Stage Review: “Ripcord” at Huntington Theatre Company

June 5, 2017

Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through July 2, 2017.

By Robert Israel

David Lindsay-Abaire’s two-act play, Ripcord, under Jessica Stone’s briskly paced and upbeat direction, is a well-timed (and welcome) end-of-season confection. Yes, the script is candied, but there’s just enough astringency blended in to make the sugar sufficiently tangy. And, happily, the Huntington Theatre Company performers infuse enough bittersweetness into the jokiness to keep the proceedings from sinking into the maudlin.

Of course, setting a two-hander in a nursing home has a long and opportunistic history. The set, ably designed by the talented Tobin Ost, looks downright archetypal in this regard; it reminded me of a production of Donald L. Coburn’s The Gin Game I saw decades ago. But the similarities end there. Yes, Ripcord scrounges around in the usual disheartening world of end-of-life bleakness, the disorientating hollowness that many face inside lime-green nursing centers that never adequately meet the needs of its residents. But Lindsay-Abaire has gone further and deeper in articulating the agony of the aged — his banter is terse and sharp.

The catch is that there’s a certain mechanical pitter-patter in the dialogue, and that tic becomes tiresome after twenty minutes – no, make that five minutes – once you pick up on its metronomic comic predictability. Here is the set-up: the first character asks a question that is answered glibly by the other. After the third exchange a joke pops up somewhere — at least you hear some audience members laugh — but you’re not joining in. It’s not that you missed anything all that amusing: it is that some theatergoers have been trained by the dramatist to find the conversation absurd after a bit. The giggles are generated by the playwright’s technique, not from revelations made by its characters.

Thankfully for the HTC production, the lead players are smart and skillful enough to cut against Lindsay-Abaire’s singsong, an obstacle compounded by his Odd Couple plot re-cycling. As Abby, the taciturn prune-faced scold, veteran actress Nancy E. Carroll makes terrific use of her trademark scowl. If you’ve seen her cameo appearance in the movie Spotlight you have encountered this monumental look of disdain, her way of looking at other people as if they are flies begging to be swatted. Her dramatic foil is Annie Golden’s Marilyn — ebullient, overly chirpy, dressed in bright colors in contrast to Abby’s greys and blacks. Marilyn is a flibbertigibbet, and she has the unfortunate luck to share the room with Abby. No matter: she’s a ray of bleeping sunshine, she is, and she’s determined to make the best of a contentious situation.

Thankfully, Ripcord is more than a re-roasting of Neil Simon’s moldy chestnut. At its core, Lindsay-Abaire is determined to tell a story about real people struggling through a time in their lives that holds no promise other than the inevitable — these are people sitting around in God’s Waiting Room. But thanks to Marilyn’s optimism – and a wager between the two women – the play moves along merrily under the eye of eternity, with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep us entertained.

One of the pleasant surprises is the dramatist’s use of a play-within-the-play. The women venture into town to tour a Haunted House attraction. No, the nursing home they live in is not exactly like this spookyville mansion. But there are similarities — tragic-comic intimations of extinction, for one – that are underscored marvelously here, without ever becoming heavy handed.

The cast keeps the plot moving along, never letting predictability get the upperhand. I was particularly taken by Ugo Chukwu’s Scotty, who serves the bickering yin/yang pair, delivering their medication with amble heaps of homespun advice. He’s a warm and likeable fellow, a doormat at times, but he works his humanistic magic by smoothing (most of) the conversational rough edges out, wrapping the steel barbs hurled by Marilyn and Abby in velvet so that not too much blood is split.

If only Scotty could do something about the play’s overwrought campiness, scenes of jitterbugging that should be pared back: any antic that repeatedly milks the audience for nostalgic laughs should be light and lively — and used sparingly. Still, given the dour, sour, and maniacal farce that is American reality, Ripcord offers some refreshing respite. In a world that has left odd in the rear view mirror, a comedy about mismatched roomies facing mortality comes off as inspirational.

**

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on June 1, 2017.

At the 2017 IRNE Awards

May 21, 2017

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By Robert Israel

The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) held their 21st annual celebration of all that is praiseworthy in Boston’s theater community on April 24 at the Brookline Holiday Inn. An annual rite of spring, the event is noisy and raucous. The capacity crowd, fueled by toxic libations at two well-stocked bars, is unruly. Boisterous enthusiasts greet each of the winners – you can read the list of winners posted here — with huzzahs and catcalls as they sashay up to the podium to receive their awards.

I am a voting member of IRNE. Each spring the IRNE award night caps a year of reporting and reviewing the Boston area’s many offerings of theatrical brilliance. As such, I am only one voice among several critics who judge the productions we’ve seen in a search of that elusive blend of derring-do, talent, and stagecraft that goes into making each theatrical production – from large, well-financed companies to smaller, ragtag troupes — vibrant and memorable. The annual awards night is our collective way of applauding how proud we are to be living in such a lively, ever-changing, and growing artistic community.

IRNE critics argue among themselves regarding what we think are the best, the brightest, and the most award worthy of these dozens and dozens of productions. Given the plethora of troupes and performers, there is no way any one critic can see them all. The list of nominees, it seems, grows longer each year. This year we had to return to to the negotiating table to break several tie votes among the categories. And while some who attended the award ceremony criticized us (vocally!) for not seeing all the shows on the docket, there is no human way any of us can. We grapple with the difficulty of this issue each year as we hunker down to make our final selections.

Highlights of the award ceremony included presenting the Solo Award to the outstanding actor Eugene Lee for How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s autobiographical ramble staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, and Milk Like Sugar, also staged at the Huntington. Local playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s script paid homage to August Wilson, capturing the confused lives of a group of Gloucester, Massachusetts teens who had joined together in a “pregnancy pact.” And SpeakEasy Stage Company’s riveting production of Scottsboro Boys was the big winner: the production walked away with the most awards including best set design, costume lighting, projection, sound, choreography…you get the idea: the whole shebang.

There was a special shout-out to the late Derek Wolcott, Nobel laureate, poet, dramatist, and Boston University professor who died last year, and a pause to remember the late playwright Edward Albee.

The evening would not have been complete without some lobbying by the publicists in attendance who greeted me in the reception area among the tipsy revelers, asking when I might attend their upcoming shows. Boston’s theatrical offerings are a Mobius strip: there is never an end, only new openings on the horizon, and it’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once, and it’s what we do — year after year.

Review: “Bridges of Madison County”

May 21, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Musical direction by Matthew Stern. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 3.

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By Robert Israel

Bridges was first conceived as a novel (by Robert James Waller), next adapted into a  successful Hollywood film (starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), and finally morphed into a Broadway musical (where it won two Tony Awards). Throughout all its various incarnations, this sexual soaper for the middle-aged set drew audiences to its oh-so-lovelorn bosom by dramatizing the struggle adults face when forced to decide between staid domesticity and raging passion.

And the best moments (and there are a number of them) in the SpeakEasy Stage production aptly huzzah the transcendent power of love, the company’s ensemble of twelve players generating considerable theatrical power out of the need for a deep emotional connection. But there are episodes,  well intentioned as they may be, that fail to rise about the musical’s stilted dialog and the staging’s smattering of wooden performances.

Francesca (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian WWII bride, settles for married life on an Iowa farm with husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff). Life back in the urban crush of Naples wasn’t all that scintillating, but there was at least the possibility of amorous adventure. The wide-open flatlands of the American Midwest, with its spying neighbors and grain silos, is an emotional non-starter.

Along comes heartthrob Robert (Christiaan Smith), a weary National Geographic photographer who has been assigned the task of photographing all the covered bridges in the county where Francesca and her brood reside. The idea is that sparks fly when they meet; the pair generate a bonfire of desire. While her family is away at a state fair, they tumble abed. The trouble with the SpeakEasy Stage production is that the two lead actors can, only build up to a low simmer; their singing voices may be rapturous, but their onstage chemistry is severely lacking.

Adding buckets of cold water to the wet blanket is the book by veteran playwright Marsha Norman, whose lame dialog sometimes sounds as if it came out of the New England Primer. Yes, Robert is your standard issue repressed male. (Should we blame his dribble of monosyllables on overwork and/or the failure of his marriage?) But there is nothing here that gives us the feeling that underneath Robert’s unruffled surface writhes inflamed passione d’amore. When the adulterous couple finally do embrace — after agonizing scenes of petrified blather — their furtive groping comes off as forced. Later, as they lie together at center stage – in flagrante – and yank a blanket over their entwined torsos, they look like a pair of driftwood logs or lava rocks that cooled off eons ago.

By the second act, the encounters warm up a bit, and the theme of making the right choices – should a married woman abandon her family and run off with the worldly photographer? – is pushed front and center. It drums up some fantasy/ethical interest: Should we live a lie? Or run off with a heartthrob, leaving behind the life we have established in our adopted land? There are no easy answers, sacrifices must be made, and the musical goes to great lengths to successfully articulate this dilemma, if falling into a moralistic lockstep. We make compromises with the mate we choose — security means making due with the rewards at hand.

M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction is agreeably hands-off; she never judges the infidelities of the lovers, letting us draw our own ethical conclusions. The musical direction by Matthew Stern – with the musicians tucked away unobtrusively at stage left – works splendidly. There are wonderful comic turns by SpeakEasy Stage veterans Will McGarrahan (Charlie) and Kerry A. Dowling (Marge), who show us that a married life that endures over the decades need not be seen as deadening, when there’s plain speaking, humor, and extra slices of cake. When it comes down to it, The Bridges of Madison County insists that there is more than one way to seize the day.

So, while the material’s supposed steamy romance is a damp squib, the talented SpeakEasy Stage ensemble offers enough harmonious pizazz to make up for the erotic fizzle.

Mavis Staples: Enduring Spirit

February 27, 2016

By Robert Israel

Flashback:

As a teenager without car or driver’s license who grew up in the late 1960s, I traveled to Newport, Rhode Island’s summer music festivals via ferryboat from Providence’s India Point. Newport was the nexus for folk singers and gospel groups. Unlike today where security barriers keep audiences at a distance from performers, Festival Field during this era was the opposite: audiences mingled with the artists at informal “hoots” and workshops or invited to clamber onstage to sing along. You’d see the likes of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Theo Bikel, and many others, singing together or alone, swapping songs, performing duets, all while rapt audience members sat clustered at their feet.

On Sunday mornings, gospel music groups – many of them had traveled by bus to Newport from the Deep South – performed on the lawn. They sang without microphones: they never seemed to need them. If they were weary from their road trips, they never showed it: their rhapsodic voices, as if drenched in butterscotch and sorghum syrup, rose up above the sun-splashed field and became pure light.

It was on a Sunday morning in 1967 — my blanket spread out alongside a wooden performance platform – that I heard, for the first time, the glorious harmonies of the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina. One of the groups that followed the Hummingbirds — with Mississippi roots (by way of Chicago) — was the Staple Singers.

The Staples family — “Pops” Staples and daughters Pervis, Mavis and Cleotha — had already gained notoriety singing at civil rights rallies with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “preaching” the gospel about the evils of segregation and rousing listeners through exhilarating song to unite in solidarity for the purpose of creating a more just, more inclusive society. They had a commanding presence. When they sang, it was a personal invitation to foreswear the toils of daily life and to claim a righteous place in the Kingdom on High.

Flash forward:

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Now 76 years old, Mavis Staples shows no signs of slowing down as she reaches out to new audiences. She alone carries on her family’s musical tradition, after the deaths of her father “Pops” and her sister, Cleotha. (Pervis Staples retired years before). In 2015 and throughout 2016, she’s booked for weekly shows at venues around the country. Late last year, I saw her perform in Boston at a Celebrity Series concert before a capacity crowd at Berklee Performance Center; her voice and stage presence continue to exude power, to plumb emotional and spiritual depths.

A couple of weeks ago, she joined fellow septuagenarian Joan Baez on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City for Joan’s 75th birthday, singing alongside Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne, and others.

Her touring schedule would exhaust younger performing artists. These upcoming appearances include performing in New Orleans at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in May and at Bonaroo in Tennessee in June.

A new HBO documentary about her life, Mavis!, will screen on February 29. A sneak preview is now available on her website.

An EP, entitled “Your Good Forture,” release by the Anti- label two months ago showed, that her songs have not lost their relevance. As fellow-performing artist Joan Osborne, who joined her onstage in Boston at the Berklee, put it, “Mavis transports you to the very foundation of your soul.”

For those not familiar with Mavis and the Staples Singers, a good place to start is with the Staples’ cameo appearance in the movie The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese’s film about rock group The Band’s last concert). Mavis stands out by being the most demonstrative and outspoken. In an interview some years back about the making of that film, she explained why she became so animated, appearing on the screen clapping her hands and intoning a deep emotional response to the song she was singing:

I have a tendency, which I think is good, to just sing from my heart. I want to feel it myself. Pops taught me that, to sing from my heart. I can’t just sing from the top of my head. I gotta get into the song. I see it like a movie, in my head… I don’t want to be gloatin’, you know, but anytime I watch it, it’s refreshing. It’s like the first time. You never get tired of it, you know. And I remember everything about it. I remember every moment that we had doing that. Pops said, ‘Mavis! Baby, you shouldn’t carry it out so long like that,’ when I go, ‘Heeeyyyy yeeeeaaah.’ And I said, ‘Nah, daddy, that’s the good part. That’s what I feel.’ He said, ‘O.K., do what you feel. That’s the best thing. Do what you feel.’

Mavis Staples is on a mission; she wants to serve as an antidote to despair and hatred, to set off “positive vibrations.” In these times of murderous strife and political demagoguery, each day generating new proclamations of vulgarity and racism, Mavis’ takes up the challenging task of providing healing. Like the songs she and her family sang long ago in Newport, they are about bringing flickers illumination into what seems to be a darkening world.

**

This piece appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Review: “Milk Like Sugar”

February 8, 2016

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Jasmine Carmichael in Milk Like Sugar. Milk Like Sugar plays from January 29 – February 27, South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

By Robert Israel

Kirsten Greenidge, a young Boston-area playwright, happened on a news item about a group of teenage girls in Gloucester, MA who made a pregnancy pact: each would get in a family way at the same time, a path they felt represented the best of the limited choices available to them. That news item became the impetus to write Milk Like Sugar, a long one-act that captures the pathos of young clustered and isolated female lives, the maelstrom of internal and external conflicts they face, and the repercussions of their decisions in a fractured, oft-indifferent, world.

The script succeeds despite some gaping flaws. While the drama strongly articulates the young women’s many conflicts in language that captures today’s hypertext(ed) reality – complete with vulgarities, abbreviations and exasperations – the evening comes off as more of a series of well-etched scenes — this is not a cohesively structured play with seamless transitions tied together by an overarching motif. Milk Like Sugar is collection of sharp photographs rather than an in-depth portrait.

There is an attempt to make the Sanders-esque haves-versus-the-have-nots disparity a central motif: the “milk” in the title refers to the powdered substance — said to be found in lower-income homes — that resembles “sugar.” But the class warfare metaphor is stretched way too thin. We need to be given more on what income inequality does to the young women’s psyches, how the desperation of poverty forces them into their dilemma. Yes, they express envy they cannot afford fancy clothes and cell phone covers. Yes, a male character Malik (Marc Pierre) ruminates with envy about the rich folks flying overhead in airplanes; he imagines the well-to-do are mocking him and other poor folk struggling to scrape a living back down on earth. But is that enough? Evidently not, because right before the final curtain Greenidge has her lead character Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) explain the economic theme to us (in case we missed an earlier reference to eating “government cheese”), explicating the title word by word. It’s awkward and contrived. We should have gotten the point earlier in the play — the wrap-up is a sign of insecurity or condescension.

The cast performs admirably, with spirit and sass and lots of captivating body movements (wild banshee-like dancing to hip-hop music). As Annie, Carmichael is the essence of girlishness trapped in an adult body, craving access to a world of maturity that she has only glimpsed. Her smiles are endearingly sweet, and there is a charming clumsiness to her wanton pursuit of a sexuality she feels but has yet to consummate. Her friend Talisha (Shazi Raja) is a perfect foil: brash, sexualized in tight shorts, sexperienced, she prances about with teased hair and garish makeup, using her prowess to captivate her prey. Rounding out the pack is Margie (Carolina Sanchez), who is given some of the play’s most humorous lines, and Keera (Shanae Burch), a church-going girl who is not really a member of the troika but yearns to be part of the group.

The play cries out for dialogue and confrontations that direct us deeper into the conflicts the young women face and how they perceive them. We follow a riff about cell phone covers and, suddenly, the subject of pregnancies is mentioned; we hear Annie ache for “ladybug” covers for the aforementioned cell phone, and then are surprised to hear her express a longing for “little tiny babies” (with “matching” baby bottles that each of her friends will feed their offspring with). Perhaps this stream-of-consciousness is meant to underscore the helter-skelter flow of their minds, the blurring of distinctions, a confusion between realities and fantasies. Maybe their lives are a mishmash and crucial lines are blurred. But the audience needs to be guided through the thickets into the moments of illumination. Slowing down the quicksilver pitter-patter might help here.

Greenidge, in published interviews, has expressed admiration for the late playwright August Wilson, whose works about the African-American experience she first saw performed in Boston as a youngster. There is evidence of homage in Milk Like Sugar, particularly to Wilson’s drama Fences, whose lead character, Troy Maxson, tells his son Cory that he doesn’t have to love him, that loving him is not in his job description as a father. In Milk Like Sugar, Annie talks with her mother Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and expresses a need for love and affection, only to hear Myrna (who had Annie when she was in junior high school) tell her she’s really not so special after all. The stark pathos of this scene does Wilson proud.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara keeps the play moving along effectively. The scenes among the three young women work well when we can actually hear the rhythm of their language, which sometimes is lost or drowned out by piped-in bursts of loud, discordant music. (If sound designer M.L. Dogg turned down the volume it would help matters mightily.) The set, a chain-link fence along the back wall, designed by Cristina Todesco, effectively accentuates the isolation of the young women’s world.

There is much to admire in Milk Like Sugar. The script provides plenty of evidence that this talented playwright is continuing to evolve. As Greenidge’s voice and talent matures, as she absorbs more storytelling techniques, she will no doubt move on to explore a fuller dramatic palette. These vivid snapshots will be left behind for the creation of larger, more revelatory canvases.

**

This review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Book review: “Think Again,” by Stanley Fish

January 20, 2016

Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Educationby Stanley Fish, Princeton University Press, 427 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Robert Israel

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Newspaper columnists generally suffer from a shortage of ideas, imagination and spunk. Their work is steeped in mediocrity. They serve up tiresome tirades of predictable verbiage day after sorrowful day.

When these ink-stained wretches run low on their shortages of ideas, imagination, and spunk, they may be tempted to fabricate their sources. Take Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, for example, late of the Boston Globe, who did just that. They got caught. They got fired.

Another newspaper columnist — Jeff Jacoby, also of the Boston Globe – resorted to plagiarism when he ran dry. Unlike Barnicle and Smith, he was suspended from the paper for four months without pay (plagiarism is evidently a less punishable offence than fabrication). Many readers complained: how do you trust Jacoby as a columnist again? Nonetheless, he returned to the Globe and continues to punish employer and readers alike with an assembly line of rote and wearying columns.

Yet some columnists break the mold.

Take Dana Milbank at the Washington Post. He challenges readers to think and react. His voice is bold and brash, as shown in his recent no-holds-barred counterassault on Donald Trump. Agree or disagree with Milbank, but one thing is certain: he’s got chutzpah.

So does Stanley Fish.

Fish is a prolific author (How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, andIs There a Text in This Class? are among his many volumes). He’s skilled at discourse and debate (he’s a professor of law at Cardozo Law School in New York and at Florida International University). Thankfully, he didn’t advance through the standardizing ranks of a journalistic culture in which editors often reward hard-bitten newspaper reporters with prize columns (or beats) after they’ve toiled in the trenches for years writing obituaries and such. Fish is a news organization outsider, which is probably why the New York Times invited him to write on whatever subjects struck his fancy. Between 1995 and 2013 (he recently discontinued the feature), his “contrarian” columns appeared under the “Think Again” banner. He aggravated legions of Times readers, and won accolades from many others.

In Think Again, he has selected 100 of these Times columns. They are engaging, provocative, maddening, humorous, and insightful.

“Readers will learn about my anxieties, my aspirations, my eccentricities, my foibles, my father, my obsessions, Frank Sinatra, Ted Williams, basketball, and Jews,” Fish writes in the introduction.

I tend to squirm when I read columnists who devote space and ink to navel gazing. I believe columnists should avoid writing about themselves: they are not nearly as interesting as the people they are assigned to write about. Yet many of Fish’s autobiographical pieces, many found in the first part of his book, are compelling because he accentuates the universality of his subjects. In “Max the Plumber,” he etches an indelible portrait of his father, a Polish Jewish immigrant, who arrived in the States at age 16:

My father told the story of his last night in Europe (he was to sail for America the next day). A week or so before, a gang of anti-Semitic toughs had surrounded my father and his brother and beat them up. That night he went out alone, carrying a stick the size of a baseball bat. He found one of his tormentors and cornered him in an alley….[he said] ‘When I left him, I didn’t know if he was dead or alive.’

While Fish is a disciplined writer, his academic training sometimes plays havoc with his prose, which from time to time plunges into some pretty murky depths. Though his more arcane pieces might appeal to academic-minded readers, they lack the often-mischievous spirit that adds welcome spice and sass in his other columns.

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Stanley Fish: an astute observer of popular culture.

Fish could obviously have chosen any number of career paths. His grasp of legal, political, and religious issues is impressive. In particular, he is an astute observer of popular culture, to the point that he would have made a superb film critic given his encyclopedic knowledge of movies and insightful analysis of their significance. His pieces on filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, actress Kim Novack, and actor Charlton Heston are enjoyable must-reads.

One of the shortcomings of this volume is that, though Fish quotes several reader responses to his work in his book, it could have benefited from hearing more from his critics. He writes that reader reactions “energized” him; Fish seemed to revel in the intellectual fisticuffs of point-counterpoint. But we don’t have enough evidence of that muscular give-and-take in Think Again.

Overall, Fish stands as a substantial exception in a shallow time — he is a generous and sagacious columnist. His insights on a wide range of issues are leavened with an ample supply of compassion and humor. He ought to consider returning to the newspaper fray, if only to provide other columnists with an example of commentary worth writing … and reading.

**

This review was published in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Best Boston-area Stage Shows for 2015

December 22, 2015

By Robert Israel

Here are my five choices of the best shows that sparkled brightest on Boston-area stages:

* Come Back, Little Sheba, by William Inge, directed by David Cromer, Huntington Theatre Company.

Inge’s first full-length play premiered on Broadway in 1950, and its provocative themes — repressed vs. overt sexuality, substance abuse vs. intervention, fulfillment vs. dashed hopes — resonate just as strongly today. HTC’s superb production featured vivid, heartbreaking, and triumphant performances by Adrienne Krstansky as Lola and Derek Hasenstab as Doc, a hapless couple whose lives came undone before our eyes.

* Needles and Opium, written and directed by Robert Lepage, ArtsEmerson.

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Marc Labreche (above), star of Robert Lepage’s “Needles and Opium.”

Quebec City-based Robert Lepage is a master of using special effects to enhance his powerful storytelling. These include puppetry, slack wire acrobatics, dance, computer-generated lighting, and music. Needles and Opium, starring the multi-talented Marc Labreche, abounded in theatrical wizardry. It took us on an intergalactic flight, serving up a savory feast of aural and visual experiences that stirred our minds and enriched our spirits.

* Muse and Morros, Culture Clash’s 30th Anniversary Tour, created, written, and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza, ArtsEmerson.

When they returned to Boston in 2015, Los Angeles-based Culture Clash had not performed here in over a decade. It was easy to see why they had not been back: their ballsy brand of political theatre is raunchy rather than polite. The material from this show was drawn from unexpurgated street interviews: a Pakistani cab driver, a Vietnamese gangbanger, a handicapped war veteran, and other displaced Americans struggling for dignity in our fractured nation. Culture Clash delivered gutsy, assaultive performances.

* appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, SpeakEasy Stage Company.

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins is young, gifted, and black. He pilfered ideas from several writers (Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, among others) to cobble together a dark comedy about a white family confronting their racist heritage in a house in the Deep South. His literary thievery paid off: SpeakEasy’s cast – headed by an impressive Melinda Lopez – was riveting.

* Gloucester Blue, written and directed by Israel Horovitz, Gloucester Stage Company.

Yes, Horovitz is into recycling: a conflict between hard-bitten workers and wealthy WASP landowners in a rapidly gentrified Gloucester, MA can be found in his earlier plays, such asNorth Shore Fish and Sins of the Mother. Still, Gloucester Blue — featuring Robert Walsh and Esme Allen as fired-up combatants Latham and Lexi — emerged as a well-acted, forceful variation on the theme, particularly given that this time around the material came spiked with deviously playful black humor.

**

An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Review: “uCarmen” from South Africa

November 17, 2015

By Robert Israel

The Isango Ensemble is a highly energized all-black troupe that hails from Cape Town, South Africa. Last year they performed Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Cutler Majestic. Now they’ve returned with two operas, each presented with their unique blend of spunk and sass: uCarmen, adapted from Bizet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benjamin Britten’s version (1960) of the William Shakespeare play. Their stay in Boston is brief, squeezed in during our crowded calendar of pre-holiday preparations. Yet they are well worth seeking out: there’s not only passion in their performances, but extra helpings of a warm, bright tapestry of color and sound.

Isango stands on the shoulders of pioneering South African artists, such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Paul Simon’s cohorts for his Graceland album in the late 1980s). Let us also not forget that South Africa has given us playwright Athol Fugard and novelist Nadine Gordimer, whose works articulated the evils of apartheid and the struggles of a people seeking to rise up against those evils to attain dignity and basic human rights.

Alas, that struggle for human dignity persists in South Africa, and forms the backdrop of the uCarmen production. Mark Dornford-May informs us in his director’s notes that in South Africa today “gender-based violence is at an all-time high. On an average day three women will die at the hand of their intimate partners; every 17 seconds a woman is raped; 40 percent of men freely admit to hitting their partners.”

One does not discern this seething violence at first blush: before the production begins the cast members appear onstage barefoot, nonchalant, chatting amongst one another, as if at a beach party. They seem almost child-like in their sweetness. Yet do not be deceived by the laid-back demeanor of these 30-something performers: they are dynamic and talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians. The instrument of choice is the marimba, around 10 of them, placed in rows on each side of the set, and played by the members of the cast. The sound of the marimbas in unison casts a sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, cacophony throughout the production.

The tension emerges as soon as Act I begins, when the men, dressed in military fatigues, flirt with the women in the marketplace. Is it innocent romancing, or the kind of leering, threatening lechery that leads to violence? The cast skillfully lets the audience pick up on the clues as some marvelous singing takes over.

The wondrous voices blend, pull apart, and then rise up above the stage and commingle, all the while telling the story of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her steamy romance with Jose, the corporal of the Dragoons. The opera has been tampered with over the years since its 1875 premiere: modern versions include a film, Carmen Jones (1954). The Isango’s recasting of the narrative in a South African setting works splendidly, partly because there are no props or scenic distractions. The power of the story, told through song, gesture, dance and marimba accompaniment, brings the tragedy to life.

One performer stands out above the rest: Pauline Malefane. She’s a 39-year-old soprano who commands the production from first moment to last. You simply cannot take your eyes off her as she conveys, through agile dance steps and robust gestures, the erotic allure of Carmen. She is all woman: beguiling, flirtatious, moving and sashaying her hips and arms while the marimbas accompany her with their deep woodsy sound, their earthiness supporting her rich voice. Still, Malefane could perform solo and still be captivating; she is that rare talent that enthralls without being overwhelming, inviting the audience to share her characters’s moods and behavior.

The drawback of the production is that many of the words sung by the cast are lost, despite the fact that the show is sung in English. Other than Malefane, I strained to hear and understand what was being conveyed. Audiences are advised to take a moment to read the synopsis, included in the program, or to arrive at the theatre with a firm understanding of the story. With that knowledge under your belt, you will have no trouble being swept away by this vigorous staging.

Kudos to Mandisi Dyantyis, who appears onstage as conductor, trumpeter, and marimba player. He not only keeps an eye on the score, but also ensures that his players sing with taut precision. Pauline Malefane, who shares the credit as co-musical director, helps him considerably. Carmen is a role she commands, and the production radiates with her power.

**

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Report from Toronto: A Visit to the Aga Khan Museum

October 16, 2015

By Robert Israel

In late 2014, the Aga Khan Museum – home to an extensive, private collection showcasing Islamic arts and Muslim culture — opened to the public on a 17-acre site in Toronto, Ontario. From its first day, the museum has been a source of radiance during dark times.

Its Brazilian granite exterior rises above an expansive, welcoming courtyard with pristinely landscaped gardens, reflecting pools, and flowering trees. Though within earshot of the Don Mills superhighway just beyond its perimeters, once you are inside the building the distractions of the outside world vanish. The museum encloses visitors in a relaxing atmosphere of civility, sensuality, and contemplation.

This is by design. The museum’s namesake and benefactor, his Highness The Aga Khan Shah Karim, the 49th Imam (part of a dynasty that dates back to the 1800s) acquired the Toronto site in 2007. Soon afterward, he hired Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to undertake the museum’s design. Maki’s mandate was to make the building pay homage to the concept of light, “to direct and to diffuse light into the building in ingenious ways,” according to the museum’s website, which adds that the building should be “positioned 45 degrees to solar north to ensure that all exterior surfaces receive natural light over the course of the day.”

Yet the Aga Khan Museum should also be appreciated as a source of inspiration at a time when the civilization that produced its art has become horrifically vulnerable, even teetering on extinction. Escalating ground battles and airstrikes have reduced thousands of acres in the Middle East to a wasteland, as revealed by satellite images acquired by Amnesty International and published in the New York Times.

If this destruction is not tragic enough, just three months ago, in early March, via televised images from Mosul, Iraq, the world looked on in horror as black hooded members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, ransacked museums, toppled ancient statues, and demolished artwork across Syria and Iraq. These artifacts, housed in mosques and other holy structures erected by Muslims and Shiites, were deemed “unpure” by ISIS warriors.

“The destruction is on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II, and it’s accelerating,” Boston University archaeologist Michael D. Danti told the Boston Globe. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”

It is also a time when these highly publicized global incidents are inciting isolated outbreaks against Muslim men, women, and children who legally reside in Canada (an estimated one million Muslims live in Canada), according to Canada’s National Post.

This is how Shahad Salman, a lawyer and researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, talked about the issue of violence in a conversation with the National Post: “We’ve had incidents of Muslims being directly targeted in the streets [in Quebec]. That’s where it becomes really dangerous. This year, the Charlie Hebdo shooting and ISIS, and those youth leaving for Syria – I think certainly that’s made it even worse. There are so many people who directly relate terrorists to Muslims, especially on social media. What we need, on all levels of government is a clear statement on unity and to stand firm against Islamaphobia.”

With these Canadian and global incidents in mind, I asked Linda Milrod, head of collections and exhibitions at the Aga Khan Museum, about how the museum was responding to the state of emergency that exists in the Middle East and the climate of unease that seems to be spreading throughout Canada. Is the museum undertaking rescue missions to save the endangered artwork? Are there outreach programs to better educate the Canadian population? “There is no organized effort per se to rescue endangered artwork at this time,” Milrod responded. “But new works are being acquired and commissioned all the time. And the museum is actively involved in programming a full range of arts and outreach programs that draw from Muslim civilizations, past and present.”

In recent months, artists from India, Iran, Siberia, China, and Canada have been invited to perform at the museum. The shows include live theatre, films, musical presentations, and lectures.

As I gazed upon on the museum’s dazzling collection, which includes calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, tapestries, paintings, and luxury objects, I noted a common thread among many of the pieces. A number had been created during (and sometimes even depicted) periods of barbarism and widespread conflagration — from Hannibal and Genghis Khan to the British Raj and beyond — that have afflicted the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia. Indeed, over time many museums have acquired masterworks by taking advantage of political chaos; only in recent history, thanks to persistent reparation efforts, have several of these art works been returned to their rightful heirs or, in a few instances, to their homelands.

Yet sometimes these lustrous art objects were not stolen, but had been obtained, at considerable expense, during historic journeys made along the Silk Road and other trade routes. A current exhibit at the Aga Khan (through October 18) displays objects on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other collections titled, “A Thirst for Riches: Carpets from the East in Paintings from the West.” One gazes upon sumptuous paintings from mid-17th-century Holland that spotlight Eastern carpets in luxurious settings. The depiction of these embroidered rugs symbolized their owners’ wealth and status as well as their penchant for vanity. One painting shows opulence in overabundance; a mirror on a rear wall reflects the shadow of a servant holding a tray upon which rests items she will serve to her masters. The artist encourages us to gaze at the room and gawk with wonderment and envy at the lavish lifestyle, because these handsome folks have truly arrived, while we, alas, are mere slack-jawed interlopers.

A concurrent exhibit, “Visions of Mughal India,” depicts images of elephants, massive pachyderms parading through densely populated villages or, adorned in military regalia, engaging in battle. It brought back memories of my own elephant obsession. There was the time when, as a boy, I badgered my father about a preposterous notion — letting me adopt a baby elephant. He finally gave me a perfumed sandalwood elephant miniature purchased for a single rupee at a shouk in Delhi. Seeing the elephant tapestry brought me back to my youth; the images evoked the majestic qualities of the animal, suggesting why they are revered so deeply throughout South Asia. Howard Hodgkin’s abstractions are hung nearby, pictures painted with wide brushstrokes, displaying the brilliant colors one sees in India — ochre and sienna and ruby red.

There are dozens of similar objects that transport a visitor to another time and generate myriad sensations. There are objects that contain lines written in ancient Persian attributed to the poet Rumi from the 13th century; the lines are etched onto parchment, or brass. Nearby, one can view holy verse written on the delicate contours of a scallop shell. There is an ivory horn called the Oliphant, carved between the 11th or 12th century in Italy, that depicts a hunting scene: it is crowned with bands of English silver. There are original editions of the Qur’an that date from ancient times, when scribes used a single quill to express, in words, their devotion to their deity.

At closing time I made my way to the ground floor cafeteria adjacent to an outdoor courtyard that was drenched in light and mist. I drank a confection saturated in rose water. Here was a place where it seemed appropriate to forget the intractable conflicts of our troubled world, to reflect on how one’s spirit, grown weary from struggles personal and political, eagerly longs for an experience of peace. At the Aga Khan Museum — soothed by exceptional images, sounds, and words — tranquility becomes a permissible possibility.

TORONTO: Nov. 23, 2008 - Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims pictured during an interview in Toronto, Nov. 23, 2008. Handout photo. CNS-Aga-Khan

Aga Khan, speaking in Toronto, Ontario.

**

This feature story appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Review: “Meow Meow” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

October 15, 2015

By Robert Israel

Meow Meow, née Melissa Madden Gray, is a lanky, long-legged performance artist from Australia. Surely you’ve noticed her astonished gaze and disheveled mane of dark, unruly tresses leering at you from subway posters and billboards all over town. And since she’s been quite adept at milking the publicity cow to extend her 15 minutes of fame, undoubtedly you’ve seen her batting her long false eyelashes and flashing her pearly whites in cameos in the gossip columns and on television.

Meow Meow’s branding skills are formidable. But her show at the Cutler Majestic, replete with onstage musicians, stagehands, a body double, and all that pizzazz, is a mess. She’s a heavy-duty, wink-wink cheeky performer with a marvelous singing voice. She struts her stuff like a freaky chorus girl on amphetamines. An ounce of her manic energy could fuel a fleet of Uber taxis. There are flashes of brilliance, but she fails to assert the necessary discipline to shape the show-biz chaos in ways that would sustain our attention. Her director, Leigh Silverman, tries to rein Meow Meow in, but fails. She is too feisty, too jittery. She wriggles like a glowworm. She cannot commit long enough to singing a song to bother to finish it; she continually shifts her attention to audience members that she plucks from the front rows for onstage mischief and mayhem.

The premise of the show is “an audience with Meow Meow,” meaning that theatergoers are co-conspirators to her hammy antics. But what’s missing from her Mulligan’s stew is a unifying sensibility that would bring the show’s flavors together, an order that would rest on her interpretive gifts as a musical performer. Meow Meow’s biography credits her with doing just that at many international venues; she’s garnered praise for interpreting the tunes of Brecht/Weill and others. But in this show, Meow Meow’s dependence on shticks—pratfalls, the slow unenticing removal of layers of undergarments that adhere to her limbs like spider’s webbing, and streams of unintelligible babble meant to underscore her flibbertigibbet persona–elbows her skills as a songstress aside. She milks the audience for applause so often it feels as if we are seated on stools in a dairy barn. This consistent craving for the audience’s adoration–which goes on over a dozen times–becomes annoying.

Two of her song selections, Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” illustrate the lost artistic opportunities. During the Brel rendition, she accosts four men from the audience to join her onstage to form a ménage à trois while she simultaneously attempts to put the song’s romantic lyrics across. Setting up the ruse of a human throne—petting an audience member’s bald dome as her choice supplicant, positioning another to form the seat and arms that she sits upon—takes up far too much time and energy. Eventually, the gag runs out of steam, a souffle that is esoufflé. The performance collapses in order to generate a few laughs.

The same thing happens to the Cohen song. Meow introduces the piece by identifying that it’s “from the Great American Songbook, written by a Canadian.” The musicians launch into it, slow and sexy. She croons with her on-target throaty/smoky voice. But then she hurries through the verses so she can quickly return to the antics, the frantic fray. Were we supposed to pay attention to the song? Or is it just a straight man for a punch line?

The most dazzling moment of the show comes when Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Meow Meow’s body double, joins her in a pas de deux onstage. It’s marvelously choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and one of the few times when Meow Meow, perpetually basking in the glow of self-adoration, is forced to focus on the talents of another performer. Alas, like the song selections truncated for the sake of questionable onstage antics, this moment ends abruptly. If only there had been an extended session of this clever mirror-image interaction—we would have been treated to another sample of Meow Meow’s impressive gifts.

Meow Meow walks (and tumbles off of) the tightrope between pandering for audience affection and commanding the stage by showcasing her considerable musical talents. Because she chooses antics over substance, there are too many flashes in her pan—in the end, the audience leaves with nothing but glitter in its eyes.

**

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).