I am wholly convinced that every last one of you is racking your left brain right now trying to figure out why I might take time from my very busy schedule to review another Theatre on Fire production so soon after their smash hick, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. The reason is perfectly simple. There is no Boston fringe theatre actor more reputedly hackneyed than Craig Houk and I wasn’t about to pass up a rare opportunity to witness this erratic and delusional thespian in action at the helm of an 80’s British World War I sitcom. Live on stage no less! And I say rare because, rumor has it, Theatre on Fire is the only company in town still willing to hire such a mouth-foaming, bottom feeding asshat.
Blackadder Goes Forth: Live! is based on the hugely successful Richard Curtis and Ben Elton television series of nearly the same name, a comedy series that began with The Black Adder and essentially launched the career of Rowan Atkinson, one of Great Britain’s most esteemed comedic actors. How curious that the same role will now serve as the final nail in Mr. Houk’s Boston fringe theatre coffin, an actor known more for his bizarre toilet habits than his theatrical talents. But before I clamber up the mountain of ham and cheese that is Mr. Houk’s acting style, let’s take a meaningful look at Theatre on Fire’s latest foray into the satirical world of miscommunication, incompetence and calamity.
The stage version (like the TV version) is set in 1917, three years into World War I. Captain Edmund Blackadder is a weathered soldier in the British Army who, until the eruption of the Great War, enjoyed a somewhat lengthy, albeit lackluster, military career “perfecting the art of ordering a pink gin and saying Do you do it doggy-doggy? in Swahili”. Finding himself stuck in the trenches with the "big push" looming, Blackadder’s singular concern is to avoid, by any means possible, being sent over the top to certain death. With the assistance of his optimistic yet dimwitted Lieutenant George and his grimy direct descendant of a gorilla Private Baldrick, Blackadder attempts to escape his circumstances through various ludicrous methods, all of which fail to varying frenzied degrees.
Director Darren Evans has assembled a perfect cast, which, as many of you know, is always a huge disappointment for me. The combined intellect of Mr. Evans’ team of 9 actors is the equivalent of the man in London who was recently banned from shagging his boyfriend because he had an IQ so low that he was unable to grasp the health risks associated with his vigorous sex drive. And a low IQ is precisely what’s needed to pull off a show as complex as this one. And, boy oh boy, do these actors have it in spades!
Chris Wagner, as Private Baldrick, was so believably filthy that I was compelled to move to the back row of the audience for fear that his boil might detonate and cause some serious collateral damage. And no other actor could ever pull off stupidity as capably as Mr. Wagner does. Christopher Sherwood Davis as Lieutenant George was authentically inbred. His wide blue eyes were like large bodies of rippling water filled with floating deceased fish. Vacuous has never been played so fervently. John Geoffrion, as Captain Darling, skillfully captured smug and devious like they were two feral pigs loose on the streets of an upper class white neighborhood in Los Angeles. And casting could not have been more perfect with Michael Steven Costello as the deranged, demented and always unpredictable General Melchett.
Jason Beals as Squadron Commander Flashheart left me completely spent and walking with a limp. His motto: “Always treat your kite like you treat your woman… get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back”. Woof! Terrence Haddad as Sargent Jones and then later as Baron von Richtoven verily crackled with electricity. His performance left me with an irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and an unrelenting tingling sensation. Terry Torres’ performance as the kindly masculine jailor, Perkins, was utterly heartfelt, which made his transformation into the über feminine, terror inducing homosexual, Lieutenant von Gerhardt all the more riveting. And Chelsea Schmidt, as Bob and Nurse Mary, left this reviewer totally perplexed about her gender and pondering the actual size of her assault rifle and grenades.
And last but certainly least... Craig Houk as Captain Edmund Blackadder. Admittedly, I was mystified by this casting decision. What remote personal experiences could the infamous Mr. Houk draw upon to effectively play this iconic role? Blackadder is a self-serving, cynical opportunist with scathing wit, charm and intelligence. He’s a man surrounded by simple-minded servants, contemptuous equals and mad superiors. And despite these challenges, Blackadder approaches everyone he encounters with an unapologetic brutal honesty that each flat out refuses to heed, or is too narcissistic to heed, or is too foolish to heed. So again, I ask you, how was Mr. Houk able to pull this off in such a convincing way? We may never know. What I do know, however, is that he manages to succeed in this role while simultaneously serving up so much cheese over six episodes that you might find yourself constipated for weeks.
That being said, if there's anyone to blame for the shocking success of this production, it's Darren Evans. I knew there was something short bus special about this guy the moment he arrived on stage for the curtain speech waving his arms around like two wind socks in a hurricane and hollering, “Good evening everyone!” Evans could successfully motivate a corpse from its coffin.
If you’re looking for disastrous entertainment, then check out your buck toothed, tone-deaf eight year old son as the titular character in his 2nd grade large cast production of The Little Prince. Otherwise, if you’re looking to catch a well-executed and well-crafted homage to a highly celebrated 80's television series, then do not miss Blackadder Goes Forth: Live! now playing through May 11th at the Charlestown Working Theatre. To purchase tickets, go here: http://www.theatreonfire.org/#!tickets/c23ct
As I entered the Suffolk University Modern Theatre to witness Company One’s latest exertion, The Flick by Annie Baker, I was instantly met with a smattering of popcorn, an overturned soda and nine flattened sno caps. And as I yanked my right foot out of a mixture of nacho cheese, milk duds, and gummy krabby patties, I finally managed to settle in to a seat so tight and awkward, I immediately stood up to make sure that I wasn’t actually sitting on Jocelyn Wildenstein’s face. And to make matters worse, the show had already begun. Alone, confused and coated in butter and salt, I checked my pocket watch and discovered it was only 7:30. The show was supposed to begin at 8. I wondered how much I missed. Turns out, not much. The opening scene involved scores of people casually drifting in and out of a fancy theatre, conversing unintelligibly with one another and occasionally grinning and making gestures in my direction. And while I recognize that Baker is known (and often praised) for her use of prolonged routine activities in her plays, after about fifteen minutes of that nonsense, I had almost had enough. And that’s when the house manager asked me (not too politely I might add) to get off the stage.
The lights began to dim as I settled in to a less uncomfortable and relatively uncorrupted seat. I looked at my pocket watch again. 8:06. I thought to myself, “I’m gonna time this beast.” After all, this play is as known for its monumental length as much as for its offering of humorous, understated, and clever insight into the lives of three ordinary, yet headstrong, drifters who work at a movie theater in Worcester, MA. Sam (Alex Pollack) is a 35 year old quirky Jew with a betrothed retarded brother and a family of peculiar and misguided spendthrifts. Suffering from reverse Tourette’s and a yuletide skin rash, Sam struggles with his inability to move ahead and with his penetrating love for a greasy haired co-worker named Rose. Avery (Peter Anderson) is a 20 year old black fella and film geek with a fetish for celluloid. Suffering from the super blahs, Avery takes a break from his free ride at Clark University to allow himself time to deal with his parents’ divorce. Or at least I think that’s why he’s there. He doesn’t need the money. Can somebody tell me why he’s there? Rose (Brenna Fitzgerald) is a twenty something alternachick who works full time as the movie theater’s projectionist and very part time as a lesbian. She’s confident, cocky, sassy, funny, sexy and even vulnerable, but she’ll turn on you like an Astaire and Rogers dance routine. So watch out.
My biggest beef with this show, C1, is the actors. You are competing with several fringe theatre companies, a few of which who insist on casting a mixed bag of talent, sometimes going so far as to cast a nearly 60 year old woman in the role of a 40 year old seductress or casting an actor whose only training involves a Netflix account and reruns of Star Trek... for example. And yet you dare to pull together the most appropriate, well-polished cast that I've seen onstage in quite some time. You've out-and-out denied me the unpremeditated entertainment that I have come to expect from fringe theatre. Alex Pollack provides us with a master class in character development. He walks that almost impossible fine line between authenticity and exaggeration, allowing the audience to sympathize with his character while simultaneously enjoying his ridiculousness. Peter Anderson is genuinely thoughtful (sometimes too thoughtful) as he deals honestly with his self-loathing and as he courageously plows forward in a futile effort to save the dying art of 35-millimeter film making. And Brenna Fitzgerald takes a deceptively difficult role and makes it look effortless. None of the actors' performances were even remotely cringe worthy. Thanks A LOT, C1.
That being said, I'm happy to report that I was absolutely thrilled to sit through a two hour play that kept on for three hours. With all the pauses and the gratuitous janitorial goings-on, I half expected the actors to call for their lines. And without knowing the script at all, I was ready to provide them with one. In fact, I had time to write a few of my own, starting with a two page monologue for poor Steve Chueka who apparently drew the short straw when he was offered the role of Skylar/Dreaming Man. I can only assume that the green room couch at the Modern hasn't seen that much action from an actor since Actors' Shakespeare Project held auditions for its December 2013 production of Henry VIII.
If you've got time to kill and are in desperate need of relatively inexpensive acting lessons, then check out Company One's New England Premiere of Annie Baker's The Flick: Tickets
If you just want to sit back with your legs sprawled, your teeth out, and your hat off (to allow the nits to hatch freely), then mosey on over to The Hub Theatre Company of Boston's production of Romulus Linney’s Sand Mountain; a delightful two act play set in the Tennessee Appalachian region, where the first act has nothing to do with the second act.
Act one features a (desirable?) young widow named Rebecca who spends her day making tea and cross-examining three potential husbands: a vain hick (Clink), a pompous geezer (Slate) and a bible thumping windbag (Radley). Desperate to find a respectable mate, Rebecca reaches out to an elderly wise woman named Lottie who strongly advises her to strike below the belt – figuratively of course. And when Rebecca does as instructed, the suitors all run shrieking from her private sitting/interrogation room. Thankfully though, Rebecca is then rewarded with a sexy young widower named Sam Bean who has a mind of his own and who gives as good as he gets. They’re a perfect match.
Act two features The Lord and Saint Peter who refuse the hospitality of an affluent farmer and, instead, pay a visit to a poor unmarried mountain couple and their fourteen children – or, alternatively, two dirt bags and their brood of stink pickles. The Lord demonstrates compassion and Saint Peter practices patience while these gutter rats dance about and swap tall tales. The act climaxes (and so did I) with the whirlwind retelling of the story of Joseph and Mary, which puts The Lord in such a state of joy that he gifts his hosts a washtub filled with an unending supply of craptastic textiles – one of which I admittedly pilfered to wipe myself off with after the show.
All of the actors in Sand Mountain do double duty, but only one does double doodie:
Lauren Elias, as Rebecca, was absolutely convincing as a fussy young Jewish woman endeavoring an Appalachian accent in a desperate attempt to find love in a small backwoods town. And her performance as Jean in act two was downright uncivilized. Bill Salem, first as Slate Foley and then later as Jack, was incredibly successful at playing this both times.
Ann Carpenter was delightfully elderly, both as Lottie Stiles and, subsequently, as Sang Picker. Her accent was authentic, consistent and clear, which made me wonder if perhaps some of the other actors onstage were unable to understand her. Olev Aleksander, as Sam Bean and as Prosper Valley Farmer respectively, brought a great deal of West Coast professionalism to his portrayals, which made him stand out like a high IQ on a right wing republican.
Yoni Bronstein, the show’s class clown, was hilarious both as Clink Williams and as Saint Peter. My only criticism is that his performance was real smart which seemed to be, ironically, a dumb choice for this particular production. Young Connor Upton, as Vester Stiles in act one and Fourteen Children in act two showed great range or, perhaps sadly, signs of schizophrenia.
And kudos to Robert Orzalli for showing up and delivering his lines. I especially enjoyed his heavy squinting and vacant smiles. Superb work.
Special praise to director, Daniel Bourque, who successfully herded the actors in to a straight line for most of the play. And well done to sound designer, Jason E. Weber, who nearly eliminated the dialogue in act two.
If you’re looking for a distinctive and heartfelt Holiday show, check out the replay of The Sound of Music Live starring country music mannequin, Carrie Underwood. Otherwise, grab your tickets for this offbeat and charming nugget. Only three performances left.
In MJ Halberstadt’s original science fiction play, Not Jenny, a lesbian, her enfeebled twin sister and their chubby brother move back and forth through time as they endeavor to mend their fractured relationships. Why you ask? I expect because they aren’t compelled to live their lives in chronological order like the rest of us smacktard simpletons. I surmise that perhaps they’ve been given special permission to sort through their personal histories as easily and as tenderly as one might sort through his roommate’s freshly worn delicates; to survey and sniff the filth and – after writhing on the floor with the aforementioned unmentionables pressed to his face – to forlornly hand wash the sweat and odor away forever. In other words, they’re the fortunate few who’ve apparently been given the rare opportunity to liberally navigate their lives repeatedly until they get it right… while we dickbags get one shot at mucking up our lives forever. But I digest.
The plot is this: Jenny – who gives new meaning to the phrase “bitch on wheels” – was once a popular teen (and village bicycle) with unwavering confidence and an altitude for malapropisms. Sadly, though, her mother’s chance encounter with a street lamp puts an end to all that – and to her mother. Now a wheel chair bound adult, Jenny lives with her diabetic brother (and tightly wrapped package of bratwursts), Jimmy, who is expected to take care of her but can barely help himself… up off the couch. Enter Not Jenny, a jilted lesbian with unwashed hair and a flair for flannel (no stereotypes here) who arrives unannounced to dredge up the past and to forge a future for herself and her siblings, much like a construction worker might forge steel.
Amie Lytle as Jenny literally kept the play moving. As she artfully trundled about in that wheelchair, her emotional shifts from vague to sarcastic to angry to psychotic and back to vague again kept this reviewer blissfully on the edge of his seat. Her persistent use of baby talk was a delicate but effective choice and eerily mirrored her pitiful situation; a “child” who can’t bathe herself and who’d never be able to visit Uncle Grumpy without assistance. Adam Lauver, who played Jimmy, showed great range – both physically and emotionally. His performance was simultaneously understated and powerful; so much so that I nearly forgot, for a brief moment, that he was actually a chromosomally challenged ten year old actor. I haven’t witnessed that much testosterone and spontaneous perspiration since I inadvertently lurched on to a dance floor in Provincetown during Bear Week. And finally, Philana Mia, as Not Jenny, was utterly convincing as Jo Polniaczek from The Facts of Life.
Kudos to director, Rebecca Bradshaw, for assembling a cast. And a special congratulations to scenic designer, Juliana Beecher, who put together an Ikea book shelf so sturdy that a cripple – with full use of her arms and hands – was unable to shake down her prescription medication in a desperate attempt to take a dirt nap. My only complaint about this production, however, is that as it unfolded, I was mysteriously transported to a well-crafted Off Broadway production in New York City. This is not the Big Apple, my dear Ms. Bradshaw, but rather Beantown. Here in Boston, we prefer our fringe theatre, well… not professional.
Please throw all of your hard earned money at Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Not Jenny… if only to afford them the opportunity to get this production the hell out of Boston and in to New York City where it belongs: Purchase your tickets here.
As I entered the Charles Manson Working Theatre to catch Whistler in the Dark’s November 16th production of Caryl Channing’s The After-Dinner Joke, I realized that I hadn’t actually had dinner and began to worry that because of this, I might miss the punch line.
The plot is this: A young woman quits her secretarial job to pursue a career in philanthropy and struggles with maintaining a balance between pure charity and dirty politics. Other than that – and since I was going over my Walmart Christmas shopping list during the first ten minutes of the play – I think I missed the actual point of the piece.
Let me just say that Whistler in the Dark thoughtlessly deprived the audience of a truly authentic evening of fringe theatre by casting a disciplined team of competent actors who, I assume, were secretly shipped in from the UK. Their performances were balanced, polished and nearly unspoiled. Instead of a seemingly unending bad dream of hamming, pornographic sentimentality, missed entrances and line fuck ups, I was made to sit through an entire evening of witty, compelling and reflective theatre. That took some serious plucked turkeys, Whistler.
And to add insult to injury – in spite of their “pay what you can” policy – Whistler had the audacity to ask me for more money at the end of the show. Apparently, a Ziploc bag of pennies and colorful plastic paper clips wasn’t enough. Humiliated, I begrudgingly pulled a shilling from my pocket and tossed it angrily at an effete young man’s basket. More like “pay what you can’t”.
Now that I have that out of my system, I want to address this ridiculous notion that Caryl Channing wrote plays. Ms. Channing is an American treasure; a singer, actress, & comedienne and the recipient of three Tony Awards, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. She is not – as various audience members foolishly described her to me – a British dramatist known for her use of non-naturalistic techniques and feminist themes, dramatization of the abuses of power, and exploration of sexual politics. That’s like comparing a pair of marabou pumps to a pair of Birkenstock clogs.
The only silver lining in all of this was that, because Whistler apparently blew its entire budget on actors, they had nothing left over for costumes or for anything resembling a set. As a result, I frequently had no idea where I was or who was playing who. It reminded me of that time when I was struck over the head with a chunk of concrete and later awoke to find myself naked and bleeding surrounded by a mob of badly made up drag queens.
I’m not gay, but if I was, I’d totally do stage manager, Aaron Cohen, who had his hands full with what seemed like thousands of lighting, sound, and projection cues. He was the teddy bear – in clear view of the audience – and puppet master pulling all the strings. I couldn’t help but pull my string watching him. I’d take his pie in my face any day. No homo, Whistler.
My only advice, Whistler, is to step down your game. Lower your standards. Otherwise, you will never survive in the Boston Fringe Theatre Scene.
There are only two more performances left for this production. If you enjoy theatre that's rare and well-done at the same time, don’t miss it. Purchase your tickets here: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/259/1383350400000
There was this amazing moment on November 3rd, as Zeitgeist Stage Company's production of The Normal Heart began to unfold before me, when I closed my eyes and was magically transported to a tastefully bedecked loft apartment filled with homosexual men who were furiously and bitterly reading to me from a Wikipedia article about the gay plague. And when I opened my eyes (I unwittingly took a much needed power nap), I was overjoyed to learn that it wasn’t a dream, but a reality that would last for three seemingly boundless hours.
Apparently, in the 1980s, homosexual men were suffering from a nameless disease whereby they were rendered incapable of effectively applying stage makeup to their foreheads, necks, backs and feet. And for whatever reason, a hard core bull dyke physician in a fancy wheelchair (the appropriately cast Maureen Adduci) was doing her best to contain it. Queers were wandering aimlessly in and out of her office and then randomly dying. Most of the men who weren’t infected were considerate enough to wait for their “lover” to drop dead before moving on to another “lover” whom, I surmise, they met at the funeral or memorial service. Or at a bathhouse after the funeral or memorial service.
The angriest gay, a Jewish fella named Ned Weeks played by Bulgarian, Victor Shopov (who superbly channels William Shatner playing Hannibal Lecter), meets and falls in love with successful New York Times columnist, Felix Turner. Felix has an ex-wife, a son and a secret beach front property. The visibly epicene Joey Pelletier, who plays Felix, is utterly convincing as a well-to-do closeted man with a heterosexual past, especially during those moments when his voice achieves altitudes that NASA could only dream of achieving.
Ned Weeks is a loud mouthed activist who simultaneously enlists the help of and infuriates a group of venomous, backstabbing queens played by Mario Da Rosa Jr., Mike Meadors, Kyle Cherry, and Mikey Diloreto. A particular standout in this fey bunch was Diloreto who completely bulldozes what little scenery there is with a temper tantrum to rival that of Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest. He is, without a doubt, clawing for an Elliot Norton Award. And judging from past winners, I'd say he deserves it. Likewise notable is Meaders whose portrayal of a genteel southern transgender man named Tommy was spot on.
Also key to the plot (defined contextually in this review as “heavy download of stats”) is the strained relationship between Ned and his brother Ben, played by Peter Brown. Ned desperately needs Ben’s financial and positional influence to launch his crusade, but Ben can only offer emotional support and expert advice... which apparently makes Ben a shitty, shitty sibling. Brown just doesn't get it. His portrayal is so authentic and so instinctive that the unforced tears flowing from his eyes seem to fight against the “act the shit out of everything” motif that had clearly been established by director, David Miller. How disappointed Miller must be in Brown’s portrayal.
Kudos, however, to lighting designer, Michael C. Wonson, who provided the entire audience with complimentary Lasik surgery throughout the performance. And special credit goes to costumer, Meredith Magoun, whose clothing was undoubtedly not modern. Lastly, I cannot congratulate projection designer, Michael Flowers, enough for his impressive use of a large menacing light bulb in the "basement scene" and for effectively showing the audience, via an 84"x 84" functioning heart monitor, that Felix actually passed away. How else would we know?
If overwrought is your thing, then do not miss this epic production. Click here to purchase tickets.
If you hate Shakespeare as much as I do, then you will love, love, love Theatre on Fire’s production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a play by Lauren Gunderson, which employs unique theatrical concepts like life imitating art imitating life in a play within a play about a wife, a wife beater, a hooker, a homo and a ravenous bear. And it’s all set in Georgia, y’all.
Oh and for you actor types, you can go ahead and forget the word “monologue”. Gunderson has renamed that antiquated babbling a “soliloquy”. Or was it an “alicia keys”. My Xanax kicked in right about then. I took one because I was utterly frightened that, at any moment, I might be drawn and quartered by an actual bear. Those damned actors kept talking about it like it was really going to happen. I were skeered, y’all.
The best performance of the night was by Darren Evans who described himself as “producing artistic director”. He energized the audience with a rousing “alicia keys” that included a rambling ransom demand that went something like "if you don’t want to see this play perish tonight, hand over all of your valued possessions". I was so convinced that I nearly reached into my pockets to offer him a half unwrapped butterscotch candy, a double A battery and a flesh covered fingernail that I confiscated from a recent crime scene in Roxbury.
Cameron Beaty Gosselin was so convincing as homosexual, Simon, that I seriously thought some gay guy literally strolled in from a nearby bathhouse. Smelling of a steam room & burnt coffee and clad in nothing but a cheerleading uniform & a faux hawk/ducktail haircut, Gosselin’s performance was fantabulous!!!!
Samantha Evans, as Sweetheart, done blow me away y'all. And by blow, I mean this girl must have done a mound of it prior to the show. Her energy was through the roof. I was mesmerized by the quick and determined delivery of her lines, several of which I’m sure she “delivered” off stage between scenes. I was completely fixated on her legs which traveled from the floor to the rafters and I could not take my eyes off her back end which, without question, could easily keep up with the Kardashian’s.
Good thing Tim Hoover was not terrible. Otherwise I would have been compelled to say that “Hoover sucked” (Google it). But he did not y’all. I took one look at this actor and was immediately comforted by the fact that he was securely duct taped to a ratty old barcalounger. Hoover was very persuasive as the angst filled, women hating, spit dispensing hick, Kyle. I had to pop another Xanax when they let him out of that chair for about 10 minutes.
As Nan, Mary-Liz Murray not only held her husband captive, but she held us all captive. This is an actress who knows how to find her light in a split second. And boy did she have to do that one too many times during the play. Her portrayal of a battered, abused and tormented wife was, in a word, hysterical. Kudos to her for finding those moments of hilarity in a pretty much completely horrific situation typically devoid of comedy.
And a very special well done to Luke Sutherland, set designer, who lured an unassuming audience in to what felt like an actual small and musty one-bedroom house in the north Georgia mountains. There’s nothing more welcoming than one wall of artillery facing another wall of beheaded woodland creatures. And special credit goes to Eric Propp for putting clothes on all of the actors but one.
Do not miss this show. It's 90 minutes of your life that you will definitely not want back. To purchase tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/928266