REVIEW:  ‘Aimee Victoria’ love beyond boundaries

Since the pandemic started, loneliness has increased exponentially.  People have been scrambling to find a fulfilling form of communication since quarantine took effect in 2020 and any miscommunication or absence of a loved one quickly became fear and worry of their well being.  Even today, people are still struggling with how best to communicate and see each other in person without the fear of illness.  For Aimee and Victoria at the start of the pandemic, communication had to come more from the heart than from the head as they celebrate their anniversary apart.

Natasha Ofili as Aimee and Stephanie Noguras as Victoria Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Directed aptly by Chrystee Pharris and written by Hannah Harmison and Mikail Chowdhury, Aimee Victoria is a short film created entirely remotely during the pandemic in 2020.  The film is approximately 10 minutes long.  Click here for more information and how to view this film.

Aimee Victoria explores how Natasha Ofili as Aimee and Stephanie Nogueras as Victoria, a deaf couple, cope with being separated by the pandemic on their first anniversary.  As many have difficulty communicating their feelings under the best of circumstances, Aimee and Victoria tackle this obstacle in a sweet depiction of love beyond boundaries. 

Stephanie Nogueras as Victoria Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Through the film’s isolating setting and circumstances, Pharris navigates panic, depression, and struggle in these characters as they readjust to this new way of living.  For example, Aimee struggles just to get out of bed at a loss for what is next as so many have felt in the past couple of years.

Natasha Ofili as Aimee Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Aimee Victoria transcends not only the journey of these two people, but the significance of love beyond any obstacles and expressing to anyone, whether friend, family, or significant other, what is truly important.  Finding a way to carry that love with them no matter where they are.

Aimee Victoria is available now on streaming platforms and in theatres.  Click here for more information on how to view this short film.

REVIEW:  True Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ellen’s Boys’ a heartwarming and heartrending family tale

Family life can get complicated and for the large Irish Catholic Flaherty family, complicated is an understatement.   Though Ellen’s Boys are a big part of this dramedy, the real center of this production lies in Ellen, the stubborn, pushy, and interfering Flaherty matriarch in a powerful performance by Victoria Bond.  Emotions run high with some typical family arguments and some not so typical, but the show shines a light on the hypocrisies (even the innocent ones) set by family that almost anyone can relate to.   

True Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ellen’s Boys’ logo Logo courtesy of Jim Sullivan/True Repertory Theatre

Partnering in part by GLSEN and directed insightfully by Donald Sheehan, True Repertory Theatre presented Jim Sullivan’s original dramedy, Ellen’s Boys, live and in person at the Beal House, 222 Main Street in Kingston, Massachusetts through March 27.  The show is approximately 2 hours with one intermission.  Click here for more information, upcoming auditions, and more. 

The ‘Ellen’s Boys’ set Photo courtesy of Jim Sullivan/True Repertory Theatre

The Ellen Boys’ set takes up a significant space at the Beal House so there’s not a bad seat for the audience.  As a photo of John F. Kennedy hangs on the wall, a tube television and vintage radio stand in the living room, and Andes mints sit in a crystal bowl on a doily, Ellen’s Boys successfully rewinds the clock back to December of 1965.  Based on playwright Jim Sullivan’s own vision of his grandmother’s house, the Beal House is home to a functional space with full kitchen off a retro-furnished living room as sacramental Catholic objects hang on the walls with framed portraits of family memories on a piano.  The show also sets a prominent Irish tone whether through the Celtic music between scenes, the Irish teapot on the dining room table, or through Flaherty sisters Ellen and Bridget’s rich Irish accents. 

Each character longs to break free in one’s own unique way and Ellen’s Boys has its share of heartwarming and heartrending moments within this animated family dynamic.  It seems the only one against evolution is Ellen Flaherty.   Victoria Bond could have easily depicted Ellen as a caricature of the classic pushy Irish mother in a house dress and apron who manipulates her way through grief and guilt, but as Bond breathes life into the character with finesse and humor, it is difficult to stay frustrated with Ellen for long. 

Lisa Caron Driscoll’s remarkable portrayal as Ellen’s fun loving, spontaneous and equally quick-tempered sister Bridget makes for some high drama between sisters displaying some tempestuous sibling rivalry.  They are alike in the ways that matter, though neither will admit it.

Donald Sheehan took both the director’s seat and a role as Ellen’s lonely and devoted son Gil.  Noonan strikes a delicate balance between sweet and exasperated as he holds onto the past in fear of the ramifications of his future.  Seemingly the opposite is Cammerron Baits as spontaneous and hard-partying Nathan.  In a multi-layered performance, Baits emotes fragility and earnestness under that impulsive façade.

Paul Noonan has a palpably eerie way of portraying the seemingly peaceful, helpful, yet enigmatic John Flaherty, Ellen’s son, while Oliver Henry Bellman is sweet and sympathetic as Patrick Walsh.  Noonan’s scenes with Julie Butler, in a bittersweet performance as dutiful and sensible sister Kathleen Doherty, made for some tough realizations as Kathleen pushes to break past John’s stoic nature.

Ellen’s Boys’ more lighthearted moments come in part from Sara McNulty as young and beautiful Tina Toccio whose self consciousness in front of Ellen and their various exchanges make for some dynamic comedy and also tense moments as they butt heads in their mutual stubbornness. With Cody Savoy as Ellen’s son, Michael, McNulty and Savoy also deliver some lighter moments and heartwarming chemistry together.

Though Ellen’s Boys runs a little long, through all of the drama, the complications, the heartache, and family outbursts because you simply can’t hold your tongue another second longer at the dinner table, what a relief to finally be understood.

REVIEW:  Boston Ballet’s elegant and edgy ‘DREAMstate’ a fascinating departure from reality

From classically fanciful to electrifying to distinctive, unconventional artistry, the Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate is an astute exploration of the delicate nature of dreams and a fascinating escape from reality.  Aside from Boston Ballet’s traditional Nutcracker in December, Mikko Nissinen’s DREAMstate is the first live and in person return to Boston Ballet’s regular season since the pandemic.  Excitement was in the air and the Boston Opera House was full.

Boston Ballet in George Balanchine’s Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Balle

Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate continues through Sunday, March 27 at live and in person at the Citizen’s Bank Opera House in Boston, MA.  The show is approximately two hours with two intermissions and the final piece contains partial nudity.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Rolling Stones tribute DEVIL’s/eye Photo credit to Boston Ballet

Though all three Boston Ballet pieces had its highlights, the stellar world premiere of Boston Ballet’s tribute to the Rolling Stones, DEVIL’S/eye was the most uniquely compelling.  Weaving in live concert elements and classic hits such as Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Paint it Black and much more, dancers take the stage in shadow bathed in purple, red, yellow, pink, and blue glimmering from an incredible, multi-functional sound system lit by Brandon Stirling Baker.  With exhilarating choreography and edgy and exotic costume design both by Stephen Galloway, lively dancers in silk, sequins, fishnets and windswept hair complete the full glamour of a rock and roll concert showing off thrilling, contemporary freestyle moves.  The entire performance is an electrifying spectacle as dancers let loose to the Stones concert footage with epic alicicone spins, but a brief pause in the guitar-tinged, horn-infused rhythms showing off each dancer’s glowing silhouette cannot be properly conveyed here and those sensational moments are best witnessed in person.

George Balanchine’s Chaconne brings to life a regal and fanciful daydream to the heavenly sounds of the Christoph Willibald von Gluck opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.  Elegantly adorned in a flowing and ethereal skirt and crown by Barbara Karinska in front of tranquil green blue backdrop, the always fresh-faced and charming Viktorina Kapitonova performed a beautiful and romantic pas de deux with Lasha Khozashvili, dressed in white.  Khozashvili lifts and leads Kapitonova delicately as they sporadically intertwine.  The piece is primarily playful as dancers bow and sway in gleaming, royal costumes as they float along this lighthearted daydream, the flutter of slippers sweeping across the stage.

Misa Kuranaga and Patrick Yocum in George Balanchine’s Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The final piece is probably one of the most unconventional performances the Sleepless Critic has ever witnessed with the Boston Ballet because after a brief intermission, the piece begins before the music starts and dancers are already in motion as the rehearsal blurs into the performance.

Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, Yury Yanowsky in Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

 Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura, a fan favorite, often departs from reality and the structure of how a performance would normally flow.  In many ways, it bucks tradition as the dancers float and slide between closing curtains as Seo Hye Han, topless, wraps herself in only a black stage curtain.  Bella Figura has some captivating choreographed indignation and intensity as Ji Young Chae struggles not to be held or controlled by Paul Craig, shaking Craig away.  Bella Figura seems an abstract piece with haunting and mysterious elements as female dancers are manipulated in sharp, robotic movements.   It seems Bella Figura represents the vision of a perfect female specimen as women bend under the intensity and pressure to be perfect.  In gathering rich red skirts, men and women, all topless and all looking the same, glide along the stage.  It is a memorable, distinctive performance as the piece continues even as the music concludes.

 Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate continues through Sunday, March 27 at live and in person at the Citizen’s Bank Boston Opera House.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Boasting a strong cast, Company Theatre’s ‘Something Rotten’ a fresh and clever musical comedy

Amid set designer Ryan Barrow’s quaint, warmly-lit, Tudor-inspired cottages of 1595 London is a Renaissance rock star…and the ones he left behind.   Company Theatre’s Something Rotten has something new to say about something olde and what it truly takes to be remembered.

Slickly directed by Zoe Bradford with zealous musical direction by Steve Bass, Company Theatre presents lighthearted musical comedy Something Rotten through April 3 live and in person at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts. The show is not recommended for young children and runs approximately two hours with a brief intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Director Zoe Bradford and the cast of ‘Something Rotten’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

The phrase, Something Rotten, calls to mind a number of references, but primarily this alludes to the one and only William Shakespeare, London’s resident celebrity.  While music was prevalent in 1595, writers were the real stars of their time and Shakespeare, charismatically portrayed with plenty of ego, prowess, and smirking, flamboyant charm by Brad Reinking, was a legend.  Surrounded by Shakespeare’s Bard Boys (watch their expressions as he speaks), Reinking’s stage presence is an eclectic cross between Prince and Elvis.

Christopher Spencer as Nigel Bottom, Brad Reinking as Shakespeare, and Donny Norton as Nick Bottom Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

In the glow of stardom, there must be a few naysayers and no one does it better than Donnie Norton as cynical and struggling writer Nick Bottom who once worked with that famous Bard.  Nick’s level of griping is prevalent in the catchy number, God, I Hate Shakespeare, but what makes the song particularly interesting it is also embodies relevant reasons some people do not care for Shakespeare’s writing.  Norton as Nick Bottom is so good at the role that payoff is big when he finally shows a trace of optimism.  Christopher Spencer also shines as idealistic, impressionable, and head-in-the-clouds Nigel, Nick’s little brother and fellow writer.  Spencer’s best moments as Nigel is when he shows reason and aptitude, though his giddy chemistry with Emily Lambert as wide-eyed yet steadfast Portia is also wonderful to watch.

Emily Lambert as Portia and Christopher Spencer as Nigel Bottom Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Something Rotten is often self aware and its irreverent brand of humor brought to mind the classic comedy of Mel Brooks in musicals such as in the Tony award-winning The Producers or Young FrankensteinSally Ashton Forrest’s notable choreography boasts some splashy and humorous dance sequences including tap dancing and even a glorious kick line. 

Elizabeth Cole Sheehan’s gleaming, colorful, and historically-faithful costumes cross the pond between regal classical to edgy contemporary adorned in gold-embroidered velvet, puffed sleeves, and leather. 

Welcome to the Renaissance Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Something Rotten features some powerhouse vocals, especially from these forward-thinking leading ladies in jolly ol’ England.  Emily Lambert as Portia lifted her soaring soprano vocals for the gospel-inspired, We See the Light and the sweet and cheeky duet, I Love the Way with Spencer’s Nigel.  Melissa Carubia as spunky, confident, and loyal to a fault Bea is also ahead of her time, her dynamic vocal range on display for the groundbreaking number, Right Hand Man.  With quirky comedic charms fueled by a mix of Catherine Tate and Jennifer Saunders, Janis Hudson is perfectly smashing as royally-dressed Lady Clapham. 

Janis Hudson as Lady Clapham Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

With bright, inquisitive eyes and a mischievous and knowing grin, Christopher Hagberg is a scene stealer as Thomas Nostradamus who leads with Norton in the funniest and most brilliant number of the show, A Musical tailor-made for literary and musical lovers everywhere. 

Donnie Norton as Nick Bottom and Christopher Hagberg as Thomas Nostradamas Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Company Theatre presents lighthearted musical comedy Something Rotten through April 3 live and in person at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  The show runs approximately two hours with a brief intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ an astounding good time

A roaring crowd greeted hip-hop comedic dynamos, Freestyle Love Supreme opening night at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston on Friday, March 18.  Packed with plenty of self-proclaimed Freestyle Love Supreme super fans, witnessing this unique, interactive, Tony award-winning production feels more like attending a rock concert.  The anticipation leading up to it was palpable and I immediately got the sense I was in for a truly remarkable experience.    

Before In The Heights or Hamilton, there was Lin Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme which continues live and in person at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street in Boston, MA through April 2.  The show is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.

L to R: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kaila Mullady AKA Kaiser Roze, Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch and Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees Photo credit to Joan Marcus

No wonder Freestyle Love Supreme is beloved seeing that the show still features some of the founding cast members since the group started in 2004 and went on to be featured in the self-titled Hulu documentary and on Broadway.  Founding member Chris Sullivan AKA Shockwave wows with phenomenal hip hop beats (and seemingly impossible) sound effects, Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees can perform powerful vocal gymnastics to anything that is thrown Young Nees’s way, and founding member Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch is a great and welcoming host.  Not only can every cast member deliver clever quips at the drop of a hat, but the show is friendly, interactive, and inclusive.

From L to R: Chris Sullivan AKA Shockwave, Richard Baskin Jr AKA Rich Medway, Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch and Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees Photo credit to Joan Marcus.

Is Freestyle Love Supreme a big party?  A resounding yes, but every performance is unique so it is best enjoyed just knowing the basics.  Don’t feel pressure to participate, but the more enthusiasm and participation, the better the show.  Trust me.  Even in masks which Freestyle Love Supreme deems ‘consonant killers,’ the audience is invited to demonstrate what they are saying in creative and amusing ways.  It is fun, has heart, and there wasn’t a dull moment.

The show is tailor made for the locals boasting a slew of signature Boston and pop culture references.  Listen closely for the inventive and masterful delivery of these brilliant, high-speed rappers.  The possibilities are endless.  They also aren’t shy about what they say onstage.  This may sound a bit like Whose Line is it Anyway and Wayne Brady was part of the cast at one point, but accompanied by an intimate live band, Freestyle Love Supreme is just on another level.  For example, one audience member suggested the word, ‘Yankees’ and it was amazing to see how just many ways that one word was demonstrated led by the vocal styling of hilarious Jay C. Ellis AKA Jellis J.

The cast of ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ Photo credit to Joan Marcus

Freestyle Love Supreme is hilarious, relatable and brilliantly fast-paced, but what makes the show most endearing was not so much the spectacle, but how much the cast does not hesitate to share their personal experiences as each show is shaped into a carefully tailored crowd pleaser. To think for the first time ever, the show’s full set was not delivered by opening night!  I can’t imagine having a better time.

Freestyle Love Supreme continues live and in person at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA through April 2.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Greater Boston Stage Company’s well-timed ‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ a comical trip down memory lane

Greater Boston Stage Company chose the perfect time to debut Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  Nestled right through St. Patrick’s Day during Lent (for Catholics), this engaging family comedy delves into the lives of the quirky lower middle class Irish-Catholic O’Shea family during a chaotic and pivotal week in their lives in the 1970s.  It’s a memory play…with a few amusing twists.

From L to R: Vin Vega as Becky, Maureen Keiller as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael, Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea, and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

A semi-autobiographical play written by Katie Forgette and directed by Weylin Symes, Greater Boston Stage Company presents Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help virtually and at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts through March 20.  The show is 1 hour and 45 minutes with intermission and recommended for children ages 13 and up.  Click here for more information and tickets.

It is fascinating how memories work when they are retold, recalled, and recollected.  A fuzzy little detail here and a little change there may make a big difference.  Some of the production’s characters are a bit over the top, but so was the 70s.  Every detail of this show rewinds the clock to a simpler time before the internet, cell phones, and other technological distractions took over.  Deirdre Gerrard pulls together a wonderfully nostalgic and mismatched array of 70s attire from corduroy to bold patterns to star-studded bellbottoms. 

From L to R: Vin Vega as Becky, Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda, Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea, and Maureen Keiller as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help is full of candidness, warmth, and quick pacing much due to the cast’s authentic and believable chemistry as a relatable, flawed, and dysfunctional family.  Tempers flare, judgments are passed often, and the O’Shea family is set in their routines within a meticulously-detailed and functioning wood paneled kitchen plucked straight out of the 70s.  From an afghan blanket on a chair to knickknacks on shelves to photos and notes smattered on a corkboard to greenery gathering in a kitchen window, set designer Shelley Barish’s remarkable blast from the past kitchen lies in the details.

A bossy grandmother, a cheapskate father that works too hard, an exhausted but nurturing mother, a shoot-from-the-hip aunt, and an impressionable daughter all vie for the spotlight breaking the 4th wall and well aware they are in the play.  It flows more like a slice-of-life documentary with most characters eager to speak to the “camera.”

Vin Vega as Becky and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

At the center of this play is somewhat reliable narrator Autumn Blazon-Brown as adorably spunky women’s-lib teenager Linda O’Shea.  Smart yet adventurous, Blazon-Brown shows charming charisma as Linda who, in a moment of frustration, is obnoxious to her impressionable sister Becky to the chagrin of those around her including intimidating Fr. Lovett portrayed with self-righteous glee by Barlow Adamson.  Chaos ensues.   

Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Adamson is an apt comedian with a wealth of opportunities to show off his dynamic skills during this production.  Vin Vega portrays film-obsessed and imaginative Becky who seems the most sensible among this amiable cast and often along for the ride within the O’Shea high jinx.  Amy Barker portrays a relatable every mom as exhausted but nurturing matriarch Jo O’Shea, but Maureen Keiller, a familiar face having delivered solid past performances in Boston such as in Between Riverside and Crazy, Admissions and The Women, is a gem as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael.  Wisecracking, bold, and often blunt, Keiller shows under Terri’s complicated and tough façade is a loneliness and vulnerability with a fierce loyalty to her family.   A better aunt you will never find.

Greater Boston Stage Company presents Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help virtually and at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts through March 20.  The show is 1 hour and 45 minutes with intermission and recommended for children ages 13 and up.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Dreams proceed with caution for Central Square Theater’s illuminating ‘Young Nerds of Color’

When I first witnessed the hit film Hidden Figures, I was absolutely amazed for a couple of reasons.  In the early 60’s, a team of phenomenal NASA mathematicians were so talented that some astronauts including Neil Armstrong refused to board the space shuttle without their astute calculations.  The other amazing and frustrating detail is that for all that these African-American women accomplished, I had never heard of them or worse, was never taught about them at school.  Hidden Figures stayed with me.  These genius mathematicians made such an indelible impact in the world and yet, I was learning about them for the first time in this film.

‘Young Nerds of Color’ cast and creative team Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Directed remarkably by Dawn M. Simmons, Underground Railway at Central Square Theater presents Young Nerds of Color arranged by Melinda Lopez live in person through March 20 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA and virtually through April 3.  The show is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.    Click here for more information, tickets, and COVID-19 guidelines.

The night before reviewing Young Nerds of Color, I attended an astronomy group meeting that featured a documentary about a rarely predictable phenomenon.  A professor claimed he knew when the next supernova would occur.  A supernova is when a star explodes and disperses its matter into the galaxy.   It turns out the professor made a tragic miscalculation and the supernova never occurred in the documentary.  However, Young Nerds of Color depicts two beautiful ones thanks to Andrea Sofia Sala’s innovative lighting while also symbolically illuminating some big and impactful ideas such as the discovery that matter from a supernova is directly connected to eyesight. 

Lindsey McWhorter as Portia Long, Daniel Rios Jr as Reinaldo Herrera and DJ Lopez, and Alison Yueming Qu As Chloe Chen Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

An educational and unconventional play full of discoveries, Young Nerds of Color translates like a flowing and collaborative academic dialogue among geniuses with performances so subtle and convincing that I had to glance back at the program to make sure they were actors and not the actual professionals they are depicting.  A show gathered from 60 interviews with real life scientists, cast members deliver their point of view in their own unique style as they discuss the journey to make their ambitions come to life. 

Ricardo Engermann as Jim Gates, DJ Thomas, Reinaldo Herrera and DJ Lopez Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Sponsored in part by MIT, Young Nerds of Color examines the lives of renowned scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds whose career dreams were more difficult to achieve than they ever expected even before they discovered that dream.   Living in pre-segregated Boston, racism and economic struggles was just a portion of the challenges they faced for being “young nerds of color.”  They all collaboratively take on the role of scientist and educator as they share with the audience and usher in the next generation to proceed toward their dreams with cautious optimism.

Lindsey McWhorter as Portia Long and Karina Beleno Carney as Dr Maria Hernandez Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Shelley Barish’s straightforward and illuminated set features two double helixes that might also symbolize that long career ladder and periodic table while Nona Hendryx creates memorable compositions with catchy and cosmic-sounding rhythms and original music.

Some of the cast depicts multiple roles and have engaging chemistry as they portray the journey from childhood experiments fueled by curiosity to those dangerous discoveries that can change the world all while presenting themselves in a way that society might accept so they too might thrive.   I should have learned about this astounding group before now.

Hidden Figures stayed with me and Young Nerds of Color sure does too.

Underground Railway at Central Square Theater presents Young Nerds of Color arranged by Melinda Lopez live in person through March 20 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA and virtually through April 3.  The show is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.    Click here for more information, tickets, and COVID-19 guidelines.

REVIEW:  Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s insightful ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ will delight more than the domestic housewife

At long last, it is here and I can’t help being thrilled.

When Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) first announced that Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End would be part of MRT’s upcoming season, my heart leapt.  Having taken great joy in reading Bombeck’s comical works such as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits, I had high expectations for this production that ended up being delayed a few times due to Covid. 

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

Sponsored in part by WBUR and intuitively directed by Terry Berliner, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13. The show is just over one hour with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Erma Bombeck’s column about life as a housewife made her a household name.  She became the most distributed column in America and it is easy to see why.  Before I ever grasped the concept of being a housewife, I loved reading Erma Bombeck.  As an adult and still not a housewife, I still revel in her sharp and timeless humor.  She never misses a beat relating to women everywhere and though her advice dates back as early as the 60s, most of it remains relevant today.

Dan Zimmerman’s intriguing multi-level and colorful set is a relic of a 1960’s house equipped with period kitchen cabinets, dated upholstery, an old phone, and retro household appliances.  Joel Shier’s lighting is subtly appealing alongside Scott Stauffer’s charming and well-timed sound effects.  Though MacDonald is only present onstage, a supporting cast can be heard that lends to the pacing and a larger sense of realism to the production.

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

In classic pearls and a blue floral dress, Karen MacDonald as Erma looks the quintessential housewife as she takes the audience from 1962 through 1996.  Bombeck longed to be a foreign correspondent and instead became a suburban housewife residing in Cherrywood Acres in Dayton, Ohio.  She quipped, ‘I blazed a trail all the way from the laundry room to the sink.’ 

Allison and Margaret Engel’s screenplay is chock full of clever anecdotes and MacDonald’s warm and inviting presence gradually feels like visiting with an old friend.  The quick, peppy, and semi-interactive screenplay is peppered with Bombeck’s astute observations as she shares her remarkable journey to becoming a writer, her zany family life, and gathering her sense of self over the years.   

Much like Julia Child of the same generation, Bombeck is self-deprecating in her imperfections and prides herself on honesty.  MacDonald slips into Bombeck’s natural and relatable tone comfortably brimming with advice, but never in a ‘know-it-all’ sort of way.   A few of her marvelous observational gems include ‘Why take pride in cooking when they don’t take pride in eating?’ or ‘My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance’ or ‘What doesn’t kill you now, comes back a few days later to try again.’

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

That last piece of advice also resonates with the darker side of Bombeck’s humor.  Surprisingly, Erma Bombeck had her share of haters and struggles.  However, she proves herself a source of strength and fortitude.  Even her most serious reflections and recollections are met with a jovial and contemplative quip.  Though the production is considered mostly lighthearted, MacDonald as Erma manages to find humor in pain which is a rare quality indeed.       

Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck’s ‘At Wit’s End’ virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  SpeakEasy Stage Company’s searing and immersive ‘People, Places & Things’ makes an indelible impact

Nina is in a nightmare.

Perhaps rock bottom is an unimaginable state until you learn how much further you can sink. People, Places & Things is a jarring and astounding portrait of a spiraling woman who must face that this nightmare she’s in can be stopped.

Masterfully directed  by David R. Gammons, SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places, & Things live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts through Saturday, March 5.  This show contains mature themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

People, Places, and Things is immediately gripping as it thrusts the audience into Nina’s (or whatever she calls herself at the moment) apparent breakdown onstage.  Nina, brilliantly depicted by Marianna Bassham, is a struggling actress who has more than just forgotten her lines during a pivotal moment in a sophisticated play.  The harried and frantic nature of Nina’s life emanates from the stage and you are engulfed in the deep chasm of an addict.

Kadahj Bennett and Marianna Bassham in People, Places & Things. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

While People, Places & Things has its share of harrowing moments, it is not without its doses of dark humor. It is a realistic depiction of an addict’s complex journey with its own share of twists, turns, and shocking revelations.  Bassham is enigmatic and at times dreadfully unlikable in the way a guarded person who thinks they have all the answers might be.  Her sporadic tics, vacant expression, shaking, low talking, and absent pauses are shocking yet enthralling to witness.  Bassham’s disillusionment of the world gives the impression that she feels she is not in the chaos of her circumstances, but standing outside of them in her own judgment.  With alarm, rage, and confusion flickering in her eyes, Bassham is absolutely riveting.

Adrianne Krstansky and Marianna Bassham in People, Places & Things. Photo by Anabel Rios Photography.

 The show depicts a mix of lucid moments and unhinged visions manifested in part by the efforts of Jeff Adelberg’s transient lighting varying from creepy to downright alarming. Whether it is to demonstrate time freezing, time progression or revealing trauma with occasional strobe lights, Adelberg captures the striking and vivid chaos within and outside this woman.

Marianna Bassham and the cast of People, Places & Things. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Jeff Petersen’s open staging is a bold and clever choice where nothing is hidden from the front of the stage right through to what seems like dressing rooms.  This quick-paced production makes some swift transitions meticulously done with purpose and meaning.  The transparency lends a great deal to the piece as each character struggles with what they are hiding.

Marianna Bassham and Nael Nacer in People, Places & Things. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

 The dynamic cast includes members that take on dual or even multiple roles that are vastly different throughout the production. Kadahj Bennett’s direct, compassionate, and occasionally amusing turn as Foster is as harsh on Bassham as he has probably been on himself.  Bennett, Bassam, and barely stable and complicated Nael Nacer as Mark share some significant and transcending moments as their outlooks on life make for some compelling dialogue.   Nacer and Bassham also share some intriguing chemistry.  At one point, Naser refers to Bassam as a ‘human hand grenade.’  Adrienne Krstansky and John Kuntz make some brilliant transitions in their multiple roles and it is easy to become invested in each of these unpredictable characters.

Nael Nacer, John Kuntz, and Marianna Bassham in People, Places & Things. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places, & Things live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts through Saturday, March 5.  This show contains mature themes.  Click here for more information, tickets, and upcoming productions.

REVIEW: Overcoming an important theme in NYC’s Indie Theatre Film Festival’s dynamic ‘Coming of Age’ short films

A spontaneous escape, an evil queen, finding inspiration and discovering super strength is just the tip of the iceberg for New York City’s Indie Theatre Film Festival’s Coming of Age Shorts Screening.  These shorts explore overcoming troubles, fears, and heartache in remarkable ways including a sense of humor as demonstrated in Dianne Diep’s Cloud Gazing.  Peals of laughter can remedy almost any situation.

The New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival continues streaming through Sunday, February 20.  Click here for more information and how to stream a variety of dynamic films including animation and documentary works.

Photo credit to the NYC Indie Film Festival

In the face of chaos, there is strength.  Overcoming is such a prevalent theme in these coming of age shorts and none quite faces it like Jonah Beres as Sam Wheeler in Balloon, a boy who is relentlessly bullied at school. Who can Sam really turn to? Beres’s sympathetic eyes and careful demeanor resemble a young Dane DeHaan.  DeHaan has a knack for portraying characters with pent up emotion just on the brink of letting go.  Directors Jeremy Merrifield and Dave Testa capture a captivating burst of emotions and the awkwardness of childhood through nature, at home, and symbolically in a popping balloon. 

Jonah Beres as Sam Wheeler ‘Balloon’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Directed and produced by Dianne Diep, Cloud Gazing is a lighthearted take upon a common rite of passage in New York City.  It is the epitome of looking at the bright side as Dianne Diep as Mia makes the best of her latest apartment in the Big City.  The silly and imaginative dialogue, cinematography, and the peals of laughter from Shannon Whelan as Dylan and Dianne Diep as Mia could leave the most serious heart uplifted.  Click here for more on Cloud Gazing and Dianne Diep can also be seen in upcoming Mia:  Unraveling Series.

Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Profound life advice is hard to come by.  For example, ‘Life is better than a movie…buy cookies and cream’ is a notable and memorable quote from Tom’s Bench.  Directed by Richard H. Pluim, it’s a heartwarming short film taking place on a special Astoria Park bench in New York.  Most notable is the soothing and fitting Simon and Garfunkel-style closing song Come and Go by the Timber Choir

Adam Patterson and Kyle Stockburger on ‘Tom’s Bench’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Starting a new day holds new meaning for an unhappy wife in Expectations directed by Vic Dominguez.  It is also directed, written, and starring Kaitlin Gould.  This short would benefit with a longer screen time because Gould’s actions only bring up more questions. 

Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Overcoming has several meanings for a discouraged artist longing for inspiration and she may find it in a most unconventional way in You and I written directed and produced by Yiqing Zhao.  It is a quirky, colorful, and sweet film about overcoming doubt for the dream in your heart. 

To the sounds of Gymnopedie No 1, Fair is a stinging, deeply relatable, and inventive short film infusing fairy tale with stark reality as a woman, portrayed by Marissa Molnar, must overcome her current circumstances.  It is a clever and fascinating piece that has moments of charm and humor in its brief time frame. 

Marissa Molnar is ‘Fair’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

School life isn’t easy for Angella Cao as Jessa in Pippi, a nod to the famous children’s book character, Pippi Longstocking.  Most notable is the moving and poignant interactions between the adorable Cao and Karoline Xu as her mom. 

Angella Cao as Jessa in ‘Pippi’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

A woman is on a mysterious voyage in Goat.  This short film has beautiful cinematography and its share of odd humor.  Ben Lewis as Simon is an especially intriguing character.

The New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival continues streaming through Sunday, February 20.  Click here for more information and how to stream a variety of films.