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The Winslow Boy – Review

Winslow Boy

Sometimes it really is just a matter of right. It can turn the world upside down and erodes health and home; letting right be done, but it is one of the few things that separates us from the animals. A flawless example of this phenomenon can be seen in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Winslow Boy. This (1946) Terrence Rattigan is based on a true turn of the (20th) century incident in England. A 14-year old boy has been accused (and expelled for) stealing a five-shilling postal note. It is a minor, at best, infraction but one that is entirely relatable in our modern world. Even without adjusting for inflation one can easily imagine a family fighting to clear the name or rectify a similar slight today.

In this production from The Old Vic and directed by Lindsay Posner it isn’t necessary to impose any modern or personal reality. The story and performances are so compelling and relatable as to stand completely on their own. For almost three hours the audience watches a family, at home, struggle with the realities of doing the right thing. We see them over the course of two years wrangle with declining resources and health. Their uncertainty, certainty, regrets, and pride are real and raw, all of it under the constraints of 1912 London manner. Making period pieces and characters believable and relatable is no easy thing. Often it is unnerving to see only a familiar actor in a wig or buckle shoe. Posner’s actors disappear into the play and all the audience sees is the characters. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Grace Winslow) is a joy to behold as she rides the emotional roller coaster the events have created. Her husband Arthur played by Roger Rees captures the quiet internal struggles of his class, time and circumstance. Charlotte Parry and Zachary Booth play the elder Winslow children to perfection. It is the youngest boy of the play’s title that is the most surprising. His role, while not huge, is pivotal and he must achieve the most challenging of technical feats. Due to the timing of the incident and length of the pursuit of justice, Ronnie Winslow must age two adolescent years. Many writers and directors suffer from age-blindness and see few gradations from 0-21. Under Posner’s direction Spencer Davis Milford portrays Ronnie with heartbreaking age accuracy. He is almost unrecognizable as he ages from Act to Act. The fragile and vulnerable child morphs into a blasé teenager. He grows up (quietly and subtly) before our eyes.

Henny Russell, Chandler Williams, Michael Cumpsty and Alessandro Nivola are wonderfully cast as Violet, John Watherstone, Desmond Curry and Sir Robert Morton. The set by Peter McKintosh has a smaller role, but a no less perfectly executed one. The living room, with doors opening to the garden and dining room, is a homey depiction of middle-class Britain. The choice to make the set static is wonderfully retro and adds much to the production. The audience feels they are peeking into a window not watching a play.

The Winslow Boy opens at the Roundabout Theatre on October 17th

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Theatre

 

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Romeo And Juliet – Review

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Within the first five minutes of Romeo and Juliet the audience is treated to; a pyrotechnics show, a flying live bird, amplified kettledrums and a movie star arriving on a motorcycle. It isn’t until the arrival of the Capulets, all played to beautiful perfection, that we realize that this is a show that has something for everyone.

Under David Leveaux’s direction this Romeo and Juliet is in essence two plays. The Montagues all appear to be Caucasian and far paler in most respects to the Capulets. The Montagues all seem to be British while the Capulets are American. This blatant use of differing accents might be apt if the setting was the Revolutionary War. But the setting is undefined. There is a bit of sand and an enormous faded fresco wall with graffiti that intentionally or not evokes the opening credits of West Side Story. The costumes are mostly subdued hued flowing Eileen Fisher type garments, and some people don’t wear shoes. In short, we’re not sure exactly where and when this is taking place, but we do know that shiny modern (and loud) motorcycles have been invented already.

The duality at play goes far beyond skin tone and accents however. The actors surrounding Romeo (Orlando Bloom) seem subdued. The fight scenes are hesitant and involve little touching (as if the actors were marking the scene.) Mr. Bloom is the most physically timid and we can almost hear him count out his moves. It doesn’t make for very interesting fight scenes, and it is a bit difficult to discern who is supposed to be injured. The physical hesitation becomes even more jarring when Romeo is paired with the fluid Juliet (Condola Rashad). Her lithe youthful movements in contrast to the (significantly older) Bloom’s rigid timidity make the age difference all the more glaring. Their scenes together often shift into consecutive monologues as it’s impossible to see what’s between them. We are certain that Juliet is smitten, but are never quite sure what Romeo feels. Several times, when Mr. Bloom could be heard and understood, I found myself wondering; is he sad is he happy? The restraint of all of the Montague players is in such contrast to the bold performances of the Capulet clan. When Juliet, the nurse (Jane Houdyshell) and either parent; (Chuck Cooper) and (Roslyn Ruff) are on stage, we’re watching a different play entirely. The theatre comes alive with their modern and passionate interpretation. They are subtle and fierce and funny and wonderful.

The fresco wall moves in several ways throughout the play and makes for a simple unobtrusive backdrop. It’s a reprieve from the frequently used blasts of fire. There is a large bell hanging from the fly throughout most of the play. It’s purpose and/or symbolism is not entirely clear. The music (when not being used to demand the audience’s attention) is a lovely addition. The cellist (Tahirah Whittington) took to the stage to play during the party scene and helped to create the most dramatic and delicious moments of the production. Luckily there are enough of these exquisite scenes to satisfy those who enjoy such things. There is also plenty to make special effects fans happy. And the people who come to see a movie star stand on a stage and speak will be satisfied as well. It is an interesting balance Mr. Leveaux has achieved.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Theatre

 

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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin – Review

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What is rehabilitation and is there such a thing as redemption? Can time served ever neutralize crimes committed? Can a life, interrupted by crime and punishment ever resume a recognizable form? Or is a prison term simply the beginning of the punishment? Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin poses these questions with honest, powerful and very real results.

Tom Durnin (David Morse) appears at his son James’ (Christopher Denham) door after five years in prison. Tom is charming and smooth as he convinces his estranged son to temporarily house him. Father and son have much in common as they struggle (quite independent from one another) to get their lives back utilizing similar means. However, it is the wide chasm between them that dominates their relationship. They both grasp, with fits and starts at women to shape their lives. James meets the lovely, skittish Katie (Sarah Goldberg) at a creative writing class. Their attempt at courtship rings painfully true with equal parts endearment and frustration. Meanwhile Tom keeps his eye on the prize of seeing his ex-wife Karen (Lisa Emery). He cajoles, connives and threatens his son and his son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer) for his ex’s whereabouts. He is unrelenting and there’s no doubt he will get his way. Chris endures much of the bewitching and terrifying negotiations of Tom. Chris is an easy and vulnerable target as he’s agreed to meet with Tom against his wife’s wishes. Tom’s got him, and courts and threatens him in pursuit of a job and his ex-wife.

Tom is charming and scary, and there is no better actor than Mr. Morse than to deftly and winningly play such a character. Tom’s explosions are not simply the result of rage, but are driven by a profound sadness and loss. In Mr. Morse’s hands these episodes send chills down the spine and tears to the eyes. He wants his life back. He’s done his time, he’s apologized and taken responsibility, but there’s no going back. His ex-wife has remarried, after enduring public humiliation and financial ruin. His daughter and her children are lost to him. And it’s not clear if he will ever be reinstated to the bar and move on from his barrista job. In less deft hands, the play might verge on cloying or even twee. But there is no slipping into sentimentality and these characters are fully formed (and beautifully performed.) No one is a villain or a hero; there are no right or easy answers only varying shades of grey. Directed by Scott Ellis, the production is delicately balanced. The fluid staging and the honest performances are the perfect match to the script. The ending is the finest example of Mr. Levenson’s restraint. Everything is poised for a satisfying and definitive conclusion, but instead it all stays very real making it all that much more moving.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durning is playing at the Roundabout Theatre

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2013 in Theatre

 

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Heroes – Review

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Inmates make for the most interesting bedfellows and nowhere more so than in Tom Stoppard’s Heroes. This (2005) translation of Gérald Sibleyras’ play is a story of French veterans who create intriguing (and in one case; unnatural) alliances. At first glance these men have only two things in common; they are veterans and they live in a veterans’ home. But as the (quite funny) play unfolds we discover their shared threads and the ties that bind.

The men; Gustave (Jonathan Epstein,) Phillipe (Malcom Ingram,) and Henri (Robert Lohbauer) are fully formed and complex characters whose rapid exchange of one-liners and bon mots are entirely believable. A three person play devoid of bells and whistles hinges upon the believability and artistry of the players. Deftly directed by Kevin G. Coleman these actors inhabit their roles so completely an distinctly as to set a production standard.

Gustave, Henri and Phillipe are battle scarred, yet they are not bound by their wounds. Henri, who has inexplicably chosen to live in the rest home for twenty five years, is actually the most physically adventurous of the three. Phillipe, who spends as much time unconscious (due to skull shrapnel) as he does conscious, wants desperately to stay alive. And Gustave, dear aristocratic, rigid, scathing Gustave is besotted by a bronze dog.

These men would never have socialized on the outside. (Their carefully executed variations of a British accentt indicate their class distinctions.) Yet like the soldiers they once were, they are together in the trenches with a common enemy; Sister Madelene. It is this alliance and their allegiance to each other (and the dog) that make theirs a story worth telling. It is the honesty of their connection that is compelling. Which is why, without the spot on performances of these three actors the play could slide into Grumpy Old Men (+1) sentimentality.

The final moment of this production is proof of that temptation. The actors are directed to climb atop chairs and emulate flight. It was an inconsistent choice for such an honest production.

Heroes is playing at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, MA) until September 1st.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Theatre

 

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At Last

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Picture it, New York City 1961. Grown people in girdles and fedoras could stumble into any one of dozen of night clubs and hear standards or jazz performed at the highest level. They would sit at their tiny tables; a shaded candle casting them in a flattering glow, sip their Manhattans while wrapped in a haze of cigarette smoke and either bop or swoon to sophisticated stylings. Sitting last night in the Cafe Carlyle, wrapped in Marcel Vertes murals, those halcyon days were brought back to life by William Blake. Resplendent in his black velvet jacket and beatific smile, Mr. Blake brings the best of the past back to life with his flawless show, Echoes of Etta: A Tribute To Etta James.

The audience danced in their seats to the rocking numbers ably backed by the swaying singing synchronicity of The Peaches (Ashley Betton, Shira Elias and Stephany Mora). The Peaches and the audience’s upper bodies were given a break periodically when Mr. Blake turned to the standards made famous by Ms. James. Pianist and co-creator Michael Thomas Murray joined Blake in duets to wonderful effect. Their strong smooth voices complemented each other and created something rich and large. The band (
Oscar Bautista, guitar; 
Mike Shapiro, drums; Frank Canino, bass)
 filled the stage and filled the room. Together they created a magnificent sound one rarely stumbles upon today. This fact was confirmed towards the end of the show when the curtained doorway parted. Jammed into the entry of the club were half a dozen people drawn to the sound. Their faces were a mix of joy and absolutely awe.

While the Etta James songbook is an ideal canvas for Mr. Blake’s range, he is not an impersonator but in fact the real thing. With the power of a rocker and the soul of a jazz singer he brings a tender strength to ballads and a growling ferocity to blues. There’s little doubt his talent could take him wherever his heart desires, but for the sake of those yearning to come taste the wine, and to come hear the band, let us hope Mr. Blake never leaves the cabaret.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2013 in Theatre

 

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