Category Archives: Theater Reviews

Review: “Once”

“Don’t Be Wastin’ Life 

‘Cause You’re Frightened Of It”


At SpeakEasy Stage Company

Through March 30

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Nile Scott Hawver and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Once, the Tony Award winning musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, is a love story that takes place over five days in Dublin, Ireland. The lead characters are called simply Guy and Girl. The cast is made up primarily of musicians who play their instruments on stage during the performance. This gives a coffeehouse feel to the work.

Guy, played by Nile Scott Hawver, is a singer/songwriter who is despondent after having broken up with his girlfriend. She was the inspiration for his songs, and he has now decided to give up music. 

Girl, an “always serious” Czech pianist, played by MacKenzie Lesser-Roy, sees Guy discard his guitar on the street and approaches him. Guy is put off by her aggressiveness as she pushes him to pick up his instrument. He resists, and then “destiny” steps in.

It turns out Guy repairs Hoovers, as in vacuum cleaners, for a living, and it just happens that Girl has a Hoover in need of repair. This sets the stage for the pretty predictable story that follows.

The two begin to fall in love, but that love will not be able to blossom for a number of reasons; however, they both have much to give to and learn from each other in the time they spend together. Until they met each other they were both stuck, and from each other they have come to understand they cannot remain that way. As Guy says, “Don’t be wastin’ life ‘cause you’re frightened of it”.

Billy Meleady and Kathy St. George With Cast
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Along the way there is much music and many characters, including Guy’s Da (father) and Girl’s mother, Baruska, played by Billy Meleady and Kathy St.George. Girl has a young daughter, Ivonka, who was played by Reagan Gardiner at the performance I attended. Clara Cochran also plays Ivonka in alternating appearances. Add to this a number of Girl’s Czech friends and the local Dubliners and you get some interesting cross cultural interactions. 

While the story is pretty basic and the music is not of the type you will be singing to yourself as you leave the theater, the production is uplifting and enjoyable. Ilyse Robbins has done a splendid job in choreographing the musicians, all of whom are first rate. The set design, mostly brick with wood floors, is warm and welcoming while the lighting accents the colors and frames the actors in a way that keeps them from becoming too large on the small stage of the Robert’s Theatre. It is all splendidly done. 

I want to make special mention of Billy Butler who plays Billy, the owner of a recording studio. Mr. Butler is quick and sharp with some great lines. He is a pugnacious character who has to temper his fighting spirit because he has a bad back. Of course, his back seems fine until he appears ready to fight. I was quite impressed with Mr. Butler’s sharp performance and well timed facial expressions. 

MacKenzie Lesser-Roy and Scott Hawver
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Nile Scott Hawver and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy are charming as Guy and Girl. Both have delightful voices and are accomplished musicians. They convey warmth and understanding in their lines to each other. By the end of the two hour performance you will find you really like both of the characters. 

The rest of the cast are also very good. While most are musicians they also display excellent acting talent and are quite comfortable on the theatrical stage.

This is my first time seeing Once. It was originally an off Broadway work that moved to Broadway. While it had great success there and won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical, I get the feeling it works best in a smaller theatre such as the Robert’s. As I wrote at the beginning, it has a coffeehouse feel to it, and seeing it staged so well on this small stage makes me believe this is how it should be experienced. 

Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Once is a nice story, and The Speakeasy Stage Company production of it is pitch perfect. I doubt it was serendipitous that a love story set in Dublin would happen to arrive on a Boston stage during St. Patricks Day, but it is a nice treat. And get there early as the cast puts on a lively little musical session before the play begins that you won’t want to miss. 

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company

Book By Enda Walsh

Music and Lyric By Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

Directed By Paul Melone 

Choreography by Ilyse Robbins

Through March 30

SpeakEasy Production Company

Calderwood Pavillion, South End, Boston


What Are We Without The Memories?

The Heath

By Lauren Gunderson

Directed By Sean Daniels 

Through March 10

Merrimack Repertory Theatre


Reviewed By Bobby Franklin

George Judy and Miranda Barnett
Photo by Meghan Moore

In The Heath, author Lauren Gunderson tells the story of her Paw Paw’s (grandfather) withdrawal from life due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also the story about the regrets she has in not having gotten to know him better. Using scenes from King Lear as well as playing the banjo and singing, we are presented with an original and fascinating look at life and aging.

Miranda Barnett plays Lauren and does so with complexity and depth. Lauren is filled with regret for not having had more conversations with her Paw Paw whose name is KD, and struggles to understand what has happened by reading King Lear. The set is split between a home and a heath. George Judge in the role of KD as well as Lear is touching, warm, and powerful. His voice shifts from a Southern accent to a naturalistic Shakespearean delivery seamlessly as the scenes move from the dialog between Lauren and KD to out on the heath as we watch Lear’s descent into madness. 

George Judy
Photo by Seaghan McKay

While we often think of Lear as having gone mad, in The Heath we see it as being much more than that. Ms Gunderson shows how the diseases of an aging mind are not madness but a loss of self. She tells us, “They are lost before they are gone”. It is heart wrenching to witness a man who led a full life, who fought in Europe in WWII, raised a family, loved and was loved go to that place where he no longer knows anyone, even himself.

While at times Lauren comes across as self centered, she also does her best to reach out to KD. She learns to play the banjo because she remembered how he loved to listen to the music of Flatt and Scruggs. In addition to portions of some Gospel tunes, Ms Gunderson has also written a number of touching songs for the play. In Let It Be Me she asks “Who are we without the story?” It is the stories, the memories that are stolen from those suffering from dementia. 

This is all pretty heavy stuff, and the realities are not glossed over here. Having said that, the play is not a downer. There is much to smile and laugh about as KD’s life is recounted through conversations with Lauren as well as projections onto the back of the set. She learns from going through old letters that her Paw Paw called her grandmother Sugar Babe. She remembers watching Atlanta Braves baseball games together and the fun they had. They also had some interesting conversations about religion, a topic they didn’t exactly see eye to eye on. Those differences lead to some funny exchanges between the pair.

George Judy and Miranda Barnett
Photo by Meghan Moore

The scenes where Mr. Judge assumes the role of Lear are stunning. He steps onto the heath and recites his lines which have been framed by KD’s story. In the final storm scene from Lear, Lauren takes on the part of the Fool, and in creating the last scene with Lear and Cordelia, she is the King’s youngest though she worries she may have been more like Goneril. The sound, the lighting, and the emotions are a theatre experience to remember. Ms Barnett and Mr. Judge deliver amazing performances on the MRT stage. 

The Heath will touch everyone. It is a reminder that none of us gets out of life without suffering. That no matter how hard we try we will have regrets. It also tells us that our lives are filled with meaning and love, and it is up to us to strive to understand the gift we are given. 

Don’t be afraid of the subject matter. You will be enriched by this story. Our lives are our memories. Throughout the play texts are displayed on the backdrop. One is, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. – Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh”

Don’t miss this production, it will touch you and help you to better understand the journey we are all on. 

Reaching For The Light Without a Net

When Angels Fall

Directed and Choreographed By Raphaelle Boitel

Presented By ArtsEmerson

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

Through February 24

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Raphaelle Boitel describes When Angels Fall as a dystopia. Set some time in the future, the performers emerge from darkness and never speak. Instead, we are left to interpret what is happening by witnessing a combination of aerial acrobatics, dance, and other expressive movements, some as simple as people walking across the stage. This is accompanied by original and very moving music composed by Arthur Bison. Add to all this,  lighting that is used sparsely but oh so effectively and a fog machine that at times gives the feeling that the aerialists are drifting through clouds makes this a captivating work that fascinates and intrigues. 

Ms Boitel’s future is cold. It is a place where human connection is frowned upon if not outright banned. As the work opens a performer is lowered from above to the song A Bicycle Built For Two (Daisy, Daisy). The old tune will be heard again, and in different versions, throughout the production. The reactions of the characters to this simple song of love and togetherness seems at first humorous, but as their confusion and fear shows it is apparent just how far removed they are from being able to understand and feel human connection, and that is where it becomes so very sad. It may be the future, but things have not moved forward. 

Throughout all of this there is one character, a noble savage type, who is looking for more. She is looking for conversation and is looking off stage toward someone or something as she reaches out for connection. 

The use of beams of light cutting through the fog and the darkness gives a feeling that all is not hopeless. The striving to reach up to the light that is expressed through the amazing aerial acrobatics is just astounding. The beauty and danger that are combined touch the emotions as the struggle to be allowed to feel is strongly conveyed. Can she escape and reach the light or will she fall?

In the 70 minutes it lasted, my eyes never left the stage. The movements, the music, the aerial feats were all spellbinding.  The seven performers were perfectly in sync while making it look effortless, which it certainly wasn’t. 

This is the first season I have covered ArtsEmerson, and I have been quite impressed. Artistic Director David Dower has made the unusual the usual under his direction. 

When Angels Fall is only playing until Sunday so don’t hesitate, you won’t want to miss this very original work. The Emerson Cutler Majestic is a beautiful theatre and this is a must see production. It is touching, enthralling, and deeply moving. And if you haven’t guessed by now, I really enjoyed it.

Photos by Sophian and Georges Ridel

Review: “The End Of TV” At ArtsEmerson, Boston


A Warm And Touching Story
Of Two Lives Connecting
Now Playing At ArtsEmerson


The End Of TV
By Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman
Created by Manual Cinema
Through January 27
Emerson Paramount Theater

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo Credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal

If you were to just sit and listen to the original music and lyrics composed by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter that accompanies The End Of TV, that alone would be a pleasurable experience. But having that music along with the story that grew from it makes for an incredible evening of theatre.

Now being presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center in Boston and created by Manual Cinema, The End Of TV is certainly one of the most original works you will see this season. Combining that sublime score with visual effects that include shadow puppets, overhead projectors, actors performing in silhouette, and a touching and moving story, it leaves you with 75 minutes of theatre that is deeply moving.

The story, set during the 1990s in the Rust Belt, focuses on Flo (Kara Davidson), a retired factory worker who spends her days watching home shopping channels on her TV, and Louise (Sharaina L. Turnage), a recently laid off factory worker who has taken a job working for Meals On Wheels. Flo is slipping into dementia and her world is her television set. Louise is working to reinvent her life.

Photo Credit:Judy Sirota Rosenthal

Louise meets Flo while delivering meals to her, and at first their contact is brief, limited to the time it takes Louise to drop off Flo’s dinners. The two actors have no lines and are seen in silhouette projections on a screen hanging above the stage. The audience can see what is going on behind the scenes as the actors work in front of backdrop where their actions are captured and projected onto the overhead screen. The story is told with these images along with shadow puppets and scenes from television. It is remarkable to see the large array of emotions and expressions that are conveyed by the actors’ body movements. The lack of dialog and facial expressions actually enhances the emotional effect. A simple wave of the hand as a greeting gives the sense of connection that is building between the two women. It is fascinating to watch.

The only dialog is from the actors portraying the people from the home shopping channel and 1990’s TV programs who are also projected onto the screen. There are even appearances by the Jolly Green Giant. The five piece orchestra is on stage throughout the performance. The sound from a television can be heard throughout giving us the feeling of what it is like to be living in Flo’s world.

We also learn about Flo and Louise through flashbacks. Flo had worked in the factory during WW II. It appears it is the same factory Louise was laid off from. Both have had ordeals to overcome, and I was struck by the quiet strength of each.

The bond that grows between the two during the brief visits by Louise shows how important even a simple gesture of kindness can be. The fact that this is being done through silhouettes and without words makes it all the more touching.

Photo Credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal

Discussing the subject of aging and the onset of dementia can make people very uncomfortable in today’s society. Not so in The End Of TV. There is a raw honesty to this work that allows us to watch and understand what happens in life as the aging process sets in. Seeing how much simple acts of kindness can mean to a person shows the importance of being connected to one another. And this is not just about what Louise does for Flo, but it also how Louise finds strength and hope in communicating with Flo.

While dealing with sad topics, this is not a sad play; It is heart touching and hopeful. The use of shadow puppets interspersed with the actors give it a childlike innocence that helps to simplify the complexities of the story. The warmth that comes from witnessing Flo and Louise connecting serves to remind us of our capacity for kindness and understanding, something that we tend to lose touch with in this fast paced world. There is so much to be given to and learned from one another. In my mind I still have the image of Flo and Louise gently waving to one another, so simple yet so very moving.

After the performance, the audience is invited onto the stage to speak with the actors and to see how it was all done.

Creative, unique, fascinating, humorous and touching, this is a work that will capture your heart. The End Of TV is one of the high points in a very rich Boston theatre season. It is a beautiful work and I highly recommend it.

For more information:

Review: “Small Mouth Sounds” SpeakEasy Stage Company

Silence Is Golden With

Small Mouth Sounds

At SpeakEasy Stage

Review by Bobby Franklin

Cast Of Small Mouth Sounds
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Studios)

As Bess Wohl’s unique play Small Mouth Sounds now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage begins, six people arrive at a resort in the country for a “silence retreat”. The set is a yoga studio with a small platform toward the rear with six chairs. As each participant arrives they take a yoga mat and find some space on the floor. With the exception of two friends who arrived together, they have never met before. There is some dialog at first, but then the “Teacher”  who remains unseen throughout the play speaks to them via a speaker. They are given a list of rules that include no talking for the time they are there. This makes for an original, funny, and touching play. Her telling of the Frog Parable is a riot.

With few exceptions, the actors perform without speaking a word. They do not do mime, but rather resort to doing what we all would do; they improvise ways of communicating without speaking. At times this is like being in a country where you don’t speak the language and are asking for directions. Beyond that, they also convey emotions with body language and facial expressions, some are extremely funny, others very touching. 

Ned (Nael Nacer) and Rodney (Sam Simahk)
Photo Credit: Nile Scott Studios)

Watching as they struggle to at first overcome the awkwardness of sharing space with strangers, something that goes with gatherings such as this, while not being allowed to communicate is a bit uncomfortable. It is something we have all had to deal with at one time or another, though usually not with the restriction on speaking. Of course, awkwardness does make for funny moments. Angry, puzzled, and inquiring looks are exchanged. The personalities of the characters are quickly revealed, while the emotional suffering that brought each one there is not brought out until much later.

Ironically, the one character with  the most lines, the Teacher (Marianna Bassham) remains unseen. The tone of her voice moves from New Age guru to prison warden to frustration and emotional pain throughout the play. The one who is there to teach how to deal with inner turmoil has much of her own.

The name of only one of the six characters was revealed in the course of the play, but they are all named in the program. There is Ned (Nael Nacer) who never takes his hat off, there is a reason for this that is part of his story, Joan (Kerry A. Dowling) and Judy (Celeste Oliva) who have come together and are dealing with stress to their friendship/relationship. Jan (Barlow Anderson) who at first doesn’t appear to be suffering, Rodney (Sam Simahk) a Youtube yoga celebrity who is going through relationship issues, and Alicia (Gigi Watson) who is young and vulnerable while dealing with a breakup. It is quite remarkable to witness how each is able to convey so much about their character while not speaking. There is a particularly touching moment when Jan reveals to Judy the reason for his suffering. He does this with one simple gesture and yet it is incredibly moving. 

The entire cast is excellent while Nael Nacer is just wonderful with his many facial expressions and body movements. I would describe him as a clown in the best definition of the term in that he gives such a broad array of emotions while not speaking. His performance is top notch, and while not speaking, he is also the one character outside of the Teacher, who does have a scene where he speaks to some extent. It is a revealing talk about what brought him to the retreat. 

There is much that is funny in Small Mouth Sounds as well as much that gives reason to reflect.

There is much that is funny in Small Mouth Sounds as well as much that gives reason to reflect. The idea of taking an extended period of time away from distractions such as our electronic devices as well as not being allowed to communicate verbally is really quite a daunting thought in our 24/7 social media world. While there is much to laugh at in the play, I sense that to a certain degree the audience laughter comes from their own feelings of discomfort with the silence. 

While Small Mouth Sounds is somewhat of a parody of New Age style retreats, it is also a reminder that maybe we should spend more time in quiet thought and accept that we can be comfortable with ourselves while facing our inner pain.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara must have felt it a challenge to direct a work that relies almost entirely on body language, but she pulls it all together. Whether you are comfortable sitting in the lotus position on a yoga mat or think this sort of stuff is only for granola eating Cambridge types, you will enjoy this play. By the conclusion you will not be able to help yourself from doing some self reflection. You’ll also be smiling and glad you saw moving and thoughtful play. 

Small Mouth Sounds 

Through February 2

SpeakEasy Stage Company

Calderwood Pavillion

527 Tremont Street

Boston’s South End


Review: “Breath & Imagination” At The Lyric Stage In Boston

“Things Being Hard Don’t 

Give You The Right To 

Give Up”

Breathe & Imagination

The Story Of Roland Hayes

By Daniel Beaty

Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent

Through December 23 

Lyric Stage and The Front Porch Arts Collective

Copley Square, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Asher Denburg and Devron S. Monroe
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

While Roland Hayes is well known and highly admired in the world of classical music, it is surprising and regretful that he is not better known by the general public. His story of determination, talent, and belief in himself is inspiring to say the least. In a time when we are sorely lacking in role models, you won’t go wrong looking back to Roland Hayes as an example of how to live one’s life. Breath & Imagination now playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston brings us his story and music. I hope it also makes more people aware of this very important man who spent much of his life living in Brookline, MA while also teaching and performing in Boston.

Davron S. Monroe plays Mr. Hayes in this 90 minute production that is filled with music both spiritual and classical. The cast is small and the play is intimate with Mr. Monroe being accompanied by Asher Denburg on the piano. Mr. Denburg is also the Music Director. Doug Gerber plays Mr. Calhoun, Roland Hayes’s first voice teacher. Nile Scott Hawver takes on a number of other parts that include Miss Robinson, a voice teacher, as well as the King of England. 

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

The play revolves around the relationship between Hayes and his mother Angel Mo played by Yewande Odetoyinbo. Roland’s father died when he was young, but we learn from his off stage voice (Nile Scott Hawver) how he influenced his son by talking him for walks in the woods while teaching him how to listen for the sounds of nature and to try to mimic them. This is where the young Hayes first became enthralled with what he could do with his voice.

Angel Mo encouraged him to develop his voice hoping he would use this “gift from God” to become a preacher. Roland had other ideas. After hearing a recording of Enrico Caruso, the young man wanted to became a classical singer. This put him at odds with his mother. Watching the story unfold, while both Mr. Monroe and Ms Odetoyinbo fill the theatre with their beautiful voices,touched my heart. Both actors play their characters over the course of many years, and the transition from youth to old age is flawless. 

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

Roland Hayes was the grandson of slaves. He was stepping into a world that was not exactly welcoming to African Americans. At times he became discouraged. At one point he wanted to quit. In a moving scene he sings “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. It is here, when Hayes wants to pack it all in that Angle Mo says to him “Things being hard don’t give you the right to give up”. It’s tempting to call this “tough love’, but it’s not tough, rather it is  a strong and loving mother who believes in her son and knows he can succeed. He may not be fulfilling her wish of becoming a preacher, but he is using his God given gift to do much good. It is scenes like this that make this play so inspiring.

Breath & Imagination is not a detailed account of the life of Roland Hayes. What it does is give us good overview of his struggles, his doubts, his steadfastness, and his belief in himself. There were many times when that belief was shaken, but this was Angel Mo’s son, and he was not going to give up.

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

The music that fills the Lyric Stage Theater is very special. Ms Odetoyinbo and Mr. Monroe are both excellent actors, and they are actors who can sing, and sing magnificently. I was deeply moved by both of them, as I was by this production. Listening to Angel Mo, as her days are winding down, singing “When I’m Gone” is both sad and joyful. Ms Odetoyinbo was very impressive. She is young but you would swear she has been at this for decades. She plays a very strong woman in Angel Mo while giving her character the deeply loving heart that makes us wish we all had an Angel Mo in our lives. The lucky ones do.

Davron S. Monroe was last seen at the Lyric in The Wiz. After seeing him in Breath & Imagination, I can’t sing his praises high enough. From the spirituals to the magnificent classical pieces, his voice comes to us from deep within his heart. In the time of Roland Hayes people were denied the opportunity to develop their talents all because of the color of their skin. Roland Hayes played a big part in changing that when it came to music. Mr. Monroe honors his great legacy by lending his talent to tell us that story. He also gives us the joy of music along with the lessons to be learned from this great man’s life.

Breath & Imagination is a must see. It will move you and I certainly hope it will bring the life of Roland Hayes to more people. The Lyric Stage is filled with music and love, take part in it. 617.585.5678

Review: “Man In The Ring” At The Huntington

A Compelling And Intense 

Life Story Of Emile Griffith 

At The Huntington

Man In The Ring

By Michael Cristofer

Directed by Michael Greif

Through December 22

The Huntington Theatre Company


Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson
(Photo: T. Charles Erikson)

I was apprehensive when going to see Man In The Ring. The play by Michael Cristofer recounts the life of six time world boxing champion Emile Griffith. Mr. Cristofer had not even heard of Griffith until being asked to write the libretto for an opera about the former champ. That experience led to him writing the play. Given that, I thought this could turn out to be a real mess. 

I felt there was so much he would get wrong.  Boxing is a complicated, dark, and emotional sport. Emile Griffith’s life story is a complex one that is filled with many contradictions along with much success and terrible tragedy. There are a number of different parts of his life that could have dominated this work, but Mr. Cristofer has done a masterful job of giving us a complete and honest portrait of Griffith’s life. 

The fact that Mr. Cristofer did not have previous knowledge of Emile Griffith has proven to be an asset when it comes to telling the story. He comes to it with a blank slate and gets all of it right. Along with writing theatre reviews, I have also been a boxing writer for a number of years, as well as having spent a lifetime around the sport. If anyone would be sitting in a theatre looking for flaws in the story it would be me. It turns out I would have to dig pretty deep to point out any mistakes here. I was very impressed, and I am not easily impressed by boxing dramatizations.

Emile Griffith is played by two actors. Kyle Vincent Terry is the young Emile while John Douglas Thompson is Griffith in his later years, when the effects of the punches he took have begun to appear in what was known as Dementia Pugilistica, today as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Both actors appear on the stage together throughout most of the play, with the older Emile looking back on his youthful self while reflecting on the choices he made. It is fascinating watching the story unfold in this manner. There are times when the two have exchanges. 

John Douglas Thompson
Photo: (T. Charles Erickson)

John Douglas Thompson is among the finest stage actors performing today, and it is uncanny how he captures Griffith in the years when his mind is beginning to fade. In scenes that are both funny and tragic the effects of the dementia as it progresses are brought to the audience. One such moment occurs when Luis (Victor Almanzar), Emile’s lover and now caretaker brings him his shoe which ended up in the refrigerator. The exchange between the two is quite funny but also very sad. 

Kyle Vincent Terry’s young Emile is filled with the positivity and optimism that was Griffith (“Always hang your hat higher than you can reach”). The magnificently built immigrant from St.Thomas arrived in New York City to join his mother. He decided to come to the States to make it as a baseball player and/or singer. He also had quite a knack for making lady’s hats. This led him to a job with a fellow named Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), a once aspiring boxer who now runs a millenary business. He was immediately taken by Griffith’s physique and talked him into taking up boxing. Mr. Terry really impressed me as Emile. As they would say in boxing “You got what it takes kid’, and he sure does.

Gordon Clapp and Kyle Vincent Terry
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boxing fans will notice the absence of Emile’s trainer Gil Clancy in the play. This is not an oversight, the author has rolled Clancy and Albert into one character. It works very well. Mr. Cristofer also, and I am not sure if this is intentional, shows how poorly Griffith was managed at the beginning of his career. Emile is what is known as a “survivor” in boxing. His was repeatedly thrown in with opponents who were far ahead of him in experience yet still managed to win. Albert didn’t develop a great fighter, he got lucky. Emile had incredible natural talent and a head for boxing. He was mostly self taught.

Kyle Vincent Terry and Cast
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Griffith’s bisexuality was always an open secret in boxing and could have dominated this play. It certainly and rightly is a major part of the story, and Emile’s ambiguity about it is shown. His lifestyle was rarely if ever publicly discussed, that is until the weigh-in for his third fight with Welterweight Champion Benny “Kid” Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson). The scene is staged with an emotional intensity that reaches out to the back rows of the theater. Paret’s shouting “Maricon” (a Spanish slur for a gay man) at Emile caused the lighthearted challenger to lose his temper. 

What occurs next is seared into the memories of older boxing fans. In the fight which was broadcast live on nationwide television, Griffith unleashed a vicious beating on Paret while knocking him senseless. Paret would die ten days later. I have read that an earlier production of this play had trouble staging this scene. Director Michael Grief along with fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet pull it off brilliantly. Using a revolving boxing ring, a tall projection screen showing footage from the actual fight, as well as using stop action effects with flash bulbs going off brings that terrible event vividly to life. Paret’s wife Lucia (Carla Martina), standing above and to the side of the action tells us what was going on with Benny before the fight. Lucia is joined by Emile’s mother Emelda (Krystal Joy Brown) and Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro (Eliseo Gatta) in giving all the background that led up to this tragic outcome. They make it clear Paret never should have been in the ring that night. It is very, very powerful. Whether or not you are a boxing fan, you do not want to miss this.

There is music throughout the play. Caribbean children’s songs are sung by the actors accompanied by two musicians. It is not a musical, but the music is an integral part of the play, and just wonderful.

CastOf Man In The Ring
)Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Man In The Ring is a complex work about a paradoxical man. Emile was a fun loving gentle man in the most violent of professions. A man who spent much time at gay bars while participating in the manliest of sports (this was at a time when being gay was equated with being a “sissie”). He was deeply effected by the death of Paret yet kept fighting for years after, though it was apparent he no longer fought with the same intensity.

As the play nears its conclusion we see Emile, now deeply suffering the effects of CTE, being brought to meet with Benny Paret’s son in a park. Emile is confused but the moment is touching. Young Paret, Luis, and Griffith are all involved in trying to make sense out of what happened. 

As a boxing historian I found so much in this play. The accuracy is just stunning. Mr. Cristofer not only did incredible research, but he also understands the subject.This is very impressive for a boxing “civilian”.

As a play reviewer, I saw an amazing work of theatre. This can be called a boxing play, and boxing fans should definitely see it. It is an important piece of work that should be added to the great literature on boxing. 

Beyond being a great boxing play, Man In The Ring is amazing theatre. It is impressive how much is covered in just 110 minutes. The entire cast and production team are nothing short of outstanding. It would be foolish to miss any work with John Douglas Thompson in it, but this work is solid from top to bottom.  

You might think I am giving this high praise because of my boxing background. If anything, my knowledge of the subject would have been more likely to have caused me to go negative. The fact that Mr. Cristofer was able to impress me speaks very well to this play. I brought an extra critical eye to the Huntington on the evening I saw Man In The Ring. I can assure you, you will not be disappointed in this play. It is a great boxing story, it is a great human story, it is great theatre. I highly recommend Man In The Ring. 617.266.0800

Review: “Fun Home” at SpeakEasy Stage

Fun Home

At SpeakEasy Stage

Is First Rate

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Three Alisons (Marissa Simeqi, Ellie van Amerongen, and Amy Jo Jackson)
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The musical Fun Home now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage Company is deeply moving and complex. Based on the graphic memoir of the same title by Alison Bechdel, it tells the story of of Ms Bechdel’s childhood and her coming out as a lesbian while in college. However, this is not a story simply about a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. It is much more complicated than that. In reality, her coming out is not the center of the story. 

The play opens in, what seems to be, the happy home of the Bechdels (Welcome To Our House on Maple Avenue). Alison’s father, Bruce (Todd Yard), is an English teacher as well as a director of a funeral home. The title of the play is taken from the shortened and more enjoyable name the Bechdel children use for the family business. Alison has two brothers, Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold).

Alison is played by three actors depicting her at different ages. There is Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), and present day Alison (Amy Jo Jackson). The play does not follow a chronological order, but rather follows the present day Alison as she looks back on events in her life while drawing cartoons as she relives the various times. Much of the time she is sitting at a writing desk or standing off to the side looking on and drawing as her memories are played out by the others. She makes comments as she observes. I found this very effective as it is common for people to look back on their lives as if they are witnessing a play or a movie. Trying to figure it all out can get complicated, and this story is no different when it comes to complications.

Marissa Simeqi (Small Alison)and Todd Yard (Bruce)Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Those complications are not so much in Alison’s coming to grips with her own sexual identity, she does quite well with that, but more with her father’s having to deal with his. It turns out Bruce is gay and has never come out. He has gotten into trouble for “procuring alcohol for underage boys”. Tyler Simahk, last seen at SpeakEasy in Allegiance plays multiple roles as the young men Bruce procures beer for. He is also somewhat controlling, not abusive, of his children, and it is easy to gather that controlling behavior is reflective of his attempts to control his own behavior. It is painful to watch him struggle. 

In the song Maps Alison talks about drawing maps of the neighborhood as a child. At one point she says about her father “I can draw a circle, his whole life fits inside”. That line had me thinking of how trapped Bruce must have felt. 

Bruce eventually killed himself by stepping in front of a truck. This was not long after Alison came out, and she says “My beginning would be your end”. These words are powerful as they so strongly convey the torment in not being able to live who you are openly. Alison was fortunate, though it still wasn’t easy, to have come of age in a time when she could find support and acceptance. Bruce had to live his life in the shadows and with guilt and anger that was turned within.

One of the most powerful moments in the play is when Alison’s mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) sings Days and Days:

Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue
See how we polish and we shine
We rearrange and realign
Everything is balanced and serene
Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”

In which she laments her life, feeling she wasted it in attempting to be the good wife.”

 She advises Alison: 

“Don’t you come back here

I didn’t raise you

To give away your days

Like me.”

The song is strong and delivers the message of how living lies is painful to all involved. Fortunately, Alison has learned that difficult lesson.

Helen (Laura Marie Duncan)Photo: Nile Scott Studios

While this story is one that involves much struggle and pain, it also has its happy moments. Although Bruce was in much pain and controlling, he was also a loving father. The children loved him and Helen, as well as each other. The song Come To Fun Home is a rousing number sung by the three siblings as they pretend to make a commercial for the funeral home. It is somewhat of a cross  between the Osmands and the Jackson Five, and all much fun. Marissa Simeqi, Cameron Levesque, and Luke Gold bring the house down while dancing around a casket, and taking turns singing into a can of Pledge used as a microphone. 

Desire Graham plays Joan, the understanding, though edgy, friend Alison makes on campus and who eventually becomes her lover. Joan may be a bit tough but she is kind, and just the supporting figure Alison needed 

Amy Jo Jackson in her role as present day Alison comes across as thoughtful and wise. It is interesting watch her expressions as she observes and begins to understand her life as it evolved  Often, when looking back we see ourselves with a more sympathetic eye. It is good when we can cast that view onto our present day selves. We can learn that from Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Music Direction by Matthew Stern

Through November 24 at the Calderwood Pavillon

527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston


Review: Measure For Measure Presented by ArtsEmerson

“Measure For Measure”

At ArtsEmerson

Is Not A Problem

William Shakespeare’s  Measure For Measure is considered his first problem play. The production now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre presents only one problem. It is here for only six performances, and a few of those performances are competing with the Red Sox in the World Series. This is too bad as the play, which is a collaboration by London’s Cheek By Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan, and with a cast that speaks entirely in Russian (there are subtitles), is as interesting a production of one of Shakespeare’s works as you will see.

Set on a nearly bare stage with five large red boxes lining it, and an array of hanging lights of the type you might see in an industrial building, the starkness takes on a full life as the cast of thirteen enter and begin this story of power, the fairness and abuse of authority, hypocrisy, and conflicting principles. It is one of Shakespeare’s least performed, yet most moving works.

And yes, I wrote it is performed entirely in Russian, which may seem offsetting to some who can’t imagine seeing the works of the Bard performed in anything other than the original verse. However, I am here to tell you it works wonderfully when performed this way. There is definitely a synergy   when Russian actors take on Will Shakespeare. 

Interestingly, two of the most widely acclaimed film versions of King Lear and Hamlet were produced by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, so this mix is not new. 

As the play begins the cast moves about the stage in a tight group without uttering a line. It is a device that is used to varying extents throughout the play as the crowd, in different sizes serves as witnesses, or perhaps a conscience, to and for the main characters. 

Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) is played as a mousy bureaucrat who is given power by the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev), in the classic ambivalent role.

Anna Vardevanian’s Isabella is very interesting in that she gives us a more fragile and complex reading then I have seen before. Her “Man proud man” speech when confronting Angelo over his lack of compassion when enforcing the law is spoken more in mockery than anger. I found this to be very effective. Her facial expressions are priceless, especially in the closing scenes. 

There is much more to be said for this very talented cast, but time grows short, and you really should be making plans to see this Measure For Measure. It is a timely work that will have you reflecting on how power is wielded and what happens when people are too rigid and hypocritical when ruling over others. Of course there is much more to it, but you should really see for yourself. I highly recommend you do.

This is a unique and fast moving production that should not be missed. ArtsEmerson is giving Boston theatre goers a gift. Accept and enjoy it.

Measure For Measure

Cheek By Jowl and Pushkin Theatre

Presented by ArtsEmerson

At The Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre

219 Tremont Street, Boston

Through October 28

tickets [at] artsemerson [dot] org | 617.824.8400

Photos by Johan Persson

Within This Wooden O

Hartford Stage’s 

Henry V 

In The Round

Henry V

Through November 11

The Hartford Stage 

50 Church Street

Hartford CT

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The cast of Henry V

As the Chorus (Peter Francis James) sets the scene at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V now playing at the Hartford Stage, the audience is reminded that what they are about to see is all illusion. He asks that those in the theater use their imagination in order to see the story about to unfold.

Director Elizabeth Williamson has chosen to set this production in the round with very few props and effects. Other than a couple of tables and chairs, a few guns and knives, costumes that are not period specific, subtle lighting, a minimum of sound effects, and a floor that has a map inlaid in it, the rest is left to the actors, the language, and yes, the imagination. And it is Shakespeare’s language in the hands of the actors that makes the story  so vivid. 

Peter Francis James as the Chorus

Peter Francis James fills the theater with anticipation with his exciting opening monologue that invites all who are there to participate in the  events about to unfold. His rich and enthusiastic voice does indeed get the “imaginary forces” working. Throughout the play he returns to carry us along and set the upcoming scenes. It is a pleasure to listen to him.

Henry V is played by Stephen Louis Grush and he faces the challenge of reciting some of the Bard’s most rousing speeches, many of which will be familiar to the audience, such as The St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. His battle cry (Once more unto the breech dear friends…) during the siege of Harfleur is  somewhat drowned out by sound effects at first, which is odd since they are so little used, but is still rousing as the noise fades and the words are heard. Mr. Grush sometimes appears a bit uncomfortable but settles down as he allows the words to flow from his mouth. He will only get better during this run.

Miles Anderson (Pistol)

Miles Anderson as Pistol (he also plays the Bishop of Ely) almost steals the show and his interactions with Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Bardolph (Liam Craig), and Fleuellen (Baron Vaughn) are comic and touching. The almost knife fight between Nym and Pistol is a memorable scene that had the audience laughing while it revealed the character of the two participants. Mr. Vaughn also takes on the part of Nell Quickly and is campy and quite funny.

Director Willamson’s decision to set this in the round was a wise choice as Henry V fits well into this setting. As the actors turn about the stage addressing each other, they are also speaking to the audience. It adds an intimacy that gives the work more emotional power.

Felicity Jones Latta (Alice), Evelyn Spahr (Katherine)

Watching Katherine (Evelyn Spahr) practicing her English with Alice (Felicity Jones Latta) while moving about the stage is quite charming. Ms Spahr also plays Boy and Lord Scroop. Her Boy is innocent and yet insightful. Her Katherine is tender yet smart.

I feel I must mention Peter Francis James again. Mr. James’s Chorus paces his speeches perfectly and, without overreaching, brings a depth of excitement to the swelling scenes.

Now, since this is Henry V and we are asked to use our imagination, I beg to indulge for just a moment. During the Battle of Agincourt while the sound of machine guns were used for effect, my mind went to the swoosh of arrows being let loose from the long bows that were so effectively used to defeat the French. I think it would have been very effective here as well.

I make it a point to travel to the Hartford Stage each year to see their productions of the works of William Shakespeare. They are among the best staged anywhere. While this year’s work is a bit uneven, I thought the scenes in the French Court were stiff, it is still a worthy production not to be missed. 

Liam Craig (Bardolph), Felicity Jones Latta (Nym)

If you are among those who sometimes believe William Shakespeare wrote in a foreign language, lay your fears aside. While the text is untouched, the focus given the words and the clarity with which they are spoken here will leave you fully engaged. This is an excellent reason to make the trip to Hartford. You will leave the theatre feeling comfortable with the language of Shakespeare and glad you have seen these few, these happy few perform. 

All photos by T. Charles Erickson