements, the glances all make this just a joy to watch. The verse keeps them all so well connected and everything just flows. There is never a dull moment.

This play is very, very funny. It is also ironic that with all of the wonderful language, one of the funniest scenes is when Orgon and Elmire’s daughter Mariane (Sarak Oakes Muirhead) is caught in the middle of an argument about her future. Ms Oakes is positively hysterical without saying a word. Her movement about the stage and her facial expressions are simply hilarious.

Paula Plum swings a mean walking stick in the role of Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother. Matthew Bretschneider as Orgon and Elmire’s son Damis is a riot as he is recording the madness on his IPhone. Kate Elinoff is not on stage for long, but she manages to get a couple of the biggest laughs in the role of Madame Pernelle’s maid. Again, ironically, she does this without saying a word, but her facial expressions are priceless. Matthew J. Harris is solid as Cleante, a voice of reason and calm. Gabriel Brown brings a charm to his role as Valere, Mariane’s fiancee. And be sure to pay attention as Steven Barkhimer’s Laurent ascends the stairs in his religious garb. As Tratuffe’s servant he brings a touch of Marty Feldman’s Igor from Young Frankenstein to the play. The entire cast is just wonderful.

Melissa Miller (Elmire) and Brett Gelman (Tartuffe)
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

The Huntington’s Tartuffe is one not to be missed. While you will be tempted to make the comparisons with what is happening on stage with all of the madness going on the in world, just remember it is still okay to laugh. And, if this play does not have you laughing you have truly lost all sense of humor. It sparkles! I enjoyed every second of Tartuffe, and I am sure you will too. Don’t miss it.

The Huntington Theatre
Through December 10
264 Huntington Ave., Boston