The work of prolific playwright, Lee Blessing, best known for his Pulitzer nominated "A Walk in the Woods", hasn't been seen much in these parts recently. Currently professor of playwrighting at Rutgers, and "Fortinbras", his 1992 commission for the Mark Taper Forum's graduate program does show up quite regularly on campuses across the country. A dark farce written just after the start of the first Gulf War, the Vokes Theatre production concentrated on the play's comic virtues. The strong ensemble cast from various groups around the area was headed by Bill Stambaugh in the title role as a modern everyman with veteran comic John Joyce as his overeager aide-de-camp. The rest of the cast, who are mostly ghosts, had fun with the campier aspects of their parts; i.e. Melissa Sine as Ophelia in leather, Vokes veteran Robert Zawistowski as a speechless Polonius, and peripetatic Gordon Ellis as a baby-faced Hamlet appearing first of a TV screen. Projected 3D CGI scenery created by Dean O'Donnell almost stole the show. David Hansen's Horatio and Chris Wagner's Osric, who spent most of the play among the living, provided commentary on the action. The author has a bit of fun with the idea of the soliloquy as well. It's an entertaining enough piece to wish Blessing would revisit the script given what's happened since. The comedy could be even more relevant. The old mole himself might even show up.
The Vokes Players perform in a unique venue. English monologist Beatrice Hereford, one of the pioneers in this form early in the 20th century, married a financier in Boston. She built a small jewelbox theatre, named after an English theatrical family, on their country estate in Wayland MA. In the 1930s , when she retired from active touring, Hereford, whose best pieces are still in print incidentally, let a local amateur group use her theater and willed it to them after her death. This troupe has just celebrated their venue's centenary.
Active Massachusetts playwright Jack Neary had his take on Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", first done in 2000 at Mt. Holyoke's Summer Theatre. It ran this March down in the Hovey Players basement theatre in Waltham next to the Library. Reconceived as a 1930's noir thriller, Poe's anonymous narrator becomes a successful pulp mystery writer, played by Eric Houghton, returning to Boston to visit his childhood friends, the Usher twins. After the conflagration which consumed their ancient estate, a Boston cop played by Ted Batch interrogates their friend. The detective also questions Tracy Nygard, playing Fiona, the Usher's sole remaining servant, who supplies interesting "suppositions" concerning the household. The central character, sickly Roderick Usher, was Timothy Dargon, while Christine Ellen Frydenburg was his sister Madeline, who has quite a bit to say this time. The unnatural relationship between these two siblings is still central here, but the Victorian fascination with entombing the living, Poe's central metaphor, becomes more Freudian and incestuous in the complicated plot Neary's devised.
Hovey, as usual, did a thorough job for this production, given their theatre's limitations. Director John MacKenzie used the space effectively, particularly in situations where the playwright had characters move directly from the decaying Usher mansion to the police station and back again. Michelle Boll decorated a well-finished set which IRNE winner MacKenzie lit as well as possible. The ensemble performed smartly, though most were a bit young for their parts. The show would have benefited from some gravitas and a stronger sense of the fantastic. As one of the inventors of the detective thriller, Poe might be amused by what's been made of his Hawthornean mood piece. Neary's script is about to be published by Baker's. It will be interesting to see what other groups in different venues do with it. Hovey would well to find additional performance venues for such future efforts, though earlier in the season, "Scotland Road" and "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress", did well enough in their cramped space.
The strange circumstances in the two previously reviewed shows are no more unlikely than the absurd but true-to-life situation at Thomas Paine Middle School where William Missouri Downs' "Dead White Males" is set, somewhere in Kansas. To quote the release, "the teacher certified in art is teaching history, the teacher certified in history is teaching science, the teacher certified in science is teaching art, and the master teacher's priority is the color of her memos." And that's just for starters. The overweight principal is a pedophile--so he naturally gets moved up to the high school-- while the new chairman of the school board has a mail order doctor of divinity and distributes Amway. The show traces the first year of Jane Greenburg, a new young teacher played by Susan Gross, who was impressive last spring in Zeitgeist's "Popcorn" and played Roxanne for the New Rep's school tour of a three actor "Cyrano" this fall.
In the course of the year there are obtrusive teacher inclass evaluations, bewildering new text books, niggling changes in policy, and obligatory donations of the faculty's raise to purchase school supplies. Not to mention revisionist curriculum requirements concerning evolution which drives Doris, Jane's mentor, a historian teaching science played by Theatre Coop veteran Maureen Adduci, to a breakdown. Science teacher Ms. Wood, played by another Coop actor who had the lead in "Tongue of a Bird", Eva Passeltiner just pushes her art cart from room to room. Principal Pettlogg, played by Josh Patrick from ImprovBoston is content to record announcements and try to watch his language. Cheryl S. Singleton as Doris the master teacher has perfected going along to get along. Coop regular Peter Brown as Dr. Ozzy Mandius is the typical small-time politician out for whatever perks the job offers, including the power to force his beliefs on others. Poor Johnny, the only student seen, played by local Shakespearean Spencer S. Christie, not only can't read, but is a timebomb waiting to offend. The comedy gets very dark at times, but director Thomas Martin keeps it rolling from sketch to sketch on Matt Breton's simple set, which features a large portrait of dead white male Tom Paine, of course. Like "Fortinbras", this topical script could use an update, which unfortunately might make it too depressing, since little has changed despite federal meddling and increased pressure from the conservative and religious factions.
The Theatre Cooperative is the latest venture to use the upper hall of the old Peabody House, a converted church on Broadway in Somerville. Artistic director Leslie Chapman, and a dedicated board, keep a variety of dramas with social themes on the boards throughout the year, featuring multi-cultural casts and performers seen on various stages around the area, who return to Broadway--in Somerville--for the content of the shows Chapman choses. They're ending the season with Grigory Garin's "Forget Herostratus", a political comedy set in ancient Ephesus.
NPR recently ran a feature celebrating the 60th "anniversary" of the regional repertory movement, which now counts over 1000 professional theatres hiring Equity actors across the country. A parallel development begun much earlier in the 20th century was the Little Theater movement, which sought to turn amateur theatre groups into more serious and committed theatres. The three organizations above are the result of such efforts, with counterparts across the country, representing a vital sector of the American theatre. They're joined by such operations as Marblehead's Mugford St. Players celebrating their 30th year, who just revived Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" directed by John Fogle with Jim Butterfield as the Actor and Mark Soucy, from New Rep's development staff in the title role. Harwood's "Being Julia" got Annette Bening an Oscar nomination this year and his "Quartet" just moved on from Merrimack Theatre in Lowell. Mugford St., like Waltham's Reagle Players has a cooperation agreement with their town's High School, on Humphrey St. around the corner from their original home.
Then there's the Turtle Lane Playhouse in Newton, a renovated church, which specializes in musicals. TLP just closed "Miss Saigon" and are preparing "Damn Yankees". The Company from Norwell also perform musicals, such as "Company ", currently running in their own venue. A stable headquarters, preferably under the group's control, seems to be a significant reason for the persistance of these community operations. Witness the longevity of Jamaica Plain's Footlight Club still in their original theater building now on the National Historical Register. This non-profit foundation presents a full season of straight and musical productions. The dedication of countless volunteers including an array of well-trained professionals, some escaping from their day jobs, some who've made local theatre their major career, is also crucial. All such theatres, like their professional counterparts have also stepped up their subscription campaigns. Regardless of vicissitudes of the economy, these non-commercial organizations represent the ground base of the American theatre, especially since more and more of such companies have expanded their repertories well beyond recent Broadway offerings, safe classics, or bland scripts written specifically for community theatres. Many do original scripts, significant revivals, or experimental efforts. A few have explored commissions, but more and more are sponsoring playwrighting competitions and reading series, as the Theatre Coop has for the past few years.
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