Monday, September 22, 2014

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Hits A Home Run At Fenway With "Shakespeare At Fenway"

Last Friday evening, Fenway Park was buzzing with a new kind of drama and energy.  The usual Fenway Grounds Crew had given way to the Groundlings who filled the seats along the first base line to enjoy "Shakespeare at Fenway," presented by The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company as part of their 20th season celebration.  It was a night to remember.

The idea for such an event - the first such endeavor to take place in any major league baseball stadium - had been planted by former Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who told Larry Lucchino that Fenway should host more cultural events.  Our beloved former Mayor was clearly avoiding "the insolence of office and the law's delay."  Friday night's festivities represented Menino's "consummation devoutly to be wish'd."  Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner threw out the first verbal pitch when he offered several poignant quotations that proved that there had to have been baseball in the days of Shakespeare: "Fair is foul; foul is fair,"   It was a chilly evening in Boston, but the enthusiastic crowd of several thousand were happy to bundle up for the Bard of Avon.

Bundled Up For The Bard

CSC Founding Artistic Director Steven Maler now shares a rare distinction with Red Sox Outfielder Daniel Nava: they both hit a grand slam in their first at bat at Fenway!  The evening was a rousing success by any measure - or "Measure for Measure."  The program that Mr. Maler created was a wonderfully entertaining patchwork quilt of ten iconic scenes from Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, with an intermingling of Broadway tunes from shows inspired by Shakespeare plays.  The evening was a perfect pastiche of high brow drama and low brow shenanigans.  As Mr, Werner prepared to exit - stage right - he was accosted by a group of six actors portraying the Rude Mechanicals from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  They are Larry Coen as Nick Botom, Peter Cambor as Peter Quince, Will LeBow as Tom Snout, Rick Park as Francis Flute, Paul Melendy as Robin Starveling and Mike O'Malley as Snug the Joiner.  This motley crew may have washed ashore at the L Street Beach, for they spoke the Queen's English in flawless Southie accents: "Mistah Warnah, I hope you plan to re-sign Lestah!"  Play ball!

The program that followed included:

Hamlet - the soliloquy scene and confrontation with Ophelia.  Christian Coulson and Kersti Bryan were brilliant and as unflappable as Big Papi at the plate in a World Series game.  During their scene, a fire alarm was sounded and strobe lights illuminated the Park, but they soldiered on, not wearied by bearing the fardel of this burdensome interruption.

Much Ado About Nothing - Playing the reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice, James Waterston and Bianca Amato were convincing as the couple just figuring out how to get to First Base!

Othello - This dark tragedy was represented in two scenes.  In the first, Desdemona and Emilia converse about man's treachery in love.  Kersti Bryan and Zuzanna Szadkowski played off of each other in this moving scene that foreshadows Desdemona's murder.  Later, Seth Gilliam as Othello and James Waterston as Iago powerfully discuss and argue the evidence of Desdemona's suspected infidelity.

Romeo and Juliet - In the famous balcony scene, Rupak Ginn as Romeo and Jenna Augen as Juliet delighted the crowd with their portrayal of the cursed lovers, whose family rivalry and mutual disdain surpassed even that of the Red Sox vs. the Yankees.

Musical Interlude - Jason Butler Harner, accompanied by the Mill Town Rounders, sang a song inspired by the lyrics from Tweflth Night.

Twelfth Night - Viola, disguised as Caesario, pleads the case for his master, the Duke, who is in love with the mourning Olivia.  Marianna Bassham and Kerry O'Malley both were artfully deceitful in these delicious roles.

Musical Interlude Kerry O'Malley - who sang the National Anthem from Home Plate just a few weeks ago - rocked the house with her interpretations of "Sing for Your Supper from "The Boys From Syracuse" and "So In Love" from "Kiss Me Kate."

Macbeth - In this scene from the Scottish play, Jay O. Sanders as Macbeth and Maryann Plunkett as Lady Macbeth begin to melt down as the blood shed when Macbeth murdered King Duncan begins to haunt both husband and wife.  Not since Curt Schilling's "Bloody Sock" game in the ALCS in 2004, have we seen such a letting of the sanguinary substance on a baseball diamond.

Taming of the Shrew - When Peter Cambor as Petruchio confronted Jenna Augen as Katherine in order to tame her and disabuse her of her unladylike ways, I was reminded of 2004 once again.  In this case, the scene was reminiscent of Jason Varitek in July of that year, taming that bitch, A-Rod, with a shot to the mouth with his catcher's mitt.  In both cases - 2004 and 2114 - the crowd roared its approval of the fisticuffs.

Musical Interlude - Max von Essen delighted and enchanted the crowd with his renditions of "Were Thine That Special Face" from "Kiss Me Kate," and the rousing "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story."

Grand Finale - All of the evening's performers returned to the stage to observe or to enact the play-within-the play scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.  Our Southie denizens - the Rude Mechanicals  - re-appeared, now costumed as the characters they will play in the melodrama: Larry Coen as Pyramus, Peter Cambor as The Prologue, Will LeBow as Wall, Rick Park as Thisbe, Paul Melendy as Moonshine, and the indomitable Mike O'Malley as roaring Lion. Much merriment ensued.  It was a perfect way to end an unforgettable evening.  Thanks to Paul Melendy's distinctive enunciation, I will never again hear the world "lantern" without thinking about this moonlight night on the Fens.

Rick Park as Thibe
Larry Coen as Pyramus

Kudos to our home town team - The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.  On this night, they bathed themselves in glory.  Ben Cherington, GM of the Red Sox, could learn a thing or two from Steve Maler when it comes to assembling a winning team.  Friday evening's cast was a cunning combination of home-grown talent and a few free agents flown in from NYC, LA and London.  That is not a bad formula for rebuilding the Red Sox from this season's long-playing tragedy to next year's team that will strive once again to win the crown.  Let us hope that the upcoming "Hot Stove League" will not prove to be "The Winter of Our Discontent"!

Go Sox!


A Charmingly Calculating Woman: Nora Theatre Company Presents "Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight"

Steven Barkhimer as Voltaire
Lee Mikeska Gardner as Emilie
History as we tend to study it has largely glossed over the astounding accomplishments of Émilie, La Marquise du Châtelet.  She was a collaborator with and lover of Voltaire.  She was an intellectual sparring partner with the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz.  She published a French translation of Newton's watershed work, Mathematica Principia - adding some of her own improvements to Newton's equations.  She was a shining star of the Age of Enlightenment, yet her memory is dim in our age.  Playwright Lauren Gunderson and Director Judy Braha have done their best to ensure that those of  us who live and work in the shadow of the MIT dome do not forget her life and her work.  The play, "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," is part of the longstanding collaboration between MIT and Central Square Theater known as The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT.

The audience enters the performance space at Central Square Theater and is immediately swept into the world of the charmingly calculating woman that was Emilie.  Mathematical equations based on her notebooks line the floor and run up the back wall.   A complex and beautiful wooden structure that resembles an 18th Century scientific instrument covers the opposite wall, and becomes the place from which Emilie delivers several of her speeches - and the place where she keeps score on how her life is going in the realms of love and of philosophy.  For this is a play about her striving to find the proper balance between her head and her heart.

Steven Royal's brilliant scenic design and Chelsea Kerl's sumptuous costumes help to set the stage for the telling of this tale of exploration and explanation of Emilie's elusive "Force vivre."

The story is cleverly told as Emilie, long dead, has been allowed by "space and time" to return to defend her life.  Cast members play several roles in flashbacks that highlight important chapters in Emilie's life and work.  Lee Mikeska Gardner, Nora Theatre Company's Artistic Director, is a revelation as Emilie.  She shows La Marquise in several lights - collaborator, coquette, dispassionate scholar, passionate lover. It is a tour de force performance that should not be missed.

She is very ably supported by a strong cast.  Steven Barkhimer is mesmerizing as Voltaire - in his ascendancy and in his dotage.  Soporo Ngin plays the young and alive Emilie with a gleam in her eye that hints of the complex calculations being solved in that fertile brain.  Lewis D. Wheeler plays Emilie's cuckolded husband and several other roles with understated elegance and grace.  Michelle Dowd plays the Madame and several other characters, and has a wonderful scene in which her vocal and emotional strength shine through.

The emotional center of the play for me was a simple moment near the end of the play.  All evening, we have been looking at a simple formula that indicates Emilie's elusive "Force vivre: F = mc.  With a flick of her wrist and a stroke of her pen, she transforms the equation into the familiar E = mc2

The audience responds with a knowing "Aha!"  Emilie turns, breaks the fourth wall and proclaims: "I don't know what that means, but you do!"  In that moment, with those simple words, she helps us to grasp the truth that she has laid the foundation for scientific understanding that is now common knowledge in our century.  It is a wonderful and moving moment.

This play, which caps the 10th anniversary celebration of The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT, also signals a strong beginning for the leadership of Artistic Director Gardner.

The play will run at the Central Square Theatre through October 5.



Central Square Theater Website

Tonight, Emilie du Châtelet, leading physicist (before there was such a word), card shark and all-around bad ass during the Age of Enlightenment returns searching for answers: Love or Philosophy? Head or Heart?