note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Larry Stark
Surrounded by FOUR of These Beautiful Women:
Woman..........Nora Jane Williams
Man............Michael P. Soulios
"Almost An Affair" by Eddie Biggins
Sung by Robert Mattson
"So This Is How It Ends" by Ed Biggins
Sung by Jennifer Condon
"Mediocre Man" by Stephen Murray
performed by Carly Evans and Rachel Cole with a "cameo" by Jim Jordan
Greg Chrysalides..........Phil Thompson
Sylvia Chrysalides.........Cyndi Geller
"Here And Now" by Steven Bergman
Performed by Dawn Tucker, Jessica Shulman and Kathleen Keefe
The New Guy......Jim Jordan
"Out of The Blue" by Barbara Brilliant
Sung by Laura Allen
Lytton Strachey.......Justin Budinoff
Maude (A Maid)..........Ronni Marshak
Virginia Stephen..........Dawn Tucker
"The City Is Empty" by Rick Berlin
Sung by Don Baillargeon
Man 1...............Jerry Bisantz
Man 2...Stefan Dreisbach-Williams
"Xmas Eve" by Rick Berlin
Performed by Jerry Bisantz
Folk Singer.....David Berti
"I Love You" by Eva Kendrick
Sung by Tracy Nygard
Johnny Bernstein..........Jim Jordan
Sally Birnbaum........Jennifer Honen
"An Ordinary Day" by Dennis Livingstone
Sung by Kate Bisantz
"An Everyday Romance" by Philip Carl & Steve Price
Sung by Jane Eyler
"So Refined" by Dennis Roach
Sung by Dennis Roach and Friends
Rayshaun.........Ernest Hughes III
Dr. Crystal Ramirez...Maria Davila
"Ole Pal o' Mine" by Kerry Zukus
Sung by performed by Randy Farias &
Lefty Lucy.......Allison Ritts
Pat Riot..........Randy Farias
Dixon J. Dixon Jr. ......James Tallach
Bibi Rousseau.............Tracy Nygard
Haskell Chapman............Bob Mattson
Jane Chapman...............Kathy Keefe
The "Summer Shorts" anthology-shows at The Hovey Players' Abbott Memorial Theatre have always been full of surprises and this year's 8th Annual edition is better, and more surprising than ever. First of all, it moved out of its cramped 52-seat birthplace into the Turtle Lane Playhouse, where it had room enough to breathe and to seat half the audience at cabaret-style tables. Then the 21 short plays --- the range of which in styles and subjects and genres demoted The Boston Marathon to Bronze --- were separated by a dozen new "show-tunes" telling stories and breaking hearts, and each night began and ended with a "mini-musical" that would knock your socks off. [And why is this review in Past Tense? Because next week-end's repeat performances, I hear, are already selling out!]
Before I describe the goodies, let me say I think this collaboration of two landmark theatrical companies, which was not without controversey, is itself a surprise. Jerry Bisantz, the sparkplug of "Summer Shorts" since its inception, suggested it to Bobbsie Mitton, owner of Turtle Lane, and without the enthusiasm of either one of them this collaboration could never have been possible. The talent-pools of both companies contributed on all levels, from directors and performers to stage-managers and producers and crew and ticket-takers. Each company supplied what the other couldn't, and in the raucous Turtle Lane bar after each night's show, they looked at one another with respect and admiration in all eyes. I hope this will be looked on, eight more years down the line, as an historic Beginning.
"Summer Shorts" has always attempted to find the very best new short plays, acted and directed largely by company members. Often there are plays familiar from other anthology productions. (This year: Tom Berry's "Next Fall at Drumlin" Jack Neary's "The Keeper of The Curse" Gail Phaneuf's "Random Selection" Janet Kenney's "Ma in Her Kerchief") In every case though, fresh eyes dug deeper and found new things in each one of these plays.
In only one illustrative case, the presentation at last spring's Marathon found the cautious prickliness in a 2 a m Xmas-Eve confrontation of a young wife and her mother-in-law. On the Turtle Lane stage, however, Leigh Berry and Kate Tonner (perhaps with the playwright's insights as their director) added a further subtext of a yearning to like one another that was never overt yet always present.
But what excites me most is always the new things that explode on-stage and blow me away. Such as Donna Sorbello's perfectly crafted confrontation of a street-smart sometime prostitute with a civilly disobedient anti-abortion nun in a holding-tank. Her "Salvation", directed by Marc Miller, seemed a flawlessly crafted investigation of two conflicting perspectives coming, grudgingly and tentatively, to a human respect for the other's situation. [ ] as the nun and Equity card-holder Elaine Theodore eloquently proved that it always looks effortless when actors have great characters to slip on and walk around in.
In "A Bloomsbury Proposal" by Carl A. Rossi (Now, why does that name sound familiar?), the characters were historian Lytton Strachey and Virginia Stephen (before she married Leonard Woolf) --- with Ronni Marshak as one of her many copyrighted maids. Justin Budinoff played the hypochondriac essayist as a nervous, sneeze-wracked suitor seeking, despite his sexual preference, to propose something like marriage, with Dawn Tucker as typically Bloomsbury-atypical as to accept! The physical liveliness of this nervous pair, under Jerry Bisantz direction, came alive with full-body acting and subtle takes and pauses. It was as carefully crafted a comedy as Sorbello's very different p[lay.
And then there was Robert Mattson, directing his own " famous -- small 'f' ", which he swore he knocked out in half an hour and insisted worked only because David Berti (a regular Vokes Player) played a small-time folk-singer opposite Jessica Shulman as his most adoring fan. "Hah!" I say, "Hah!" This was a textbook-clear example of how to hurl two real human beings together just to watch the beautiful sparks. The idea that pleasing even only one person with one song (or one play perhaps?) can be small-f fame enough for anyone. And then, with one unexpected yet perfectly predictable line, he pricked the bubble of sincere insight with laughter. Half an hour? Ridiculous!!
And then there were the out-of-nowhere surprises! Like George Sauer's ridiculous re-write of Cleopatra's death-scene, with Jim Jordan's clownish delivery-boy bringing not a deadly snake but a poisonously past-date milk-shake to Jennifer Condon's Cleopatra and Rachel Cole's Charmian ... who lapsed occasionally into some of the more obscure but mouth-filling sentences of one Wilm Shaxpy. With the pair dead of ptomain, Steve Lillis as a squeamish Augustus Caesar was left to dispose of the bodies.
Then there was Jena Lustbader's bit of theatrical bombast called "At The Stroke of Marmalade", a cold-eyed, dead-pan comedy of minimal motion flawlessly synchronized. The elderly English couple breakfasting over identical tabloid newspapers speculate on whether one would divorce the other after a stroke --- the smell of marmalade being a telltale clue to its onset. Of course when Kristin Hughes' maid delivers pills (tranquilizers?) the laconic comedy takes a new dimension. And director Ronni Marshak saw to it that that the econimical, stylized stage-movements were precise mirror-echoes of one another.
But, of course, my Favorite of favorites was the newly lyrical "Romance 101" which worked on several levels. First, in condensing an entire love-story from "meet-cute" to break-up and beyond it both used and satirized all the cliches of the genre, often in unfinished sentences. But characters were allowed asides commenting to the audience ("I'm only another plot-device" "I'm going to wait off-stage, with the stage-manager --- In the Dark!" "One lousy line? For this I gave up a beach-day? Wait'll I get my hands on my agent!") --- and then the whole thing was set to Steve Gilbane's quick, qirky, bouncy music ("This is my eleven-o'clock number! I start off slow...") And the cast treated this intelligent wit with exactly the up-front subtlety and crisp timing to let the laughs explode in the audience's mind. On the set of Turtle Lane, which till now has been committed to long runs of a tightening play-list of warhorse musicals, this satire was the hit of the evening.
But not the only musical. Shari Ajemian Craig and Sarah Newcomb's charming "The Purloined Painting" set the mystery of a stolen painting's whereabouts solidly in the Agatha Christie genre, with not one but two investigators pretending to be servants and skulking galore. Then Monica Bauer's bombastic "The Klezmer Cowboy" had Turtle Lane's resident commedian Jim Jordan, as a cowboy guitarist, willing to play anything and even to improvise in auditioning, before Jennifer Honen, for a gig as a Bar Mitzva entertainer. (The song insisting that after thirteen life is all down-hill was hysterically true!)
And before I forget, Jerry Bisantz has tried to make his welcoming speech every year even more outrageous (and last year he did it in a dress and heels!). The gimmick this year was an elegant shirt-tie-tux but no pants ("Summer SHORTS"!) for a quick "Keep It Short" number featuring four leggy ladies in identically silver-glittery miniskirted gowns dancing about him till the title "The Bisantz FOLLIES" crept into my mind.
You think that's enough? Not on your life! The spread of styles here included several brief plays of social relevance that, as Geralyn Horton will attest, get scant stage-time here in America.
The most telling of them was George Masselam's "Holly's Plea" in which Bob Williams played a distraught father, gasoline-drum clutched in his arms, determined to set himself on fire to protest war. His wife (Tracy Nygard) pleaded fruitlessly, as did his daughter (Kate Bisantz) --- who only later was revealed as the ghost of a soldier blown to bits hardly worth burial. The play thus started realistically and gradually became a dialogue inside the man's head. [On that opening Thursday night, Masselam's play became chillingly relevant when, that afternoon, the radio carried news that a father had indeed set himself afire when told of his son's death in Iraq. Life shouldn't imitate art quite so closely...]
Geralyn Horton's slice-of-life play "Help Wanted" was set in a networking office for the recently downsized which, for its kicker, revealed that even this barely-effectual social sop was suddenly terminated in a governmental economy-wave.
Patrick Brennan actually played the central role in his "Fair and Balanced" which put him between "Lefty Lucy" and "Pat Riot" --- two media political-commentators pontificating from pedastils --- when not joining in song-and-dance routines. The idea sounds better than it turned out.
And then there was Frank A. Shefton's "Wounds" --- a melodramatic teaching-play with ideas crying for expansion. The leader of a Black gang whose buddy was wounded in a shoot-out took him to the neighborhood dentist's office demanding she use her anaesthetics and scalpels to save his life. Eventually, she saves His life, convincing him to give up gang-banging and go back to med-school. The play demanded realistic sets and acting, which the anthology-format and brief rehearsal-times could not supply. I also felt that scenes talked about, like the botched attack on a rival gang should be shown --- best perhaps in a screen- and not a stage-play.
Another that I felt wanted to grow up on the screen and not the stage was Susan Leonard's rambling play "The Thing About Ballast" --- which seemed to me not cut but expanded after last spring's Marathon, to its detriment. Centered in the mind of a pugnacious truck-driver with a beer-belly he had named "Billy the belly", it was part monologue, part mime of aggressively selfish driving, and part surrealistic fantasy. At the end, Phil Thompson as the trucker had his never-believable pal "Billy" shot by his wife --- the always luminous Cyndi Geller, who spent most of the play doing new-age yoga and recommending breathing exercizes. I thought much of what was merely disjointed and bewildering could be clarified with film images. [The playwright, I'm told, promised a re-write or at least some pruning before next Saturday's reprise. We can but hope... ]
And, rounding out the program were two charming little snapshots: In Laura DeCesare's "Seriously" an Irish cynic and a tourist in love with the Celts (Gordon Ellis & the playwright) met and argued in front of a standing-stone in The Old Country. In J. Mark Baumhardt's "The Game of Life" two aging adolescents on their way to a Sox game (John Purcell & Michael Corbett) speculated on how the social misfit of their class could have turned into the svelt-suited success at the other end of their subway car.
And finally, that same Gordon Ellis directed Christopher Lockheardt's "Your Kiss Is on My List" about which I know nothing ... Yet.
Truth to tell last Thursday in the Turtle Lane Bar after the shows, Nora Jane Williams (who plays Woman to Michael P. Soulios' Man in this play) launched herself at me demanding "What did you think of it?" to which I had to admit that congested road traffic meant I had arrived too late to see this first show on the bill --- which I will see [and review. Promise!] this coming Saturday, the closing night of "Summer Shorts".
You can call and try for tickets too if you'd like --- there are probably several things there for every taste. But, if I were you, I'd hurry. Even in Turtle Lane Playhouse where "you're never more than forty feet from the stage" Seating IS Limited.
If you're one of the lucky, meet me in the bar after the show....
A word about the songs:
There is a sort of celebration of the ordinary in this set of new, originals, with titles like "An Ordinary Day" or "An Everyday Romance" or "Almost An Affair"; stil, each one is that sort of "story-song" that would be called a "show-tune" if there were a show for it to be "from". In the age of what I still think of as Noisy Rock Music, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that people still ARE writing songs like them anymore. And bravo for the "Summer Shorts" for finding them and giving them to appreciative ears.