note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
These three Boston University productions are the swansongs for many of the talented students who have graced B. U.’s three stages these past two years; a repertory company of sorts is breaking up, and I bow to the inevitable and wish them all many, many broken legs.
Jenny … Murisa Harba
Susan … Danielle A. Largay
Sarah … Sarah Abrams
Joanne … Rebecca Frost Mayer
Amy … Mariessa Portelance
Larry … Ben Posner
David … Benjamin Sands
Peter … James Smith
Harry … Luke Leonhardt
Paul … Greg Hildreth
Robert … Sean-Michael Hodge-Bowles
April … Amanda Moar Sywak
Kathy … Connie Fletcher
Marta … Carly Helsaple
Ensemble … Matthew Martin; Kristin Rago
Where were you when you first heard the score to Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY, that landmark musical with its distinctly metallic, contemporary (1970) sound? I was a teen-ager in Connecticut, listening to the LP (remember LPs?), and I had never heard anything like it before --- and Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics said some heavy-duty things, said at a time when America was letting the repression out and the sunshine in. Thirty-three years later, can the non-committal Bobby and those “good-and-crazy-people” his married friends effectively hold up the mirror for today’s times? Yes, with some shift in tone. Back then, the good-and-crazy people were not the Flower Children but the gray-flannel crowd before them --- the cocktail party set from New York’s Upper East Side, caught between shucking generations of social conditioning yet not quite sure if they want to (none of the wives seem to have jobs), and Bobby was a blank; a bachelor Everyman. The B. U. production turned Bobby into quite the party animal, drinking and drugging, and the five couples were filtered through today’s talk-talk-talk syndrome where everything is analyzed to pieces in the name of Open-ness --- the show has passed from John Cheever territory to the land of FRIENDS.) An eye-opener has been added to the script: the newly-divorced Peter propositions Bobby, which comes out of nowhere and quickly returns from whence it came; I gather librettist George Furth wants to say now what he couldn’t (wouldn’t?) say then yet not cut across the original’s grain; thus, his insert plays as an insert.
TheatreLab@855, that charming little pocket, housed the B. U. production. This COMPANY didn’t move scenically --- there were platforms and ladders instead of those legendary elevators raising and lowering the characters, but Ethan Kaplan’s film/slide projections of New York were clever enough if, at times, a bit obvious (i.e., a time-lapse sequence of a busy New York corner during “Another Hundred People”), and Douglas Mercer coaxed a dutiful performance from his student cast --- “dutiful” in the sense that early-twentysomethings were required to act like long-married mid- to late thirtysomethings and had to trust Mr. Mercer on this one; surprisingly, most of these students could take on Mr. Sondheim’s score; what was Something Different to us greybeards is the norm to them.
The evening belonged to tall, statuesque Rebecca Frost Mayer: first, for her simple but snappy choreography --- especially in the Andrew Sisters-like “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and the vaudeville turn “Side by Side by Side”, where the cast of all shapes and sizes stepped forth one by one to demonstrate his or her twinkle toes (the solo “Tick Tock” dance disappointed, though: what should have symbolized the erotic bed-voyage that Bobby takes with the stewardess April became diluted Fosse --- all slinks and wriggles); second, as the caustic Joanne, stopping the show cold with that anti-torch song, “The Ladies Who Lunch” and being riveting in her every movement, glance and inflection --- quite the Classy Broad. If you saw her quiet, glassy-eyed stare just before she shocks Bobby with her own proposition, you will agree that Ms. Mayer can convey volumes with few words. May she not be doomed to forever play only Camps and Bitches.
Maggie … Robyn LeVine
Brick … Andrew Sneed
Mae … Lisa Grossman
Big Mama … Lauren Hatcher
Trixie … Anna Frappaolo
Dixie … Alyssa Sahagian
Big Daddy … Brandon Murphy
Reverand Tooker … Roberto Daniel Reyes
Gooper … Rod Jerome Brady
Doctor Baugh … Eric Gould
Polly … Emma Feinberg
Mr. Sondheim’s COMPANY and Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF share birthday cakes, an enigmatic male lead and plot revisions; in CAT’s case, director Clay Hopper opted for Mr. Williams’ original Act Three, which may surprise those who know only the 1955 Broadway and the (censured) 1958 film versions. Here, Big Daddy, so commanding in Act Two, is reduced to an offstage groan afterwards while Brick continues to drift on waves of liquor, neither aiding nor betraying Maggie in her claim that she is pregnant. (Mr. Williams was wise to trust his director, Elia Kazan, who insisted that Big Daddy be brought back onstage and Brick endorse Maggie’s announcement.) Performing Mr. Williams’ original version now poses the question: Whose Play Is It? Act One is ruled by Maggie the Cat, lusting after Brick who won’t forgive her for coming between him and his late friend Skipper; Big Daddy, the dying patriarch of this rednecked dynasty, dominates Act Two; Act Three is a near-ensemble piece, with a coda for Maggie and Brick as she takes steps to make her lie a reality. Someday, someone will stage CAT with both Threes back to back, just for the fascinating hell of it.
Time, ever a playwright’s enemy, has not been kind to Mr. Williams’ art --- nowadays it is hard to believe that his plays were once considered (1) scandalous and (2) the dawning of post-war realism. Mr. Williams wrote in closeted times; the era shaped the artist --- he may not have had the power or the courage to bare his true heart and was forced to hide behind ladies’ skirts but, on the other hand, he may not have been as great had he written in more liberated times. (“Art is born of restraint and dies of freedom,” wrote Flaubert.) What remains are Mr. Williams’ words --- poetry, but dramatic poetry --- which continued to flow long after his talent had vanished, and a wise director will concentrate on those words, not the purple situations (that way parody lies). Mr. Hopper went one better: he presented CAT as Opera: lusty, leather-lunged opera that certainly blew the dust out of the corners; some of his singers --- yes, singers --- even sprayed each other in true diva/divo fashion with their foaming mouths. By finding the music in Mr. Williams’ words, Mr. Hopper and his cast found the characters and, thus, the drama. Given a longer run, these students would have settled into true give-and-take; what was trotted out on the night I attended was a good, solid recital, chockfull of soloists. For all the heat and sweat and talk of sex, this CAT’s sensuousness lay in its three-dimensional staging: Mr. Hopper brought the bedroom down to the northwest corner of Studio 210 and hemmed it in with the audience at east and south --- thus, the audience was close enough to hand a hairbrush or kerchief to whoever was declaiming nearby; the actors roamed not only stage left to right, but also up and down stage, equivalent to deep focus cinematography. Bodies moving freely through space --- what can be more satisfying? One nit-pick: that all-important bed was placed as far away as possible --- that bed is Maggie and Brick’s battlefield, their desert; what a shame their final tableau was so physically (and, thus, emotionally) removed from the audience. Caren Yamauchi’s costumes neatly signaled this CAT took place in the 1950s and Diana Kesselschmidt laid on the heat with her near-tropical lighting; her spotting of “Echo Valley” turned a mere liquor stand into a sparkling, multi-tiered calliope of bottles and glasses --- no wonder Brick didn’t stray too far from it.
Andrew Sneed was a solid Brick, all right (though Ms. Kesselschmidt’s lighting turned him to peaches and gold); after seeing his Prospero and Salieri, I declared Mr. Sneed a cold actor --- I’ll now call him a thinking one instead. There is nothing wrong with a thinking actor, provided he can translate his thoughts into feelings; Mr. Sneed has yet to do this convincingly --- so far, his characterizations come from his brain, not his heart. Mr. Sneed’s monolithic presence did lend Brick some badly-need backbone; if he didn’t solve the riddle “Is Brick, or Isn’t He?” at least Mr. Sneed’s portrayal was creditable whichever why Brick swings. Mr. Williams, no doubt, would have been pleased --- and in love.
Frankly, I’m saddened that Brandon Murphy will soon be leaving Boston; like a proud parent, I have watched him grow these past two years; each of his performances were polished, confident and astonishingly varied: a world-weary Prospero; the benevolent tyrant in DEALER’S CHOICE; the cotton-headed Emperor AMADEUS (which earned him an Addison); Mamet’s doomed, innocent Edmond. I have stopped being amazed at what Mr. Murphy can do; he’s simply a fine actor, period. His Big Daddy, though, was handicapped: Mr. Hopper padded his lanky frame so that he resembled an upside-down turnip (BIG Daddy; get it?); by having to concentrate on “fat” as well as character, Mr. Murphy lost some of his usual magic; still, he had the required lung power for his many Wotan-like speeches and made the old ram near likeable. (As written, Big Daddy is surprisingly tolerant of homosexuality; so what is Brick’s problem, then?)
Mr. Murphy was joined at the hip by Lauren Hatcher’s Big Mama. Ms. Hatcher has been one tough cookie whenever I’ve seen her onstage. She doesn’t billyclub, as I recently accused a Lyric actress of doing; she railroads, instead: she fixes her sights on her goal, charges forward, and Heaven help you if you’re in her way. (Ms. Hatcher was one of several alluring silhouettes in the Huntington’s THE BLUE DEMON; I could identify her by her hard, mechanical movements.) Her Big Mama was an old wind-up toy, forever running in circles and lacking the loving fun that Mr. Williams had at her expense; since her yowling Caliban softened for “the isle is full of noises”, I had hoped for the same with Big Mama’s heartbroken declaration that she truly loved Big Daddy, loved even his hate. Instead, Ms. Hatcher tossed us another cookie on her way out. If this is where Ms. Hatcher’s talent lies --- Hard --- then may she either find roles, both comic and dramatic, that can withstand her roughhousing or, better still, directors who can thaw or smash her ice.
This CAT’s delightful surprise was Robyn LeVine as Maggie. When I saw the two names linked together in the program, I first thought of her Zlata in NECESSARY TARGETS, all tightened hair and tightened face; Zlata quickly retired when Ms. LeVine strode on as Maggie: “Cat?” No. “Panther”. Here was the Life Force personified; warm, fierce, purring, convincingly white-trashy --- and with an excellent figure, to boot. (Her raven hair, curled but lank, suggested that the scorching heat was unraveling it.) Ms. LeVine is not conventionally beautiful --- her features, as well as her acting style, is sharp; hawk-like --- but Cat and Robyn joined forces here and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her/them; as excellent as Mr. Murphy’s Big Daddy may have been, this Maggie was sorely missed during that long Act Two --- this jealous woman who “queered” Brick and Skipper’s friendship and seduced the latter to prove he was a man….
Sorel Bliss … Jennifer Robinson
Simon Bliss … Michael Cohen
Clara … Kyle Cadotte
Judith Bliss … Paula Plum
David Bliss … Richard Snee
Sandy Tyrell … Paul Cortez
Myra Arundel … Jane Bergeron
Richard Greatham … Baron Vaughn
Jackie Coryton … Mehera Blum
Camp for the Masses is never much fun, especially when served with good taste as in B. U.’s production of Noel Coward’s HAY FEVER, supposedly based on actress Laurette Taylor and her family; it may have been a side-splitter in 1925 but quickly goes from A to Zzzzzzzzz today. All that is missing is “Anyone for tennis?” in this now-stale confection about life among the Blisses, a flamboyant English family (writer-husband, actress-wife, deb-daughter and painter-son) and the romantic chaos that erupts when each Bliss invites a guest to their country house for the weekend --- the same weekend. A few amusing lines crept willingly into view; director Scott Edmiston and his cast had to kick the rest of them onto the stage; their efforts showed dreadfully well --- this could have been NOISES OFF, with all that din and dash. (Two Coward songs, “If Love Were All” and “Play, Orchestra, Play”, were inserted to liven things up --- they stopped the show, all right, but not as intended.) There was one lovely moment, though, both in its situation and its silence: two of the guests, a solemn lawyer and a ditzy flapper, stood in the doorway and made faltering small talk while waiting to be welcomed by someone --- anyone. (What would Beckett have made of this scene?)
Since HAY FEVER took place on their main stage, this student production was given the full Huntington treatment: a vast, impressive setting by Cristina Todesco (richly deserving its applause) and two Boston favorites, Richard Snee and Paula Plum, joining the supposed fun. But as so often happens on that stage, the setting dwarfed the nine-member cast and that familiar Huntington wholesomeness soon settled in --- not a whiff of Trash anywhere. Why did B. U. choose to revive HAY FEVER and, of all places, place it on their main stage? To banish the bad taste of the Huntington’s BREATH, BOOM and prepare one’s palate for its equally-dated SPRINGTIME FOR HENRY?
At the performance I attended, the English accents softened as the actors’ voices became shriller --- especially when saddled with an audience not convulsed with laughter. Ms. Plum, a comedienne to be treasured, impersonated Dame Maggie Smith but at least did it well; Jane Bergeron (safely) camped it up as the vamp Myra; and Jennifer Robinson, MACHINAL’S tormented heroine and the repressed psychiatrist from NECESSARY TARGETS, turned 180 degrees and came up with a very pretty, air-headed daughter. Thrice I have seen Baron Vaughn play live-wires; here, his lawyer was a shy, touching foil to the zanies swirling around him; in contrast, Michael Cohen’s florid son would have given Mr. Murphy’s Big Daddy serious cause for alarm.