Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 28, 2011

The Savannah Disputation

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 3, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Throughout the centuries, wars have started in the name of religion. "The Savannah Disputation" is a blip on the radar of clerical conflict on the home front. The angle on this battle is humor which is sustained throughout. There is a heap of proselytizing going on, as the characters take the issue of Christianity vs. Catholicism very seriously.

Admittedly, this reviewer did not "get" all of the jokes, although theatre-goers at the Majestic certainly did. The saying is that you have to be Jewish or a New Yorker to fully appreciate Woody Allen's humor. This play follows that code. "Savannah" is a comedy about religion with underlying skepticism and seriousness. The characters are caricatures for the most part. That said, the actors in these roles do exactly what they are supposed to do in their individual performances and their interaction with each other.

Brenny Ravine, as the young over-zealous minister Melissa preaching her word from door-to-door, is charming and wide-eyed. She embodies strong will with some vulnerability. Her goal is to convert two middle-aged Catholic sisters - one more Catholic than the other. Barb McEwen's opinionated and bossy Mary is mostly on the mark, leaning a bit toward over-acting. Jeannine Haas balances McEwen's boisterousness with a mousy Margaret. Yet Haas personifies a woman with more substance. Writer Evan Smith's dialogue pits one woman against the other lovely. Robert Lunde (Father Murphy) likens himself to the fulcrum of the seesaw (the ying and yang of the sisters and Christianity vs. Catholicism). He is a steady rock with a soft edge.

Although the play's date is the present, Greg Trochlil's staging of the women's home reflects that they have yet to leave the era of the 1950's. Christine Thompson's costuming accomplishes the same effect.

There are several written and directorial subtleties that underscore the battles related to getting the message "of the gospel," so to speak. Melissa's cell phone music is "Mission Impossible" and Margaret deletes answering machine calls. However, deleting this play from a theatregoer's things to do list will be a loss of laughs in this bleak winter season.

February 21, 2011

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through March 27, 2011
by Shera Cohen

The play's title is a misnomer. This is no who-done-it. Perhaps the real mysteries are, how did the each of the actors keep up the fast pace and a straight face. Without hesitation, "Irma" is simply one of the funniest comedies ever written. Yet, "simply" is the wrong word, as "Irma's" plot is quite detailed, but at the same time it's not important to understand what is going on. Hmmm?

The characters, set, sound effects, lighting, costumes, and most importantly the dialog are spoofs of movie classics. "Rebecca," "Wuthering Heights" and "Gaslight" meet "Psycho," "Deliverance," and "Twilight" (okay, so the latter isn't a classic, yet). Toss in speeches from Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "Hamlet" and the hodgepodge is hilarious.

The plot: the husband of the deceased lady of the manor (located on the foggy moors of England) remarries. Life on the estate is not very pleasant for new bride Enid. The maid hates her, hubby hunts a lot, and werewolves deliver the eggs and milk. However, Enid does enjoy a pithy ukulele duet with housekeeper Jane, as well as reading the one and only book in the library.

This all sounds rather weird and stupid. It is. Take all of the above and cast only two actors, each playing multiple roles, sexes, and species, and this explains why "Irma" is unbelievable and unbelievably funny. Josh Aaron McCabe (Lady Enid, et al) and Ryan Winkles (Lord Edgar, etc.) are the acting duo who carry it all off while changing costumes in seconds. Fine actors in solo roles, put the two together on stage, and their quickly timed banter, movement, and expressions are priceless. McCabe's wide-eyed Enid balanced with Winkle's sly tilt of the head say a thousand words - all laughable. Pregnant pauses, sexual innuendo, and double entendres are aplenty. In recent years, Kevin Coleman has directed some of the most successful comedies at Shakespeare & Company. "Irma" is his best effort yet.

It is safe to say that audience members will leave the theatre having missed some of the lines, because they were too busy laughing at others. BTW: Kudos to the three costumers, who deservedly took closing curtain bows.

February 19, 2011

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Opera House Players, Broad Brook, CT
through February 27, 2011
by Jennifer Curran

The Opera House Players production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is one of those rare but heartbreakingly wonderful theatre productions that keeps audience members laughing and thinking all the way home.

Kristy Chambrelli's pitch-perfect casting brings to the stage an ensemble cast that revels in its improvisation, rejoices in its honesty and delivers a show that raises the bar of community theatre. Juice boxes aren't this refreshing even when delivered with a gentle hug and a stuffed bee by Joshua Thompson's Mitch Mahoney.

At the opening of the show, Nicole Giguere's Rona Lisa Peretti enters center stage and welcomes the audience to the "bee." She succinctly transforms the space into a middle school auditorium and the audience becomes part of the show. Giguere is brilliant and perfectly cast for this role and her voice is show-stopping. At the end of the opening number there was a quiet pause in the house before an explosion of well-deserved applause. In Dallas Hosmer's Chip Tolentino, we are given an adolescent filled with insecurities and false bravado. His "Chip's Lament" is both painful to watch and side-splittingly hysterical. Mike King's William Barfée and his Magic Foot actually make comedy look easy. With superhero cape firmly in place and heroic poses to follow up each success and failure, James Rhone's Leaf Coneybear's  journey is told with a gentleness of spirit that young boys rarely get to wear on their sleeves and men are rarely allowed to portray on stage. A stand-out performance by Liv Gaines as Loganianne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the daughter of an over-bearing gay couple is another highlight of this wonderful musical.

Bee's emotional center falls squarely on the shoulders of Jessica Cutino's Olive Ostrovsky.  The "I Love You Song," which showcases the extraordinary vocal talents of Jessica Frye in her role as Olive's mother, tells Olive's story and surreptitiously delivers a message. Chambrelli's direction allows the moment to reveal itself beautifully.

Opera House's production of "Bee" has only one problem: empty seats in the house. Surely a travesty that could be easily rectified in deserved ticket sales and repeat viewings.


Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
February 18, 2011
by Stacie Beland

Once again, the Mahaiwe presented a memorable evening of dance, this time giving its audience Rennie Harris' company performing a number of repertoire pieces in a show called PUREMOVEMENT, and it did live up to its title. The company of 10, all of whom were onstage for nearly the entire duration of the show, presented a blockbuster performance.

Rennie Harris dancers, famous for their funk and hip hop routines, may not be the most technically precise company but they do have a great deal of fun onstage and they do not lack in talent. Mixing seemingly improvised movement with tight synchronization, the choreography was filled with jaw-dropping stunts as well as subtle intricacies. Often, the choreography was so fast-paced it took a few moments for one's brain to process what was just seen. The dancers did not seem beholden to the laws of physics, and the audience was often left stunned (or loudly cheering). Backflips, handstands, kicks, headspins-all set to a raucous, crowd-pleasing hip hop and funk score highlighted by a remarkably effective lighting design-were interlaced with some flashes of humor and spoken word performance art.   

From the opening number "God Made Me Funky" to the finale "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," the audience was treated to wonderful concert in dance.  One of Harris' great talents is designing his choreography around the specific talents of his performers. Some dancers showcased gifts in breakdancing and others in quick, stylized footwork, which made the show well-rounded. In addition, this fast-paced whirlwind performance rarely slowed down long enough for the awestruck audience to take a breath.

Words can't truly encapsulate the energy that leapt of the Mahaiwe's stage. With the music thumping and the dancers pulling off gravity-defying stunts, the energy in the room was palpable it. It took only moments for the audience to leap to its feet to give the performers a standing ovation after the performance's end.