Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 30, 2013

Arms On Fire

Chester Theatre, Chester, MA
through July 7, 2013
by Walter Haggerty

"A play with music" pinpoints the emphasis precisely where it should be for "Arms On Fire," a revelatory play -- part memory, part contemporary reality. However the importance of the music should not be deemphasized, as it contributes importantly in mood and lyrics that comment on the action and underscore past events. There are moments that evoke memories of the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the film "Midnight Cowboy," but these are merely brushstrokes on a much broader canvas. Overall, "Arms On Fire" is given an outstanding production by the Chester Theatre Company.

The story focuses on Ulysses, a factory worker, originally from Honduras, now living in a basement apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen. An unanticipated intrusion comes as Smith, a young singer hoping for a career break, arrives on the scene and soon probes and prods Ulysses until he learns the story of Ulysses' lost love. In the process, Smith manages to inject himself into Ulysses life -- and his apartment.

The influence of Josephina, Ulysses former lover, has a lasting affect on both men. Natalie Mendoza, ideally cast in this role, offers a seductive portrayal, much of which must be delivered from behind a scrim. Guieseppe Jones' gently modulated and restrained performance gives Ulysses the persona of a passionate but patient man who has accepted what life has handed him, but also reveals how much he has to give back.

It is James Barry, as Smith, who has the showiest role of the evening with wide-ranging mood swings, colorful language, and opportunities for excessive behavior. His characterization could easily stray out of control, but thanks to Barry's always controlled, brilliantly honed performance that never happens. It is a consummate gem of acting an "over-the-top" character without the actor ever following suit. Barry and director Byam Stevens must share well-deserved honors for this.

The set design by Travis A. George creates an ideal, flexible backdrop for the action. Musical accompaniment from an exceptionally talented group of four musicians on six instruments was excellent. "Arms On Fire" is a great opener for the Chester Theatre Group's 2013 season.