Lord, What Fools These Actors Be

Ever have one of those college English papers which you can’t seem to write because you’re worried that the professor will judge you for your crazy ideas? What if you just wrote your ideas to him or her in a musical adaptation of the most accessible Shakespeare plays and called it a night? Midsummer Night: a musical(loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) attempts to do just that. I can’t explain why Suffolk University wasted their time on this trite adaptation or how I sat through the production, but here goes nothing.

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Shakespeare’s Bringing "SEXYBACK"

The A.R.T.’s and the OBERON’s The Donkey Show is old news; while a refreshing and imaginative retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when it premiered in Boston in 2009, and though the appeal has not worn-off completely, the production is on its way out the door. In its place, the Boston theatre scene demands something as catchy and artistically challenging (Note: I use challenging in the sense that it defies the stereotypes of a typical theatrical performance). My hope is that Touch Performance Art and the OBERON New Works Series latest remix of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the music of your favorite boy bands, SEXYBACK or what you will, will fill this much-needed void, pushing the boundaries and limits of how we think about performance art and “mainstream” theatre in the 21st century. To get there, however, SEXYBACK offers much promise, but needs a solid summer of revisions and refocus to get its sexy on for the fall.

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Taming Molière’s "Lovers’ Quarrels"

imaginary beasts offers some of the best ensemble work in Boston. Under the smart guidance of veteran Director Matthew Woods and the extremely capable Stage Manager Deidre Benson, imaginary beasts consistently offer quality entertainment at the Boston fringe level. Molière’sLovers’ Quarrels is both a logical and puzzling choice for the company. The theatre company is well-accustomed to its modern and innovative re-telling and mastery of classic works. Molière’s beast cannot be tamed, however. “Translated” into English verse by Richard Wilbur, the play is burdened with enough battles to make even the most enthusiastic young lover run away with fear. One of Molière’s earlier plays, Lovers’ Quarrels is a described as a “complex comedy,” and that might be the understatement of the century. Plagued with deception, misunderstanding, and missed opportunities, Molière’s text is a dizzying array of characters and plots (and subplots and loose knots and tight knots and lovers’ knots and so on). I can attempt to describe what I believe is a synopsis of the play, but I may miss or misinterpret details (reader beware):

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#Rumplestinkybum Glitters with Golden Goodness

Once upon a time, Brian went to see a fringe theatre production on a rainy Saturday; he was tired and grumpy. He was four shows into a long stretch of reviewing, and he just wanted to sleep. However, Imaginary beasts delights, surprises, and thrills with their 2014 Annual Winter Panto, Rumplestiltskin, or All That Glitters. This production truly shines under the artful, always intelligent, sometimes naughty but always nice director Matthew Woods. Once again, Woods assembles a top-notch cast and crew, and they play to great effect for audiences of all shapes and sizes.

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“A Heart Full of Love” for Reagle’s "Les Misérables"

Some of the best reviews are the hardest to write. When the lights rose after the curtain call of Reagle Music Theatre’s Les Misérables, I didn’t know whether to clap or cry. Disclaimer: Despite a few attempts to see this show in the last five or six years, I have avoided it because of a fantastic production that I saw in London. However, Reagle’s production exceeded expectations ten-fold. With few blemishes, this production shone as true mastery of the professional possible in the Greater Boston area.

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"Psycho Beach Party" Feels Like a Drunk Mess

Sigh. It’s never a good sign when I sigh. I really wanted to love this production. Hell, I wanted to love it. I am a huge fan of the movie, having found it one day while surfing channels in my young adolescence. However, the play produced by the joint efforts of Happy Medium Theatre and Heart & Dagger Productions does not live up to its source material. In fact, the production feels completely new. Now, for many people, especially those unfamiliar with the movie, the change may be unnoticeable, enjoyable, or even welcomed. Therefore, take my criticism with a grain of salt for someone who came to the production with clear expectations.

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“Cruel Botany” Grows on Boston Reviewer

Imagination is a terrible thing to waste. For a company that actively strives to ‘re-imagine worlds, re-connect communities, and re-awaken artists through the power of theatrical performance’, Imaginary Beasts wastes nothing with their summer smash “Cruel Botany”. Director Matthew Woods impressively leads his company of actors through not one, but two plays in anything but a conventional evening of theatre. The magic is truly in the company’s ability to re-imagine a traditional text and form new relationships between the text and the actors.

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Boston’s Indie All-Stars: "Polaroid Stories"

Stop. Go see this show. It’s not often that I make a frank endorsement for a show. Here it is:

Three of Boston’s hottest fringe theatre companies have teamed up to bring a fantastically executed production of Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Storiesto the Boston Center for the Arts. The Boston Actors Theater, Happy Medium Theatre, and Heart & Dagger Productions bring some of Boston’s most talented actors together under the helm of the incredibly talented and creative Joey C. Pelletier (what is he not involved in this summer?!) and his dashing co-director Elise Weiner Wulff. Polaroid Stories is a modern re-telling of some of the most classic Greek myths, though this synopsis is hardly indicative of the emotion and energy in these stories of corruption, redemption, loss, and love. This cast’s willingness to go for the uncomfortable heart in each and every moment makes this play a breath-taking exploration of the human psyche and experience.

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Bad Habit's "Much Ado"

Every now and then, I like to see theatre that will amuse me. Pure and simple. Bad Habit Productions, a My Theatre Award winningBoston company, delivers solid production after production. Their latest show is an original adaptation of one of the Bard’s finest comedies. Their William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing . . . With a Twist is a magical and joyful romp into the merry world of romance, mistaken identities, and a bit of cross-dressing. Yes, you heard that right, this production of Much Ado About Nothing goes there. This adaptation is clever, thought-provoking, and, most of all, accessible to any audience. I think this accessibility and easy is what I enjoyed most about this production. The cast and crew’s journey into the difficult world of Shakespeare seems effortless and their skill and joy in putting on this production is where the magic really happens.

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Theatre@First Does "Pride and Prejudice"

Pride and Prejudice

An exciting adaptation was featured in Somerville, Massachusetts for the past two weekends. Elizabeth Hunter, a 2011 My Theatre Award nominee for her work in Equus, wrote and directed an original stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s popular novel Pride and Prejudice. Produced by Theatre@First in the stunning renovated Somerville theatre, the production showed much promise. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to expectations, with some notable exceptions.

Hunter’s script features most of Austen’s popular quips from the original novel, and it’s clear she intended to stay true to the story’s text. Thankfully, almost all of Mr. Bennet’s lines remain, though a few characters were cut to accommodate the shortened adaptation. I missed only Kitty—I worry that Hunter underestimated this character’s seemingly innocuous presence in the novel. Many other stage adaptations keep her as a sidekick for Lydia, and I agree. Especially when Hunter chose to include a silly Miss Anne de Bourgh, I think she could have sacrificed a few of the other Bennet sisters’ lines for Kitty’s sake. Moving along, Hunter tried to write her own dialogue to fill in some noticeable gaps from the novel’s exposition. I don’t particularly like these additions though I can’t argue with their necessity; I think another draft and staged reading would have polished the dialogue, especially between Jane and Elizabeth. Perhaps Hunter’s boldest move is the social whirl she creates onstage with the instantaneous passage of time. Scenes move fluidly into one another and months become moments of waiting. I appreciated her strong storytelling—more on this below—but I worry that something was lost. I think future drafts can help solidify the same feelings of anticipation from Austen’s day while keeping the heightened urgency needed for a stage adaptation. Overall, her script is well thought-out and very accurate to Austen’s original.

Pride and Prejudice - Lizzie and Mr Darcy

Her cast, however, faces an insurmountable challenge in portraying Austen’s larger-than-life characters. The actors seem to wobble between realistic portrayals and caricature. This dichotomy is anything but pleasant, and down-right confusing. At the heart of the story is the Bennet family, which includes the widest range of acting abilities. Mr. Bennet, played with cheek by Doug Miller, is excellent and perhaps even underused because he provides some of the most-needed one-liners, while his wife, Mrs. Bennet, played with verbosity by Dayenne Walters, could use some focus. Walters attempts to create her own hysterical interpretation of the infamous gold-digging mother but strays too far from our modern conception of the classic role, fully landing in the satirical category. The daughters, however, never reach this extreme, no matter how “silly” they are supposed to be. Mary Bennet, played with groundedness by Lisa Sturgeon, is perhaps too realistic, but has some wonderful moments on-stage even with her limited dialogue. Jane Bennet, played with blasé melancholy by Tegan Kehoe, is too unaffected by the play’s dialogue to develop a clear personality. In fact, her character is so bland that I wondered what her and Bingley, played with some charm by Jared Hite, could possibly discuss in their quiet asides. The star of the family, surprisingly, is Lydia Bennet, played with star-quality by Melody Martin. Martin picks her moments with care, and bursts with energy and life that is perfectly timed and extremely necessary. During a sluggish Act II, she carries the show’s plot in ways that few of the other characters manage.

Other supporting stars include Charlotte Lucas, played by the extremely under-utilized Jacqueline Bennett; Caroline Bingley, played with subtly and craft by Leslie Drescher; and Mrs. Gardiner, played with vivaciousness by Renée Johnson. While others may enjoy J. Deschene’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I felt the actor missed the mark on this iconic character. With such antecedents as Dame Judi Dench, I think the role deserves a little more respect. I’ll agree that the role did add much-needed humor in a rather dull Act II, but given the role’s history and the novel’s focus, I think the portrayal detracted more than added, especially for the production’s Austenite crowd.

And that brings me to the leads. Elizabeth Bennet, played with earnestness by Brigid Battell, struggles under a lack of star quality. It’s a difficult quality to explain, but I’ve heard it called “The IT factor” and Battell just didn’t have it in this role. For an audience whose sole focus is on Elizabeth’s story, we’re a little lost most of the time, jumping instead to focus on more dynamic characters like Martin’s Lydia or Drescher’s Caroline. Battell generates good chemistry with each and every character, an important quality, but her most notable relationship with Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy fails to excite. Darcy, played with a deep bass, yet repetitive speech pattern by Keais Pope, is, dare I say, dull. Pope misses many moments to relay Darcy’s complexity to the audience. It’s not until late in Act II that Pope stops his monotonous speech pattern to include some inflection. I believe Pope was trying to emulate Colin Firth’s notable turn as Darcy, but few actors, especially an American, can capture Firth’s charming aloofness. I wish Hunter had realized how incredibly dull Pope’s attempts to copy such a hit performance were and worked to create a happy medium. I think much of Pope and Battell’s chemistry could be solved in a more dynamic and nuanced portrayal of Darcy, though Battell suffers from her own lack of imagination and charm, falling more into the Keira Knightley camp than the Jennifer Ehle foray.

Unfortunately, these key problems led to a sluggish Act II, especially in the last twenty minutes. With a show running almost three hours, the later scenes could use some rewriting and some heavy polish. I didn’t care for anything after the marriage acceptances, and yet we unhappily plodded through several scenes to see how the rest of the cast reacts to the unexpected news. To the production’s credit, the scenes did zip along, thanks to a highly successful stage crew, led by Technical Director and Set Designer Jo Guthrie. I was highly thankful for the lack of blackouts, though I found it amusing how little time we spent in each location. I longed for the adaptations with block sets because I wanted to focus instead on these rich and dynamic characters. The costumes by Elizabeth Ryan and her crew are stunning, and the hair by Arwen Miller and her crew is superb. I thought Maya Attia’s dancing was overused, especially in the highly complex ballroom scenes; I would’ve liked a lighting fade so the dancers became shadows in the background of Darcy and Elizabeth’s lively first meeting.

Overall, the production features some commendable performances and an invigorating new adaptation of Austen’s classic story. The play keeps many of the novel’s original themes, but it fails to introduce any of its own. With more polish, the script might be a gem, especially in its creative use of time, but with sluggish pacing and an uneven cast, this production doesn’t shine. 

As originally published on My Entertainment World.