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Stage Pages January, 2004

By Steve Thornburg

Several years ago, one of my film teachers at Columbia Unversity gave me a very important lesson. Professor Stefan Sharff told me that, after viewing a film, he always took a few minutes to write down his thoughts about a movie. For him, this meant the language of the cinema: The opening shot fades in on an egg on a table and then there is a slow disclosure of the room with a body under the table. Body close-up. Montage sequence. Bach in background. Chicken sfx.

I, too, enjoy writing reviews for the heck of it. It trains the mind to focus on detail and makes you hold in your brain cells the difference between peek and peak, there and their. It can be hard work -- but also very rewarding. After all, it is an exercise in creativity.

Since I am teaching again, I think it is my duty to relate this guidance to any potential writers out there. Below are two reviews that I wrote last year. They were in the archives, and yet they never made it to print.

Perhaps you can enjoy the reviews; and then you can use them as inspiration for your own. You may also enjoy a visit to a museum. After the trip, write a page or two about your experience. Some years down the road you can re-read your writing and enjoy the cultural experience a second time. Happy writing!



From the archives


Review by Steven Thornburg

IMAGINARY FRIENDS on Broadway (directed by Jack O'Brien) is an exquisite play with period-appropriate song and dance numbers. There is even a Vaudevillian atmosphere in this story about the rivalry between real people Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones). Kurtz and Jones are splendid: they sing; they act; and they are extremely funny!

Some have said that the song and dance takes away from the story of the women. One has to ask, "Does the over-producing further the story and the relationship?" The answer is. "Yes, but generally in the way a surreal dream does. For example, there are many important male characters -- all played brilliantly by Harry Groener. And there are two tap-dancing males who deftly symbolize the competitive dance between Hellman and McCarthy. This dreamlike quality allows an "anything goes" feeling in the context of the ladies meeting in the after-life and seeing their lives pass before them. The production succeeds with the fast surrealism as only movies have in the past.

IMAGINARY FRIENDS accomplishes much in two and a half hours: fabulous choreography (Jerry Mitchell); a deft chorus of gypsies in gorgeous costumes (Robert Morgan); the lovely Anne Pitoniak in a featured role; clever and retro sets (Michael Levine) and lighting (Kenneth Posner). One memorable set is a bar in which hundreds of liquor bottles strung together create huge "beads," the kind we once let hang in doorways between rooms. And the huge video (Jan Hartley) running simultaneously with the scripted lines allows for some very funny close-up takes of Kurtz and Jones.

Other Cast: Anne Pitoniak, Anne Allgood, Bernard Dotson, Rosena M. Hill, Gina Lamparella, Dirk Lumbard, Peter Marx, Perry Ojeda, Jim Osorno, Susan Pellegrino, Karyn Quackenbush, Melanie Vaughan.

USA Ostar Theatricals produces. Written by Nora Ephron with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnelia. Sound design by Jon Weston. Music direction and dance arrangements by Ron Melrose. Orchestrations by Torrie Zito. Music coordinator: Michael Keller. Originally produced by The Globe Theatres, Executive Director: Louis G. Spisto.



Review by Steven Thornburg

MEDEA has a new concept: present day at the sight of Jason's construction site (His and Medea's new home). The place and time allows the audience to relate to this giant tragedy. After a fierce offstage rant and crashing of objects, enter Medea, played to perfection by Fiona Shaw. Shaw's portrayal of the famous wronged mother and wife is filled with humor, taking us on a journey to an inevitable conclusion. Jason, too, is an inspired performance in the hands of Jonathan Cake, allowing a glimpse into his peculiar perspective (to marry the princess not because he loves her more than Medea but to give Medea and sons a comfort and future that only royalty can assure). Loose paraphrases fly in my memory. Jason: Why can't you understand why I did it? Ah! Women!" Medea: "So many ways to kill...how can one decide?"

The Greek Chorus members (Kirsten Campbell, Joyce Henderson, Rachel Isaac, Pauline Lynch, and Susan Salmon) succeed in fleshing out characters and moving about the stage stunningly, although their twenty -something voices are so similar and young that some effectiveness was lost. Other standouts are Derek Hutchinson (Messenger), Robin Laing (Tutor), Joseph Mydell (Aegeus) and Siobhan McCarthy (Nurse). The gifted Struan Rodger plays Kreon, and the adorable Alexander Scheitinger and Michael Tommer play the children.

Euripides wrote in the fifth century, BC, about all of the things with which we are so interested today. Medea is known to have magical powers. The rich and frightening dialogue about how Kreon and the princess die takes one's thoughts to radioactive materials, anthrax and biological weapons. And one is horrified upon watching Medea take the children to death at her own hands before her enemies can murder them instead. The production is tight with fabulous details, such as Medea's ritualistic washing of the feet of her babies in the pool of water. On one hand, she may be rinsing off some of the blood; but to me she is blessing them and preparing them for burial. The Abbey Theatre Production of MEDEA is translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael. Set by Tom Pye. Costumes by Jacquelin Durran. Lighting bly Michael Gunning. Sound Designer: David Meschter. Soundscape: Mel Mercier. Directed by Deborah Warner.



"Constructive Critic"
By Sherry Braun

Thus ends my coverage of the Halloween Festival. Some of the reporting is less dense than the rest. Be assured that it's only because time has played tricks with my assignments (not to mention memory) -- not because I enjoyed a show less if it got a short review. I will carry the experience of the theatre outings with me for many years. Congratulations to all of the participants in the Off-Off Broadway scene.

THE STRANGE SYSTEM OF DOCTOR BOUVIER Written by Margo LaZaro and Mick Muzio Directed by Mick Muzio Produced by Margo LaZaro

This original play is inspired by the Theatre du Grand Guignol, which hails from France whereby the audiences were terrorized with realistic blood and gore (and often by the real blood and organs of dead animals bought at market). This stage version is rather tame and clean fun -- suitable for a family. Or perhaps it is the audience which has changed ever since the advent of television violence and our raised tolerance levels.

No problem. This play has a grand style which makes us squirm and expel vocalizations when the lunatics take over and extract piece after piece of a victim's skull right out of her head. We remember this sobering trick later when the nuts approach a lovely girl's eyes to cut them right out. Yes, for a moment, we say to ourselves, "Uh, oh, how are they going to do this?"

The production values are clean and attractive in the asylum setting. Costumes are beautiful and elegant when needed and occasionally humorous and ill-fitting as if to foreshadow that the lunatics are impersonating the staff. Make-up and hair are stylized in black and white, which is a nice touch and seems to suggest a great old-fashioned thriller movie!

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD -- THE MUSICAL (Abreact Productions) Loosely based on the movie by George A. Romero and John Russo Adapted/Directed by Thomas Hoagland

I don't know if the audience or the show is the most fun. Both are loose. As you might guess, the production is parody heaven. Everybody in the audience seems to know the story; and a certain kind of audience shows up -- vocal and drinking. This felt like a late-night and downtown crowd. The show feels like that, too, as a cardboard cut-out car sets the humorous tone as the first innocent victims confront the zombies. A good deal of clever costuming and make-up go into the affair, of which one of my favorite effects is the red string of licorice which impersonates internal organs. The plot is as simple as you might expect, with the forward-moving machinery being that the entire cast is plucked off one by one. There are some surprisingly cute cameos and hysterical characters. I love the newscaster and the politician. And of course the beautiful chick with the tight top runs around a great deal. We also have the feuding father and mother locked in the basement with their pale-faced girl/child. Did I mention the device of each cast member getting white-face make-up when he/she gets it? Dead-on funny! The compositions and lyrics are everywhere from sufficient to terrific -- touching a variety of styles. Furthermore, the execution is top-drawer. This team knows how to cast a musical; and the performers know how to hit the right musical and comedic notes.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS Tribe Productions Written and directed by J.C. Svec

Svec has done it again -- created an original comedy for the theatre world. HAPPY HOLIDAY$ is a classic idea! The "holidays" are played by five young women named Nicole Cicchella, Cher Lair, Yvonne Lin, Sara Shaning and Karson St. John. They're attractive marketing geniuses comprising the Council for the Achievement of Successful Holidays (C.A.S.H.). They meet once a year to exchange strategies, share ideas, celebrate good fortunes and support each other in executing the age old holiday traditions of materialism, commercialism, capitalism and greed. In this hotel conference lounge they allow rivalry to rear its pretty heads.

The actresses are all charming and different in their roles. The play is short, interesting and concise -- sure to be revived in many venues around the holidays. Colleges and high schools can snap this one up as a vehicle for strong female talent because it is a long one-act and smart entertainment.

The costumes are clever as they represent each of the holidays perfectly. The set is clever and the music upbeat. Svec has a knack for writing humorous plays with strong roles for young adults -- especially women.

SLEEPING IN TOMORROW Cross-Eyed Bear Productions By Duncan Pflaster Directed by Clara Barton Green

Pflaster always provides a quirky world which wins the interest of many disciples. Inventors, sports figures, jews, homos, witches, masochists, nazis and clowns are represented here.

In Pflaster's new play for adults, Berenice is dissatisfied with her life and looking for answers in cosmic mysticism. When she begins having out-of-body experiences at a cocktail party hosted by her husband's gay brother and his lover, she takes the opportunity to explore several parallel universes, encountering all of her friends in wildly different worlds and circumstances.

The director has done a lovely job of staging SLEEPING IN TOMORROW. The actors successfully accomplish many adjustments on character among the universes, although I wish at least one of them would economize on the hand and arm thrashing.

The technical aspects are enjoyable as well -- a simple placement of good apartment furnishings and good sound and lighting. Costumes, too, are easy on the eye.

A great deal of preparation and love brought this play off. Ms. Lauren Adler's performance as Berenice is especially honest and engaging. Yet the whole cast works as a terrific ensemble: Sue Berch, Elizabeth Boskey, Wael Haggiagi, Dawn Pollock Jones, Paul Martin Kovic, Ehud Segev, Jason Specland and Sami Zetts.

AN EVENING OF PSYCHOS: STALKERS, SADISTS AND SERIAL KILLERS White Rabbit Theatre By Tony Sokol and Lisa Voss Directed by Andrew Rothkin

AN EVENING OF PSYCHOS consists of three one-act plays that delve into the minds of madmen. Ah, what fun and excuses we have at Halloween to scare ourselves with all of the possibilities!

The first play is "Smarty Spice and Serial Killer, " a perfectly written short about a smart victim and a surprised one (both extremely well cast). The second piece, "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby," has a well-written conflict, although it is a little long for my taste. Finally, "Psychodrama" brings us the twists and turns (of power shifting between a man and a woman) and the greatest chemistry of the evening between actors Andrew Rothkin and Cameron Peterson. Rothkin plays the evil stalker of Peterson's protagonist.

The entire cast makes up a great acting company. Also starring: Jennifer Bates, Amy Broder, Alexander Hudson, Jack Merlis, Alex Molina, Ramona Pula, Tom Reid, Susan Stein and Enrico Urgo.

The sparse set (Seema Malik) effectively promotes some very atmospheric padded cell units and eerie lighting (Noemi Millman). Costumes (Laura Minch) include contemporary clothes and detailed doctor/nurse outfits. The Sound by Chris Brooks has spooky touches.

S.M. is Marc Glassberg; A.S.M. is Marcus Morphew; Assistant Director is Ramona Pula; Props Mistress and Assistant to the Director is Megan Stroup.