Tag Archives: Cathy Hammer

Estella Scrooge – Streaming on Demand

A sophisticated entry in the field of holiday offerings, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist is a Christmastime musical with plenty of Easter eggs for Dickens fans.  The production was meticulously shot using green screen and video effects to blend a seasoned cast with eye-popping images.  The result combines the best elements of a Broadway show with a movie spectacular.

The story hits all the well-known beats of the classic about a miser who learns a lesson, but frames them in a way that is fresh and original.  In this reimagining, Scrooge is the CEO of Bleak House, a predatory financial company.  Their health insurance policies never pay out and their mortgages are designed for easy foreclosure.  The overworked and underpaid Cratchet makes an appearance in the form of Scrooge’s devoted assistant, Betty, mother to the sickly Tammy.  But in this instance, Estella’s journey to enlightenment begins when she returns to her childhood home of Pickwick.  She arrives unannounced on Christmas Eve in order to foreclose on a hotel that has been serving as housing for those in need.  The current owner is her old flame Philip “Pip” Nickleby.  When a snow storm strands Ms. Scrooge at his establishment, Philip and the other residents — who include the usual ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future — seize their opportunity to change “Esty’s” hardened heart.

Lauren Patton as Dawkins in Estella Scrooge

John Caird  and Paul Gordon flesh out the book to reflect the current socio-economic challenges that sadly echo those of Dickens’ time. Rising well above many modern musicals, Gordon’s score contains a wide variety of song styles, each well suited to the person who performs it.  The recurring ballad “Almost a Family” is a captivating earworm that eloquently describes the bonds that can form between people who are not necessarily blood relatives.  In “Trickle Down,” economics are showcased in a jazzy number.  And the Ghost of Christmas Past uses hard rock to hammer home her point.  Many of the lyrics are calls to other Dickens’ classics including Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities

The production’s look has been skillfully retooled for the online world.  Caird’s careful direction helps mimic the sense of connection and of space you would get at a live performance.  Fanciful costumes provided by Somie Pak cleverly combine period with high fashion.  Hair and makeup make use of Dena Olivieri’s experience with SFX.  Production design by Zach Wilson fittingly fuses elements of realism and fantasy.  The green screen is high quality and the actors do appear as if on the set.  Some of the special effects add zest, though the work in the ghostly scenes is inferior and distracting. The sound is too low for a laptop and the work as a whole is probably better enjoyed cast onto a larger screen.

The sprawling cast is uniformly terrific.  Betsy Wolfe’s Estella softens in both look and tone as she is confronted with the impact of the life she has chosen.  There is a sweet relationship displayed between Clifton Duncan’s caring Nickleby and his vulnerable residents, including Em Grosland’s delicate Smike and Lauren Patten’s punkish and very artful Dawkins.  The rest of the stand-out line-up includes Patrick Page, Carolee Carmello, Megan McGinnis, Adam Halpin , Sarah Litzsinger, Tom Nelis , Phoenix Best , David Bryant , Gabrielle Reid , Samuel Lee Roberts, Michael Francis McBride , Michele Lee, Kristen Faith Oei , Meg Gibson, William Youmans, Kevyn Morrow, Joziyah Jean-Felix , Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy and  2020 Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein as Estella’s great great great great grandfather Ebenezer.

The irresistible work of Charles Dickens has long made a good springboard, but not every iteration flies this high.  Estella Scrooge is a captivating family entertainment that couldn’t have returned at a better time. It is available to stream on Broadway on Demand (www.BroadwayOnDemand.com and Streaming Musicals (www.StreamingMusicals.com). A 48 hour rental is $14.99 (a more sensible price than the original $29.99).  The 2 hour runtime flies, though may make it unsuitable for very young children.

The Elephant in the Room

Some people who have suffered trauma shut themselves away to deal with their pain.  Melanie Greenberg chose to turn her experiences into a one-woman show featuring original lyrics and humorous storytelling.  Her solo piece, The Elephant in the Room, covers her very personal journey in search of her “tribe.”  Her twisted and often tortured path from severely depressed childhood to performance-oriented adulthood took her to a family of well-meaning Texan Christians, a sadistic psychiatric center, a rotation of therapists and medications, and a ceremony featuring Ayahuasca, a drink made from a psychoactive plant.  Though her story contains some chilling chapters, she delivers it very matter-of-factly.  Balanced with genuine warmth and uplifting song snippets, what could be deeply disquieting becomes quite entertaining.

Greenberg sings her well-crafted lyrics with precision.  The music is based on the Broadway shows that helped preserve her sanity and sense of humor over the years.  Knowledge of Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and Little Mermaid would add to your appreciation of the work, but that is not essential for enjoying the tunes.  The actress/singer is to be admired for how well she organizes her reflections on an injurious childhood, the many appalling attempts at treatment, and a psychedelic trip gone wrong.  Though she returns to her memory of a captive elephant who was brought to a child’s birthday party as entertainment (the animal for whom the work is titled), she is really more like the proverbial fish out of water: perpetually treated as unsuited to traditional society.

Greenberg is joined onstage by her charming musical director and occasional contributor Bill Zeffiro, the winner of several cabaret awards.  Her director Joanie Schultz is also a close friend and may have consequently used too gentle a hand.  Greenberg’s stories are vivid and filled with distinct details, but many are told at the same energy level rather than given variation.  Sadly, no explanation is provided for Greenberg’s fanciful satin dress with a huge black sequence snake wrapping itself around her body.  The recorded performance was done with a single camera at an unusual angle and it could have used some more balanced sound mixing.  Even so, it was obvious that the show has promise.

Melanie Greenberg is a gifted storyteller with a great deal to say.  She is worthy of attention, with infectious vivacity and a genuine sense of compassion for her struggling younger self.  Despite her casual manner, it seems likely that a certain amount of personal distancing is required to actually enjoy hearing the darker aspects of The Elephant in the Room.  The piece debuted at United Solo Fest at Theatre Row and is now traveling to other intimate venues.  The next performances are December 3, 10, and 17 at The Apple Tree Inn in the Berkshires, all the better to hunker down and continue the conversation with fellow audience members.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at https://www.sevenrooms.com/experiences/appletreeinn/the-elephant-in-the-room-7597649199.  Runtime is approximately 80 minutes.

Django In Pain – Streaming on Demand

A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind.  But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one.  Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects.  And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out.  The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend.  But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function.  An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.

Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond.  The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture.  While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck.  These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings. 

A scene from Django in Pain

Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success.  The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful.  Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets.  The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention.  As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed.  Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood.  Headphones may improve your streaming experience.

Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability.  Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story.  Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series.  Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play.  Narration is available in both English and Spanish.  $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19.  Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.

F.I.R.E. – Streaming On Demand

To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt.  Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch.  The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room.  The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle.  He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna.  She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.

It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot.  Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit.  A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word.  If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them.  Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit.  While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast.  Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences.  Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum.  Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout.  And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling.  These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them.  Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story.  Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece.  (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.)  Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage.  And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.  

Kierra Bunch, Ella Dershowitz , Aaron Matteson, Nygel D. Robinson, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Jeffrey Bean in F.I.R.E.; Photo by Dora Elmer

As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room.  This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view.  The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red.  The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.

While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form.  F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes.  This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission.  Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.

Starting Here, Starting Now – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Closing out the San Francisco Playhouse’s 2020-2021 season is Starting Here, Starting Now, comprised of 24 songs with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire.  The lively and upbeat musical review was originally created to save the Manhattan Theater Club’s then-new nightclub space.  The songs are taken from shows that either never got produced or closed prematurely, so they have that familiar-yet-not feel.  Maltby directed the original production while Shire shored up the work with newly created connective tissue.  Performed in this instance by a cast of four (one more than the original production) the show is an often humorous exploration of relationships of various dimensions, some made modern with a gender-bending twist.  Each piece is sung in character — though those change throughout — so they require solid actors to make them work.  Equally important to their success is the jazzy trio, placed behind them right on the stage.

Directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, this incarnation moves breezily along for 90 minutes not including intermission.  Though the cast members are all seasoned performers, it is Keith Pinto who demonstrates the most strength from his perfect articulation of rapid lyrics to his physical antics and sincere engagement with the audience.  He elicits laughs in We Can Talk to Each Other and knowing nods in I Don’t Remember Christmas. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony Award for his turn as Angel in Rent, provides a gentler and more touching tone in solos including A Girl Should Know.  Rinabeth Apostol adds bad ass energy in I’m Going to Make You Beautiful and several duets.  Melissa Wolfklain rounds out the ensemble with quick wit, though she sometimes missed a note. (She sings my favorite in the line-up, Crossword Puzzle.) 

Starting Here Starting Now Cast sings “I Don’t Believe It”; Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Costume designer Rachael Heiman has wisely outfitted the cast elegantly in pure white, the better to project whatever is needed as they move swiftly from character to character.  The set designed by Heather Kenyon has a touch of nightclub flair, especially as lit by Kurt Landisman in an array of rainbow shades.  The musical trio, under the musical direction of David Dobrusky on piano with Amanda Wu on bass and Russ Gold handling percussion, is top notch and well suited to sharing the spotlight.

Like aural chicken soup for your tired soul, Starting Here, Starting Now goes down easy and leaves a warm feeling behind.  There is no twisted plot to follow or deep roles to keep straight, just pleasing harmonies, light movement, and plenty of charm.  It is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse at 450 Post Street in San Francisco with strict COVID-19 protocols in place ( https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/covid-safety/. )  It is also available to stream online, which is how I was able to enjoy it all the way in New York City.  Tickets are available for either format at sfplayhouse.org for performances though October 2.  In-person tickets are $30-$100; with access to the On Demand video starting at $15.

Shakespeare in the Park: Merry Wives

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering.  This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem.  There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer.   After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story.  Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle.  He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both.  Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves.  Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne.  She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man.  But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.  

Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Ford in Merry Wives

Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble.  Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff.  His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier.  There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives.  Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator.  Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears.   Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.

Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls.  Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy.  Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds.  The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt  include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.

The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment.  While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced.  A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed.  The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.  

The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness.  It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation.  In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park.  Performances have been extended through September 20.  Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.

The Song of the Summer – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it.  Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics.  Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience.  In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville.  His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast.  He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure.  She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own.  But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.

Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters.  Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns.  Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks.  But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom.  It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.

Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh*) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn*) © Jessica Palopoli

Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships.  Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business.  His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals.  Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern.  And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar.  Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting.  The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.  

San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance.  However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream.  Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.   

The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion.  In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021.  Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.

Judgment Day – Streaming on Demand

From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day.  Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero.  He is also about to die.  On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher.  Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult.  Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.  

Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good.  It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant.  To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana.  Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander.  All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn.  These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper.  The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.

The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment.  Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay.  This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement.  Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds.  Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props.  Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.

The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric.  While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh.  A lot.  (Thank god?)   This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1.  Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99.  Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount. 

Lines in the Dust – Streaming On Demand

“Opportunity is about positioning.”  So says Denitra Morgan in Lines in the Dust, a powerful drama beginning today on NewNormalRep.org.  Though set in 2009 and 2010, the play is a well-constructed examination of the systemic racism that still proliferates our educational institutions.  Built on the relationships formed among a handful of characters, it illustrates just how easy it is for people to move those dusty lines that are theoretically put in place to protect a community and transform them into rigid roadblocks used to constrain those who are less privileged.

The action takes place in Millburn, a New Jersey suburb that is home to an upscale mall and Regional Theater Tony winning Paper Mill Playhouse. With one of the highest income averages in the state, the residents support a public school system with a student/teacher ratio of 11 to 1. So it is unsurprising that Denitra has gone to great lengths to place her studious daughter at Millburn Township High School.   There, the teen is thriving academically under the watchful eye of Interim Principal Dr. Beverly Long, whom the girl idolizes.  

Denitra and Beverly had met as the only two Black people at an open house. They bonded over the many racist euphemisms employed by the real estate agent representing the nearly $900,000 property.  Now a year and a half later, Denitra is in Beverly’s office trying to straighten out her daughter’s registration paperwork.  Her timing could not be worse.  Beverly is under considerable pressure because a student who was shot and killed turned out to be a so-called “border hopper” from nearby Newark.  Blacker and poorer, nearly 1 in 8 residents in that city don’t graduate from high school, making it tempting for ambitious parents to falsify their home addresses  in order to send their children to Millburn instead.  At the insistence of the school board, Beverly has just hired Mike DiMaggio, a private investigator, to look into possible other incidents of residence fraud.

Melissa Joyner and Jeffrey Bean in Lines in the Dust

Based on events all too familiar to her, Pulitzer nominee Nikkole Salter’s script is economical, with every line providing meaning and insight.  Though the issues discussed are well-known, they are deeply humanized by her characters.  As embodied by Melissa Joyner, Denitra’s frustration and anger reverberate with genuine rawness.  Lisa Rosetta Strum gives Beverly a foundation of both tenderness and professionalism.  Their performances are nurtured by director Awoye Timpo with the action crisply edited by Hiatt Woods.  Not only is the relationship of these two bright women beautifully rendered, but the connection to their children and their deep understanding of what they each represent to the larger world are also apparent.  Much of that knowledge and acceptance is brought forth by their interactions with DiMaggio (a fierce Jeffrey Bean), a man so deeply enmeshed in a fantasy version of safety and fairness that he can’t even see his prejudice when it’s doused in spotlights.

As with the other projects presented by New Normal Rep, Afsoon Pajoufar’s production design is precise without being distracting.  An original jazzy score by Alphonso Horne becomes increasingly cacophonous, reflecting the devolving situation.  Qween Jean provides the well chosen outfits, from Beverly’s bold and polished attire to Denitra’s slightly too casual look.  

Lines in the Dust is created specifically for theater lovers who are still not comfortable being in an enclosed space with strangers.  Thoughtful performances and expressive dialogue move it beyond an issue play into the realm of truly satisfying home entertainment.  Offered on demand through August 8 at NewNormalRep.org, it runs one hour and fifty minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased at NewNormalRep.org.

Brutal Imagination – Streaming On Demand

In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat.  Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder.  Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie.  Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script.  The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices.  Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.

Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score.  Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith.  More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna.  But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero.  At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence.  At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.

Sally Murphy and Joe Morton in Brutal Imagination

Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind.  This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen.  Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament.  The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue.  Closed captioning is unfortunately not available. 

Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga.  Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness.  “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.”  This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7.  Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused.  Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/.  Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.