Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Monticel’"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"MONTICEL’"

by Russell Lees
directed by Wesley Savick

James Callender … Steven Barkhimer
Francis Williams … Charles Weinstein
James Hemings … Vincent E. Siders
Sally Hemings … Sharifa Johnson Atkins
Patsy Randolph … Birgit Huppuch
Thomas Jefferson … Nigel Gore

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

MONTICEL’ is Mr. Lees’ vision of private life within the marble halls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s nearly-finished home and fully-operating estate, complete with slaves. (Why is the play’s title missing the “LO”? It makes me think along the lines of “Yo, Vinnie! Large pizza --- extra mozzarel’!”) Mr. Jefferson, a Republican, has just been elected the third President of the United States but faces fierce opposition from the Federalists; meanwhile, James Hemings, a former slave, has returned to Monticello to buy (or steal) the freedom of his sister, Sally. The deceptively laid-back Mr. Jefferson shows his mettle in the political arena, and Sally chooses to remain at Monticello as Mr. Jefferson’s well-kept slave and long-time mistress; much liquor is consumed throughout and a pistol repeatedly taken from a drawer and brandished is finally fired at play’s end. Those are the bare bones but MONTICEL’ would have made a crackerjack play had it been padded with good, solid flesh and more heartbeats than the feeble few that it has now; instead, Mr. Lees concentrates on being clever for satire’s sake --- if the Jeffersonian era is ripe for exposure, Mr. Lees barely peels it: the MONTICEL’ political intrigue offers no new insights other than shady politicians were far more urbane than they are today; the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is, by now, an accepted fact, plus the over-sensationalizing of American history has led us to expect interracial duets in the Old South (no shock value, there). Nor is Mr. Lees consistent with his vision: overlapping Pinteresque dialogue alternates with heated, three-dimensional confrontations --- a marriage of pen-and-ink caricatures and oil portraits (a satirist may not want to hear this but I believe Mr. Lees is a sentimentalist, at heart, and is reluctant to melt). Despite its flaws, MONTICEL’ is still worth seeing: Mr. Lees’ highly literate dialogue stings, amuses and thought-provokes; in the end, he reveals a stunning tableau, brutal and tender, that points out that history, after all, is composed of people; no more, no less --- had Mr. Lees only trusted his material, more; he barely touches upon the possibility that Sally stays put because she is in love with her master, and he with her (a decision made in character in a certain context in a certain place and time). Zayd Dohrn’s beautiful --- and beautifully written --- HAYMARKET, which also premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre, worked better because Mr. Dohrn let the story tell itself without any ax-grinding on his part (it, too, had an interracial relationship). MONTICEL’, on the other hand, is akin to those smash-America works of the Vietnam era, such as Arthur Kopit’s INDIANS or David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES, now dated in their obviousness, and the Playwrights’ Theatre’s production is a time machine back to those agit-prop days: Richard Chambers’ mammoth Black, White and Gray flag which covers the entire stage is a clear signal that another revisionist history lesson is to be taught (it boasts more than the original thirteen stars); Diana Kesselschmidt’s lighting drains the warmth and color from the stage to underline key passages, and Haddon Kime pours out another of his humming-numbing scores --- but these are trappings; another production, realistically done, could shape MONTICEL’ into an entirely different work.

Wesley Savick, a fine anarchist lead in HAYMARKET, is back in the director’s saddle and Mr. Lees has given him a score composed for clarinet, piccolo, cello, bass fiddle and two snare drums (i.e, the characters); Mr. Savick does his best to blend them into an ensemble but ends up with six soloists, instead --- fortunately, his actors are all good. Vincent E. Siders and Sharifa Johnson Atkins are to be commended for playing James and Sally Hemings without apology or distancing though I would like to see a James more formal and a Sally, less so, some day. Charles Weinstein is enjoyably nasty as an Alberich in a high collar and Nigel Gore slowly brings into focus the gliding shark beneath Jefferson’s calm exterior (is this an accurate portrait of the man?). Steven Barkhimer plays real-life journalist James Callender who later blew the whistle on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair; Mr. Lees uses him as a rather contemporary mouthpiece (for some reason, Callender mutters something about ‘diesel fumes’ --- twice); suffice it to say that Mr. Barkhimer gets laughs where intended. In HAYMARKET, Mr. Savick gave a moving rendition of a male crying jag; here, Mr. Barkhimer contributes a pleasing variation on the usual stage alcoholic: he softens, dissolving into a red-eyed stupor; his brain: a soggy sponge. Like a crowing parent, I’m so pleased that Birgit Huppuch has grown into one of Boston’s accomplished young character actresses (she, too, was in HAYMARKET). Cool, petite and skeletal, Ms. Huppuch plays yet another high-strung mouse, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (!). Patsy is a tricky role: she must jump from being ditzy to poignant to downright evil without any help from Mr. Lees; Ms. Huppuch and Mr. Savick piece her into a dazzling, disturbing little creature, one so whacked-out by repression, the burden of decorum, and revulsion at her father’s choice of a bedmate that she is a walking powder keg waiting for the right match --- and bad-boy James provides the spark; I’m surprised she doesn’t burn down the plantation, afterwards (if MONTICEL’ is a satire, it could use more of this kind of wackiness instead of being so cold and stately, and to hell with facts). And now I would like to see Ms. Huppuch bloom in her next role, whatever it may be --- may she laugh, kick up her heels, sing, dance, be sexy, funny, whatever, as long as she is allowed to grow as an artist.

Finally, there are the stagehands. Two white-skinned women, dressed all in black, enter between (and, sometimes, during) scenes to move the furniture around; Mr. Savick should have used dark-skinned stagehands/actors in period costumes, instead, which would make aesthetic sense and not be as culturally jarring as what’s onstage, now --- I’m sure the last thing Mr. Lees wants to suggest is that Jefferson’s slaves were, in fact, beatniks.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"Monticel’"**** till 21 December Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

"Monticel’"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529 Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Monticel’"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"MONTICEL’"

by Russell Lees
directed by Wesley Savick

James Callender … Steven Barkhimer
Francis Williams … Charles Weinstein
James Hemings … Vincent E. Siders
Sally Hemings … Sharifa Johnson Atkins
Patsy Randolph … Birgit Huppuch
Thomas Jefferson … Nigel Gore

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

MONTICEL’ is Mr. Lees’ vision of private life within the marble halls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s nearly-finished home and fully-operating estate, complete with slaves. (Why is the play’s title missing the “LO”? It makes me think along the lines of “Yo, Vinnie! Large pizza --- extra mozzarel’!”) Mr. Jefferson, a Republican, has just been elected the third President of the United States but faces fierce opposition from the Federalists; meanwhile, James Hemings, a former slave, has returned to Monticello to buy (or steal) the freedom of his sister, Sally. The deceptively laid-back Mr. Jefferson shows his mettle in the political arena, and Sally chooses to remain at Monticello as Mr. Jefferson’s well-kept slave and long-time mistress; much liquor is consumed throughout and a pistol repeatedly taken from a drawer and brandished is finally fired at play’s end. Those are the bare bones but MONTICEL’ would have made a crackerjack play had it been padded with good, solid flesh and more heartbeats than the feeble few that it has now; instead, Mr. Lees concentrates on being clever for satire’s sake --- if the Jeffersonian era is ripe for exposure, Mr. Lees barely peels it: the MONTICEL’ political intrigue offers no new insights other than shady politicians were far more urbane than they are today; the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is, by now, an accepted fact, plus the over-sensationalizing of American history has led us to expect interracial duets in the Old South (no shock value, there). Nor is Mr. Lees consistent with his vision: overlapping Pinteresque dialogue alternates with heated, three-dimensional confrontations --- a marriage of pen-and-ink caricatures and oil portraits (a satirist may not want to hear this but I believe Mr. Lees is a sentimentalist, at heart, and is reluctant to melt). Despite its flaws, MONTICEL’ is still worth seeing: Mr. Lees’ highly literate dialogue stings, amuses and thought-provokes; in the end, he reveals a stunning tableau, brutal and tender, that points out that history, after all, is composed of people; no more, no less --- had Mr. Lees only trusted his material, more; he barely touches upon the possibility that Sally stays put because she is in love with her master, and he with her (a decision made in character in a certain context in a certain place and time). Zayd Dohrn’s beautiful --- and beautifully written --- HAYMARKET, which also premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre, worked better because Mr. Dohrn let the story tell itself without any ax-grinding on his part (it, too, had an interracial relationship). MONTICEL’, on the other hand, is akin to those smash-America works of the Vietnam era, such as Arthur Kopit’s INDIANS or David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES, now dated in their obviousness, and the Playwrights’ Theatre’s production is a time machine back to those agit-prop days: Richard Chambers’ mammoth Black, White and Gray flag which covers the entire stage is a clear signal that another revisionist history lesson is to be taught (it boasts more than the original thirteen stars); Diana Kesselschmidt’s lighting drains the warmth and color from the stage to underline key passages, and Haddon Kime pours out another of his humming-numbing scores --- but these are trappings; another production, realistically done, could shape MONTICEL’ into an entirely different work.

Wesley Savick, a fine anarchist lead in HAYMARKET, is back in the director’s saddle and Mr. Lees has given him a score composed for clarinet, piccolo, cello, bass fiddle and two snare drums (i.e, the characters); Mr. Savick does his best to blend them into an ensemble but ends up with six soloists, instead --- fortunately, his actors are all good. Vincent E. Siders and Sharifa Johnson Atkins are to be commended for playing James and Sally Hemings without apology or distancing though I would like to see a James more formal and a Sally, less so, some day. Charles Weinstein is enjoyably nasty as an Alberich in a high collar and Nigel Gore slowly brings into focus the gliding shark beneath Jefferson’s calm exterior (is this an accurate portrait of the man?). Steven Barkhimer plays real-life journalist James Callender who later blew the whistle on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair; Mr. Lees uses him as a rather contemporary mouthpiece (for some reason, Callender mutters something about ‘diesel fumes’ --- twice); suffice it to say that Mr. Barkhimer gets laughs where intended. In HAYMARKET, Mr. Savick gave a moving rendition of a male crying jag; here, Mr. Barkhimer contributes a pleasing variation on the usual stage alcoholic: he softens, dissolving into a red-eyed stupor; his brain: a soggy sponge. Like a crowing parent, I’m so pleased that Birgit Huppuch has grown into one of Boston’s accomplished young character actresses (she, too, was in HAYMARKET). Cool, petite and skeletal, Ms. Huppuch plays yet another high-strung mouse, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (!). Patsy is a tricky role: she must jump from being ditzy to poignant to downright evil without any help from Mr. Lees; Ms. Huppuch and Mr. Savick piece her into a dazzling, disturbing little creature, one so whacked-out by repression, the burden of decorum, and revulsion at her father’s choice of a bedmate that she is a walking powder keg waiting for the right match --- and bad-boy James provides the spark; I’m surprised she doesn’t burn down the plantation, afterwards (if MONTICEL’ is a satire, it could use more of this kind of wackiness instead of being so cold and stately, and to hell with facts). And now I would like to see Ms. Huppuch bloom in her next role, whatever it may be --- may she laugh, kick up her heels, sing, dance, be sexy, funny, whatever, as long as she is allowed to grow as an artist.

Finally, there are the stagehands. Two white-skinned women, dressed all in black, enter between (and, sometimes, during) scenes to move the furniture around; Mr. Savick should have used dark-skinned stagehands/actors in period costumes, instead, which would make aesthetic sense and not be as culturally jarring as what’s onstage, now --- I’m sure the last thing Mr. Lees wants to suggest is that Jefferson’s slaves were, in fact, beatniks.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"Monticel’"**** till 21 December Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

"Monticel’"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529 Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Monticel’"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"MONTICEL’"

by Russell Lees
directed by Wesley Savick

James Callender … Steven Barkhimer
Francis Williams … Charles Weinstein
James Hemings … Vincent E. Siders
Sally Hemings … Sharifa Johnson Atkins
Patsy Randolph … Birgit Huppuch
Thomas Jefferson … Nigel Gore

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

MONTICEL’ is Mr. Lees’ vision of private life within the marble halls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s nearly-finished home and fully-operating estate, complete with slaves. (Why is the play’s title missing the “LO”? It makes me think along the lines of “Yo, Vinnie! Large pizza --- extra mozzarel’!”) Mr. Jefferson, a Republican, has just been elected the third President of the United States but faces fierce opposition from the Federalists; meanwhile, James Hemings, a former slave, has returned to Monticello to buy (or steal) the freedom of his sister, Sally. The deceptively laid-back Mr. Jefferson shows his mettle in the political arena, and Sally chooses to remain at Monticello as Mr. Jefferson’s well-kept slave and long-time mistress; much liquor is consumed throughout and a pistol repeatedly taken from a drawer and brandished is finally fired at play’s end. Those are the bare bones but MONTICEL’ would have made a crackerjack play had it been padded with good, solid flesh and more heartbeats than the feeble few that it has now; instead, Mr. Lees concentrates on being clever for satire’s sake --- if the Jeffersonian era is ripe for exposure, Mr. Lees barely peels it: the MONTICEL’ political intrigue offers no new insights other than shady politicians were far more urbane than they are today; the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is, by now, an accepted fact, plus the over-sensationalizing of American history has led us to expect interracial duets in the Old South (no shock value, there). Nor is Mr. Lees consistent with his vision: overlapping Pinteresque dialogue alternates with heated, three-dimensional confrontations --- a marriage of pen-and-ink caricatures and oil portraits (a satirist may not want to hear this but I believe Mr. Lees is a sentimentalist, at heart, and is reluctant to melt). Despite its flaws, MONTICEL’ is still worth seeing: Mr. Lees’ highly literate dialogue stings, amuses and thought-provokes; in the end, he reveals a stunning tableau, brutal and tender, that points out that history, after all, is composed of people; no more, no less --- had Mr. Lees only trusted his material, more; he barely touches upon the possibility that Sally stays put because she is in love with her master, and he with her (a decision made in character in a certain context in a certain place and time). Zayd Dohrn’s beautiful --- and beautifully written --- HAYMARKET, which also premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre, worked better because Mr. Dohrn let the story tell itself without any ax-grinding on his part (it, too, had an interracial relationship). MONTICEL’, on the other hand, is akin to those smash-America works of the Vietnam era, such as Arthur Kopit’s INDIANS or David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES, now dated in their obviousness, and the Playwrights’ Theatre’s production is a time machine back to those agit-prop days: Richard Chambers’ mammoth Black, White and Gray flag which covers the entire stage is a clear signal that another revisionist history lesson is to be taught (it boasts more than the original thirteen stars); Diana Kesselschmidt’s lighting drains the warmth and color from the stage to underline key passages, and Haddon Kime pours out another of his humming-numbing scores --- but these are trappings; another production, realistically done, could shape MONTICEL’ into an entirely different work.

Wesley Savick, a fine anarchist lead in HAYMARKET, is back in the director’s saddle and Mr. Lees has given him a score composed for clarinet, piccolo, cello, bass fiddle and two snare drums (i.e, the characters); Mr. Savick does his best to blend them into an ensemble but ends up with six soloists, instead --- fortunately, his actors are all good. Vincent E. Siders and Sharifa Johnson Atkins are to be commended for playing James and Sally Hemings without apology or distancing though I would like to see a James more formal and a Sally, less so, some day. Charles Weinstein is enjoyably nasty as an Alberich in a high collar and Nigel Gore slowly brings into focus the gliding shark beneath Jefferson’s calm exterior (is this an accurate portrait of the man?). Steven Barkhimer plays real-life journalist James Callender who later blew the whistle on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair; Mr. Lees uses him as a rather contemporary mouthpiece (for some reason, Callender mutters something about ‘diesel fumes’ --- twice); suffice it to say that Mr. Barkhimer gets laughs where intended. In HAYMARKET, Mr. Savick gave a moving rendition of a male crying jag; here, Mr. Barkhimer contributes a pleasing variation on the usual stage alcoholic: he softens, dissolving into a red-eyed stupor; his brain: a soggy sponge. Like a crowing parent, I’m so pleased that Birgit Huppuch has grown into one of Boston’s accomplished young character actresses (she, too, was in HAYMARKET). Cool, petite and skeletal, Ms. Huppuch plays yet another high-strung mouse, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (!). Patsy is a tricky role: she must jump from being ditzy to poignant to downright evil without any help from Mr. Lees; Ms. Huppuch and Mr. Savick piece her into a dazzling, disturbing little creature, one so whacked-out by repression, the burden of decorum, and revulsion at her father’s choice of a bedmate that she is a walking powder keg waiting for the right match --- and bad-boy James provides the spark; I’m surprised she doesn’t burn down the plantation, afterwards (if MONTICEL’ is a satire, it could use more of this kind of wackiness instead of being so cold and stately, and to hell with facts). And now I would like to see Ms. Huppuch bloom in her next role, whatever it may be --- may she laugh, kick up her heels, sing, dance, be sexy, funny, whatever, as long as she is allowed to grow as an artist.

Finally, there are the stagehands. Two white-skinned women, dressed all in black, enter between (and, sometimes, during) scenes to move the furniture around; Mr. Savick should have used dark-skinned stagehands/actors in period costumes, instead, which would make aesthetic sense and not be as culturally jarring as what’s onstage, now --- I’m sure the last thing Mr. Lees wants to suggest is that Jefferson’s slaves were, in fact, beatniks.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"Monticel’"**** till 21 December Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

"Monticel’"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529 Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Monticel’"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

| MARQUEE | USHER | SEATS | INTERMISSION | CURTAIN |


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"MONTICEL’"

by Russell Lees
directed by Wesley Savick

James Callender … Steven Barkhimer
Francis Williams … Charles Weinstein
James Hemings … Vincent E. Siders
Sally Hemings … Sharifa Johnson Atkins
Patsy Randolph … Birgit Huppuch
Thomas Jefferson … Nigel Gore

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

MONTICEL’ is Mr. Lees’ vision of private life within the marble halls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s nearly-finished home and fully-operating estate, complete with slaves. (Why is the play’s title missing the “LO”? It makes me think along the lines of “Yo, Vinnie! Large pizza --- extra mozzarel’!”) Mr. Jefferson, a Republican, has just been elected the third President of the United States but faces fierce opposition from the Federalists; meanwhile, James Hemings, a former slave, has returned to Monticello to buy (or steal) the freedom of his sister, Sally. The deceptively laid-back Mr. Jefferson shows his mettle in the political arena, and Sally chooses to remain at Monticello as Mr. Jefferson’s well-kept slave and long-time mistress; much liquor is consumed throughout and a pistol repeatedly taken from a drawer and brandished is finally fired at play’s end. Those are the bare bones but MONTICEL’ would have made a crackerjack play had it been padded with good, solid flesh and more heartbeats than the feeble few that it has now; instead, Mr. Lees concentrates on being clever for satire’s sake --- if the Jeffersonian era is ripe for exposure, Mr. Lees barely peels it: the MONTICEL’ political intrigue offers no new insights other than shady politicians were far more urbane than they are today; the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is, by now, an accepted fact, plus the over-sensationalizing of American history has led us to expect interracial duets in the Old South (no shock value, there). Nor is Mr. Lees consistent with his vision: overlapping Pinteresque dialogue alternates with heated, three-dimensional confrontations --- a marriage of pen-and-ink caricatures and oil portraits (a satirist may not want to hear this but I believe Mr. Lees is a sentimentalist, at heart, and is reluctant to melt). Despite its flaws, MONTICEL’ is still worth seeing: Mr. Lees’ highly literate dialogue stings, amuses and thought-provokes; in the end, he reveals a stunning tableau, brutal and tender, that points out that history, after all, is composed of people; no more, no less --- had Mr. Lees only trusted his material, more; he barely touches upon the possibility that Sally stays put because she is in love with her master, and he with her (a decision made in character in a certain context in a certain place and time). Zayd Dohrn’s beautiful --- and beautifully written --- HAYMARKET, which also premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre, worked better because Mr. Dohrn let the story tell itself without any ax-grinding on his part (it, too, had an interracial relationship). MONTICEL’, on the other hand, is akin to those smash-America works of the Vietnam era, such as Arthur Kopit’s INDIANS or David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES, now dated in their obviousness, and the Playwrights’ Theatre’s production is a time machine back to those agit-prop days: Richard Chambers’ mammoth Black, White and Gray flag which covers the entire stage is a clear signal that another revisionist history lesson is to be taught (it boasts more than the original thirteen stars); Diana Kesselschmidt’s lighting drains the warmth and color from the stage to underline key passages, and Haddon Kime pours out another of his humming-numbing scores --- but these are trappings; another production, realistically done, could shape MONTICEL’ into an entirely different work.

Wesley Savick, a fine anarchist lead in HAYMARKET, is back in the director’s saddle and Mr. Lees has given him a score composed for clarinet, piccolo, cello, bass fiddle and two snare drums (i.e, the characters); Mr. Savick does his best to blend them into an ensemble but ends up with six soloists, instead --- fortunately, his actors are all good. Vincent E. Siders and Sharifa Johnson Atkins are to be commended for playing James and Sally Hemings without apology or distancing though I would like to see a James more formal and a Sally, less so, some day. Charles Weinstein is enjoyably nasty as an Alberich in a high collar and Nigel Gore slowly brings into focus the gliding shark beneath Jefferson’s calm exterior (is this an accurate portrait of the man?). Steven Barkhimer plays real-life journalist James Callender who later blew the whistle on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair; Mr. Lees uses him as a rather contemporary mouthpiece (for some reason, Callender mutters something about ‘diesel fumes’ --- twice); suffice it to say that Mr. Barkhimer gets laughs where intended. In HAYMARKET, Mr. Savick gave a moving rendition of a male crying jag; here, Mr. Barkhimer contributes a pleasing variation on the usual stage alcoholic: he softens, dissolving into a red-eyed stupor; his brain: a soggy sponge. Like a crowing parent, I’m so pleased that Birgit Huppuch has grown into one of Boston’s accomplished young character actresses (she, too, was in HAYMARKET). Cool, petite and skeletal, Ms. Huppuch plays yet another high-strung mouse, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (!). Patsy is a tricky role: she must jump from being ditzy to poignant to downright evil without any help from Mr. Lees; Ms. Huppuch and Mr. Savick piece her into a dazzling, disturbing little creature, one so whacked-out by repression, the burden of decorum, and revulsion at her father’s choice of a bedmate that she is a walking powder keg waiting for the right match --- and bad-boy James provides the spark; I’m surprised she doesn’t burn down the plantation, afterwards (if MONTICEL’ is a satire, it could use more of this kind of wackiness instead of being so cold and stately, and to hell with facts). And now I would like to see Ms. Huppuch bloom in her next role, whatever it may be --- may she laugh, kick up her heels, sing, dance, be sexy, funny, whatever, as long as she is allowed to grow as an artist.

Finally, there are the stagehands. Two white-skinned women, dressed all in black, enter between (and, sometimes, during) scenes to move the furniture around; Mr. Savick should have used dark-skinned stagehands/actors in period costumes, instead, which would make aesthetic sense and not be as culturally jarring as what’s onstage, now --- I’m sure the last thing Mr. Lees wants to suggest is that Jefferson’s slaves were, in fact, beatniks.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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"Monticel’"**** till 21 December Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

"Monticel’"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529 Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Monticel’"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"MONTICEL’"

by Russell Lees
directed by Wesley Savick

James Callender … Steven Barkhimer
Francis Williams … Charles Weinstein
James Hemings … Vincent E. Siders
Sally Hemings … Sharifa Johnson Atkins
Patsy Randolph … Birgit Huppuch
Thomas Jefferson … Nigel Gore

I missed Russell Lees’ NIXON’S NIXON when it played at the Huntington; said play brought Mr. Lees acclaim as a political satirist and now he exposes another American president with MONITCEL’, premiering at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Mr. Lees spins a fascinating tale but I can’t help feeling that the play’s rich subject matter did not interest Mr. Lees as much as what he could do with (or to) it and, frankly, there are times when he gets in the way.

MONTICEL’ is Mr. Lees’ vision of private life within the marble halls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s nearly-finished home and fully-operating estate, complete with slaves. (Why is the play’s title missing the “LO”? It makes me think along the lines of “Yo, Vinnie! Large pizza --- extra mozzarel’!”) Mr. Jefferson, a Republican, has just been elected the third President of the United States but faces fierce opposition from the Federalists; meanwhile, James Hemings, a former slave, has returned to Monticello to buy (or steal) the freedom of his sister, Sally. The deceptively laid-back Mr. Jefferson shows his mettle in the political arena, and Sally chooses to remain at Monticello as Mr. Jefferson’s well-kept slave and long-time mistress; much liquor is consumed throughout and a pistol repeatedly taken from a drawer and brandished is finally fired at play’s end. Those are the bare bones but MONTICEL’ would have made a crackerjack play had it been padded with good, solid flesh and more heartbeats than the feeble few that it has now; instead, Mr. Lees concentrates on being clever for satire’s sake --- if the Jeffersonian era is ripe for exposure, Mr. Lees barely peels it: the MONTICEL’ political intrigue offers no new insights other than shady politicians were far more urbane than they are today; the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is, by now, an accepted fact, plus the over-sensationalizing of American history has led us to expect interracial duets in the Old South (no shock value, there). Nor is Mr. Lees consistent with his vision: overlapping Pinteresque dialogue alternates with heated, three-dimensional confrontations --- a marriage of pen-and-ink caricatures and oil portraits (a satirist may not want to hear this but I believe Mr. Lees is a sentimentalist, at heart, and is reluctant to melt). Despite its flaws, MONTICEL’ is still worth seeing: Mr. Lees’ highly literate dialogue stings, amuses and thought-provokes; in the end, he reveals a stunning tableau, brutal and tender, that points out that history, after all, is composed of people; no more, no less --- had Mr. Lees only trusted his material, more; he barely touches upon the possibility that Sally stays put because she is in love with her master, and he with her (a decision made in character in a certain context in a certain place and time). Zayd Dohrn’s beautiful --- and beautifully written --- HAYMARKET, which also premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre, worked better because Mr. Dohrn let the story tell itself without any ax-grinding on his part (it, too, had an interracial relationship). MONTICEL’, on the other hand, is akin to those smash-America works of the Vietnam era, such as Arthur Kopit’s INDIANS or David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES, now dated in their obviousness, and the Playwrights’ Theatre’s production is a time machine back to those agit-prop days: Richard Chambers’ mammoth Black, White and Gray flag which covers the entire stage is a clear signal that another revisionist history lesson is to be taught (it boasts more than the original thirteen stars); Diana Kesselschmidt’s lighting drains the warmth and color from the stage to underline key passages, and Haddon Kime pours out another of his humming-numbing scores --- but these are trappings; another production, realistically done, could shape MONTICEL’ into an entirely different work.

Wesley Savick, a fine anarchist lead in HAYMARKET, is back in the director’s saddle and Mr. Lees has given him a score composed for clarinet, piccolo, cello, bass fiddle and two snare drums (i.e, the characters); Mr. Savick does his best to blend them into an ensemble but ends up with six soloists, instead --- fortunately, his actors are all good. Vincent E. Siders and Sharifa Johnson Atkins are to be commended for playing James and Sally Hemings without apology or distancing though I would like to see a James more formal and a Sally, less so, some day. Charles Weinstein is enjoyably nasty as an Alberich in a high collar and Nigel Gore slowly brings into focus the gliding shark beneath Jefferson’s calm exterior (is this an accurate portrait of the man?). Steven Barkhimer plays real-life journalist James Callender who later blew the whistle on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair; Mr. Lees uses him as a rather contemporary mouthpiece (for some reason, Callender mutters something about ‘diesel fumes’ --- twice); suffice it to say that Mr. Barkhimer gets laughs where intended. In HAYMARKET, Mr. Savick gave a moving rendition of a male crying jag; here, Mr. Barkhimer contributes a pleasing variation on the usual stage alcoholic: he softens, dissolving into a red-eyed stupor; his brain: a soggy sponge. Like a crowing parent, I’m so pleased that Birgit Huppuch has grown into one of Boston’s accomplished young character actresses (she, too, was in HAYMARKET). Cool, petite and skeletal, Ms. Huppuch plays yet another high-strung mouse, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (!). Patsy is a tricky role: she must jump from being ditzy to poignant to downright evil without any help from Mr. Lees; Ms. Huppuch and Mr. Savick piece her into a dazzling, disturbing little creature, one so whacked-out by repression, the burden of decorum, and revulsion at her father’s choice of a bedmate that she is a walking powder keg waiting for the right match --- and bad-boy James provides the spark; I’m surprised she doesn’t burn down the plantation, afterwards (if MONTICEL’ is a satire, it could use more of this kind of wackiness instead of being so cold and stately, and to hell with facts). And now I would like to see Ms. Huppuch bloom in her next role, whatever it may be --- may she laugh, kick up her heels, sing, dance, be sexy, funny, whatever, as long as she is allowed to grow as an artist.

Finally, there are the stagehands. Two white-skinned women, dressed all in black, enter between (and, sometimes, during) scenes to move the furniture around; Mr. Savick should have used dark-skinned stagehands/actors in period costumes, instead, which would make aesthetic sense and not be as culturally jarring as what’s onstage, now --- I’m sure the last thing Mr. Lees wants to suggest is that Jefferson’s slaves were, in fact, beatniks.

"Monticel’" (4-21 December)
BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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