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.

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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

Broad Comedy

There is a great deal of heart — and other select body parts — in Broad Comedy, the way way left of center review currently running on Mondays at the Soho Playhouse.  If the concept of  a senior talking vagina giving dating advice to a teenage model of the same makes you laugh, this one’s for you.  The program is heavy on the sex jokes plus witty cultural observations and of-the-moment politics. It’s distinctly “blue” in both the moral definition and also in the sense that the work is definitely not for the ears of anyone who voted Republican in 2016.

Musical comic, actress, author, speaker, and social activist Katie Goodman stars, delivering a high octane series of sketches, songs, and musical bumpers co-written and directed by her husband, Soren Kisiel.  Her chatty rapport with the audience is genuine and delightful.  She is flanked by a talented all-female ensemble, which in New York consists of Danielle Cohn, Molly Kelleher, Tana Sirois and Carlita Victoria.  All have big smiles, strong voices and perfect articulation.  The acting is at an early student level, but this isn’t intended to be Ibsen.

BroadComedyNYCThe lyrics rely heavily on the use of the F-word.  There are also long asides recited over a single note in almost every song.  These devices seem lazy given Goodman’s clear and strong opinions.  Most non-musical sections bring a smile and several are big-laugh worthy.  At a few intervals, Goodman asks the audience to participate, though mine was decidedly shy.  Gags include the aforementioned wise vaginas and a team of uncooperative dancing boobs.  Of the routines that stem from higher chakras, the right wing cheerleaders (pictured here) are among the most fully drawn.  The modern twist on Vanilla Ice’s theme is genius.  Another skit in which characters speak in Siri is just right.  The only bit that fell completely flat featured two literal empty nesters who contemplate getting hooked on painkillers.  This is one topic for which no amount of distance is enough.

The production values are stronger than one would expect in a stripped down vehicle.  The show moves speedily, with the players making so many quick changes into cleverly designed costumes that at one point Katie had to check to make sure she was wearing a skirt.  <She was.>  The cute choreography is skillfully executed with the cast handily managing everything from baby carriages to guns.  Only the scene changing soundtrack featuring Ariana Grande, Kay Boutilier and others of that ilk is ill-conceived given its glaring contrast to the style of the main event.

When you get tied of yelling along with Rachel Maddow, get out of the house and over to Broad Comedy.  $35 tickets for performances Mondays at 7:30 are available now through March 26 and can be purchased at www.sohoplayhouse.com.  After its current New York engagement, Broad Comedy will continue touring nationally, and at some stops will be raising money for feminist causes including Planned Parenthood.  For more information on their ongoing adventures, please visit www.broadcomedy.com

The Chekhov Dreams

The lovers at the center of The Chekhov Dreams are an unusual pair.  Kate is dead, having been killed in a car crash several years ago.  Deeply depressed since the accident, the independently wealthy Jeremy has put his writing aside and spends his days asleep in order to visit her in his dreams.  A frequent topic of conversation between them is the possibility he might end his life and join his beloved in the hereafter.

Tired of watching this sad cycle, brother Eddie — who has chosen to spend his money on the more traditional wine, women and song — elicits a promise that Jeremy will make an effort to get out and meet new people.  A man of his word, Jeremy signs up for an acting class, thinking this exercise might have the benefit of expanding his relationship with the literature he loves almost as deeply as he does Kate.  Instead, he and his scene partner Chrissy are assigned The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, a playwright Jeremy considers dreary and uninspiring.

ChekhovDreams

Photo by Arin Sang-urai. L to R: ELIZABETH INGHRAM, DANA WATKINS, CHARLOTTE STOIBER

Playwright John McKinney ambitiously draws parallels between his characters, Chekhov’s Anna and Trigorin and Jeremy’s favorite fairytale, The Snow Queen.  The results are uneven, punctuated by some imaginative moments.  A few grimmer concepts are presented too off-handedly, which is jarring.  But by the second act we’re more firmly in Blithe Spirit territory than anywhere near a Cherry Orchard. The broader comedy works fine while we remain in Jeremy’s mind and apartment, but when the action shifts back to the acting class, McKinney breaks his established rules of conduct and produces an uneasy mix of personal hallucination and the reality of others.

The small cast works comfortably together.  The angular Dana Watkins provides Jeremy with an appropriately dreamy quality.  As his scene partner and potential lifeline, Chrissy is given bubbly charm by Charlotte Stoiber.  Christian Ryan channeling Jere Burns delivers the best zingers as Eddie.  The toughest challenge is handed to Elizabeth Inghram who struggles to bring the not-always-likable Kate to “life”.  Rounding out the team is Rik Walter as the time and realms-traveling Chekhov who fills in the blanks whenever Jeremy becomes too blind in grief.

Some of director Leslie Kincaid Burby’s staging is clever, particularly the dream sequences.  The mood of these all important scenes is enhanced by Diana Duecker’s lighting and sound designed by the playwright himself.  Burby is less successful when giving the actors “business”.  The already rapid-fire dialogue gets punched up with distracting sight gags. Scott Aranow’s scenic design also doesn’t quite work.  We are told that Jeremy inherited a great deal of money, but his furniture is inexplicably cheap and ratty.  At times the walls actually wobble.  It is clear from his ultra-casual wardrobe provided by costume designer Christina Giannini that Jeremy isn’t “spendy”, but he should at least honor basic building codes.

For all the talk of endless love and devotion for the ages, The Chekhov Dreams is more a diverting night out than a philosophical exercise.  The thought-provoking questions raised don’t hold up to much reflection.  Towards the end of the play, Eddie has a line that works as a wink to the audience, indicating McKinney knows that the ponderous moments won’t be sustained after the houselights come on. But really, what’s wrong with a little escape?  Tickets for the production at The Beckett at Theatre Row are available through February 17 at https://www.chekhovdreams.com.