Talkin’ Broadway: The Old Man and the Sea

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Richard McElvain

Hemingway’s classic novella The Old Man and the Sea is a timeless story of determination and struggle, keeping readers on the edge of their seats wondering who will win in a battle of wills – the old man, or the sea? Weylin Symes’ new stage adaptation of the piece retains the plot of the book – Santiago (Richard McElvain), determined to end his recent spate of bad luck, sails out into deeper water and battles to hold on to a large marlin – but somehow manages to lose the story of struggle along the way.

The major obstacle in dramatizing the piece is its setting. Most of the original takes place in a boat, on the open water, exploring the inner workings of Santiago’s mind as he struggles with his adversary, the marlin. Rather than attempting to embody the fish or portray the fight, Symes has reframed the narrative, which we now encounter as the fisherman’s young protégé, Manolin (Nicholas Carter), coerces an exhausted Santiago to recount his recent adventure on the sea. This conceit undermines the drama of the original – seeing Santiago animatedly recount his adventure; there is no question of whether or not he will make it back from his battle with the fish. Here he is. However, McElvain and director Greg Smucker find a new dramatic question. Rather than asking will Santiago make it back in one piece, they confront us with an excitable, rambling, and perhaps broken man and challenge us to ask did Santiago actually make it back in one piece?

McElvain’s performance is no less than a tour de force. He transforms his monologues into fully realized plays in miniature, whispering and yelling, all the while making full use of his body to reenact encounters with weather, sharks, and that darn marlin without ever letting us forget that it’s an old, battered man recounting what may be his last great conquest. Carter is given much less to do, becoming something between a plot device and a costumed stage hand for most of the show, prompting Santiago to tell his next story whenever it’s appropriate, but mostly moving large props around to assist Santiago’s storytelling. Still, this young actor makes the most of his material, staying in the moment as Santiago tells his tales.

The story-telling aspect of the play is helped considerably by a skilled design team. Richard Chambers has built the sea on stage, imagining a gigantic blue bamboo wave surrounding and overwhelming Santiago’s tiny home. Evocative lighting by Annmarie Duggan and haunting sound cues by David Reffel heighten the transitions from moments shared between Santiago and Manolin to Santiago’s flashbacks. The costumes by Allison Szklarz complete the stage picture perfectly, never once allowing us to doubt that this old man really did the things he claims.

This play, a world premiere as part of the Stoneham Theatre’s Emerging Stages Program, doesn’t fully satisfy, and doesn’t feel quite finished. An uncredited narrator begins the evening and pops in from time to time, interrupting the flow in a way that suggests the playwright – who also happens to be the theatre’s artistic director – ran out of ideas at certain points in his adaptation. And the change in the story’s structure deprives the narrative of a natural place to end, leaving the conclusion somewhat softer than it might be. However, as an evening of theatre, The Old Man and the Sea hardly disappoints.

The Old Man and the Sea is presented by the Stoneham Theatre, 125 Main Street, Stoneham, MA through April 3. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. There is no performance on Easter Sunday, March 27. Tickets are $32 for adults, $27 for seniors, and $16 for students. Tickets are available online or by calling (781) 279-2200. The Stoneham Theatre’s season continues with Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, starring Dick Van Patten, May 5 – 22, 2005.
Photo: Emily Sweet

 

Talkin’ Broadway: Homebody/Kabul

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Tony Kushner’s plays are often mistaken for political statements. Most of his works are set against specific political backdrops, from the Roy Cohn world of Angels in America to the civil rights struggle that sets the stage for Caroline, or ChangeHomebody/Kabul is no different, taking place in London and Afghanistan in 1998 during the reign of the Taliban. However, none of these plays are really about politics any more than Star Wars is about space travel. At the heart of Homebody/Kabul is a family drama that happens to play out in a time and a place when connections between men and women, east and west, were particularly strained. The central drama is not about whether the Taliban was right or wrong, nor is it about the place of women in society – it’s about finding connection. And unfortunately, Boston Theatre Works’ production, directed by artistic director Jason Southerland, could use a lesson or two in connecting.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: John and Jen and blue/orange

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Eric Rubbe and Leigh Barrett in John and Jen

John and Jen, now playing at the Stoneham Theatre, and blue/orange, now at the BCA courtesy of the Zeitgeist Stage Company, are in some ways as different as plays can be: the former an Off-Broadway chamber musical about one woman’s relationship with the men in her life, the latter a British play about the psychiatric examination of a young man claiming to be the son of Idi Amin. And yet, both are intimate three-character plays exploring the question of what makes us the way we are – really, what makes us each crazy.

John and Jen (book and lyrics by Tom Greenwald, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) first surfaced in the mid-1990s at the Goodspeed Opera House, before making its way off-Broadway. The first act tells the story of Jen (Leigh Barrett), who grows from an overprotective older sister to a distant, war-protesting, drug-taking hippie, while her beloved younger brother John (Eric Rubbe) grows into a young soldier in the model of the father Jen tried so hard to protect him from. The second act finds Jen as a single mother, raising her son – also named John, and also played by Eric Rubbe – while trying to hold on to him tight enough to not lose him as she did her brother.

The audience’s acceptance of the play hinges on whether the adult actors’ portrayals of children feel real enough to become a non-issue. The good news is that Eric Rubbe nails the childlike qualities of both of the kids he plays, even as his first-act John ages from infancy to young adulthood. He’s got a real musical-theatre voice that delights equally in the ballads and the comedy numbers. Leigh Barrett has more of a challenge with the earliest stages of her character’s life. Jen is in a tough position at the start of the play, needing to communicate not only her love for John, but also her fear of her abusive father. Unfortunately, the gravity of her situation overshadows any childlike nuance, making her seem more like an adult in a silly dress. The play quickly shifts focus from the kids’ relationship with their dad to their relationship with each other. When this happens, Barrett portrays a teenaged Jen much more believably, and by the time she hits college, it’s hard to remember there were ever quibbles with her performance. By the second act, the actors really hit their stride, which is particularly important as the material becomes more abstract and the direction more nebulous – are mother and child actually appearing on a string of television talk shows, or have we moved into psychological space? Director Scott Edmiston doesn’t give us any clues.

The physical production of the show is clever but problematic. The stage is filled with clothing and trunks and a few furniture pieces, suggesting an attic, or even memory – things that are stored away haphazardly, to be taken out and played with or cast aside at whim. Above the stage hang paintings of the children at different ages, highlighting the closeness of their relationship. But dead center is a giant screen. And on that screen is projected the worst thing to happen to regional theatre in recent memory: the PowerPoint Presentation. The idea of using projections to bring the audience into the 1960s (and later, the 1980s) is a good one. However, the bells and whistles of PowerPoint – the animated comings and goings of the slides and the occasional title in a font that screams out 1990s – create the opposite effect, pulling the audience back into the present. Nobody is helped by Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes, which never quite capture either the age of the characters or the time of the situations.

There is one more element that reminds the audience of the 1960s, and for this we should all be grateful: the singers perform the entire show without microphones. The theatre has fantastic acoustics (and sightlines), and the blending of two excellent voices with the fantastic three-piece band (under the expert direction of Timothy Evans) is worth the price of admission itself.

The Stoneham Theatre should be cheered for choosing a challenging show from Off-Broadway that hasn’t previously been seen in Boston. Despite the 1960s grounding of the work, the story is really a timeless and heart-wrenching exploration of the relationships between siblings and between parents and children. So bring your brother, sister, father or mother – and bring some extra Kleenex.

Steven Barkhimer, Dorian Christian Baucum, Eric Hamel in blue/orange

(l-r) Steven Barkhimer, Dorian Christian Baucum, Eric Hamel in blue/orange

You won’t need Kleenex at the BCA, but bring your thinking cap. The Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Joe Penhall’s blue/orange is tremendously thought provoking, asking the question of whether psychiatric diagnoses are influenced by a cultural divide between patient and doctor. But don’t worry; under the direction of David J. Miller, there are also plenty of laughs in the show, a 2001 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play.

The scenario begins simply: Bruce (Eric Hamel), a young doctor at a teaching hospital, has been examining Christopher (Dorian Christian Baucum) for the past month. Christopher is in the hospital under court order, but his mandatory twenty-eight days are up. Bruce wants to keep him for further diagnosis and treatment. Bruce’s supervisor, Robert (Steven Barkhimer), would rather let Christopher back into society. What begins as a dispute over diagnosis quickly becomes and argument over hospital politics. Before long, Robert reveals he is currently working on research into cross-racial diagnosis and treatment, suggesting that Bruce may be blaming psychosis for some of Christopher’s behavior that is actually quite “normal” on Christopher’s side of the cultural divide.

Miller – credited with both direction and scenic design – keeps the play moving along, with the focus firmly on the words and ideas at stake. For this the audience can be thankful, for the script is full of Briticisms that one needs an extended glossary (or strong powers of deduction) to fully grasp. And yet, even without catching every word, the debate is engaging and engulfing. Throughout the play, members of the audience find themselves switching sides more than once, at times agreeing with Bruce, at times with Robert, in no small part thanks to the charisma Barkhimer and Hamel bring to their roles. The role of Christopher is something between a pawn and a plot device, but Baucum’s performance endows him with a humanity and import that he might not actually deserve.

The strength of the play is also its downfall. There are so many ideas – meaty, worthy ideas, about race, politics, power and more – being discussed and debated, it becomes impossible to find resolution in the situation. Sure, at some point, one of the doctors gets to decide whether Christopher stays in the hospital or not, but by the end of the play, that’s far less relevant than the question of whether or not race and culture affect what we think of as “crazy.” But if you’re looking for the kind of play you will continue to discuss on the ride home (and probably over breakfast the next day, and possibly beyond that), blue/orange may be just what the doctor ordered.

John and Jen runs now through March 6th at the Stoneham Theatre, 125 Main Street, Stoneham, MA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $32 for adults, $27 for seniors, and $16 for students. Tickets are available online or by calling (781) 279-2200. The Stoneham Theatre’s season continues with The Old Man and the Sea March 17 – April 3.

blue/orange runs now through March 5th at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday 2/27 at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25, with discount tickets available for students and seniors for $19.50. Thursdays are “Pay What You Can” performances. Tickets are available online or by calling (617) 933-8600. For more information, visitwww.ZeitgeistStage.com.

The Zeitgeist Stage Company’s season continues with Tooth and Claw, April 29 – May 21.

Talkin’ Broadway: The Sound of Music

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

When I was in high school, my drama teacher absolutely refused to even consider mounting a production of The Sound of Music, claiming that once the movie was made, it was pointless to do the show without the actual Alps in the background, not to mention the unfairness of asking a young actress to compete with the indelible image of Julie Andrews. And surely, approaching a production of The Sound of Music in an age when two generations have been brought up on the classic film must leave many directors asking themselves, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Happily, director Jane Staab at the Wheelock Family Theatre has found the answer in the person of Angela Williams, a Maria so effervescent that by the time the Von Trapp children are introduced, you’ll be saying “Julie Who?”

While both the Boston press and the Talkin’ Broadway chatterati have said much about Maria being played by an African-American woman – even the one-paragraph publicity blurb makes sure to describe Williams as a gospel singer – you will forget it ever mattered once Williams bursts through the doors of the theatre to sing the timeless title song. Fear not – she sings the score with a perfectly appropriate Broadway style, not a single gospel inflection in evidence. But what a voice she has! And what charm! Williams is the real thing, an actress who makes Maria believable without becoming syrupy, a singer who handles the ballads and up-tempos equally as well, and most importantly, a real star presence who nonetheless allows the rest of the ensemble to shine.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Big River and The Wang Center Family Series

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

The Deaf West Theatre production of Big River has been enchanting audiences throughout the country since its initial staging in Los Angeles in 2001, so the production’s current triumph in Boston – the city where the original production of Big River began in 1984 – comes as a surprise to no one.  Sure, there are quibbles to be had with this production:  the contrapuntal sections of the opening number are gone, as is Tom Sawyer’s big solo, “Hand for the Hog”; the production is really too intimate to play a gigantic house like the Wang; most egregiously, the Wang’s notoriously horrible sound system makes everyone sound pre-recorded, although in a production where half of the performers’ voices are provided by actors across the stage, perhaps this effect puts everyone on equal footing.  Quibbles aside, the result is a stirring example of musical theatre at its best.

On a more personal note, I was excited to see Big River‘s return to Boston, because the show’s visit here on her first national tour back in 1986 was my very first trip to see a musical outside of community theatre.  And I was similarly excited to see that much has been done to ensure this production of Big River was similarly suited to serve as an introduction to the theatre for a new generation of youngsters.  Much has been made of the generosity of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation, which has provided a grant to fund the accessibility programs and activities for the tour’s Boston stop, as well as the anonymous donations which have cut ticket prices in half for the entire Boston run.  Let’s hope they start a trend.  There’s a lot more being done in the realm of community outreach by the Wang for this production that also deserves note, namely, their new Family Series.

The Wang Center Family Series, also known as “Artopolis,” kicks off with Big River and continues on with A Year with Frog and ToadThe Little Prince, and Cirque Dreams.  The series brings with it more than a “package discount” for families.  It’s been well-designed to address the needs of theatre-going families.  In addition to the expected performance guides (more on that in a moment), the program is offering kid-friendly talk backs, family-oriented pre-show parties (“so you don’t have to worry about feeding the family between soccer games and curtain times,” to quote their website), backstage tours and more.  Participation in Artopolis does require a $50 “membership,” and while it’s unclear whether those who’ve missed the first production of the season will have the opportunity to join the season-in-progress (and good luck getting a human being on the phone), it’s certainly worth pursuing.

Now, about those performance guides.  If the Big River guide is any indication, this is a series to collect and save.  The twenty-page booklet, prepared by Laura Dougherty on behalf of the Suskind Young at Arts program, goes far beyond the expected plot summery and vocabulary list.  Nearly every page features a “Try This!” sidebar, encouraging young theatergoers to go deeper into issues raised by the play, from the point of dual casting to the influence of American artists on the production design.  Talkin’ Broadway readers will be particularly happy to know there’s an entire page on theatre etiquette, including the best-worded encouragement not to speak during the performance that I’ve ever read.  There’s even an entire page entitled “After The Show” encouraging readers to learn more by visiting a library for books by and about Mark Twain, learning more about Deaf West, or even visiting this very website (although an unfortunate typographical error in our address may prevent too many new readers from following through on that suggestion).  This guide was based on a “Discovery Journal” produced by the Los Angeles organization Performing for Los Angeles Youth (PLAY), and I suspect similar resources will be available at other stops on the tour.  Whether you are a kid, have a kid, or once were a kid, I highly recommend asking an usher to find you one at whatever stop you catch the tour.

Big River at the Wang Theatre, November 16 – 21, 2004, the first in the four-show Wang Center Family Series.  The Family Series continues with A Year With Frog and Toad, January 13 – 16, 2005.

Talkin’ Broadway: Johnny Guitar

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Kathy St. George stars as Vienna with (from left) John Porcaro, Christopher Cook and Drew Poling

Kathy St. George stars as Vienna with (from left) John Porcaro, Christopher Cook and Drew Poling

Do you ever go to the theatre and find yourself entertained, but feeling like something is missing from the experience? Get ready for that old familiar feeling once more, as The SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of last season’s Off-Broadway musical adaptation of the 1950s camp western filmJohnny Guitar. The play, a 2004 Outer Critics Circle Award winner, offers laughs, social commentary and a pleasant score. The script by Nicholas van Hoogstaten is solid, filled with laughs and just as relevant in today’s world of the Patriot Act as the novel and film were in the days of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. All it needs now is a reason for singing.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the songs of Johnny Guitar. There’s just no particular reason for them to be attached to the play. With few exceptions, the songs feel like filler. Many of the songs, which have music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins, with lyrics by Higgins, are first class filler, from the opening number that perfectly captures the style of a 1950s film title song, to the sweetly reflective first act closer, “Welcome Home.” But that doesn’t change the fact that when I wanted to write something nice about the song “In Old Santa Fe,” a lovely ballad from the middle of the first act, I couldn’t find the words to describe the song’s function in the show – because it doesn’t have one. Music Director José Delgado should be commended, however, for making the most out of slight material. The four-piece band perfectly captures the feel of both country western and 1950s doo-wop, and the singers do their best to make up for the lack of relevancy with considerable panache.

If a handful of extraneous (but by no means offensive) songs don’t bother you, there’s a lot to like about the show, particularly in the SpeakEasy’s production, wittily directed by the company’s Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault. The cast is first rate, with particularly sterling performances from Kathy St. George as Vienna, the role originated by Joan Crawford in the film, and Margaret Ann Brady as her nemesis, Emma Small, the Mercedes McCambridge part. St. George perfectly embodies the power and self-consciousness of the saloon owner without belittling the character’s truth beneath the camp. Brady gives in to histrionics as she cackles her way through the show, but as the arch-villain of the piece, she’s allowed. The men are all capable, if a bit interchangeable. Christopher Chew’s Johnny Guitar isn’t so different from his rival for Vienna’s affection, The Dancin’ Kid (Timothy J. Smith), but the show, like the film before it, isn’t really about the men. The supporting cast turn in fine performances, particularly the trio of Christopher Cook, Luke Hawkins, and Drew Poling, who function as a Sons of the Pioneers style back-up group in many of the songs in addition to playing a multitude of supporting characters on both sides of the Vienna/Emma rivalry.

There are clever (and appropriately campy) stage effects, from a tumbling tumbleweed that opens the show to a chandelier that has a couple of tricks on hand. The set, designed by Caleb Wertenbaker, is just cartoonish enough to remind us not to take anything too seriously without looking silly. The costumes, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley, are never quite as fun as the rest of the production, but often mirror the look of the film and certainly serve their purpose. The lighting by James Milkey is somewhat more problematic, often leaving supporting characters or back-up singers in the dark, and trying unsuccessfully to substitute three static spotlights for a much-needed follow spot in the opening number, leaving the lead singer crossing through darkness in the middle of lines. Similarly, the sound design (by Briand Parenteau, with effects by Laura Grace Brown) is uneven, particularly when the lead singers are backed by the vocal trio, and everyone is over-amplified. In a theatre the size of the Roberts, these singers could certainly handle this score without any microphones, and hopefully, as the SpeakEasy gets more used to performing there, unamplified voices will become the trend.

Johnny Guitar in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St in Boston now through December 18th. Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 4 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets range from $30 to $40; $20 student rush available with valid college ID, at the box-office only, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St. or visit one of these websites: www.speakeasystage.com or www.bostontheatrescene.com.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Talkin’ Broadway: The Value of Names

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Fred Robbins and Harold Withee

A young actress wants to change her name to free herself from the burden of being the daughter of a “name” actor. Her father flips out, first because as someone “named” before the House Un-American Affairs Committee, naming carries heavy symbolism for him, and later because the very friend who named him as a communist sympathizer in the fifties takes over the direction of his daughter’s play. Jeffrey Sweet’s The Value of Names, now playing at the Theatre Cooperative in Somerville, has a very simple premise, but a simple presence is all it takes to launch a play of ideas as provocative today as it must have been at its premiere over two decades ago.

The production is minimal. We’re greeted by a realistic set (designed by Gino Ng), a note-perfect rendering of a Malibu patio, circa 1981. The audience is seated on two sides, and the sound of the ocean helps set the scene. When the play begins, Tracy Campbell’s costumes immediately remind us that we’re now in 1981 without being campy, and before we have time to think, we’re launched into an argument between Norma, the actress/daughter played by Nelleke Morse, and her father Benny, brought to life by Harold Withee. As soon as we’re launched into the argument, Norma turns to the audience and addresses us directly, and we immediately become aware of this production’s main liabilities. No, it’s not the questionable technique of breaking the fourth wall – Sweet has kept this to a minimum and uses it wisely. The real problem is that Nelleke Morse’s portrayal of Norma is so flat, it is hard to recognize when she is speaking to the audience and when she is speaking to her father, a problem made worse by the utter lack of lighting cues or any other directorial flourishes. Morse’s poor characterization becomes even more ironic when her new director, Leo (Fred Robbins), shows up to convince her to stay with the production. If Norma’s acting is anywhere near the level of Nelleke Morse’s, Leo should jump at the opportunity to recast his play.

Luckily, Norma leaves the stage for the better part of the evening, allowing Benny and Leo to butt heads and hash out their decades-long grievance. It’s clear from their interaction why these two were friends in their youth, and both actors allow us glimpses into their mutual affection even as Leo defends himself from Benny’s rage. Withee endows Benny with all the charm, and the tics, of a grandfather figure who’s been through enough to have earned the right of irascibility while still being likeable. Robbins’ portrayal of Leo is more stately and restrained, drawing his very physicality from the attitude he took towards the HAUC hearings. When these two finally get to the heart of their dispute, the patio becomes like a boxing ring for the prize fight of morality, but neither Sweet nor director Lesley Chapman is willing to declare a winner. Eventually, the characters make their decisions and go on with their lives, but the play leaves the questions of right and wrong, hurt and healing, lingering for the audience to debate long after the final bow.

The Value of Names at the Theatre Cooperative, 277 Broadway in Somerville, now through December 11th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with 3:00 PM Sunday matinees on November 21st and December 5th. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. “Pay What You Can” performances on November 21st and December 5th. No performances Thanksgiving Weekend. Post-show discussion with playwright Jeffrey Sweet on November 20th and 21st. For tickets or information, visit www.theatrecoop.org.

The Theatre Cooperative eighth season continues in January with The Ritalin Readings: A Festival of Ten Minute Plays, January 7-8, Friday & Saturday at 8 PM. The Coop continues its support of emerging New England playwrights in their sixth-annual ten-minute play festival.

Talkin’ Broadway: Ears on a Beatle

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Michael Kaye and Steven Barkhimer

Sometimes, plays come along at exactly the right time to strike a resonance with current events, adding an extra layer of meaning to the lives of the characters portrayed on stage. Other plays feel as though the author started with the question “How can I write about situation x?” and never quite come to life beyond their topicality. Unfortunately, Mark St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle, now enjoying its Boston premiere at the Lyric Stage, falls into the latter category.

The one-act play focuses on two FBI agents, veteran Howard Ballantine (Steven Barkhimer) and newcomer Daniel McClure (Michael Kaye), assigned to keep tabs on John Lennon in the 1970s. Although based in fact – the actual FBI files on Lennon are reproduced both in the lobby and the program book to drive this home – the story of the two agents is entirely St. Germain’s creation, and it shows. The entire first half of the play feels like a series of sketches from a beginners’ playwriting class on exposition. Each scene quickly reveals necessary information about Ballantine’s background or McClure’s increasing entanglements with the people he’s supposedly studying, before moving on to the next scene and the next plot point. One of the simplest rules of writing for the theatre is “show, don’t tell,” yet most of the first half of the play consists of the characters telling each other about things that happened between scenes with other characters we never meet. Still, director Paula Ramsdell keeps the proceedings light, making the most of Barkhimer’s comic timing and deadpan delivery to divert our attention from the plodding plotting.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Company

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Most theatre companies are considered bold and edgy when they occasionally stray from the endless succession of Shakespeare and Ibsen revivals to venture into the untested waters of new works. How ironic it is that The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston’s company so known for “staging Boston premieres” that the phrase is part of their logo, has chosen to inaugurate their new home in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts (say that one five times fast!) by making the bold and edgy choice of a revival! Of course, Sondheim and Furth’s Company certainly isn’t seen as often as Hamlet, but the obvious question everyone is asking is … why?

In the show’s program booklet, director Paul Daigneault suggests the time is right for Company, both because the new theatre offers physical resources necessary for the show that were previously unavailable to the SpeakEasy, and because the definition of marriage is such a hot topic in Massachusetts these days. One can’t argue with the former reason – this is certainly the largest production I’ve seen by the SpeakEasy, with a two-story set, a nine piece band, and an ensemble cast of fourteen, at times all on stage together. But does Company, which had its world premiere in Boston in 1970, really have anything to say about what constitutes a marriage in 2004?

Daigneault tries his best to say it does. Taking advantage of the minimal updating to the script and orchestrations from the 1995 Broadway and West End revivals of the show, Daigneault has chosen to set Companyfirmly in the present. Eric Levenson’s set is a slick, modern structure of chrome and light, juxtaposing a sleek, modern sensibility with a decidedly retro bachelor pad feel. While the disco-style light-up floor panels may hark back to Company‘s groovy origins, the costumes, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley and ranging from the wives bedecked in current shopping mall chic to a Marta (Sara Chase) dressed like a Britney Spears acolyte, making it clear that this Company takes place now. The actors gamely try to pass off dialogue referring to themselves “getting soused” and being “hopelessly square” as current slang, and they almost succeed. But the mere portability of the show from the 1970s to today does not instantly make it relevant to the politics of today.  Continue reading