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Terminus: Abbey Theatre returns to Annenberg Center

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Terminus by Mark O’Rowe
Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s National Theatre)
Annenberg Performing Arts Center (U. of Penn)
February 16-20m, 2011
Review of Feb. 16 opening airs on WRTI, 90.1 fm, Feb. 18

A title like Terminus doesn’t suggest a happy end. As he’s’ done before Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe lets us confront grim, desperate lives over the course of one long day. Like his contemporary Connor McPherson, O’Rowe’s play Terminus at the Annenberg Center also takes a dive into the supernatural.

A mother seeks atonement, a daughter fulfillment, a serial killer spins tales. Declan Conlon plays this killer identified in the program as Character C. C thinks he’s a charmer; he’s the play’s weakest link. C has numerous chances at comedy – the killer thinks he can sing better than Betti Midler; many fall flat.

The women in Terminus are very strong. Olwen Fouere as character A, the mother out to rescue a former student is terrifically believable. A’s matter- of- fact delivery makes the story the more appealing. Her wit takes you by surprise. A’s energetic monologue compels until a point when the narrative crashes, turns to weepy sentimentality, becomes long-winded.

Something similar happens to the monologue of the young woman played by Catherine Walker, Character B. B has the most vulnerable, emotional role but an hour or so into her story’s unwinding – it begins to sound like the playwright is channeling William Blake. (Maybe The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?)

This is O’Rowe’s first play in verse.

There’s fat on the bones of these overlapping monologues, fat and gristle and it’s tiresome to chew. The rhyme scheme also adds to the redundancy.

On the positive side, there are (a few) surprises: I’ll leave you to them.

Terminus, produced by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre presented by Penn’s Annenberg Center for the Arts.

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Written by Lesley Valdes

February 18, 2011 at 1:54 am

Race (Mamet by Phila. Theatre Company)

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Race by David Mamet
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Extended Through Feb. 20, 2011
Review of Feb. 5 matinee
WRTI, 90. 1 FM., Feb. 9

If you’ve seen David Mamet’s Race on Broad Street you’ll be talking about the Philadelphia Theatre Company production. If you haven’t, the play has been extended so there’s time for more talk on a topic that’s always prickly and always worth our time. The production is a fine achievement by actors able to take on the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

A white man is accused of raping his black girlfriend. A three- member firm, consisting of one white and two black lawyers, deliberate, then take the case. The dialog is punchy- smart with scene breaks swift as Law & Order. Mamet aims for the funny bone with his ugly- slick disturbances. Jordan Lage as Jack, the white defense lawyer is a brilliant cynic. Henry, his black partner, has that been-there-done-that-weariness and suppressed anger. Ray Anthony Thomas shines in his Seer role. During the first half, Jack’s cynicism reigns. He instructs Susan, the black associate to forget about guilt with Charles (played with depth by John Preston, who reveals layer after layer of privilege, cluelessness and conscience.)

The right defense will entertain the jury, Jack says. “Distract them.”

But Jack talks three and four sides of his mouth. Challenged by Susan, suddenly he’s talking about the white man’s innocence. Do all whites stand together?

It’s a Rubik’s Cube, a friend said. You think you have the point, the point changes. Prejudice is like that. We’re complex. When the play opens, it’s hard to like any of the men. By the play’s end, there have been so many revelations, you may find these guys human. Ah, but there’s the bad apple. That surprise.

Race, the play is ugly and poignant and comic. It’s also a polemic. Mamet plays loose with some with legalities. And he doesn’t know much about a woman’s sequined dress. Mostly it’s all too real about the lies we tell ourselves. Race presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company does a good job showing our shame.

Written by Lesley Valdes

February 8, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Sunday at the Arden

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Sunday in the Park with George
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Arden Theatre new production
June 2 – July 4, 2010

Arden director Terry Nolan’s got a way with Sondheim. His second time out with Sunday in the Park with George at the Arden now is a top notch. Music Director Eric Ebbenga (PRO: Ebb-an-gay) does well by the full out original orchestra and the 15-member cast of singing actors works like a true ensemble. They don’t shout or screech as happens at several houses here where the amplification is routinely over the top and (still) doesn’t disguise inferior singing.

Sunday in the Park at the Arden is not Sondheim at the top of his game no matter that it’s the one for which he got the Pulitzer. It is a sweet musical making good points and platitudes. Given all the ones we love, you come away feeling this Sondheim doesn’t have enough music.

Jeff Coon’s the perfect lead as George Seurat he really can sing and he looks the right age and painterly

As Dot, Kristine Freilich’s singing is superb, superior to her acting. She’s a pretty woman but the mousey wig and makeup scream for a makeover. This role walks in the shadow of Bernadette Peters and Dot’s supposed to be the face George paints on every woman!

As Jules, a Seurat rival, Scott Greer is capable of stealing any scene he’s in and almost does as. Greer’s a marvel of tone and gesture. Maureen Torsney -Weir does well with the role of Seurat’s mother; later the imperious critic. Michael McKinsey makes a salty boatman. It’s a pleasure watching all these characters come to life on the Grand Jatte on the Arden stage. Sound and video designer Jorge Coiseneau ‘s hard-working projectors and laptops accomplish a feast for ear and eye. Images not of Parisians’ Seine but ours – on Kelly Drive. Sunday in the Park with George runs until 4th of July.

Written by Lesley Valdes

June 7, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Philadelphia Theater Company and
Baltimore Stage

May 26-June 13, 2010
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Airs May 28, 2010

A sponsor of the Philadelphia Theater Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of August Wilson’s 10 plays about the African American experience, welcomed diversity onto the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theater the other night. Wilson’s great cycle is both black and color blind. Ma Rainey’s blues band in Chicago, 1920 endures racial slings and injustices but it comprises characters found in any in family black or white. Who doesn’t recognize Toledo, the piano player with his nose in a book? The philosopher who knows and can’t help explaining everything. Toledo’s so full of wisdom he amuse us when we’re not tuning him out. Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s. who was nominated for a Tony, when he played this role on Broadway) is perfect. He is funny and a bore; the molasses delivery, the expressive fingers. Toledo exasperates the Levee of Maurice McRae, the cool shark with his sharp shoes and coiled heart. More understanding are the band members: Slow Drag(the amiable Ernest Perry) whose way of life appears pleasure and whose string bass is the perfect metaphor. Cutler (David Fonteno) the leader who reins everyone in as they wait for diva Ma to come to the recording sessions she is going to rule for there is a battle going on between management and talent across the racial divide of the times. Because she gets her way in little else, Ma Rainey rules by terror.
But must Barrymore winner E. Faye Butler be so strident? Yes, the voice is powerful but she doesn’t sound like a blues singer. Too many tones are bitter.
As her nephew Sylvester, 23- year- old Ro Boddee has pivotal part as the stuttering nephew.
The director is Irene Lewis, from Baltimore’s CenterStage.
The music director for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is William McDaniels.
Keeping the upstairs and downstairs on the same flat boards – lacks imagination for
such a powerful work.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Philadelphia Theatre Company
May 26-June 13, 2010
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Airs May 28, 2010

A sponsor of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of August Wilson’s 10 plays about the African -American experience, welcomed diversity onto the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theater the other night. Wilson’s great cycle is both black and color blind. Ma Rainey’s blues band in Chicago, 1920, endures racial slings and injustice but it comprises characters found in any in family black or white. Who doesn’t recognize Toledo, the piano player with his nose in a book? The philosopher who knows and can’t help explaining everything? Toledo’s so full of wisdom he amuse us when we’re not tuning him out. Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who was nominated for a Tony, when he played this role on Broadway) is perfect. He is funny and a bore; the molasses delivery, the expressive fingers, the ivory tower stance (And the voice is beautiful.)
Toledo exasperates the Levee of Maurice McRae, the adolescent shark with sharp shoes and the tender, coiled heart. It’s a performance McRae nails with a 100 gestures, silly struts and pent-up rage. And he can play that trumpet too. More understanding of Toledo are band members Slow Drag (Ernest Perry) whose way of life appears pleasure and whose string bass is the perfect metaphor. Cutler (David Fonteno) the leader who reins everyone in as they wait for diva Ma to come wat way late to the recording session she will dominate. For there’s a war going on between management and talent across the racial divide of the times. Because she gets her way in little else, Ma Rainey rules by terror.
But must Barrymore winner E. Faye Butler be so strident? Yes, the voice is powerful but she doesn’t sound a blues singer. Too much bitterness and she screeches.
Twenty-three year old Ro Boddee has pivotal part Ma’s nephew, Sylvester.
The director is Irene Lewis, from Baltimore’s CenterStage.
The music director for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is William McDaniels.
Keeping the upstairs and downstairs on the same flat boards – lacks imagination for
such a powerful work. Ma Rainey runs through June 13 at the Suzanne Roberts.

Written by Lesley Valdes

May 28, 2010 at 3:14 am

Red at the Golden

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Redfile0487 by John Logan
Alfred Molina (Rothko); Eddie Redmayne (Ken)
London’s Donmar Warehouse Production
Golden Theater, 45th and Broadway, NYC

Alfred Molina makes a compelling artist. In the movie Frida, he played muralist Diego Rivera. In John Logan’s Red on Broadway Molina is Mark Rothko at the top of his game, defensive about the pop artists about to kill off their Abstract Expressionist fathers. Molina and the gifted young Eddie Redmayne, Rothko’s new assistant Ken, out- perform Logan’s ambitious play. Theater is a tough way to show the drama of art. But this staging direct from London’s Donmar Warehouse does an exceptional job turning the Golden Theater into Rothko’s 1950s’ Bowery studio. Here are the life- size stretchers ready to be primed and pondered. Here, the acidic artist ready with the intellectual retorts and philosophizing. The drama is not in the staccato talk but in Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, which uses music Rothko loved. Rothko slipping Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier onto the turntable (this is 1958). Bach plays softly while the artist fires questions at the assistant.

What do you see? “What do you feel?”

Rothko is working on the murals for Park Avenue’s Seagram’s Building, a Philip Johnson commission, the murals will go in the Seagram’s Four Seasons Restaurant. He natters about his theories, his miseries, his insistence an artist be civilized. Finally Ken has had enough: What is Rothko afraid of. Why is he putting these murals in a restaurant? The ultimate temple of consumption?

Red’s finest moment is the priming of a canvas with vermillion. Orchestral music pours from the artist’s turntable then an aria. The beauty of good sound design is that it doesn’t upstage the acting. A whirlwind of chaotic criss-crossing commences as the men slap their industrial size brushes over the white surface. Blood red covers faces, heads, overalls. The priming mirrors the fate of Rothko’s life- size, pulsing paintings. (Will his red be swallowed by the black that Ken suggests Mark Rothko fears?) Who will attend these murals? The Rothko Chapel is far away in time and geography. Red in New York could use more silence. But there is much to praise.

Written by Lesley Valdes

April 22, 2010 at 2:32 am

TEA: Tan Dun’s Opera: Beauty is Transparent

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TEA: A Mirror of the Soul
Composed by Tan Dun; Text by Xu Ying
Opera Company of Philadelphia
Academy of Music
Feb 19 – 28, 2010

Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of the Soul is a love story and a quest for knowledge. A man of the East is defeated by his Western-style quest. The Opera Company of Philadelphia’s staging of the East Coast premiere was conducted by the composer himself recently with the final performances at the Academy of Music by David Hayes. The composer’s been fiddling with his opera and it’s lost some of its subtleties. The Philadelphia cast is mostly excellent and the music is both aural and a visual delight. Onstage percussionists play their noisemakers by dipping their hands in and out of water bowls – like arm dancers.
Baritone Haijing Fu sings the disappointed lover, a man of steely will. Soprano Kelly Kaduce gives a sympathetic portrayal of the princess torn between the man she wants to marry and the prince who is her brother. Roger Hollaway’s portrayal of the incestuous brother was so camp opening night it was difficult to take him seriously. Antler headgear and postures added a Wagnerian jolt to the high notes the tenor did hit well.
There’s a splendor to sounds of water and the uses of paper for percussive effects – though there may be too much paper in Tea. The sound effects (all digitally enhanced) and Drew Billau’s dramatic lighting are almost sufficient for an opera that suggests meditation but moves into a mish mash of theatrics that could be Turandot when it’s not aiming for The Ring. Tan Dun’s spare vocal lines do not support such representation especially in the second act when lover and over loving brother battle for the Book of Tea. The result veers on sentimental mush. Tan Dun tries too hard to make an opera from East and West. His music already has the West built in: the modal scale he uses is no more innovative than Ravel: for all their novelty, his orchestrations beautiful as they are do not venture far afield. Director Amon Miyamoto’s staging pushes Tan Dun’s Tea toward Broadway with more color than need be. The beauty of tea is transparency.

Written by Lesley Valdes

February 25, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Posted in 1, Broadway, Opera

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Golden Age Revisited; adds performance Feb. 14

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Note: Performance Added Sunday February 14, 7:30 to make up for cancellations due to Snow!

photo from the Philadelphia Theatre Company world premiere

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Written by Lesley Valdes

February 9, 2010 at 3:56 am