Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 24, 2010

Spring Awakening

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 28, 2010
by Bob Smith

Ah, youth! The enjoyment of "Spring Awakening" will depend in large part on how well the audience has recovered from its own adolescent angst. Based on a scandalous play written in 1891, this Tony Award winning show illustrates that teenagers have always felt oppressed by the adult world and even more terrified by the world in their own heads.

Bringing the story into the present age is the music by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater. The numbers are at turns rebellious, whimsical and heart wrenching. Reflecting youthful passions, some of the song titles are not even repeatable in print. "The Dark I Know Well" details a horrific subject in a calm but devastating manner. Sarah Hunt and Steffi D delivered a powerful and poignant duet, lending each other the strength of their voices.

This is not theatre for the faint of heart, as these are hormonal teens after all. Even in their attempts to forge meaningful connections with one another, there is brutality and coarseness. The lighting and staging plays an integral role, illustrating the conflicting emotional states between desires and actions. Characters literally are climbing up the walls. The band that propels the emotional score sits on stage, lending a rock-concert quality to many of the numbers.

It is an ensemble piece, but it is well anchored by Jake Epstein and Christy Altomare as the "romantic" leads. From the opening number, one can very quickly start to feel like a voyeur, and it is their earnest portrayals that facilitate your investment in the drama. Parents may nod in recognition of their own experiences while simultaneously dreading the years to come.

"Spring Awakening" is a unique experience. Startling subject matter, atypical songs for a Broadway show, and engaging young performers make it worthwhile theatre for those who are not put off by the excessive emotional tendencies of youth.

Contains mature themes, sexual situations, nudity and strong language.

February 21, 2010

Communicating Doors

Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through March 6, 2010
by Shera Cohen

You don’t have to be a “Lost” fan to fully appreciate “Communicating Doors,” but it might help. Britain’s “Neil Simon,” Alan Ayckbourn penned this comic, science fiction, mystery before the cult TV show began. Perhaps “Lost’s” writers saw the play, said “great concept,” and the rest is history? Toss sex and murder into the plot mix and there’s a lot to like in “Doors.”

Set over the course of one day, yet in a 40-year time span (sounds odd, but true) are six characters whose lives intertwine in 1984, 2004, and 2040. The lead role is that of a twenty-something, which makes the literal timing all the more purposely confusing. Time moves back and forth at the drop of a hat – actually at the opening of a door.

The set is a hotel suite, beautifully crafted with three rooms, a balcony, and a surprise. The latter is a key element, as important as any of the characters. Well-executed lighting and sound design help create the mystery.

A novice (yet fully equipped) dominatrix is our heroine. Relative newcomer Becky Rodia Schoenfeld portrays Phoebe with sweetness and naivete. She is ever-present onstage, the lynchpin who keeps the steady swift pace from scene to scene. Schoenfeld is a top-notch young comedian who doesn’t mind throwing her whole body into the action. Much of her time is spent in dialogue and antics with Ruella, played by veteran actress Mary Fernandez-Sierra. The two characters’ immediate connection and rapport is honest. These total strangers care about each other and the audience cares about them.

Dale Facey’s direction nicely transitions from one decade to another and back again, yet on the same set in different time-warps. Albeit, the play is a bit long and small cuts would have been helpful. A section in Act I requires an elderly man to collapse, perhaps with a heart attack. This is done in humor, yet the audience cannot see the actor since the couch blocks the audience’s view. Had we seen it, there would have been more laughs.

The writer has strewn his play with clever dialogue, the director with physical humor, and the actors with the best English accents heard on a community theatre stage.

February 17, 2010


Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through March 7, 2010
by Eric Sutter

Love conquers all, even in the worst case scenarios of life. This message is the theme that ties the plots of "Rent" together. "Rent" has a lot going for it... a stellar cast of young actors playing energetic characters that truly deliver. It is fast paced and funny and, at times, soars. This is cutting edge theatre with a radical welcome that deals with modern issues.

The musical drama begins with the soliloquy of the show's narrator Mark (Thomas Jon Creatore) spending a cold Christmas Eve in the Lower East Side industrial loft he shares with his roommate musician Roger (Tom Knightlee). Memorable music fills the story, including the title song. "You Okay Honey," is sung by Angel (Gionannie 'Desio' Mendez), an HIV+ transvestite street musician. The bohemian lifestyles of the characters' risque lives are woven together with a vagabond spirit of fantastic dialogue, song, and dance. In one scene, Angel is outlandishly dressed as a transvestite Santa Claus. Contemporary love songs include "Tango Maureen" and "I'll Cover You."

Act I I begins with the company posing the question "How do you measure a year in the life? ("Seasons of Love"). This is the beauty in the midst of chaos with the entire cast harmonizing. Of course, "Rent" has a lot to say about love and the good measure of things people will do for it in the face of adversity. At times, it was hard to follow the story with all its twists of confusion but "Voice Mail #5" reaffirmed the source of love. The company joined to reprise the affirmation that love is all and that there is no day but today in the finale, "Your Eyes."

February 8, 2010

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through March, 21, 2010
by Shera Cohen

Most of the characters in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" are evil personified. They are also smart, handsome, sophisticated, highbrow, cunning, vengeful, and, "evil" bears repeating.

Christopher Hampton's play, set in 1780s Paris, is created as a game, both visually and verbally. The squares on the floor and the sharp banter between the two lead roles add up to a championship chess competition. The stakes are high, even for the winner. At play's end, it is difficult to determine who loses more.

"Liaisons" is mounted at the intimate Bernstein Theatre. The 18 scenes fluently move from one to the next in the form of dance, accompanied by period music. From the play's opening note, the chess/dance begins. Clever at first, the characters' jumping from square to square becomes too obvious. It is safe to say that everyone in the audience "got it" - this is a deadly match, albeit with some humor.

It is hard to believe that, when last seen at Shakespeare, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Josh Aaron McCabe each starred in comedies. They were uproarious, throwing themselves (even physically) into their roles. While reserved in demeanor that befits "Liaison's" characters, the actors portray villains with capital "Vs". Aspenlieder's Marquise is the brighter and worse of the two, excusing her motives because she is of the weaker sex. Ha! McCabe's Vicomte pads his evil ways with humor, making him a bit more palatable as a human being. Aspenlieder surpasses herself in each new role. McCabe has not appeared often to date, but one hopes he will.

Tina Packer directs her actors in supporting roles, some with more stage time than others, so that each embodies a character not to be forgotten. Tony Simotes is to be credited as choreographer of the lengthy frightening sword and dagger fight in Act II.

Normal human emotions of jealousy and revenge, betrayal and cruelty run rampant among "Liaison's" population. The play is far more than a battle of the sexes. Good vs. evil is too simplistic. The Marquise exclaims, "This is war!" And the audience relishes every evil moment. For mature audiences.