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Review: ‘American Son’ At Barrington Stage Company

By Dan Shaw

Barrington Stage Company’s world premiere production of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son” is meant to provoke discussion about race in America. For audience members like myself who arrive in Pittsfield with their white privilege, it’s difficult to analyze the play because any opinions about plot points, character development or an actor’s performance have the potential to seem laden with bias. I wouldn’t dare speculate to know what it’s like to be an African American in the audience. And that seems to be the point of “American Son”: Despite decades of progress since the civil rights movement began, racism remains embedded in our society and all conversations about race are potentially combustible.

Set in the wee hours of a present day Miami-Dade County police station (masterfully rendered by scenic designer Brian Prather with a full drop ceiling illuminated by institutional lighting) the play opens with a bourgeois African American woman in her 40s sitting alone. She is anxiously trying to reach her 18-year-old son, Jamal, on his cell phone and demanding that a young white police officer tell her if he is all right after she’s been told his car was in an “incident.” She is jittery, scared, angry. But should she express her rage so transparently to the officer she wants to help her get information about her son? Shouldn’t she be trying to sweet talk him instead? What would a white mother do? Would a white mother of a white son, who’s about to start his freshman year at West Point, even be in this situation? When the white officer tries to understand and appease her, she shoots back: Do you have any teenage black sons? Let’s skip the empathy tactics—you have no idea. Checkmate or stalemate?

Demos-Brown has written a one act treatise on the limitation of blacks’ and whites’ understanding each other. When Jamal’s white father, who works for the FBI, arrives at the police station, he gets more answers about his son’s whereabouts than his wife did. But his latent white privilege enrages his wife as well as the black police officer he recklessly challenges.

“American Son” is riveting, but that’s partly because you’re anticipating something more shocking and incendiary to happen, which it ultimately does. Tamara Tunie makes the role of Kendra Ellis-Connor, the frantic mother, entirely believable though her performance feels almost too naturalistic; she doesn’t own the stage as she might. As the young white police officer, Luke Smith comes across as a bit naïve for a cop in a big city like Miami; there are moments when he seems like he’d be more at home as the sidekick to Barney Fife on the ancient “Andy Griffith Show.” Michael Hayden, as the white FBI father Scott Connor, is tightly wound but the script has him react to events in a manner that does not quite seem entirely credible (but then I don’t have a child and can’t fully understand his predicament.) But Andre Ware as Lt. John Stokes takes command of the play when he finally arrives on stage. He convincingly captures the double bind that black police officers face today when confronted by young black men that they perceive to be threatening.

Barrington Stage Company commissioned this play knowing it would be mounted in Pittsfield, which has had more than its share of crime problems this spring. BSC has a long tradition of mounting shows that have contemporary relevance, and it’s fitting that BSC, which is committed to local audience engagement, will hold a symposium, “Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America,” on July 2 and 3. Directed by Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, “American Son” has sharp dialogue that makes you snap to attention. It grapples with one of the most urgent issues of our time and inevitably leads to unsettling after-theater conversations. Whether you’re white or black (or another minority group that faces racial, religious or ethnic profiling), “American Son” forces you to think deeply as good theater should. It’s 85 minutes of time well spent.

“American Son” (through July 9)
Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-8888

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/23/16 at 08:12 PM • Permalink

Karen Ziemba’s Star Turn In ‘Gypsy’ at Sharon Playhouse

By Dan Shaw

Mama Rose, the nervy and domineering stage mother, is one of the greatest roles in the American musical theater canon. It’s a part for a woman of a certain age and must be portrayed by a seasoned actress like the Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who received a Tony Award for “Contact” and Tony nominations for “Steel Pier” and “Never Gonna Dance.” The irony — or inherent logic — of Jules Stein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy” is that the star-starved Rose (aka Madam Rose) gets to be the star, albeit tragically. There is madness to her method — ruthless, bone chilling and breathtaking. And it is poignant that an actress of Ziemba’s caliber is playing this part as a wannabe at the Sharon Playhouse, which is traditionally a launch pad for up-and-coming actors rather than a showcase for established stars.

While she may not have the box office draw for today’s celebrity-obsessed Broadway audiences, Ziemba is the undeniable reason why this production of “Gypsy” is so powerful and unforgettable.  Pushing her younger daughter, Dainty June (Julia Hemp), to be a star and dragging along her older daughter, Louise (Kyra Kennedy), Ziemba’s Rose is obviously treacherous and indomitable. Still, for much of the first act, the show is played as comedy. Rose puts her daughters — and the young children she adopts along the way as their backup dancers — in variations on the same ridiculous routine as she denies they’ve turned into adults. They are prisoners of her unbridled ambition. She is just as determined to hold onto her agent and suitor, Herbie (Rufus Collins), an obsession that escalates through numbers like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.”  That she is also a fun-loving monster is evident in “Mr. Goldstone,” the endearingly manic charm song.  And even the daughters’ lament, “If Momma Was Married,” is a duet that is humorous and heartening because of Sondheim’s incomparable lyrics.

After June escapes her mother’s clutches and Rose turns her attention to making Louise a star, it’s certain this show will not have a conventional happy ending.  The intense, dangerous nature of Rose’s iron will is visceral as the curtain comes down on Act One after Ziemba belts out with spine-tingling gusto “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the illusory show biz anthem.

Like all good stage actresses, Ziemba is a team player. But she is also a star and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is rousing and unsettling and Ziemba leaves you begging for more at the intermission. But in Act Two, she has competition from the three actresses who play strippers in the riotous “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the show stopper featuring the brassy Carly Sakolove, the cheeky Sarah Cline and local favorite Emily Soell, another woman of a certain age who plays the past-her-prime Electra with pitch-perfect comic timing and finesse. Soell also gives a scene-stealing performance as the secretary to a powerful theatrical producer.

Since it’s fairly likely that everyone in the audience has seen “Gypsy” before, the evening’s suspense is whether or not Ziemba can bring down the house (following in the formidable footsteps of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly) with “Rose’s Turn,” the aptly timed “11 o’clock number” that expresses all of Rose’s yearnings, disappointments and unrelenting perseverance.  Happily, it is more than worth the wait. It’s hard to imagine any actress delivering this cri de couer with more fury, frenzy and feeling. Rose may never be a genuine star, but Ziemba undeniably is.

Gypsy” at Sharon Playhouse (through July 3)
49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT
(860) 364-7469

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/19/16 at 12:03 PM • Permalink

A New March Tradition: MASS MoCA’s High Mud Comedy Fest

By Amy Krzanik

Here comes MASS MoCA again, giving you something you didn’t know you needed—a comedy festival for the in-between months. The aptly titled High Mud Comedy Fest will run Friday, March 11 and Saturday, March 12, joining the museum’s roster of already popular music festivals: Solid Sound every other summer and FreshGrass each fall.

With curation help from television comedy writer (and MASS MoCA trustee) Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show), the fest will feature established comedians alongside regional favorites.

High Mud’s headliner, Tig Notaro, a hilarious and highly praised stand-up adored both by fans and fellow comedians, also is an actress known for her roles on The Sarah Silverman Program and the excellent Inside Amy Schumer where she doubles a writer. Notaro, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 30, 2012, addressed the issue four days later during a live performance at Largo in Los Angeles. The set has been described as “instantly legendary,” and Notaro was urged by comedian Louis C.K. to release the audio of the show online so more people could hear it.

High Mud headliner Tig Notaro.

Wilco fans may have caught Notaro at last year’s Solid Sound, says Sue Killam, MASS MoCA’s director of performing arts. “Rachel Chanoff and I both go to the Sundance Film Festival, and we saw Tig’s film and the performance by her last year. She’s hilarious, which is the most important, but also we love everything she stands for and who she is.”

Festival host Ophira Eisenberg is the host of NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” but locals may know her from her appearances at the Mount during the Literary Death Match and Speak Up! storytelling shows. Brooklyn- and Hollywood-based live wire Sean Patton, and writer, musician, actor, radio host and man-about-town Dave Hill round out the roster of national acts.

A handful of “Berkshire’s inspired” comedians who are from here, have ties to the region or have performed here in the past will bring the laughs post-mainstage, at late-night gigs at local venues including The Mohawk Tavern, Desperados and the Freight Yard Pub.

The late-night pub shows will extend the festival feeling, says Killam, as will Saturday’s stand-up workshop with Dave Hill and screening of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.

High Mud Comedy Fest at MASS MoCA
Friday, March 11 & Saturday, March 12
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
(413) 662-2111
Tickets: $32—$75

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 03/01/16 at 11:22 AM • Permalink

History Becomes A Memoir, A Play, And A Call To Action

Lynda Blackmon Lowery.

By Jamie Larson

Sometimes there are important lessons we think we know so well we forget how we came to learn them. Before she turned 15, Lynda Blackmon Lowery began fighting against segregation. A performance of her memoir, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, is taking the stage Saturday, Feb. 13 at the MC Smith Intermediate School in Hudson, New York. The story serves as a powerful reminder to young and old that the lessons learned during the civil rights movement must not be forgotten.

“I always hope that young people will see that they, too, can change things,” says Lowery. “You just have to believe in yourself and that what you are doing is right.”

Actress Damaras Obi.

Lowery’s book has been adapted into a one-woman performance, and tells of a teenager who was motivated to join the struggle for African-American voting rights after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at her church. She was arrested nine times before her 15th birthday and marched with her neighbors from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

But her commitment was sealed earlier than that. In 1957, when she was just seven, Lowery’s mother died. She would have easily survived, but the blood she needed was only available in Selma’s whites-only hospital. Lowery swore that day she would fight for equality the rest of her life.

“In the segregated South, there was no love,” she remembers. “I grew up black and proud and I knew where I sat in the system.”

Producer Miranda Barry.

Lowery’s book was adapted into a performance piece by Fiorello LaGuardia High School for Music, Art and Performing Arts teacher Ally Sheedy (yes, acclaimed actress Ally Sheedy is the director) and is performed by Sheedy’s senior acting student, Damaras Obi. Hudson resident Miranda Barry is producing the project. Lowery is flying up from Alabama to attend the event and will speak after the performance. The lessons of Turning 15, Barry says, are as important in New York as they are in Alabama.

Barry was the head of global production for Sesame Street and also worked on programs like Ghostwriter, in the ‘90s. “As a producer of TV shows for kids, I know how important and empowering it is for people to see themselves in the media,” she says. “So when I learned that Ally Sheedy and Damaras Obi were adapting Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s book for the stage, I thought — this is it! She was just a regular teenager who became engaged and stood up for herself and her father’s right to vote. I thought it would be inspiring for all of our kids to see what an ordinary person can do once she sets her mind on freedom. The fact that Lynda Lowery can be here to see the show and talk to the audience makes the impact even stronger.”

For its size, Hudson is a diverse little city but it is also, despite all its progressive trappings, embarrassingly segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Though separated by a single block, Hudson’s arts and culture-based business district seems a world away from the low-income housing neighborhood where most of Hudson’s minority population lives. The divide has an impact on how children see themselves in their community and at school.

“We, black and white, are not sure where we fit. So we stay with our own,” Lowery says. “A lot of the time we, as black people, do not think we are able or capable of doing anything a white person can. Black kids don’t think they’re qualified [for jobs in a predominantly white area like Warren Street in Hudson] because they are not a part of the white community.”

This somber way of thinking is something she hopes Turning 15 will help to change in the communities it visits.

“You do not have to look at yourself that way,” Lowery tells children of color. “My grandmother taught me not to let anything own my mind, because that’s what you’re a slave to.”

Lowery believes it’s time for young people to rise again to continue the fight for equality. She said the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t working hard enough to elicit the real change that is needed.

“Black Lives seem to only matter when CNN is filming. As soon as the show’s over you don’t hear about it,” she says. “When we were marching, it didn’t stop. If a group went to jail in the morning, another went to jail in the afternoon. There’s got to be continuity.”

As someone who received beatings at 14 years old for peacefully protesting for the right to vote (she still bears a scar above her eye and on the back of her head — 35 stitches in all), she says people need to remember that the ballot is the best place for young people to make an impact.

Turning 15 is set to be a truly enjoyable and inspiring performance for Hudson and all of us who need a little kick in the ass as a reminder that there’s a lot more we can do to empower our collective community. The presence of Lowery at the performance, along with its noteworthy director, producer and star makes Turning 15 an important event in regional culture.

Lowery’s lesson to us all: “You have to fight every day.” That’s how you don’t forget.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom
Saturday, Feb. 13 at 3 p.m.
M. C. Smith Intermediate School
182 Harry Howard Ave., Hudson, NY
Suggested donation: $10 for adults; free for children 12 and under.
All tickets will be sold at the door. Proceeds benefit the Hudson Area Library.
(518) 828-1792

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 02/01/16 at 12:57 PM • Permalink

Half Moon And The CIA Bring New Meaning To Dinner Theater

By Andrea Pyros

Dinner-and-a-show never gets old, but “dinner theater?” Not so much.

Fortunately for us in the Rural Intelligence region, the days of Burt Reynolds, half-baked whodunits and overcooked Chicken à la King have been replaced with a brilliant partnership between Half Moon Theatre and The Culinary Institute of America. In this inventive theatrical and culinary subscription series, theatergoers dine at one of The CIA’s award-winning restaurants — American Bounty Restaurant, Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici or The Bocuse Restaurant — then walk a few steps to a Half Moon Theatre production, all on the CIA campus in Hyde Park, NY.

Sutton Foster. Photo: Lauren Marie Duncan

Now in its second year of residency at The CIA, Half Moon, a year-round professional theater company, is continuing to grow and intends to make a splash with its upcoming gala benefit, “An Evening with Sutton Foster!” at The Culinary Institute of America on September 26. The evening will showcase the partnership at The CIA’s Marriott Pavilion, with a pre-show cocktail party and the performance by Foster, followed by a dessert and meet-the-performer reception. (Foster is an award-winning actor, singer and dancer who has performed in 11 Broadway shows including “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Little Women,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Shrek The Musical,” along with her Tony Award-winning performances in “Anything Goes” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”)

Half Moon is the brainchild of a group of Poughkeepsie-based artists who decided that the area deserved top-notch theater, and that the many professional actors, writers and assorted theater folk who lived in the Hudson Valley needed a home of their own, says Half Moon’s executive director, Molly Renfroe Katz [photo, right].

“There is great music at the Bardavon and great dance companies in the area, but along with the marvelous summer companies, we wanted to give people who live here year-round real regional theater, so that’s what we set out to build.”

The company casts exclusively from the area. “We have a tremendously talented company of actors who had careers [on Broadway and elsewhere] and have ended up living in the Hudson Valley,” Renfroe Katz continues. “Part of the mission of the theater was to build a home for those people who wanted to do creative work in the place where they live. We’re a cultural organization that is really committed to this community.”

“Half Moon’s collaboration with The Culinary Institute of America began soon after The CIA opened its state-of-the-art theater and conference center, the Marriott Pavilion. CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan attended Half Moon’s staging of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which led to talks about Half Moon taking up residency at the school.

“The CIA wanted their students to have access to our creativity, and for the staff to enjoy those performances,” Renfroe Katz explains. “The potential is enormous — there’s nothing like it with a culinary school of this caliber and Broadway talent and production. It’s taking dinner theater to a whole new level.”

You don’t have to eat before a performance (although, as Renfroe Katz points out, why wouldn’t you?) but theatergoers can take advantage of The CIA’s special pre-theater dining options, with 5:30 seatings at different restaurants for each show.

Upcoming shows for the 2015—2016 season include a streamlined retelling of “A Christmas Carol” with dining at American Bounty Restaurant; Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” paired with a meal at The Bocuse Restaurant; and “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” with a pre-theater meal at Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, naturally. ILILIMS is a one-woman show in which the actress cooks a three-course meal onstage during the performance. It’s one example of Half Moon’s goal of integrating the dining experience with live theater, as is June’s 6th Annual Ten Minute Play Festival where each of the featured playwrights is assigned a dish to feature in his/her play (and yes, audiences get to sample the food afterwards). 

Like other arts organizations, Half Moon works to reach and develop that next generation of theater professionals and theatergoers, with student and senior discounts, an usher program so that volunteers can see a show for free, and invitations to student groups. HMT also has a school of the arts, with acting and performance classes offered for children, teens and adults. Those are held at the Black Box Theater located in the Oakwood Commons in Poughkeepsie.

World-class cuisine paired with professional theater: this is a partnership that combines the best of what the Hudson Valley offers. We can’t wait to sample it.

Half Moon Theatre Benefit Gala with Sutton Foster
Saturday, September 26 beginning at 6 p.m.
The Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY
(800) 838-3006
For season overview and tickets, click here.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/14/15 at 07:51 PM • Permalink