Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 30, 2014

War Horse

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 2, 2014
by Shera Cohen

It is impossible to think that any piece of theatre could be as superbly all-inclusive of the hundreds of elements that create the perfect play production as “War Horse.” Look in a thesaurus for rows upon rows of superlatives synonymous to any of the following words, and the reader can only come close to describing this play: exemplary, innovative, creative, ingenious.

The star is Joey, who grows from a foal to a full-sized horse. He is made of fabrics, metal, and wood. He is real. Granted, no attempts are made to hide the three actors who shape the body, sounds, and demeanor of Joey. While this trio of puppet masters are visible, within 30-seconds the audience is oblivious to their presence. The Handspring Puppet Company are the geniuses who gave birth to Joey. Joey runs and struts like a horse, neighs and breathes like a horse. Again, he is real.

His owner/friend Albert, is a farm boy from Great Britain. Yet, this is not just a story about a boy and his horse. Played against the seemingly literal backdrop of WWI, the hell of this conflagration to man and “beast” is wrenching. The technical effects of explosions are particularly terrifying, not just loud. War is seen and felt just as much by Joey as by Albert.

The exposition of three scenes in particular showcase the puppeteers' talents:  Joey’s miraculous efforts to till the rock-ridden soil, his rivalry turned friendship with horse Topthorne, and his struggle caught in barbed wire along enemy lines.

The set is minimal and,  in that sparseness, multiple scene drawings fixed overhead carry Joey and the play forward. Interspersed folk songs of the early 20th century string scenes from one to another.

“War Horse” is a play. Plays are nice, or not, but they are worthless without superior production qualities. “War Horse” has become a benchmark of excellence for future and even many past play productions.

Note #1: This was my second experience of “War Horse” -- the first in London. The Bushnell’s venue is near comparable.

Note #2: In spite of pre-curtain announcements about cell phone disturbance, many do not heed this rule. This is boorish and unfair to others.

January 29, 2014

Freud’s Last Session

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through February 23, 2014
by Jennifer Curran

A believer and a non-believer walk onto a stage and find themselves in the great debate of our time. Here we have brilliant and revolutionary psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud, played stunningly by Kenneth Tigar, at the end of his life and the great writer C.S. Lewis, portrayed by the always terrific Jonathan Crombie, before his "Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe" has found its way onto the page. Freud, famed atheist, and Lewis, former non-believer turned Christian come together against the backdrop of Hitler and the sounds of war raid sirens and radio announcements on the very night England will enter World War II. Hitler has invaded Poland and the world will never be the same.

The audience listens in to the lightning bolt intellects as they spar on themes of life, war, sex, free will, and the existence (or non-existence) of God. Incredibly funny, sometimes brash, occasionally shocking, but always smart these two men, so different in every way, find their way around the corners of big questions and from opposite sides find a delicate, wonderful middle ground. 

There is a reason this production is selling out every night. With Maxwell Williams directing, there isn’t a moment to take a breath. Every word and moment matters and each will replay themselves in the minds of the audience days later.

The set design by Evan Adamson, costumes by Thomas Legally and lighting design by Philip Rosenberg create the world of 1940’s England as blazingly crisp. Freud’s office feels as though it was cut out of time and placed here in 2014 specifically for the audience's benefit. This is not a show to miss; it is quite simply a rare artistic achievement that has no room for improvement.

January 27, 2014


Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 25, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Anticipating the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s program of two mature masterpieces by Dvorak, Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican, “If you love beautiful melodies, heartbreaking harmonies, and passionate drama…this [concert] is for you!”

Both the Cello Concerto and the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” were composed during Dvorak’s 1892-1895 residency as founding director of the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. And both include original themes inspired by traditional African American and Native American melodies, which Dvorak believed should form the basis for a distinctive national style of American classical music.

Nina Kotova
From the dramatic start of the Cello Concerto, it was clear that this performance featuring Russian-born cellist Nina Kotova would be no ordinary one. She tore into her opening notes with gusto and flair, deftly balancing the technical and emotional demands of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. Her account of the central Adagio’s homage to Dvorak’s critically ill sister-in-law Josefina with a quotation from her favorite of his songs was graceful and sensitive.

The last movement, completed after Josefina’s death, contains another quiet passage in her memory, which Kotova poignantly set off against the wild energy of the concerto’s exuberant close. A composer of two cello concertos herself, who has also commissioned new concertos for her instrument from several other composers, Kotova was rewarded with a standing ovation by the enthusiastic audience.

A white hot reading of the “New World” Symphony followed intermission and concluded the SSO’s Dvorak tribute. After a haunting introduction the main theme of the first movement was taken at a breathless pace, while the second theme had a slower and more elastic tempo than usual, perhaps to heighten the “passionate drama” promised by Rhodes. The heartfelt Largo second movement flowed with warmth and tenderness. The Molto Vivace scherzo was brisk and forceful, while the Allegro con Fuoco finale surged forward with blazing impact.

The typically kinetic Maestro had all sections of the orchestra playing throughout the evening with a heady mix of taut precision and joyous abandon.