Orson Welles & Scatman Crothers in A Hollywood Ending
Theater Asylum Lab

The Hollywood system’s callous human values are laid bare in Orson Welles & Scatman Crothers in “A Hollywood Ending, David Caruso’s hard-hitting and bitter-sweet two-hander which just closed at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Willard Manus
Nigerian Spam Scam Scam
Asylum Lab

It’s not everyone who can out-con the notorious Nigerian con men, but Dean Cameron managed to do it. The veteran TV and theater actor explains how he pulled off the stunt in Nigerian Spam Scam Scam, his hilarious play which just had a successful run at the recent Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Cameron, playing himself, is joined on stage by Victor Isaac, a wizard at voices who impersonated various Nigerian characters during the course of the show, including a female tribal chief and her officious nephew, a banker, and a custom’s-house official.

Mavis Manus
Bright Swords
The Complex

Bright Swords, the one-man play about famed African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), was the best thing I saw at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Written by Rick Creese and starring Ryan Vincent Anderson, the play was riveting from beginning to end, thanks to the crisp writing and directing, and above all to Anderson’s superb performance.

Willard Manus
She Stoops to Conquer
Stratford Festival - Avon Theater

I don’t know quite what to say about this production of She Stoops to Conquer. The famous old comedy is one of my favorites. This latest revival is directed by Stratford’s leading expert on direction who has also starred superbly in several productions of the play. It is designed by some of Canada’s greatest designers. And the cast includes three of my favorite actors in the world. Except for one scene marred by a poor choice of actor, I thought the whole performance delightfully well-played, adroitly and very beautifully designed, expertly directed, and a total pleasure.

Herbert M. Simpson
Art
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Thanks to Julian Olf, I know why the “Art” he’s so wonderfully directed for Banyan differs some from what I previously knew in French and English in Paris and in English in the U.S. It seems I just attended a newer American--not British-English--adaptation that places action and accents here. Such alchemy turned a philosophical comedy into satirical farce, drawing laughs galore but less afterthought about values except how entertaining an exploration of them can be.

Marie J. Kilker
Diary of Anne Frank, The
Stratford Festival - Avon Theater

Of the eight impressive productions I’ve seen thus far in the Stratford Festival of Canada’s 2015 season, the only one I cannot recommend is The Diary of Anne Frank. The play is a deeply moving presentation of the amazing human document saved from the tragic story of a real young victim of the Nazi Holocaust. Stratford’s cast is close to ideally chosen to bring the story and characters to life, and much of their performance is remarkably authentic and affecting.

Herbert M. Simpson
Porcelain
The Greenhouse

Chay Yew may not be represented in the annals of Gay Theater as prominently as, say, Tony Kushner or Mart Crowley, but hindsight affirms the impact of his 1992 play, Porcelain addressing prejudice—racial, cultural and sexual—in a country where consensual sex between men had been decriminalized only a bare 25 years earlier.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Goldfish
The Greenhouse

Leo Ledger has an addictive gambling habit and a propensity for losing bets. This not-uncommon correlation stems from his conviction that he is unworthy of happiness, so that his efforts to conceal this flaw are orchestrated to ultimately reaffirm his failure. His wife wearied of this game long ago, leaving him with custody of their son Albert, who is now 19 and departing for college, after supplying his father with a semester's worth of latchkey instructions for the maintenance of the household. Will these measures prove successful?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Physicists, The
Stratford Festival - Tom Patterson Theater

I haven’t read or seen The Physicists for a half-century, and this is a new translation into English by the excellent Canadian playwright Michael Healey. But I wasn’t aware of any drastic changes that Healey has made to the Friedrich Durrenmatt play whose American premiere I saw in 1964. It’s a painfully funny, bitterly disturbing play that was admired but ran very briefly in New York in a lustrous production directed by Peter Brook, starring Hume Cronyn, Robert Shaw, and Jessica Tandy.

Herbert M. Simpson
Qualms
Steppenwolf Theater

At a well-planned sex party—or just about any kind of party, for that matter—there is an understanding that you don't have to engage in sex but are free to enjoy the occasion in whatever manner you wish. At poorly-planned sex parties, by contrast, group pressure frequently makes for divisive confrontations between those seeking mindless sensory indulgence and those bent on analytic discussion as a preface to the evening's activities.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Karen Mason
Don't Tell Mama

Mason at Mama’s in March has ended, but the memory lingers on. Mason returned to Don't Tell Mama's for two June weekends, and with a bouncy swing, her second song, "Takin' a Chance on Love" promises, "I'm going to give my all again." And she does. With Christopher Denny's perceptive piano accompaniment and Barry Kleinbort's crisp direction highlighting Mason's comedic, sentimental, and dramatic talents, her show reaches beyond a master class in cabaret to a master class in theater. We can't get enough of Mason, and she's worth every minute.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Sound of Music, The
Stratford Festival - Festival Theater

Canada’s Stratford Festival keeps bringing in Broadway pros to stage musicals and several powerhouse directors from the United States to recreate their landmark versions of modern drama classics, but this great classical repertory theater’s recent champions remain Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino’s uniformly superb revivals of classics and resident director/choreographer Donna Feore’s landmark restagings of major musicals.

Herbert M. Simpson
Karen Mason
Don't Tell Mama

In Karen Mason’s performance at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street, we enjoy a superbly talented singer who gives us all the nuances and dimensions of the songs she sings— all from the highest pop library— from the Gershwins, Lerner & Lowe, Jule Stein/Leo Robin, The Beatles, and a terrific “Over The Rainbow.”

This top-level cabaret act is totally engaging, with a strong comic undertone, and it’s a treat. Her clear strong voice takes us to the land of exquisite music performance.

Richmond Shepard
Reborning
Urbanite Theater

Kelly shares with lover Daizy an apartment she’s half converted into a doll house. Atop her work-table are parts of bodies, heads, faces, hair of dolls, painting paraphenalia, a projector, lamp, ashtray, bottles of beer. Baskets underneath hold baby-like limbs and torsos. Against the brick back wall, shelves hold molded heads--some with hair, some on baby doll bodies in various stages of dress. Kelly is a reborner.

Marie J. Kilker
Smile, Baby
Dorie Theater at the Complex

Smile, Baby is the ironic title of one of the most provocative comedy shows at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. In it, five actresses take turns in poking wicked fun at male entitlement. In a series of black-out sketches, the actresses play a wide range of women who are constantly being hit on by vain and boastful men. But instead of reacting in traditional fashion by being flattered and impressed, these 21st-century females not only see through the con but find ways to satirize it.

Willard Manus
Catalyst
Dorie Theater at the Complex

The life-and-death struggle to overcome an addiction–in this case, an eating disorder–is powerfully dramatized in Catalyst, a new play by April Morrow which is on tap at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Morrow, who not only wrote and directed Catalyst but stars in it, was anorexic and suicidal at fifteen. She was sent to a Christian psychiatric institution whose doctors, therapists and, above all, fellow addicts, helped her to realize that recovery was possible. As she says in the play, “No one said it was easy; they said it was worth it!”

Willard Manus
Carousel
Stratford Festival - Avon Theater

Carousel is such a beautiful, well-known show that Stratford’s recent trend of topping even the famous originals and legendary remembered productions of great musicals in dazzling, flawless revivals was unlikely here. Broadway pros, director Susan H. Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, instead offer a loving tribute to the beloved original by doing full justice to the four-handkerchief weeper that boasts perhaps the most beautiful and flawless score outside of grand opera.

Herbert M. Simpson
Othello
Gift Theater

Shakespeare never tells us how ethnically diverse the Venetian army was before an African soldier named Othello distinguished himself honorably in the war with Turkey for possession of Cyprus, but the recognition granted this valiant warrior would probably have stirred rancor among his subordinates regardless of his complexion or his marriage to a senator's daughter. The resentment is especially malignant in his immediate subordinate, Iago, already chafing under the indignities of a disabling injury and an indifferent wife.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Tempest, The
Delacorte Theater

It was only fitting that the sky was threatening; it had been raining hard all day, and everyone wondered if the show would go on. It did, of course; Shakespeare in the Park never cancels until show time, and then, only very rarely.

Michall Jeffers
Halfwits' Last Hurrah, The
Lillian Theater

A hit at just about every previous Hollywood Fringe Festival, the Four Clowns troupe returns to the 2015 HFF with its latest production, The Halfwits’ Last Hurrah (a world premiere). Featuring a 12-person cast plus pianist Wayne H. Holland, the show (written by Jamie Franta and Don Colliver) tells the semi-demented story of a vainglorious showman (Colliver) and his goofy cohorts as they battle to keep a jealous ghost from thwarting their creative efforts.

Willard Manus
Marvelous Marvelettes, The
Black Ensemble

Even for those with personal memories of the era that spawned the so-called youth market, it comes as a shock to recall just how young some of its early "teen idols" were. (Paul Anka had his first hit at the age of 14, and Stevie Wonder, when he was only 12.) The five vocalists who would become Motown's inaugural crossover girl-group under the collective name of “The Marvelettes” were members of their high school glee club when they came to the attention of the legendary Berry Gordy.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Adventures of Pericles, The

(see reviews under Pericles)

Pericles (The Adventures of)
Stratford Festival - Tom Patterson Theater

As far as I’m concerned, The Adventures of Pericles is two hours of terrible playwriting, ending with the touching story of Pericles’s lost daughter, Marina. A younger, cuter, infinitely less interesting version of Odysseus, this Pericles wanders through eight plots, each elaborately introduced by a long-winded narrator named Gower (the name of the earlier poet whose story Shakespeare appropriated and messed with).

Herbert M. Simpson
Taming of the Shrew, The
Stratford Festival - Festival Theater

This showy production of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy of the battle of the sexes is mostly a romp for Stratford’s star couple: Ben Carlson [also playing Captain von Trapp this season in The Sound of Music and an internationally renowned Hamlet] and Deborah Hay [luminous star of Cabaret and Born Yesterday at Shaw Festival and seven Shakespearean plays at Stratford]. They are undeniably great actors, a treat to see anywhere in any roles.

Herbert M. Simpson
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Central Square Theater

I'd like to take this opportunity to appreciate the Garden Rose production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Central Square Theater and to reflect about the meaning of the play. And since I believe one of the tasks of art is to help the audience improve our world, I would also like to discuss how this play can help us be better people and create a better society.

Adam Frost
Saint Joan of the Stockyards
Irondale Center

We rarely get to see Brechtian theater, less often to see it done well. So much more terrific to find The Irondale Ensemble Project’s (off-off-Broadway, Brooklyn) excellent production of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards.

Director Peter Kleinert includes so many verfremdungseffekt techniques in this production that it reads like a catalogue from Brecht himself. There’s a whiteboard at the back of the stage area, and actors write on it as the play proceeds. Props and costumes are visible when not being used. The audience is often in the light.

Steve Capra
Liberty City
ETA Creative Arts Center

The entire world looks different to a child—psychologically, of course, with its array of new creatures and concepts, but physically, too. Everything is bigger, for one thing. Adults appear initially, not as faces, but as buttocks and bellies, sternums and shoulder blades. To be a child in the midst of a crowd is to be invisible, an encumbrance tripped over, stepped on, or kicked aside by swarms of pedestrians. In order to avoid being sucked into the chaos, a child must focus exclusively on escape to the shelter of familiar surroundings.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Love and Human Remains
Rivendell Theater

Brad Fraser's group portrait of young Canadians embracing the sunset of nihilistic hedonism—before the fallout from the AIDS epidemic registered across all segments of society—was a lot more shocking in 1991. The danger of libidinal license is a theme long exploited in films but rarely depicted in live performance with the take-no-prisoners vigor of the sensation-seeking singles of Edmonton.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Hellish Half-Light
Angel Island

Actors love the plays of Samuel Beckett for the same reasons that audiences hate them. As with his successors, Harold Pinter and Vaclav Havel, they propose a universe steeped in ambiguities itching for performers to lend them coherence. When this mission is accomplished, deep insights into the human condition are revealed. When not, the confusion is enough to trigger howls of frustration in both presenters and witnesses.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Geezers
Redtwist Theater

At first glance, we think we've stumbled upon a sitcom. The setting is a retirement home's "day room," where a few of the residents gather in the evening to socialize before bedtime. Since the title of the play is Geezers, we anticipate a light-hearted comedy of geriatric hijinks and toilet jokes.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Introduction to Heat Transfer, An
Full Circle Theater

Keep an eye on the gifted young people behind An Introduction to Heat Transfer: playwright Haley Jakobson and actors Matisse Haddad and Kaela Shaw. During their time at Boston University, they worked on the piece together, putting it up as a student project and then refining text and performance as they got feedback from mentors and audience. The positive response encouraged them to keep the play alive after graduation.

Willard Manus
Hamlet
Stratford Festival - Festival Theater

Short of doing a tedious textual exegesis or a pedantic comparison of specific lines and scenes, it’s difficult to review another Hamlet after seeing so many of them. We need and want to see more performances of great classic works like Hamlet or “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” or “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet; they should be kept alive. But way past the twentieth one, I tend to give up on ranking the performance and try to describe its virtues and compare its parts to the same parts in previous interpretations.

Herbert M. Simpson
New Country
Cherry Lane Theater

Every once in a while, a small play–let’s say in this case a trifle, or is it truffle? – ensconced in an intimate, somewhat out-of-the-way theater, makes a big noise. New Country,written by Mark Roberts, is one of these plays.

Ed Rubin
Kinky Boots
Auditorium Theater

I saw this national tour of hit Broadway show Kinky Boots on its final performance in Rochester, New York on a Sunday evening; and the biggest surprise for me was that the mostly elderly audience reacted with the screaming enthusiasm of a younger crowd at a rock concert.

Herbert M. Simpson
Intimate Apparel
The Athenaeum

Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel has everything historical-romance fans could want: a gilded-age urban setting, ragtime music, long dresses and frilly underwear. Its personnel are women, mostly the poor-but-independent variety (with a lone rebellious socialite, for contrast), accompanied by handsome rakes and shy admirers. This is no frivolous bodice-ripper, however, but docudrama steeped in grim compromise and survival bought at the expense of happiness.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Churchill
The Greenhouse

Despite our professed love of democracy, we Yanks are even more enamored of monarchies, with their promise of destinies determined by luck and lineage. This tendency to mythologize our Anglo-Saxon ancestors may explain why playwrights so frequently balk at the contradictions of Winston Churchill, whose historical importance in the 20th century is as undisputed as its sheer volume renders it difficult to document.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Six Guitars
Florida Studio Theater - Court Cabaret

On opening night of Six Guitars, Chase Padgett and the six guitar-playing characters he’s created found a mostly adoring cabaret audience at Florida Studio Theater. Some, though, left at intermission, and I confess I wish I could have too. Why? I’d have preferred Chase Padgett just exhibiting his considerable talent for illustrating different styles of music and playing it on his guitar. Instead he acts six characters who do so.

Marie J. Kilker
stop. reset.
Goodman Theater

The written word's Armageddon has long been a topic for speculative fiction, ranging from Ray Bradbury's “Fahrenheit 451” to Anne Washburn's Mister Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Faced with the Four Horsemen of the Internet heralding the extinction of their earthly mission, as well as the multitude of seductive toys threatening to sway them from their purpose, writers today are easily propelled by the urgency of rescuing their craft into employing extravagant plot devices straining both credibility and coherence.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Stick Fly
Windy City Playhouse

Twenty years ago, Lydia R. Diamond set out to write a "well-made" family drama in the style of mid-20th-century authors like Lillian Hellman—a genre that Horton Foote, Lorraine Hansberry and Tracy Letts have since invoked. The venerable conference-round-the-couch or midnight-in-the-kitchen polemics take on new resonance in 2015, however.

Mary Shen Barnidge
King John
Stratford Festival - Tom Patterson Theater

In conjunction with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, several companies have revived Shakespeare’s drama about King John, the monarch who signed that momentous document. He was a flawed ruler, and the play is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, but let’s give him some attention in this multi-centennial year.

Steve Cohen

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