Thursday, October 28, 2010

Weekend at an English Country Estate: Icing on a Favorite Cake

The song that playwright Sara Montgomery metaphorically sings in her Weekend at an English Country Estate is a familiar one.  The play is a drawing room comedy reminiscent of Noël Coward's Hay Fever or Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story; and while the song may be familiar, it is pitch perfect, proving that sometimes a cover version can be a joy too.

Noël Coward and The Philadelphia Story—not bad comparisons for a playwright's first fully-produced work.

The characters that wander in and gather at the aforementioned English Country Estate may seem standard: the divorced Lord Hightower (Jacques Roy) and Lady Hightower (Elizabeth Neptune) visit their Great House with their children, dysfunctional no doubt from all that inbreeding going on within the British upper class.

One daughter, Evelyn (Alyssa Lott), is quite bookish, and, in the kind of social jibe that keeps Weekend contemporary and off the dusty shelf, is not allowed to call her mother and father Mum or Dad because they prefer to be her friends, not parents.

Another daughter, Athena, is not domesticated. We might even call her feral, in fact; the character seems to have wandered in from the vividly satirical imagination of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. Athena is played with great physical comedy by the playwright herself; it is a physical performance because, with a delightful irony, Athena is mute, stricken by an unfortunate Pomeranian incident long ago. The playwright who has no words is just the kind of subtle joke that elevates Weekend beyond the average farce.

We also have the Lord and Lady's Significant Others: Veronica (Madeleine Maby) and Charles (Charlie Wilson), beautiful young things who have an agenda toward remarriage and its money. Love and lust are in the air as surely as the scent of the beautifully maintained English country garden.

Veronica has a hanger-on, Damon of the hooded eyes (Joe Stipek,) who is the morose foil to all the champagne-induced exuberance around him, and just in case the playwright hasn't poked fun at artistic ambitions enough, let's make him a poet because poets are such an easy target for laughs, and rightfully so, because Damon rhymes Veronica with harmonica.

To accentuate the Upstairs, Downstairs motif, there is Maddox, the communist butler (Mick Lauer), and Mary, the wise Irish maid (Julia Moss), who are the comic Greek chorus, commenting on the melee around them.

Sara Montgomery acknowledges her debt to Coward and to P.G. Wodehouse as well; she doesn't mention The Importance of Being Earnest, perhaps to be modest. It may be unseemly to reference the greatest drawing room comedy of all time, but I will bring it up as one of the reasons why the casting seemed so natural—two of the actors here, Jacques Roy and Madeleine Maby, had been in last year's very fresh and funny Earnest at the Counting Squares Theatre. They, along with Elizabeth Neptune who seemed to be channeling all the best comic timing of Bette Davis, brought the comic tension between the old-timey, as Montgomery calls it, and the absurd, and this is where laughter comes in.

And speaking of laughter, I hadn't heard that much laughter in the theatre in a long time; granted I have just finished up a stint as a juror for an Irish Theatre festival, Irish theatre, generally speaking, being a bit on the serious side, but from the very first line, when Mary opens with "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight," the audience was obviously delighted. From the first line to the standing ovation, Weekend at an English Country Estate was endearing entertainment. We even laughed when a silver strappy sandal, thrown dramatically across the room, took an unexpected bounce and sailed uncomfortably close to our seats. If the shoe hits, laugh at it.

The Ateh Theatre Group presents Weekend at an English Country Estate, directed by Paul Urcioli, playing at the Access Theatre through October 31st.

First published on

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Great Unknown: Take Me To The River

The Great Unknown, having nothing to do with Donald Rumsfeld's foreign policy tenets, is a sweetly earnest history-musical reminiscent of Big River or Shenandoah. With a book by William Hauptman, who incidentally won a Tony for Big River, and music by Jim Wann, who originated the role of Jim in the Tony-nominated Pump Boys and Dinettes, The Great Unknown evokes the nostalgic days of what the American musical was like during those days of the pump boys and the dinettes.

Much like Big River's trip down the Mississippi, The Great Unknown takes a river journey, this time down the Colorado, led by John Wesley Powell, the first modern American geologist and explorer of the Grand Canyon. Tom Hewitt is the distinguished Major Powell, and although there are moments when Mr. Hewitt is over-mic'ed as was most of the cast in the small Theatre at St. Clements performance space, even without a mike, Mr. Hewitt would have the gravitas to be a convincing natural leader.

From left: Edmund Bagnell, Tom Hewitt, Dan Amboyer

In this lesser-known narrative in American history, Major Powell was anointed as the first Secretary of the Interior by President Grant upon Powell's successful trip down the Colorado River and the subsequent exploration of the Grand Canyon. Powell's motivation for the trek, according to The Great Unknown's creative team, was to heal a broken country after the Civil War. Some modern Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms hover over the story as well –Powell needs to heal himself along with the country.

Powell lost an arm in the war between the states, and there is a continuing theme in the story of compensating for the loss of command over his Union troops. The makeshift company Powell builds for his journey becomes a de facto military unit, even though the explorers are representative of the warring factions from Powell's past – the rebel Missouri Rhodes (the perfectly cast Thomas Wesley Stewart) and freed slave Somers (Bobby Dare).

There are also familial reasons for "running away" down the river. Powell had a difficult brother, Walter, who also needed healing from his war: Walter suffers from "invisible wounds" from his Andersonville imprisonment. As Walter, Dan Amboyer has a resonant voice and his character was one of the most fully-sketched of the evening; but, as with many of the allusions in the story of the Powell expedition, the horrors of Andersonville are not fully conveyed. The Colorado River may have been explored, but Walter's emotional burdens are not.

Powell's wife, Emma, assertively played by the charming Kristin Maloney, may deserve a musical of her own. Within the story, Emma is Powell's distant guiding star, but the reality is, or at least reality according to PBS, Emma Powell accompanied her husband on many of his expeditions.

The Great Unknown's music is stronger than its book with lines like "I think he (Powell) might be a great man" or "Who says that God doesn't have a sense of humor." The music is conventional, the strongest number being the opener "Take Me Down the River." Other numbers such as "Natural Man," about the need for soap, are begging for an edit. "Memory Hill" – the showstopper sung by Bobby Dare – might have served better at the top of the evening to establish this lightly sketched character better.

Directed by Don Stephenson, The Great Unknown is worthwhile testimony and a poignant metaphor for a larger story of life no matter what historical period, but the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon. You can't get away from the need for landscape in this narrative, and that is a very hard thing to bring to life on stage. As many times as the characters can tell us that they are overawed by the walls of the Grand Canyon, we have to take their word for it. Perhaps a multi-media approach could help The Great Unknown emerge from its dated feeling. With dancing women with voluminous white petticoats as the Colorado rapids, the choreography brings energy, but not enough to lift the production out of some of its silliness. The show advertises itself as "A New American Musical," but with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson deconstructing the heroic portrait down the street, The Great Unknown doesn't seem new at all.

The Great Unknown, part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, closed October 16. An illustrious feature on the New York City theatre front, this year's NYMF featured 30 productions. One of its alums, Next to Normal, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. NYMF runs through October 17th.

Additional cast: Edmund Bagnell (Oramel Howland), Steven Beckingham (Bill Dunn), Kelli Gautreau (Rachel), Colin Campbell McAdoo (Jacob Hamblin), Joanna Parson (Mother Sara), Celia Mei Rubin (Vashti), Eli Zoller (Risdon Adams). Photographs by Matthew Murphy

First published on

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Dogs of War under Threatening Skies in Queens

The weather itself seemed to help "slip the dogs of war" at a recent performance of Julius Caesar in Long Island City, Queens at the Secret Theatre. The thunder and lightning that dramatically begins scene 3 of Act I resonated in real life beyond the fourth wall all night long, giving the whole evening a disturbed sky outside while inside the political tempest of Shakespeare's tragedy raged.

Under Richard Mazda's direction, the Queens Players present a different kind of Shakespeare even when the current trend is to update and outmaneuver the Bard. "Mark Antony, you're such a tool!," heard from the crowd during the warm-up to the famous eulogy, is not the usual Shakespeare line but not the most unusual feature of this production, the third installment in a "gangland" Shakespeare series. The dress and atmosphere is urban jungle with modern weapons (Mark Antony's "tool" is an ominous baseball bat) and Mad Max-type clothing.

As described by Richard Mazda, who also is the artistic director of the company, this Julius Caesar is offered in an "environmental theatre" format: a very real journey around various areas both inside and outside the Long Island City Performing Arts complex. Scene changes are precipitated by the Soothsayer who leads the audience to the next setting. Even if Caesar will not listen to the warnings of the prophet about the "Ides of March," the audience must follow her admonitions to join her outside in the marketplace or to "watch your head" while we travel down to the conspirators' meeting. After a recent spate of intermissionless hour-and-a-half plays lately, I found this a reinvigorating theatre experience.

To the director's credit, the production doesn't lean heavily on the many renowned quotations that come from this play. In fact, the play heads in the opposite direction—rushing past showstoppers like "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look," and "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." well, you know the rest.

Gil Ron as J.C. himself has all the gravitas and magnetism that the role demands, appearing as a cigar-chomping man of the world after the defeat of Pompey, a little like a gangland Patton. It was an interesting and eventually successful gambit to put Caesar in an archaic white robe amidst all that black leather. The white robe brought an image to mind, aside from being a good backdrop for all the murderous blood: white has an apostolate/sacrifice connotation signifying the rising power that Brutus and Cassius were ultimately helpless to stop. After all, Octavius Caesar (Jonathan Emerson) will succeed Julius Caesar, and the Republic of Rome will be in name only despite the power plays on behalf of representation.

There is a lot of storm and stress during the battles at the end of Julius Caesar, but the irony remains strong and standing: that the murder of Caesar only strengthens the dictatorship.

Julius Caesar is problematic in that the play easily becomes anti-climactic after Mark Antony's speech over Caesar's dead body. The true action of the play is in Mark Antony's ability to turn Rome against Brutus and Cassius, to honor Caesar through revenge. The subsequent battles become then a given. Here, the battle scenes have multi-media energy to combat the expected, but much of the dialogue is lost in the rush of war. The chaos may be realistic but doesn't always make for good theatre.

And while the thunder and lightning outside may have augmented the restless mood of hungry Cassius, the elevated train also drowned out important dialogue, making the outdoor scenes big on atmosphere but short on quotable quotes.

David J. Fink is a thuggishly menacing Mark Antony who doesn't seem capable of putting two words together, rather than one of the most famous examples of reverse psychology in the Western canon. When he urges the Roman crowd that he is only speaking at the funeral to "bury Caesar, not to praise him," his tough, stoic demeanor supports his assertion. Alex Cape is effective as a thinking, conscientious Brutus, his ambivalence apparent. The cast on the whole is both numerous and athletic, rushing headlong into Roman war with enthusiasm.

Additional cast: Kara Addington (Lucilius, Portia), Elizabeth Bernhardt (Metellus Cimber), Sarah Bonner (Portia), Jeffrey Coyne (Cinna the Poet), Jake Cullens (Decius Brutus), Amelia Gonzalez (The Carpenter), Lena Gora (Publius), Bethanne Haft (Varro), Tyrus Holden (Marullus), Kaitlyn McGuire Huczko (Soothsayer), Suzanne Lenz (Calpurnia), Anthony Martinez (Caius Cassius), Joe Mullen (Ligarius), Rachel Pfenninwerth (Casca), Michael Pichardo (3rd citizen), Michelle Pucci (Cinna), Ashley Denise Robinson (Artemdorus), Greer Samuels (Flavius), Tara Mary Schmitt (Stage Manager), Camilla Skoglie (The Cobbler), and Brian Walters (Lucius). Photo by Aaron Ray-Crichton

Originally published on