Theater

The Hotel Nepenthe is Nothing Short of Bewitching

By Mary Tinti   |   Friday, June 22, 2012
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June 22, 2012

Photo Credit: John Kuntz photographed by J. Stratton McCrady

BOSTON - If Thursday evening’s staging of the Elliot Norton award winning The Hotel Nepenthe is any indication, this year’s Emerging America Festival, according to the group’s website, “will bring together some of the country’s most promising performers, writers, companies, and directors for a weekend filled with energy, imagination, creativity, and drama” and is sure to be a big, bewitching wow. That’s no small statement, especially considering the four day, city-wide festival happens to coincide with the arrival of industry professionals in town for this year’s Theatre Communications Group conference. Welcome to Boston, theatre lovers, where groundbreaking playwriting and performances abound!

Written by John Kuntz, The Hotel Nepenthe is about as trippy, witty, snappy, funny, and creepy a production as you could hope to find. At its core, the play tells the story of several different characters that orbit the Hotel Nepenthe (named by Kuntz for the anti-depressant-like potion popular in ancient Greek literature). Some work or have stayed at the hotel, others just know of its infamous reputation. And yet all of these disparate personalities (a politician, his wife, and a prostitute; a bellhop and his sister; a rental car agency worker, a bus driver, and a cabbie; a mourning mother and a fairy godmother…) are connected to one another in ways both elusive and confounding.

Kuntz’s dialogue is incredibly, pleasurably smart; David R. Gammons’ direction, set, and costume designs make the many micro-scenes feel related but discrete; and Bill Barclay’s original sound effects underscore the hilarious, schizophrenic energy pulsing through this play. Actors Marianna Bassham, Daniel Berger-Jones, Georgia Lyman, and Kuntz, himself, are among the most versatile and gifted I’ve ever seen. Playing over three characters each, they were at all times believable and enthralling, even if there were parts of the overall script that seemed a bit inconclusive and unresolved. The unsewn loose ends weren’t terribly bothersome, though, as they somehow complemented the charming “Twilight Zone” aura present throughout the production.

With frequent references to beloved American sitcoms (like “Bewitched,” “The Odd Couple,” “One Day at A Time,” and “The Jeffersons,” etc.) and Starland Vocal Band’s hit song, “Afternoon Delight” (an inclusion sure to touch a special place in the hearts of all “Arrested Development” fans) The Hotel Nepenthe is a wild and wonderful ride well worth taking this weekend. Treat yourselves to some great local theatre and experience Emerging America, if you can.



Huntington Theatre Company presents the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of The Hotel Nepenthe
Written by John Kuntz, Directed by David R. Gammons
Thursday 6/21 at 7:30PM and 10:30PM, Friday 6/22 at 8PM
Saturday 6/23 at 2PM and 8PM, Sunday 6/24 at 2PM

The Amen Corner Comes to Life for One Day

By Bridgit Brown   |   Friday, June 22, 2012
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June 22, 2012



BOSTON -  1 Voice, 1 Play, 1 Day, is an awareness campaign of Project 1 Voice, a national performing arts service organization. Their goal is to use one day and one voice to cultivate an audience for black playwrights and to capture the African American experience in theatre.  Every year on the third Monday in June one classic African American playwright’s work can be heard across the country in simultaneous readings of one of their plays.

James Baldwin’s was the voice heard this year. All day Monday on June 18, 25 stages in 16 cities across the country read his play, The Amen Corner. One Boston theater organization was among the many participating in this consciousness-raising effort. It’s fitting that this staged reading occurred in the same week as the Theater Communications Group conference, the first time it has ever been held in Boston.

The Boston Black Theater Collective held a symbolic reading of The Amen Corner at The African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The playwright Lydia Diamond introduced the work and Reverend Gregory Groover of The Charles Street AME Church followed her by leading the audience in prayer. The readers were an eclectic mix of notable Boston citizens whose voices helped to breathe life into the drama.

The Amen Corner is emblematic of Baldwin’s unique voice and his contribution to the aesthetic of theater. Baldwin, who is most known for his work as an essayist and a novelist, weaves African-American idiomatic phrases and expressions together, illustrating the variety of voices to be heard in the “amen corners” of many black churches. Phrases like “sanctified business,” “keeping bad company,” and “being sweet on” someone or something add the stamp of authenticity to this play about a female preacher in the midst of a spiritual crisis.

Since it is set in a church, The African Meeting House, with its recent restoration and period furnishings, was the perfect setting for The Amen Corner. The religious themes presented in this play resounded loudly in this space and that had little to do with the acoustic layout of The Meeting House, but moreso because of the power and historic resonance of the space. Baldwin’s writing genius, especially his ability to use the art of theatre to elevate an account of black American life in the ‘50s, leaps off the pages of this play, regardless of whether it is being read or acted out.

The Boston Black Theater Collective is actually a program of The William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture. Trotter, an editor of The Guardian, one of Boston’s first black newspapers, regularly used the African Meeting House to promote his newspaper and advocate for African-American civil rights.

At the end of the reading, one attendee remarked that she felt like she was “in the company of the ancestors.”


The Language of Love Person

By Mary Tinti   |   Monday, June 18, 2012
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June 18, 2012

BOSTON - Excellent communication is an essential component to any great relationship. And today, in an era rife with all sorts of social media platforms, there are so many ways for words and emotions to get lost in translation – even when two people are supposedly speaking the same language.

It is this inefficacy of language with which the characters in Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Love Person, currently being performed in Boston by Company One, attempt to grapple head on.  Traversing the realms of spoken English, American Sign Language (ASL), Sanskrit poetry, emails, and voicemails, the four very different protagonists of Love Person find themselves bound by feelings of love, loneliness, and being misunderstood; conditions with which every audience member has no doubt identified at one point or another. 

The relationships in this story are rather complicated, if not far fetched: lovers Free (Sabrina Dennison), who is deaf, and Maggie (Jacqueline Emmart), who is not, communicate through ASL and seem to have lost the spark in their relationship. Free is pretty surly all of the time whereas Maggie is affable and earnest (and for me, their on-stage chemistry was questionable throughout). Free’s hearing sister, Vic (Scarlett Redmond), is a hot mess who works at Club Cacophony (too cute, right?) where she somehow picked up Ram (Nael Nacer) while he was in town paying his cousin a visit.  Ram is a lovely, nerdy Sanskrit expert who longs for someone who can share the beauty of his beloved poems with him on a similar intellectual and emotional level and yet, despite the best efforts of the author and the cast, at no point in this play is it possible to think that person ever could or should be Vic.

Upon his departure from the bar, Ram gets caught up in an ongoing online conversation about poetry with Free (whom he believes is Vic) that feeds both of their desires for pure communication (him, free from social awkwardness and her, free from a reliance on gesture or an interpreter). 

As the plot thickens and each of the characters is forced to confront various acts of deception and the consequences of those actions, it seems as though the play has missed an opportunity to really delve into the provocative nuances of language and translation rather than the surface problems that result from simply not being truthful.   

A language, whether signed, spoken, written, or sung, is a critical, complex communicative tool and that certainty is front and center in Love Person. While the play did not push the parameters of communication as deeply as I may have hoped, it did provide a beginning of sorts…a way into a conversation that is absolutely worth continuing. 


Photo: Jacqueline Emmart (Maggie) and Scarlett Redmond (Vic)
Photo credit: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Love Person
A Boston Premiere by Aditi Brennan Kapil
Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara
May 25, 2012 – June 23, 2012
Company One
BCA Plaza Theatre
539 Tremont Street
Boston, MA  02116
 

Fela! brings Afrobeat to life

By Bridgit Brown   |   Tuesday, May 1, 2012
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“Fela!” is an extraordinary musical experience that requires your participation from the start, otherwise you won’t feel it - or even get it. Like in the opening scene where Fela, played by the brilliant Sahr Nguajah, sings the politically charged song “Everything Scatter,” and commands you to rise up from your seat and feel the rhythm of Afrobeat. At first I didn’t know what to do. Is this a concert? Or is it a musical? Should I rise up? Or should I stay seated? In no time, I rose to my feet and began to clap and shimmy.

"Everything Scatter" is a very energetic song about two passengers on a bus who get into an argument and reach no agreement. It's no wonder why the show begins with this powerful tune about the state of African affairs.

This story, about the life of Nigerian singer and bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, takes place at a performance at the Shrine, a nightclub that he owned. The stage is graffiti marked with deep red, green, and yellow color combinations. The production is immense, consisting of an 11-piece band that captures the late Fela's music down to the beat. Not including the band, the 25-member cast consists of singers and dancers. The costumes, a blend of traditional Nigerian cloth and polyester, perfectly fit the look and feel of Fela and his entourage. This is Fela in the flesh, but unfortunately on this night he has some bad news for the audience. “Tonight is the last concert we will ever play here at The Shrine,” he says. "I will be leaving Nigeria."

The time is 1978, several months after the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was thrown from a window by Nigerian police during a raid of Fela’s home. His mother figures prominently in this show. There is a life-size image of her projected onto a screen above the stage where she hovers like a ghost. It's a bit uncanny but that's the point.
In this scene, his mother’s voice makes a powerful introduction but we’re not supposed to hear her just yet. It’s the voice in Fela’s head, a voice that haunts him throughout the show.

Fela was inspired by his mother, played by the British vocalist Melanie Marshall. Songs like "Trouble Sleep" and "Rain" are gracefully sang and illustrated in this play and highlight the relationship that they had. Even though Marshall said in an interview that she had never heard of Fela before taking on this role, she sang a Funmilayo into existence that I will never forget. I got a tender feeling seeing Fela and his mother emerge like they did on stage. Funmilayo was a teacher, activist, and the granddaughter of a freed African slave from the Americas.

The charismatic Fela tells the audience how his life got to the point of having to leave Nigeria through a medley of his songs. Beginning with the pulsating song “Breaking It Down," he takes us on a riveting musical journey through his career, from how he was introduced to jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, Cuban, and how he fused it all together and gave birth to Afrobeat. There are several screen projections on the set where moving images of civil unrest, news clippings, digital texts, and images from Fela’s life are thrown to add texture to his story. Because his music inspired social and political havoc in Nigeria, Fela was constantly harassed by the police and was arrested nearly 200 times. In one telling scene, Fela and cast illustrate the time he was arrested on suspicion that he ingested marijuana. Nguajah captures Fela's wit and deadpan sense of humor very well as he explains the time waiting in jail for the evidence to show up in his excrement.

Fela! brings other influential people in the singer's life to life, like the African American singer Sandra Iszador played by Ismael Kouyate. Iszador introduced Fela to Black revolutionary thinking, which fuels the fist-raising song “Upside Down.” Fela’s queens, elegantly clad in colorful tank tops, waist beads, micro-skirts and traditional Nigerian attire invigorate the stage, punctuating the rhythm of his music in their swift and sultry hip moves.

The dance, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is hypnotic and bound to put you into a trance, especially in The Dance of the Orisas, a high point in the musical where the stage becomes a glowing spiritual plane and the Egungun (spirits of the dead) appear. These fluffy white ghosts bear fluorescent orange tribal markings and lead Fela into a ritualistic dance characterized by the rapid drumbeat and upbeat tempo of the song “Shakara.” This is where Fela makes contact with his mother and, sort of, figures it all out.

Fela never moved to America but the thought of leaving his homeland inspired this highly spirited musical about the remarkable life of the father of Afrobeat.

See Fela!, a production conceived of by Bill T. Jones, James Lewis and Stephen Hendel. Inspired by the biography Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore, Fela! is currently playing at the Cutler Majestic through Sunday, May 6, 2012.


August Wilson's power play completes his century cycle at the Huntington Theatre

By Bridgit Brown   |   Friday, March 23, 2012
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Up until the end of the first act, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was to me a story about a day in the life of the singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s band. Most of the action in this act takes place among the band members as they wait on Ma Rainey in the basement rehearsal room of a white-owned Chicago recording studio.

I quickly learned that this was supposed to be the day of the recording of the famous blues song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and other notable Ma Rainey tunes. The time is 1927, when both the blues and the commercial recording industry were on the rise in America. This was also during the beginning stages of the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the north. The music of Ma Rainey is a historical marker of that time.

In this act, Levee, a talented trumpeter and the youngest of the band members, is going back and forth about how great he is to Toledo, Slow Drag, and Cutler. He is boastful and believes that his talents will soon control the emerging blues circuit, replacing Ma’s control, but the older men know all too well that Levee has a long way to go before he reaches that peak.

Before rehearsing, the members talk amongst themselves, each recalling a story in their lives about a personal pain or pleasure, a longing that they had - much of the stuff that you find in the blues. As they begin to play, the lights dim and go up on the recording studio where Ma Rainey makes her grand entrance. The band’s story recedes and does not fully come to light until the end of the play.

The spotlight stays on Ma Rainey, played by the actress Yvette Freeman. I was personally struck by the sheer awesomeness that Freeman brought to the role. I will never have the chance to meet Ma Rainey, personally, but I feel that I know her from Freeman’s masterful portrayal of the woman called “Mother of the Blues.”

Ma Rainey dominates the script, seizing ultimate control of the story. It begins when she halts the production process by coming late and taking advantage of the studio owner’s precious time. It continues when she refuses to sing until she gets her complimentary bottle of Coke. While she waits on it, she says of the white men to Cutler, “[They] Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials…and then too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola. And it don’t cost but a nickel a bottle.”

Act two begins with Ma Rainey demanding that Sylvester, her nephew, introduce her on the recording despite his stifling stutter. In the time that it takes Sylvester to say the intro right, money is wasted on each take but Ma guides him through until he gets it. This demonstration of control is actually an act of love that is more valuable than the blues and the money that Sturdyvant (the white studio-owner) will ever make off of the recording.

In a final stroke of power Ma Rainey insists, before leaving, that Sturdyvant pay Sylvester for his time, which he does. It is both believable and unbelievable that a black woman at that time could take control, but she does.
After the recording and back in the rehearsal room, the other drama unfolds. The members of the band are packing up their equipment and waiting to get paid for the day. Levee, who was also fired by Ma Rainey that day, instigates a fight with Cutler and another one with Toledo. The conflict between him and Toledo escalates into a violent act that concludes the story concerning the band.

Ma Rainey’s story illuminates a very special person at a time when we rarely got to see the real story behind the music. I was moved by August Wilson’s ability to tell a story rich in history, culture, and universal themes. Anyone interested in American popular music should see this production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s first Broadway hit. This production completes the Huntington Theatre’s mounting of Wilson’s entire Century Cycle, a series of plays that tell a story about black life during a particular decade of the 20th Century.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” continues through Sunday, April 8 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston; (617) 266-7900, huntingtontheatre.org.


Three Pianos: Regular Guys and Schubert

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, December 27, 2011
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Three Pianos, a theater work inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, brings together three friends for song, contemplation, and wine.  Lots of wine.


Rick Burkhardt in Three Pianos

There are times when the solemnity and profundity of classical music can become overwhelming.  There are also times when just the right vehicle comes along to prick that balloon and remind us that, for the most part, classical music is really an art form that deals in the messy reality of human existence.  The play and movie Amadeus pulled this off for millions, and say what you will about historical accuracy, I think our relationship to Mozart's music has been the better for it ever since.

Now along comes Three Pianos, which, like Amadeus, brings a composer of incredibly human dimension back from the brink of plaster bust-dom.  Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt tap into the spirit of Schubert through a piece of music that may have been the most difficult choice for the project, but also the one that may bring us closest to Schubert's soul. 

Winterreise takes us into the mind of a character who's engulfed in the depths of despair.  As a work of art, it's considered one of the pinnacles of the song cycle form.  As an emotional experience, it's one of those rare pieces that listeners hold incredibly closely, almost protectively.

Three Pianos tests that protective feeling for those who hold Winterreise most closely.  There's no doubt that Duffy, Malloy, and Burkhardt feel complete liberty to do what they want with Schubert's music.  There's a channeling of the spirit of Schubert's work through the voices of today's experiences and realities.  At times it's hilarious, and at times it's heartbreaking. 

But my overall experience was that, even in light of the copious wine that was served throughout the performance, the reverence for the songs among the performers is palpaple.  In fact, there are moments when it's clear that the trio felt that the most powerful experience was to simply get out of the way and let Schubert's work shine through.

That respect for Winterreise came through when I met with Alec Duffy after seeing a performance.  You can hear part of that conversation and see photos from the play below.

Three Pianos runs through January 8 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. 
 



 

About the Authors
Mary Tinti Mary Tinti
Mary is a Koch Curatorial Fellow at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. On her blog, Dress For Sports, she says, "I love innovative public art, creative design, and unique intersections of architecture, sculpture, and installation.  And I love stumbling upon cool collisions of art and everyday life." Mary has a Ph.D. in art history from Rutgers University.

Bridgit Brown Bridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, BasicBlack.org: Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.
Brian McCreath Brian McCreath


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