Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Reports on Theatre and some music events you'd like, mostly in Connecticut

“Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf through March 10“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a beautiful documentary, descri...

“Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf through March 10

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a beautiful documentary, describing how a woman named Cheryl Strayed took over an advice column published on an Internet site from Steve Almond in 2010. He had been using the signature, ‘Sugar,’ and so did she, but readers quickly realized that ‘Sugar’ was not the same as he/she used to be and bombarded her with comments and inquiries about who she really was, what gave her the right to say the things she did, and whether she and the letters she answered could possibly be real?

Excerpts from the Advice Column became a book called “Tiny Beautiful Things” in 2012, and then it was adapted into a play, first seen in 2016, at the Public Theater. Nia Vardalos, Marshall Heyman, and Thomas Kail prepared the script, and Ken Rus Schmoll is the Director of the production at Long Wharf.

The action of the play – one act only – takes place in the yard of a handsome single house, designed by Kimie Nishikawa. The lighting design by Yuki Nakase, and sound design by Leah Gelpe add important background for the production. Costumes were designed by Arnulfo Maldonado. But essentially what we’re watching in this play is three cast members (Paul Pontrelli, Elisabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati) who recite letters asking for advice, or perhaps comments, and one more actor, Cindy Cheung, who plays the writer known as ‘Sugar.’ The letter writers all have solid voices, especially the two men, which makes it easy to follow their requests. At times it was not as easy to catch all the words of Ms. Cheung’s responses, but for the most part it was possible to discern the sensitive and generous words of sympathy or empathy or permission to be brave and especially to be forgiving, even of yourself.

Sugar’s responses to the series of letters took on amazing depth because she shared her own problems and difficult times of her life even as she urged her readers to rise above their own stuck places. Missing the moment of her mother’s death, vivid abuse by a grandfather, getting out of a marriage that wasn’t working. Loving her children.

The closing line of the play is Sugar’s remembering how, during a time in her life when she was using heroin, a little girl on a subway, with two balloons, offered her one. She didn’t accept it, because she was too ashamed of her life, and didn’t believe, messed up as she was, that she deserved to have any tiny beautiful things. But that was not so!!! A powerful goodbye to an attentive audience. I loved the play and commend it fully to your schedule.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre February 21, 2019

Broadway Method Academy’s “ANNIE,” at the Westport Playhouse, thru Feb. 18It helps, when the BMA takes over the st...

Broadway Method Academy’s “ANNIE,” at the Westport Playhouse, thru Feb. 18

It helps, when the BMA takes over the stage at the Playhouse, to pause and remember what’s involved in this spin-off of a training arena for regional would-be actors. Regular students who commit to an irregular schedule of instruction in projection, in dance and singing and moving in tandem with each other in groups that suddenly grow from six to forty-six of them making wonderful displays. But add to that a fourteen-piece live orchestra and then the opportunity to work with some very well selected featured actors and singers. Oh yes, let’s not forget the very fine scenery that drops in to create a very handsome setting for an over-all great production, and stage direction that pulls it all together. That’s the background you should be aware of when you hear the words, ‘Broadway Method Academy.’

“ANNIE” might seem overly familiar, but even if you have seen it a dozen times, my hunch is that you’ll cheer happily to see it here again. And what better opportunity for 46 students to appear in a show? There’s the scene in the Orphanage when suddenly bundles of young persons fill up the stage, scrubbing floors, changing sheets, mocking Miss Hannigan (Klea Blackhurst) with “It’s a hard-knock life.” Minutes later they’re a bunch of starving and homeless New Yorkers in Hoovertown, where one runs a soup kitchen, and one is a policeman intent on breaking up this group and challenging a young red-head about how she’s connected to a (wonderful!) dog she names Sandy (Bill Berloni’s SUNNY).

Before too long the policeman shows up at the orphanage, returning Annie (Ava Lynn Vercellone) to Miss Hannigan, just in time to meet Grace Farrell (the lovely Lauren Sprague) who is there to search out an orphan for a visit to Oliver Warbucks (Paul Schoeffler) magnificent mansion during the Christmas holidays. Sure enough, it is Annie who goes off to Chez Warbucks with Grace.

The other Broadway members of the cast are Nicholas Rodriguez [Rooster Hannigan], Julie Kavanaugh [Rooster’s girlfriend, Lili St. Regis], and Dan Remmes [FD Roosevelt]. But the Broadway influence doesn’t stop there. Sets by Ryan Howell (who designed last year’s Evita as well). Costumes by Colleen Fitzsimmons. Lighting by Weston G. Wetzell, Sound Design by Ian Wehrle. Brilliant choreography by Audra Bryant. BMA believes that putting talented and experienced professional designers and actors with a talented but less experienced student ensemble, working together on the same stage, is the best kind of training for work in the Theater.

The co-founders and managers of BMA are Connor Deane, who’s directed this great production, and his mentor, J. Scott Handley, who serves as music director. Thanks to them both for an exceptional visit to “ANNIE.” One of the best productions I’ve seen at the Playhouse this year.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre February 12, 2019

“The Prisoner”   at Yale Rep through November 17What must be the punishment for a young man who beats his father to ...

“The Prisoner” at Yale Rep through November 17

What must be the punishment for a young man who beats his father to death? In what may be a primitive location, where tribal justice is administered by family members and morality is dealt with in layers? That question is at the heart of the spell-binding drama playing at Yale Rep, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne.

A visitor, a woman, perhaps an anthropologist, or just an educated tourist, inquires after the story of a youth who killed his father. She is directed to an area in the hills where she will find a young man living in front of the prison.

The particulars: Mavuso (Hiram Abeysekera) finds his widowed Father sleeping with and enjoying his sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). Because he considers it wrong, and also because he is himself in love with his sister, he beats his Father to death.

Mavuso’s uncle, Ezekiel (Herve Goffings), the Patriarch of the family, finds the boy sleeping and performs a ritual of breaking bones in each of his legs, rendering him crippled. He also negotiates a different sentence for his nephew. Instead of going into the prison, he will sit on a hill in front of the prison for ten years. He takes him on a spiritual journey into the Forest, where the Father had taken Mavuso as a boy, and gives him the Father’s book. Now the tremendous tension between aching love for the Father as a boy and hating the Father as a youth for taking Nadia after the Mother died, will be permanent tension.

“The Prisoner” has been developed for several experimental venues across international boundaries. Yale Rep is one of them. (The others are C.I.C.T./ Theater des Bouffes du Nord in Paris; the National Theatre in London; The Grotowsky Institute, in Wroclaw; Ruhrfestspiel, in Recklinghausen; and the Theatre for a New Audience in New York).

The stage design (David Violi) is minimal, with only a tree-stump and pieces of branches and tree-limbs strewed around. They are moved into various formations during the telling of the story. Lighting design by Phillippe Vialatte is crucial as elements of the tale unfurl. Costumes (Ms. Etienne with Alice Francois) fit the moments of narrative.

But it is the exquisite choreography of simple movements on the empty stage (certainly reflecting the detail demanded by Mr. Brook) that hold audience attention to this compelling feast of a tale.

When Nadia visits Mavuso to do a healing ritual to his broken legs (and Mavuso tells her that he has always loved her, wanting her for his own); when she returns to tell him of the birth of a daughter and begs him to pretend he is her father; later when a villager (Omar Silva) visits him on the hillside and they become acquainted; when Ezekiel returns to comfort and share with him; even when guards approach him to tell him that the prisoners look at him looking at them. That Ezekiel and his family walk unshod adds to the quality of the image they create together. Walking in the forest, for example, they catch the energy that is available when bare feet embrace bare ground. Each movement is subtle, but ballet-like.

That is especially true when Mr. Abeysekera is sitting, gazing at the audience (looking at the prison) with eyes wide open, or tilting his head as if to listen to the forest sounds nearby. His gaze is penetrating. I told him later that I could have sat receiving his performance for hours longer, because his movements were so clear and focused that he reached into my soul.

The visitor does find Mavuso, but she does not ask the deep questions she wants to. Later, she returns, but it is too late. Mavuso is gone, and to her surprise, so is the prison. Only the haunting memory of a young man sitting on a hill looking at the prison remains.

The production is mystical, and you will think about it long after your visit. Somewhere at the root of it are questions asked by philosophers and moralists centuries ago. How can we be fully human and control the instincts of love and hate? To whom do bodies and spirits belong? How shall we be all that the Universe demands of us?

I recommend it to you with confidence.

Tickets and info at www.yalerep.org, or call 203-432-1234.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Nov. 11

“One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”  Playhouse on Park thru Nov. 18An amazing production of Dale Wasserman’s play ...

“One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Playhouse on Park thru Nov. 18

An amazing production of Dale Wasserman’s play about the mistreatments of Mental Health in the mid twentieth century is waiting for you at Playhouse on Park. Beautifully directed by Ezra Barnes, with an ensemble cast that maintains each character within the whole, the play takes place within a men’s ward in a state-run Psychiatric Hospital somewhere in the Northwest.

Behavior in the ward is set by a series of rules. A pompous matriarchal Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell) sets the rules and presides over short bursts of group therapy which all end with her approval or dis-approval of each patient’s responses. She also directs the movements of all the staff, including the Doctor (David Sirois), the Aides (Justin Henry, Lance Williams, and Andrew R Cooksey, Jr.), and her assistant Nurse Flinn (Katya Collazo). We know from moment one that she discounts the staff and the patients and does not listen to any voice but her own.

The rules get aborted, however, when Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) is committed into the hospital ward as a by-product of a criminal offense. [Most of the men in the ward are self-entered; I.e. not committed]. McMurphy is loud, independent, and rebellious. Most of the “rules” just inspire him to formulate a Plan B. He jostles the others to have more fun, to gamble on the side, to vote for a chance to watch the World Series, and to be independent thinkers. He promises that he will throw a party for them all.

The other men (Adam Kee, Alex Rafala, Rick Malone, John Ramaine, Harrison Greene, Ben McLaughlin) easily respond to McMurphy’s inspiration. That is especially true for Chief Bromden (Santos), a large (!) native-American Columbian Indian who has kept so quiet in the ward that everyone has assumed that he is deaf and dumb. McMurphy gets the big chief to talk and helps him to realize that he is big and strong, unlike his self-image of being too small to get things to change.

In short, McMurphy resets the rules of therapy and helps the men be MEN in charge of their own thoughts and feelings.

When the promised party happens, McMurphy sets up a date with Prostitute Candy Starr (Athena Reddy) for Billy Bibbitt (Rafala) and the two of them go off to Billy’s bed. It is good therapy for young Billy but in the end sets off the sad and powerful conclusion of the drama.

David Lewis set works beautifully, with thanks to Aaron Hochheiser for spectacular lighting and Lucas Clopton for original music and sound. Michelle Sansone’s costumes are appropriate and terrific.

The real impact of this show will bubble up in you a day after you’ve seen it. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from Nurse Ratched and her ideas of therapy. We look backward to where we never want to be again.

Tickets and info at www.PlayhouseonPark.org or call 860-523-5900

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre. November 5

“Thousand Pines”       at Westport Playhouse through November 17Thousand Pines is a sprawling development that was c...

“Thousand Pines” at Westport Playhouse through November 17

Thousand Pines is a sprawling development that was created in and among Pine barrows, with houses that all have the same basic format and a super-size grocery store where most folks shop and an elementary school that was a source of pride until one day it became the source of anguish. A child from one family took a gun to school and first killed some other students and then killed himself. Tragedy struck.

That’s the background of Matthew Greene’s brand-new play about the aftermath, and it will help you to decipher what’s happening on stage. Since the houses all look the same inside, one application by Set Designer Walt Spangler creates a functional living-dining room with stairs going up to bedrooms and a breezeway that leads by a wine shelf to the kitchen. The play takes place on Thanksgiving Day, in three different homes, with three different families, that are all played by six actors, switching roles to fit the story line. The first family is the home of the young killer, whose mother has a frozen smile and thinks that having a perfect Thanksgiving Dinner – perfect down to the matching colors of plates and napkins on the table – will help them to adjust to the tragedy by pretending it didn’t happen. She has run out of butter, badly needed for the perfect mashed potatoes, and her brother has gone off to the store to get the last pound there before the store closes for the remainder of the holiday. To his surprise, he couldn’t get the butter without a fight.

The second is the home of one of the victims, a little boy who tried to get out of the hallway and into a classroom but could not because the school was on lockdown, according to standard emergency policy. The mother in that family was his step-mother. An uncle (?) is a lawyer, and they are gathering witnesses who might testify about the events of the shooting in court. A guest at their Thanksgiving table is a teacher who is reluctant to share memories of the day, but in the end, does.

The third is the home of another victim. Disorganized. The sheriff (who might have been romantically involved with the mother in the past) brings a brother into the house in handcuffs. He has been arrested after attacking a man in the dairy section at the super-market: a man who he recognized as someone from the attacker’s family who came to the funeral. A daughter and her girl-friend/lover are there, too, and so is a stranger: a college student who knows more than could be predicted about the fight over a pound of butter.

The ensemble of six actors: Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, Anne Bates, Jobs Earle, Katie Ailion, and Andrew Veenstra; change costumes (Barbara A Bell) and embrace new roles as needed. The director is Austin Pendleton.

If you think this sounds confusing, relax. It is very confusing. But these hints will help you follow the gist of the play. One audience member called it the most important play she’d seen at the Playhouse. I might not go that far, but it’s an intriguing play and it reminds us of some sad moments we all have shared knowing about school shootings and their terror.

The Program Book includes a timeline, starting with Columbine in 1999, through thirteen different school settings. The last in May of this year. Matthew Greene is quoted, “To be honest, I’d love for this play to stop being ‘relevant.’”

The bottom line. “Thousand Pines” is very worth your visit.

Tickets and info at www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Nov. 6


Ridgelea Institute
New Canaan, CT


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