Next story: James Piorkowski's new compositions for guitar and beyond
by Anthony Chase
A brief roundup of current stage productions
All Quiet on the Western Front
The expression, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has permanently entered the English language. An elegant if imprecise translation of the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about a group of German soldiers during World War I, the phrase ironically refers to a kind of horrible stagnation, a deadly stalemate.
The Western Front was a wandering line of barbed wire and trenches that cut across Europe from the sea at Belgium to the French frontier with Switzerland from 1914 until 1918. Millions of men died in a series of battles along this line as war technology became more and more gruesome, but no major advances were ever made.
Robert Waterhouse’s stage adaptation of Remarque’s novel follows all of the book’s major episodes. Paul, played by Geoff Pictor, and a group of his German school friends enter the war, urged on by their fatuous schoolmaster. These young Germans engage in nameless battles, see their comrades die, scrounge for food, ward off rats, fight the monotony, and wait for fate. None will survive the war.
Sad to say, the story is remarkably timely. And yet, plays about war can be a difficult sell. In its favor, this tale is told with great elegance and emotional power.
The structure of the story is similar to another tale of war’s ravages seen in Buffalo over the past year, Euripides’ The Trojan Women. There’s no suspenseful build to a thrilling climax. There are no thrilling acts of heroism. The narrative simply moves from incident to incident as conditions deteriorate and fate closes in on the characters, one by one.
The magic of the production, however—and there is magic in ample supply—lies in the fine ensemble work of the actors under the steady guidance of Waterhouse.
Nick Lama, and Jimi Konidis, who play the school friends and double in other roles, join Pictor, whose performance as Paul is the backbone of the evening. Cameron Garrity plays a variety of officers and combattants. Guy Wagner plays Kat, an older soldier who tutors the younger men in the ways of survival, as well as the misguided schoolmaster, a Catholic nun and other characters. Each does compelling work here.
The production is augmented by a particularly strong sound design by Tom Makar, and music by Steven Borwoski. Emotionally powerful projections by Jim Bush evoke the historic reality of World War I. Puppets created by Michele Costa portray additional animals and specters.
A tightly constructed comedy thriller can be marvelous fun. While the Road Less Traveled theater mission would seem to exclude Ira Levin’s 1978 hit, Deathtrap, I must concede, this play is—alongside Sleuth—among the best of the playful genre. The current production, directed by Scott Behrend, is somewhat lacking in the sense of spirited absurdity at the heart of the meta-theatrical script, and is missing the lustful chemistry that drives a critical plot line, but the old tricks generally work nonetheless with the mechanical efficiency that made The Mousetrap an international hit as the show navigates through its twists and turns. The performance that most successfully propels the show forward is Mary McMahon’s version of Helda ten Dorp, a meddling psychic. McMahon locates the precise balance of earnestness and daft zaniness required by the occasion, and her performance is pure delight.
The Drowsy Chaperone
Everybody is having a wonderful time over at MusicalFare Theatre, where a spirited company is performing The Drowsy Chaperone, a valentine to those obsessed with musical theater and the power of a musical to heal the soul. When I saw the show on Broadway, it was decidedly not my favorite, but I must say, reducing this carefree concoction back to the proportions of a fringe show is truly becoming. (On Broadway they actually landed an airplane onstage, had the cast dance on the wings, and propelled the lead character into the stratosphere in his chair for heaven’s sake!) Directed by Chris Kelly, the cast here give us a cheerful evening of hijinks and each performer seems to be competing to be more charming and hilarious than the next. In case you need a plot, in this show a musical theater fan plays an old recording of an old show about a wedding threatened by an innocent misunderstanding, and as he talks, the show comes to life.
The Grapes of Wrath
Gary Darling has directed a strong production of this sprawling saga of a family driving west in search of employment during the Great Depression. Adapted for the stage by Frank Galati from John Steinbeck’s novel, the Subversive Theatre production features Eric Mowery and Joy Scime as iconic Tom and Ma Joad. Using minimal props and set pieces, an energetic company takes us on this powerful journey.
At last the Western New York debut of Michael John LaChiusa’s remarkable musical adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Each scene is a sexual vignette leading to a subsequent scene in which one of the characters meets someone else. LaChiusa’s innovation, in addition to music, is to tell the story as an overview of the 20th century. Directed by Jeffrey Coyle, the company features particularly good work from Katy Miner as the prostitute who begins and ends the show.
Playwright David Ives has a gift for breathing fresh life into classic comedies. Here, he takes on Pierre Corneille’s comedy, The Liar, about a man who wants to woo a woman through deceit, who teams up with a servant incapable of telling a lie. This is really a slim confection of a play, and this production does feels a tad long and overburdened. It does, however, feature pleasing flights of comedy by Adriano Gatto as the title character, Kevin Craig as his servant, Tom Zindle as his father, Diane Curley and Andrea Gollhardt as the desirable ladies, Joe Liolos as a long-suffering suitor, Bethany Sparacio as contrasting twin servants, and David Brown. With lush costumes and handsome sets, the show is pleasing to the eye. Fortunato Pezzimenti directs.
Opening with a recreation of Douglas Kirkland’s famed photo session with Marilyn Monroe in white sheets on a white bed, Megan Callahan rethinks Frank Wedekind’s disturbing story of Lulu, a woman who endeavors to navigate a culture that is stacked against her. Sophia Howe gives a remarkable performance as the title character in one of the most satisfying recreations of a classic to be staged at Torn Space. The company always seems to fare best when there is narrative to attach to their thesis performance pieces, and in this case, the episodic story of Lulu lends itself to the Torn Space style brilliantly.
Video work by Brian Milbrand is particularly good on this occasion. As I watched video of recent news stories juxtaposed with the story of Lulu, I was reminded of Gloria Steinem’s comments when she was asked if Miley Cyrus was setting the Women’s Movement backward: “I don’t think so,” said the icon and activist. “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed, but given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is, in all of its states, the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, ‘This is why China wins.’ It’s ridiculous. But that’s the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.”
Lulu explores this predicament in provocative and often disturbing ways, and it is intriguing to see a female director take on this old and familiar story of a woman degraded, beginning with Marilyn and ending with Jack the Ripper. Excellent and impressively committed performances from Howes, Larry Smith, Christopher Evans, Jamie Doktor, PJ Tighe, Jon Joy, and Stefan Brundage.
Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre takes on a courtroom drama in style. Some may remember the story by Tom Topor from the Barbra Streisand film. Jay Desiderio directs this production starring Lisa Ludwig as a call girl undergoing a hearing to see if she is mentally fit to stand trial for manslaughter. The story is predictable, but the courtroom debates are deliciously entertaining. In this very solid production, Peter Palmisano plays the quick-witted defense attorney with all the panache of Perry Mason. Ludwig expertly grabs every piece of low-hanging fruit this script has to offer and squeezes it for every last drop of juice. The show is marvelously engaging.
Over the Tavern
The 20th anniversary production of Tom Dudzick’s beloved play about a family on Buffalo’s Polish East Side during the 1950s has been extended. What else is there to say? Ellen Horst is a stand out as Sister Clarissa in this faithful and efficient restaging of this Buffalo classic. All of the kids are good; the show looks good. Prepare for a healthy dose of nostalgia.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
The point of this show, directed by Artvoice Stagefright columnist Javier Bustillos, is to see actress Anne Gayley at the top of her game. She plays a Florida widow who hires a dance instructor to give her lessons in her home. It’s a ruse. She knows how to dance. She simply feels bored and doesn’t have a dance partner. Gayley is perfection and the joy she exudes while dancing or while winging an unexpected four-letter word is intoxicating. Gregory Gjurich gives a generous performance as a dance teacher who is down on his luck and rough around the edges, and skillfully makes his impressive work look invisible to benefit his partner. If the point of Richard Alfieri’s play is to make us feel good, it succeeds at every step and turn.
If you go to Tropical Heat appropriately calibrated to see a prolonged Carol Burnett sketch, you will have a great time. This is a spoof of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, the torrid tale of Miss Sadie Thompson and the preacher who yearns for her, by Rich Orloff, directed by Neal Radice. Take nothing seriously. Drag artist Michael Blasdell is excellent as the femme fatale at the heart of this play. Christopher Standart is hilariously unhinged as the preacher.
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