Review: 'Iliad' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Review: 'Iliad' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf’s “An Iliad” is theatre in its oldest and most distilled form. One performer, with only a simple costume and a handful of props, recounts a complicated story that is, to borrow a phrase from a very different kind of entertainment, a tale as old as time. It may sound simple, but it’s not. “An Iliad” is a captivating, thrilling, chilling piece of theater that is unlike almost any I’ve seen before.

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Review: “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre

Here’s the thing, the night before I was supposed to see “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre, I started to feel ill. A little nauseous, fatigued and achy. Even a few hours before curtain, I was unsure if I’d feel up to going. But, as it turns out, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a theatrical Balm of Gilead. I’m not exactly saying it has curative properties. No play holds those powers…not even “Hamilton.” But the moving “Tiny Beautiful Things” is like a hug, a therapy session and a good cleansing cry all at once. It’s a rare thing for a play of substance to make you feel better upon leaving than when you walked in. “Tiny” does just that.

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Review: “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre’s latest, the beguiling and enigmatic “Miller, Mississippi,” begins with a ghost story. Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), a Black maid in 1960s Jackson, is recounting a tale right out of Shirley Jackson. There’s a house in town, she tells the three rapturous kids at her knee, that emanates the sound of a crying child from within its very walls, like something (or someone) was trapped inside. There’s also talk that blood has been known to seep out of the floorboards. A group of hooligan boys once tried to burn it to the ground, but despite their torches and gasoline, the house refused to be leveled.

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Review: “The Roommate” at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: “The Roommate” at Long Wharf Theatre

Sometimes a dish made with wholly familiar ingredients can feel fresh just because of the way they’re put together. Maybe you use higher quality cocoa in your brownies. Or perhaps it’s the addition of a secret ingredient that does the trick. Peanut butter chips or, I don’t know, marijuana. Those exact treats are featured in Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-2019 season opener “The Roommate” and, like a good pot brownie, the play often feels like a bite of comfort food spiked with a woozy twist.

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Review: "Crowns" at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: "Crowns" at Long Wharf Theatre

There is something about gospel music that I find irresistible: It’s uplifting and redeeming; it moves you to tap your foot or clap your hands.  Mix that with blues and hip hop and you have the multi-generational musical story, Crowns.  Inspired by the book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Regina Taylor creates and directs a musical jubilee that brings to life the portraits of six African-American women through triumphant song, movement, story, and, of course, hats. First performed in 2002, the Long Wharf production is a revision of the original, updated in conjunction with Emily Mann’s McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton where Crowns was first produced.

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Review: 'Lewiston' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

OnStage Connecticut Critic

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NEW HAVEN, CT - “How much chaos can one person create in one day?” Samuel D. Hunter strives to answer his own character’s question in his new work, Lewiston. A recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship, Hunter stays close to home with his writings. Hailing from Moscow, Idaho, he has been writing plays that take place in this northern state that usually conjures up images of potatoes for most Americans. Few may realize that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their historic expedition through present-day Idaho in the vicinity of Lewiston, where this play takes place.

The story takes place on the ranch of Alice (Randy Danson) and her friend and roommate, Connor (Martin Moran). Once upon a time, the ranch was much larger, but we learn that it has been sold off to a condominium developer over the years. Now all that is left is Alice’s home and a small fireworks stand, and the developer wants those last 20 acres in exchange for one of their condominiums. 

Enter Marnie (Arielle Goldman), the long-lost granddaughter of Alice, who shows up unannounced after no contact with her grandmother for 16 years. We learn that the chasm between granddaughter and grandmother occurs because of the sudden death of Alice’s daughter and Marnie’s mother, whose voice we hear on audiocassette excerpts played throughout the show (wonderfully voiced by Lucy Owen). Marnie has come for her inherited share of the land after being bought out of her sustainable farm back in Seattle. 

As Gordon Edelstein points out in his Artistic Director’s notes in the program, Hunter’s characters speak Chekhovian; they all are ordinary people lost in varying ways and looking for something. But like with Chekhov, if you’re looking for a neat, tied-up package of a conclusion, this isn’t the show for you. Satisfaction in the resolution isn’t the reason for these types of plays: it’s about the examination of the human condition; as Connor succinctly puts it, “I’m living my life bending to the will of it.”

Randy Danson and Martin Moran in 'Lewiston' at the Long Wharf Theatre. Photo: T.Charles Erickson

Randy Danson and Martin Moran in 'Lewiston' at the Long Wharf Theatre. Photo: T.Charles Erickson

Like with Chekhov’s 19th-century Russian characters, we recognize the day-to-day 21st-century Americans immediately - the conservative, closeted Midwesterner; the hip, sustainable Seattle denizen, and the cantankerous, tough, older woman – with more than just the surface characteristics. Hunter’s depth of and layers to his characters come through in the poignant, strong performances of all three actors, directed admirably by Eric Ting. Ting gave his cast the freedom to take their time with their characters’ emotional journeys. This led to moments where the actors spoke volumes – without saying a word, a testament to the extreme talent of this cast. 

Goldman’s portrayal of the cynical hipster millennial Marnie is intense and righteous; she is a wounded animal backed into a corner when she first arrives on her grandmother’s ranch. She softens through her interactions with Connor and Alice, and as she reveals her secrets.

Danson’s Alice too is suffering from loss, which she portrays with sardonic hostility. Intimacy appears to be her kryptonite, even though she needs the company of others more than she likes to admit.  Moran plays Connor as the mediator between the two with aplomb while coming to terms with his own very personal truth.     

One criticism I have is some of the heavy-handed symbolism between fireworks and action in the script. I like my symbolism as much as the next former Honors English student, but I did feel that the firework symbolism was a bit blatant. The flickers, sparks, and sputters from the fireworks coincided with emotional flare-ups, awakened feelings, and dreams deferred; the fireworks always had to mean something more than just fireworks. Although when I mentioned the obvious imagery, my husband didn’t know what I was talking about. So maybe it’s just me (wouldn’t be the first time).   

Despite my misgivings with their overt representations in the play, I have to give huge kudos to the production staff for the coordination and technical savvy required for the firework special effects in this show. Timing mattered for a number of the pyrotechnical effects and they nailed them all – at least as far as I could tell.  Also I loved the beautifully realistic rustic set design by Wilson Chin: it made you feel like you were out in the prairie, right down to the textured ground. Completing the overall picture – which extended beyond the stage – included excellent sound and lighting design work by Brandon Wolcott and Matthew Richards.    

Unlike with Chekhov, we are rewarded with a little bit of hope with Lewiston, “We have to believe that something good is possible,” Marnie says to her grandmother toward the end of the show.  While we are uncertain of the fate of the three characters, we can certainly say that something good has resulted with this 90-minute microcosm of small-town America: deep, complex characterizations, compelling performances, and persuasive storytelling. 

 

Review: 'Measure for Measure' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

I was delightfully surprised with Long Wharf Theater’s presentation of Measure for Measure. A Fiasco Theater creation, I should have known that I was in for a more innovative performance. Fiasco is the group responsible for the recent New York City minimalist production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Photo:  T. Charles Erickson

For those – like me – who are unfamiliar with the central plot for Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedy, I’ll fill you in: the reigning Duke of Vienna (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to leave his post for a bit, and leaves his cousin, Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) in charge with Escalus (Jessie Austrian) continuing her post as second-in-command. Angelo is known for piety and righteousness and gets right down to business: he has Claudio (Noah Brody) arrested for fornication and sentenced to death. Claudio’s friend, Lucio (Ben Steinfeld), thinks that is a bit of a harsh punishment, and with Claudio’s encouragement, goes to see Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Emily Young), who has just taken the oath of chastity in a convent. Isabella agrees to see Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. She is successful in persuading Angelo, but for a price: her virginity, which she is unwilling to give to him. The Duke gets wind of this (he is of course still hanging around Vienna disguised as a monk), and counsels Isabella and Claudio. Thus ensues a number of plots to outwit Angelo involving multiple instances of mistaken identity – including a sexual bait-and-switch – which brings us all to a happy ending (it being a comedy and all).    

All of the actors play multiple roles and do so with brilliant effervescence and energy. There was not one flaw amongst the actors in this extremely well-acted performance. Mr. Steinfeld’s Lucio was filled with humor and fun; he often received a burst of applause following his scenes. Ms. Young’s Isabella was compelling and engaging; she had me hanging on her every word during her appeal for her brother’s life. 

Additional elements enhance the experience: a cappella musical numbers set the Elizabethan mood perfectly; full disclosure: I have a huge aversion for a cappella music and I truly enjoyed these musical interludes, which speaks volumes. The addition of cello and percussion between and during scenes was also a nice bonus. I am a big fan of minimalist sets. I feel the performers should be the focus; I find using fewer set pieces often leads to innovative and clever set design. Measure for Measure takes advantage of minimalist design with movable doors and a few interchangeable pieces. These were credibly trans-formative and inventive. 

Measure for Measure is an intriguingly fun, thoroughly enjoyable production with a pinch of bawdy and a dash of charm: a real treat for any theater lover! Running now through December 20th. 

Review: 'Disgraced' at Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

Much like a painting in a gallery, your perspective will shape how you see Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Disgraced. You may experience awe and disbelief; shock and horror. However you see it, you will feel it: the playwright’s intent from its inception. It is a show to be thought about and talked about. I left the theater reflective and pensive, craving a dialogue with someone else who had just witnessed what I had on stage. 

The play opens on an opulent penthouse in New York City, owned by Amir (Rajesh Bose), a mergers and acquisitions attorney, and Emily (Nicole Lowrance), an up-and-coming artist whose main themes embody Islamic imagery.  I’m not sure that the characters are meant to be likeable: to me, they appear pretentious and self-absorbed: the kind of people I have had to tolerate at parties under duress. But maybe that’s what I brought to the gallery.  

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Mohit Gautam (Abe),
Nicole Lowrance (Emily), and Rajesh Bose (Amir). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Enter Amir’s nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam). One of Abe’s friends, a mosque leader, has been wrongly accused of raising money for the Taliban and Abe wants his uncle’s help in his friend’s legal defense. Amir wants nothing to do with this venture. After coaxing from his wife, Amir goes to the man’s   hearing as a supporter, only to be misrepresented in a New York Times article as a member of the imam’s defense team. 

Tie this in with Emily’s potential to be in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s upcoming show, curated by Isaac (Benim Foster), who happens to be married to Amir’s coworker, Jory (Shirine Babb).  A dinner party to solidify the deal spirals into some of the darkest places I’ve seen on stage: scene three is shocking because so much is laid bare about prejudices, assumptions, and fears, often with extreme antagonism. One moment was the quietest I have ever heard in a theater space during a performance (if you see the show, you’ll know which moment I’m talking about).   

While breathtakingly shocking in its jaw-clenching dialogue, the text also is wonderful in its cohesiveness. Poorly written literature often has additional dialogue that fills time and is inconsequential to the arc of the story. In Ahktar’s play, everything is significant: phrases can be linked back together as the plot progresses. The words are beautifully woven into a 90 minute masterpiece deserving of its Pulitzer. 

There was not a poor performance to be seen on the Long Wharf stage. Mr. Bose plays a tortured man struggling with identity with intensity and flourish. While I disliked his character’s phoniness, I now see that his insincerity was key to the role.  Emily too was a character that I did not warm up to at first. However, Ms. Lowrance’s performance did bring me around during Emily’s passionate discourse on Islamic contributions to Western Art and her sincerity toward Abe’s predicament; it all comes from a good place, albeit a naïve one. She too evolves – albeit painfully – into a sadder but wiser woman. Mr. Foster plays the catalyst that leads to the self-destruction of this couple with a suave cockiness. Ms. Babb plays the quintessential, high-powered, New York attorney with polish and finesse. Her character’s focus on order rather than justice in the law seems to keep her better balanced in this upsetting atmosphere, but then she reveals that she too has a breaking point. 

The scenic design by Lee Savage is perfect: an impeccable New York City penthouse complete with parquet floors and stainless steel appliances. The touches of blue allude to the lapis lazuli so prized by Islamic artists centuries ago. The lighting design by Eric Southern was especially creative. I enjoyed the evolving colors on the Rose Window-esque painting during the scene changes, demonstrating the developing tensions in the play. The direction by Gordon Edelstein was subtle yet powerful; minor gestures by the actors spoke volumes about relationships developing and breaking apart.

Mr. Akhtar mentions in an article in the playbill that one’s reading of Disgraced is very telling. The play certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of race, perception, privilege, and interpretation. I don’t think the play is about who’s right or wrong, but more about the discussion surrounding the topics addressed in the play. If you want to walk out of a show questioning and reflecting on your values – a compelling, thought-provoking piece of theater – look no further than the Long Wharf. Running now through November 8th.