Bobbie Clearly

We are seated in the Milton Community Center witnessing the making of a documentary.  Ten years ago, this small Nebraska town was rocked when the title character of Bobbie Clearly shot and killed Casey Welsh when she was 16 and he 14.  For nearly 2 1/2 hours, we will hear from Bobbie and ten others about what led up to that horrific event and beyond it to present day.  It will be as hard to see the next turn in their stories as it is to navigate the tall fields of corn where Casey’s body was found.

Avoiding the pitfalls of some of the seasons other issues-oriented productions, Bobbie Clearly focuses on the violent act’s human impact rather than on the shooting itself.  Playwright Alex Lubischer has generously peppered his moving script with moments of humor, taking care to treat his characters with affection even when poking fun.  Though primarily delivered in interview format (to an unseen host), the relationships sparkle.  There are times when two people are telling separate segments using identical phrases, shining a light on the importance of context.  Lubischer also captures a common progression of high school friendships, following four of Bobbie’s classmates from their summer jobs corn detasseling through their awkward fundraisers in Casey’s memory.  Further, there is a profound exploration of the link between religion and forgiveness.  Most importantly in this delicate time, Lubischer is careful not to take a stand on guns by making Casey’s father, Stanley, take delight in hunting as a distraction from his grief.

Bobbie Cleary
Roundabout Underground

The entire cast is terrific, beginning with Ethan Dubin who — though used sparingly — manages to be both sweet and disturbing as Bobbie.  Many will recognize the magnificent Constance Shulman from her equally wonderful ensemble work in television including Orange is the New Black.  With her tiny wiry frame and high-pitched croak, she makes an unusual police officer, which is perfect given the unconventional bond she develops with Bobbie from the time he was the Sunday school bully to the day he makes his best attempt at repairing the huge hole he has ripped in his community.  Her intensity is balanced by the performance of JD Taylor as Bobbie’s misguided and slightly goofy Big Brother Derek Nelson.  As BF(F?)s and mismatched bookends Megan and Meghan, Talene Monahon and Sasha Diamond play off each other with great timing.  And Tyler Lea taps into both vulnerability and inner strength as Casey’s younger brother, Eddie, the only witness to the murder.

The piece is performed in 3/4 round with what are essentially service doors to the space serving as entrances and exits.  As directed by Will Davis, the energy flows consistently even through the silences.  He may also be responsible for the brilliant choreography of two critical dance numbers, which call for very special talent.  Kudos to Asta Bennie Hostetter for finding such great costumes-on-a-budget for those numbers as well as the more everyday items that fill in character details.  Providing unsettling atmosphere are the smothering walls of dried corn that almost exclusively comprise the minimal set by Arnulfo Maldonado.

At $25 a ticket, Bobbie Clearly is superb bang for the theatrical experience buck.  The play is presented as part of Roundabout Underground at The Black Box Theatre and is sure to keep developing its strengths.  If you are looking for a who dunnit or even a why, look elsewhere.  However, this slow-burn storytelling and honest examination of what is ultimately unknowable will leave you with your thoughts turning.  For tickets, on sale through May 6, 2018, and information visit https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bobbie-Clearly.aspx.

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Dogs of Rwanda

Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be.  Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped.  By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see.  There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.

The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary.  At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda.  When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing.  Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa.  The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.

David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume.  Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success.  Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being.  The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments.  This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work.  Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him.  Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.

Dan Hodge stars along with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider (3)

Actor Dan Hodge with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider.

There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB.  Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide.  He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill.  While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior.  This makes his confession a rather hallow one.  How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?

Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction.  The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life.  Their vision is much murkier this time around.  The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time.  John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake.  The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head.  This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.

While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans.  It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view.  It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018.  Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians.  In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco.  Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy.  What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment.  The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story.  She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices.   Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

Adam Heller and  Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs  in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness.  Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context.  There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside.  What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk.  He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits.  Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks.  Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere.  Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.

Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story.  As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis.  And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream.  Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with.  Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles.  The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor.  He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.

Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments.  The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window.  The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance.  The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.

While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck.  Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile.  It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row.  Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)

06 New Vic_RSC_LongLost3_cTeresa Wood

Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Tichenor, Spencer and Martin as The Weird Sisters, ©️Teresa Wood

Since 1981, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been delighting audiences of all ages with their mixture of classical theater, history, clowning, improv, and general silliness.  On the occasion of their 35th anniversary, this RSC (definitely not to be confused with the one based in Stratford-Upon-Avon) developed William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged).  The fanciful premise of their latest offering is that in a parking lot in Leicester, the company’s three members found the long lost first play written by William Shakespeare.  (This location is in fact where the skeleton of Richard III minus his feet was found not long ago.)  In this treasured manuscript, the then 17-year-old playwright first created his most famous characters, blending them Infinity Wars style into one sprawling nonsensical story.

The “war” at the center of this fictional work is a battle of magical wits and styles between Ariel from The Tempest and Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream.  They duke it out using some of Shakespeare’s favorite ploys including mistaken identity, instant attraction, and shipwrecks.  The RSC playwrights use the opportunity provided by this mashup to include some audience favorites who have limited stage time in Shakespeare’s originals.  About two-thirds of the script is bona fide Bard generously blended with pop culture references and vaudeville schtick.  As a believer in the ‘loyalté me lie‘ vision of Richard III, I was particularly gratified by the acknowledgment in the script that Shakespeare portrayed his queen and her family in a good light and their enemies in a far less flattering one.

All of the 45+ characters are brought to buoyant life by co-writers and co-directors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor along with boyish player Teddy Spencer.  The three are whizzes at delivering iambic pentameter and rimshot worthy jokes in equal measure.  They even interact with the audience, at once point providing the front row with water pistols to simulate a storm.  The entire piece is performed in front of a single cloth backdrop created by Tim Holtslag.  Sounds including trumpet blasts and ocean waves along with strategically placed spotlights help set locations. Character definition is highly dependent upon the contextually brilliant Halloween Warehouse level costumes and outrageous wigs provided by designer Skipper Skeoch.  Also invaluable are the even cruddier looking props cooked up by “goddess” Alli Bostedt.  Kudos to stage manager Elaine M. Randolph and her curtain-call shy team for the amazingly quick changes behind the scenes.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) simultaneously provides an engaging introduction for older children and laughs for culture nerds.  It is currently in its off-Broadway premiere run at The New Victory Theater, through March 11, 2018, as part of a 20-city tour throughout the United States. Tickets start at $16 and are available online ( http://www.newvictory.org/boxoffice ) and by phone (646.223.3010).  The theater may offer booster seats, but the recommended age of 10 and over should be heeded to avoid excessive seat-back kicking and squeals of fatigue from your own little Mustardseeds and Peaseblossoms.

[PORTO]

In the world of prose, square brackets are used primarily for clarification: adding explanation or making a small correction.  In Porto’s world, [ ] is the near-constant narrator and commentator of all her thoughts and actions. We are told that  [PORTO] is Porto’s story, though [ ] does much to steer the ship, to the point where the punctation sometimes has the upper hand.  (That in literature square brackets are not supposed to alter the essential meaning of the original statement will likely only bother the most hardcore-ist of grammarians.)

Noel Joseph Allain, Julia Sirna-Frest, and Leah Karpel in [PORTO] -- Photography by Maria Baranova

Noel Joseph Allain, Julia Sirna-Frest, and Leah Karpel in [PORTO] — Photography by Maria Baranova

The piece opens with a long detailed description of how to make sausage, delivered in the dark by the off-stage [ ] in almost musical tones.  For lovers of podcasts such as Selected Shorts, this introduction elevates ones senses.  Indeed we are soon to witness the proverbial sausage making of relationships — complete with soft underbellies and the occasional metaphorical entrails —  as the staff and patrons of a small Brooklyn bar repeatedly come together almost in ritual with [ ] serving as a combination priestess, narrator and stage manager.  That she is portrayed by Kate Benson, the playwright, only adds depth to the role.  She appears omniscient until one of the other characters clearly disobeys [ ]’s directive.  From then on, all possibilities are open to our players.  Indeed Porto is also counseled by two titans of feminism at her kitchen table as well as a pair of dumb bunnies of the Oryctolagus Cuniculus variety.

The audience for this production skews younger than at most off-Broadway houses.  Jokes aimed at modern relationships and hipsters who embrace pickled vegetables and toasted garbanzos with their happy hour received the biggest laughs. The breaking of prescribed rules throughout Benson’s script is jarring for those who prefer that their fantasy come with understood guidelines.  Some of the inconsistencies are merely puzzling.  For example, the character of Hennepin drinks Hennepin ale, but Dry Sac drinks Vodka.  It is, however, truer to the way life unfolds: what seems established can be easily invalidated.

The quality of the acting can be appreciated at any age.  Julia Sirna-Frest imbues Porto with a realistic combination of determination and hesitancy with which many of today’s young women struggle.  As her frequent companion at the bar, Leah Karpel’s Dry Sac delivers loopy 80 proof stories with amusing conviction.  Jorge Cordova’s Hennepin is the perfect well-meaning Everyguy.  Doug the Bartender is played with measured amounts of drollness by Noel Joseph Allain.  Rounding out the cast is Ugo Chukwu who arguably steals the show as Raphael, the waiter with heart and sage advice.

Obie winning director Lee Sunday Evans makes the most of the small space and unconventional storytelling devices.  The steadiness of her cast is a testament to her deep understanding of how to tell this story well.  Kristen Robinson has replicated a bar setting with the actors in a straight line facing the audience.  Porto’s apartment is displayed above, inside a cutout reminiscent of a cross-stitched sampler.  This imaginative concept lends an ironic twist to the far-from-traditional-values exchanges that unfold there.  Costumes designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter give the characters a lived-in look.  Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and Kate Marvin’s sound support sense of place and movement in a world in which people apparently do not need to open doors.

Whether you find [PORTO] a humorous work of art or say “alright already” like the man in front of me will very much depend on your enjoyment of intellectual play.  What you will certainly come away with is an entertainment experience you won’t forget on the subway ride home.  The production is presented by the WP Theater and The Bushwick Starr in association with New Georges.  Tickets for performances through March 4, 2018 are available at WWW.WPTHEATER.ORG/TICKETS.

Brilliant Traces

Brilliant Traces the Play | by Cindy Lou Johnson | NYC | NY | 2018 | at the WorkShop Theater NYC | presented by Art of Warr Productions | starring Blake Merriman and Alyssa May Gold

Blake Merriman and Alyssa May Gold in Brilliant Traces.  Photo by Grace Merriman

Inside his purposefully isolated Alaskan cabin and bundled under blankets, Henry Harry is in a deep sleep when he is disturbed by a series of panicked knocks at his door.  Enter Rosannah DeLuce incongruously dressed in full bridal attire, mascara running down her face and talking a mile a minute.  Thus begins Brilliant Traces, a two-character fantasy currently vying for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards for Off-Off Broadway.

The set-up is deliberately absurd and yet much of their exchange is rooted in genuine personal tragedy.  This asymmetrical construction runs throughout the work.  Perpetual loner Henry is clearly unused to casual conversation.  Yet it becomes equally obvious that he is a caregiver who instinctively reaches out to others when given the opportunity.  Rosannah describes herself in rapid succession as having felt encased in ice and too warm, propelled forward and completely stuck.  All these states are equally true for her.

As directed by creative impresario Joshua Warr, the piece starts slow, then moves along for the remainder of the 90 minute runtime.  Warr’s production team is strong.  Matthew S. Crane’s icicle covered cabin with its unadorned walls and spartan furniture is almost a third character.  Paul T. Kennedy’s lighting adds mood and supports the passage of time.  Costumes by Todd Trosclair are appropriately sporty and simple, except of course for the shiny gown and shoes.  No program credit is given for sound design, which is a shame given the important role played by whistling wind that had me snuggling under my coat.  Both Alyssa May Gold and Blake Merriman successfully lean into their characters’ duplexity.   Gold — an understudy for Broadway’s Arcadia — brings a rawness even to the most farcical of her lines.  Merriman leverages the quickness developed in improvisation training with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City to make Henry’s unexpected turns feel more plausible.

The script is intriguing, but not without problems.  By withholding deeper truths in order to have a big reveal, Cindy Lou Johnson has her characters speaking in circles much of the time.  Instead of deep story, Ms. Johnson simulates forward motion, shading the surface by having the same lines reappear with different context.  For example, “I cooked your shoes” is delivered by turns as comic, menacing, and sad.  Using rotating emotional filters is an interesting construct that gives the script a fairytale quality.  The challenge with Ms. Johnson’s technique is that it’s a block to audience involvement.  Uncomfortable chuckles and even a few talk-backs peppered the evening.  I never forgot for moment that I was watching a play about two people rather than being swept away by connection to the emotional life within the fantasy.

There is also an issue with how well the relationship between Harry and DeLuce has traveled through time.  Originally produced in 1989 by Circle Repertory Company, the piece has several anger-fueled fight scenes choreographed by Alberto Bonilla.  Whether you are able to accept these moments as intended or see two people in need of anger management therapy will depend on your tolerance for such things against the backdrop of #MeToo and #Timesup.  Rosannah needs to be alluring enough to pull Henry back to civilization.  By the same token, Henry needs to inspire trust so that Rosannah can get grounded again.   But even back in the 1970s, self-help guru John Bradshaw claimed that most people would walk into a room and find connection with the least appropriate person present.

Rosannah and Henry’s odd relationship touchingly illustrates that everyone needs to be seen to feel truly alive.  With communication, parallels can be drawn between any two human stories. The current incarnation of Brilliant Traces is presented by the director’s own Art of Warr Productions in association with Ruddy Productions and runs through March 4 at The Workshop Theater.  Tickets are $25 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com

An open letter to the creative team of Some Old Black Man

SOBMI attended the performance of your play, Some Old Black Man, at 59E59 Theaters on Saturday, February 10.  Co-star Roger Robinson was out sick, replaced by Phil McGlaston.  I understand that Mr. Robinson has been with the production since the beginning and that it is your request that the show not be reviewed without him.  Certainly I was disappointed not to see his turn as Donald, but it was a marvelous afternoon nonetheless.  I wanted to take this opportunity to applaud your wonderful work in full view of my readers.

To playwright James Anthony Tyler: Congratulations on your script, the first to be fully staged by Berkshire Playwrights Lab. Your story cunningly explores relatable themes of aging and generational conflict using the distinct filter of race relations.  Both characters are so beautifully drawn with just a few strokes of your proverbial pen.  Father Donald may be cantankerous, but you have assured us that his concerns are clearly rooted in very real and hard experience.  I too am an only child and live with an aging parent, so I found it easy to relate to so many of son Calvin’s frustrations.  My Mom may not have a brightly colored afghan thrown over the back of our modern couch, but there are certainly parallels I could point to.  Judging from the reaction of my fellow audience members, I was not alone.  At so many turns, you blend stirring moments of vivid social and economic commentary with laughter and empathy.

To director Joe Cacaci and understudy Phil McGlaston: I admire how quickly you were able to get the piece moving again after Robinson took ill.  It is not easy to emote while on book.  McGlaston gave an exceptional performance for someone with only three solid days of rehearsal, navigating several of Donald’s tricky emotional turning points, not to mention delivering some terrific yogurt-oriented comedy.

To Co-Star Wendell Pierce: It was a joy to see someone whose television work I have long admired live on stage in such an intimate setting.  There are aspects of Calvin’s dialogue that seem ready made for your expressive growl and trademark loving exasperation.  Even when confronted with a co-star who couldn’t make much eye contact, you created a deep relationship.  And when the set popped a few stitches, you managed to cover in character and earn yourself an extra smile from the audience.

To Roger Robinson: I wish you a speedy recovery.  You have obviously laid some splendid groundwork here.  I am sorry to have missed your interpretation.

I wish you all a wonderful run at 59E59 — and beyond.

Cathy Hammer, The Unforgettable Line