Aisle Say

Best of Boston --1996

A Sampling of the Year's Satisfactions on Stage
by G.L. Horton

This was a good year for Boston Area Theatre. Everybody says so -- the city is impressed that the downtown houses are all up and running, after years of only intermittent use. Some of those downtown shows, both tours and pre-Broadway, have been excellent--- though I didn't make the effort to see all of them. But what makes a city a "good theatre town" is the work of the small and mid-range theatres, where emerging talent is nurtured and the excitement of discovery is added to the pleasures of performance. There are some hopeful signs that Boston is --at long last -- waking up to the delights of theatre art-as-process, and recovering from the tryout-town habit of thinking of theatre as a New York or London product (sometimes, a product whose packaging and promotion is the most important thing about it) shipped to Boston for local comsumption.

Trinity Repertory Company mounted Parts I and II of "Angels in America" Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning "gay fantasia on national themes,". The Rep's recently appointed artistic director Oskar Eustis got to show what the Trinity company -- which really is a company, most of the actors having worked together for many years -- can do under his leadership with the wonderful script that Eustus midwifed for Kushner when both were working at the Eureka in San Francisco. I thought "Part 2:Perestroika" a bit of a letdown from the peak of "Millennium Approaches", but nevertheless Trinity's was a world-class production of a magnificent theatre piece, even better than the Broadway version and thrilling to witness for every minute of its seven hour length.

"Arcadia" at the Huntington Theatre Company was not an improvement over the London production of Tom Stoppard's glittering masterpiece, but it was a pretty darn good staging of a play of breathtaking scope and heart-stopping beauty. Director Jacques Cartier managed all the hard stuff: disquisitions on gardening, physics, thermodynamics, sex, academic necrophilia, literary status-seeking etc. But the Huntington's pick-up company of excellent individuals was deficient just where the Trinity ensemble shone, in conveying the sense that the relationships on stage had history and complexity and passion.

Speakeasy Stage Co. 's production of Terrence McNally's " Love! Valour! Compassion!" was nearly ideal, the ensemble forming a community wherein each character is altered by the alterations the others go through in the course of the play. Neil Donohoe, Eddie Rutkowski, Jeff Miller, Jim O'Brien, Richard Carey, Albert Cremin, and Ricardo Rodriguiz worked together brilliantly under Paul Dagneault's direction to round out McNally's sketch.

The Huntington's "Iolanthe", in a chamber staging directed by Larry Carpenter, supplied with luscious design by James Joy, costumed and wigged by Mariann Verheyan to storybook perfection, and with sprightly choreography by Daniel Pelzig, featured a bouquet of outstanding performances led by Patti Allison's redoubtable Queen of the Fairies. The Boston area is a bastion of amateur Gilbert and Sullivan performance, with a half-dozen different companies producing one or two shows a year. When Carpenter put together his "Iolanthe", with its sparkling blend of tradition and innovation, he must have been aware that the Huntington audience would be liberally sprinkled with people who have been G&S choristers, and that Iolanthe's success will surely inspire the amateurs to redouble their efforts, just as the Papp "Pirates" did.

GBS's "Candida" at the Lyric Stage was seductively charming, and a testimony to director/actor Ron Ritchell's long association with Shaw. The company's' secure high-comedy style was backed up by design elements of extraordinary beauty and intelligence. A delightful evening of theatre in the slightly old-fashioned literary Boston manner-- cozy domesticity brightened by Edwardian aestheticism and braced by Fabian satire.

The Nora Theatre's "Equus" directed by Eric Engle and centered on impeccable performances by Will Lyman and Stephen Largay, demonstrated just how much is at stake if artistic director Mimi Huntington fails to find a new home for her company. Like Trinity's "Angels", Nora's "Equus" proved an object lesson in what a small-scale professional organization can do, mounting an intimate production that holds up under the most intense scrutiny, revealing the universal impulses behind a peculiar set of provincial British behaviors circa 1970.

On similar note, The Reagle Players of Waltham demonstrated the effectiveness of Bob Eagle's operation connected to Waltham High School, where for a generation adult amateurs and kids have been learning and practicing the skills of the Broadway Musical, and performing with a few top-notch pros for inspiration. This summer Reagle produced knockout results: "Annie", "Crazy For You" and "Me and My Girl" all looked and sounded right at home in their rented Broadway sets and finery. The pros gave their all, and the amateurs lived up to them: a wonderful theatrical experience bound to turn proud parents and friends into fans forever. . Here I must quote my review: "Somehow, the knowledge that these prodigious feats are being performed by an attorney, a doctor, a real estate agent, and a third grade teacher, transforms them from simple entertainment into a kind of triumph of the human spirit. It's like watching a home town stock clerk win a medal at the Olympics -- it has that kind of hold on the heart."

Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre revived two of the company's all-time favorites, "King Stag" and "Six Character's In Search of an Author." I haven't seen them, but the consensus seems to be that the revivals are on a par with the original productions, which I did see, and admired. In "Slaughter City" at ART New Stages, departing ART associate director Ron Daniels demonstrated his depth with a riveting American premiere of Kentucky playwright Naomi Wallace's expressionist drama set in a meat-packing plant. Guts, gore, obscenity and poetic flights of fancy jostled for attention in this politically grounded paean to the souls on the underside of the food chain, all brought home by a committed cast about half of whom were trained at the ART Institute. I for one am saddened by Daniels' departure, and worried about the influence of his successor, Francois Rochaix, two of whose ART productions, "Eumenides" and "Tartuffe", represented for me the nadir of the heartless and rootless Eurotrash directing style.

Now for the really exciting stuff: the innovative Boston area productions with a distinctive local flavor. First, Sugan's "The Freedom of the City". Carmel O'Reilly's Sugan Theatre Company is based on the perception that Irish immigrants and their descendants make up a large proportion of population of the Boston area, and that the Irish are woefully underrepresented on stage here, where plays generally are borrowed from NYC or London. Sugan specializes in contemporary Irish drama, performed by actors native to Ireland mixed in with Bostonians who are able and willing to learn the appropriate accents. The company has built a loyal and enthusiastic audience for its ambitious offerings. Sugan managed to restage last season's dense and demanding "Gigli Concert" by Tom Murphy, and fill the seats in spite of the disapproval or silence of the local press. For Brian Friel's passionately political "The Freedom of the City", artistic director O'Reilly's staging brought clarity to the multi-scene, large-cast script, and her own performance as an involuntarily martyred housewife was among the year's best.

Tina Packer's "Merry Wives" was set in a Windsor located in the American Wild West, "vaguely, somewhere between 1750 and 1890". Shakespeare & Company mainstay Jonathan Epstein in a fat suit proved to be a Falstaff on the grandest of scales. His followers and antagonists were familiar south-western types, Sir Hugh Evans the Welsh Parson becoming in Johnny Lee Davenport 's performance Hugh Evans the Baptist Preacher. A splendidly amusing production, a show case for the company's depth -- especially in women -- and physical expressiveness. The Shakespeare & Co. process has been at work in Lenox Massachusetts long enough now that the company style is instantly recognizable, and actors who have been through the training program enrich many of the area's stages. In addition to her staging of Merry Wives, Packer did a seven actor Bare Bard "Measure for Measure" with admirable focus and intensity; and two lovely premieres, Laura Harrington's "Mercy", and Dennis Krasnick's adaptation of Wharton's "Ethan Frome" displayed the company's virtuosically literary sensibility.

The Centastage premiere of local writer Dean O'Donnell's "For Want of a Name", based on a news item from the Boston Globe, is exactly the kind of show that makes it exciting to attend the shoestring theatres that make their home in the Boston Center for the Arts. O'Donnell's script is full of puzzles and surprises, fresh twists of character and depths of plot within the mystery genre that dominates film and TV. The script is filled with local references, supplying the audience with the thrilling sense that their ordinary lives are being transmuted into art right before their eyes. Director Kimberly Faris made sure that the Centastage company had a tight, ensemble feel to it, and John Poirelle and Rick Park turned in excellent performances.

Phyllis Ngy's "Weldon Rising", at the Coyote Theatre, was the kind of piece most theatre people recognize as "cutting edge". There is no plot, and the characters are so alienated that they have no real connections, no interactions that advance or change their relationships with each other. The setting is both very specific: "Little West 12th Street, New York City's meat-packing district"-- and fluid enough that interior and exterior scenes occur simultaneously, along with asides and soliloquies. Director Steve Maler and his cast at Coyote delivered an absorbing evening, with Peter Bubriski 's) Natty Weldon a second contender for Best Performance, along with the actor's Rev. Morrell in the Lyric's "Candida".

Rosanna Alfaro had two premieres in her hometown last season, "Going to Seed" directed for the Asian-American Resource Workshop by Daniel Gidron in a beautifully sensitive chamber production, and "Pablo and Cleopatra", which went from a 1995 NeWorks reading to a fluid minimalist staging by Rick DesRochers at the New Theatre.

Bill Lattanzi's "New Englandish", at the NeWorks Festival, was subtitled "a little play about Boston, baseball, paper airplanes, and ramen" . It is also about racism, Lesbianism, homelessness, madness, the claims of love and friendship, the American legal system, and the workings of late capitalism -- but all in a slant and modest way, so that its insights seem to be the audience's own discoveries. Director Dan Milstein and an excellent cast managed to connect the dots of its multitudes of tiny scenelets and skated over its hidden profundities with style and grace.

Renita Martin's "The Brunch" focused on how three generations of African-Americans have used their music --blues, jazz, and rap-- to heal and make whole lives threatened and battered and lost. Martin's writing was warm and vibrant and full of the peculiarities of real life. Martin's script seemed to be in an early stage at the 1996 NeWorks, but it will appear again, revised, in the upcoming Festival 1997.