REVIEW: Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s quintessentially local ‘A Woman of the World’ fascinating and full of surprises

Scandalous secrets unfold and things are not what they seem in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s  (MRT) quintessentially local and fascinating production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Partnering with the Emily Dickinson Museum and directed cleverly by Courtney Sale, this one-woman show led by Massachusetts native Denise Cormier lights up the stage with natural charisma as enigmatic lecturer and historical figure Mabel Loomis Todd. She claims to bring insight into the real life of the late, renowned poet Emily Dickinson, but what she unveils is so much more. 

It was wonderful to see another production from MRT filmed onstage.  A Woman of the World also offers plenty of local references such as Harvard, MIT, the New England Conservatory, Boston, Amherst and the surrounding areas.  The show contains some hinted adult themes.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World.’ Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Scenic designer Bill Clarke and Original Music/Sound Designer David Remedios seamlessly combine the inviting comforts of home with the sights and sounds of a serene Maine setting.  However, don’t let the serenity of this island home fool you.   Mabel gears up for a quiet storm as the sound of the wind and crickets fill the air.

From welcoming to haunting, Carolina Ortiz Herrera’s soft, dynamic lighting not only transforms each mood in an instant, but does more so with Cormier.  At first Denise Cormier as Mabel seems a lively, well-to-do speaker with well coiffed blond hair, but as the show progresses, the subtle lighting reveal tinges of gray. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Though it is a one-woman show, other “cast members” such as Mabel’s daughter Millicent is addressed offstage.  Delivering a multi-layered performance, Mabel’s charm to win over her audience first comes off as egotistical, but gradually becomes earnestness and she soon seems like an old friend.  Nothing short of a captivating showman, a warm and inviting presence, but the guarded moments intertwined in her storytelling is the stuff that keeps you hooked and her drifting reflections are when the show truly hits its stride.  Having had a stroke, Mabel is also somewhat an unreliable narrator in more ways than one. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The show tackles relatable issues on feminism and Cormier as Mabel may make you root for her one moment and against her the next.   However, she’s a survivor and an enigma ahead of her time. 

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman is streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Following the production is a short interview between director Courtney Sale and Denise Cormier on the inspiration behind the show.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for more about the Merrimack’s Repertory Theatre’s season.

Childsplay’s Artistic Director Bob Childs talks new album, ‘The Bloom of Youth’ and how one violin changed his life

It all started with a fiddle.  Childsplay’s Artistic Director Bob Childs didn’t realize over 40 years ago when he entered a shop in Maine to have his violin fixed, it would be the start of something that would change his entire life.  Featuring a long list of award-winning musicians from across the country and beyond, internationally-touring Childsplay recently released their latest album The Bloom of Youth.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Artistic Director and violin maker Bob Childs talks about creating Childsplay’s unique sound, making 160 violins, their latest album, and the lasting friendships he has made through music.  He has a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sleepless Critic:  What is it about the fiddle that appeal so much to you?

Bob Childs:  I worked my way through college as a carpenter and my first job out of college was in Maine selling furniture.  In 1976, I took my violin for repair to an old violin maker, Ivy Mann, because I thought about playing Irish fiddle music.

When he repaired my instrument, he asked me when I was coming back.  I had no concept of what he was saying so I said I wasn’t sure.  He pointed at this wood he put on his bench and said that he would love to teach me violin making because he was in his 70s and was ready to pass on information before he stopped working.  I was 22 and I decided why not.

Training as a violin maker involved six years of apprenticeships and some journeymen work since it is a European instrument.  I worked with two violin makers who were training in Germany and then ended my journeyman work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I worked for a shop that mainly worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

SC:  With the band and everything, Maine seems to be a center point in your life.

BC:  Maine is an incredible place not just for the land’s beauty, but for the great music.  I really cut my teeth on music and got to know a lot of the old musicians there.  We always sell out the shows in Maine and the audiences are incredibly enthusiastic.  Even though I am down in the Boston area, some family members still live there and I think at least three or four of the musicians also have Maine roots.

When I left Philadelphia, I came here in 1986 and the band has been together since 1988.  When Childsplay first started playing together, a woman in Washington D.C. wanted me to play in a fiddle concert when I was working in a shop in Philadelphia.  I said yes and she said that the name of the band is Childsplay because everyone in the band is going to be playing one of your instruments.  We had an amazing time and it’s been over thirty years of playing music together.

SC:  Childsplay also features many performers.

BC:  Yes and I have made over 160 violins.  Most of my instruments have gone to classical musicians and I’ve always built an instrument for somebody with them in mind.  So, I’ve gotten to know so many incredible musicians and they are great friends.

A-BloomOfYouth-Cover

Childsplay’s latest album Photo courtesy of Childsplay

SC:  The Bloom of Youth is your latest album and features some beautiful music.  Big acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen have snuck right through to perform there.  One of your DVD sets features a live performance at the Somerville Theatre.

BC:  Yes, the first DVD set was filmed at the Somerville Theatre in the late ‘90s.  The second one was made at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 2013.  That film in particular had great success and was picked up by NPR, PBS, and has been shown on pretty much every station in the country.

I think if people attend a Childsplay concert, they really get into the spirit!  The musicianship is unsurpassed featuring All-Ireland Fleadh champions, two national Scottish fiddle champions, and Boston Symphony players, but the best part is the band’s energy.  You can feel it live, on the DVDs, and Bloom of Youth because it is dynamite.

SC:  I understand your latest album, The Bloom of Youth is also your final album.

BC:  It’s our seventh album and our last album because after next year, we are going to stop touring as a band for a number of reasons.  One is because tour costs are incredibly high.  There’s 21 musicians, five on the production team plus all the other expenses.  Next year will probably be our last year of touring and I hope people will come out and honor the incredible musicians that have been part of the band and the music we have created together.

SC:  I’ve listened to the album and I really like the joyous rhythms of Buddy Strathspey and Noodle Vendor’s plucking rhythm.

BC:  Shannon Heaton, an amazing composer and flute player who we get to perform with, put together The Noodle Vendor.  She lived in Thailand for awhile and the music she created was a unique cross between Irish and Thai music.  Hanneke Cassell put together Buddy Strathspey.   We both play two other tunes together on the album.  When you hear Childsplay, you hear interesting rhythmic elements and these great harmony layers create a unique sound.

SC:  What is the inspiration behind this new material and what do you think sets this album apart from previous albums?

BC:  We share the stage and the CD with Karan Casey, the most amazing singer from Ireland.  When we first started making our CDs and playing music, we didn’t have a vocalist with the band and it became clear to me when someone made the comment, ‘Out of all the instruments, the violin is the one that sounds most like the human voice.’  I realized that we should add vocals.

In Bloom of Youth, Karan came over from Ireland and she’s touring with us.  We cover some of her songs, what she’s written, and others that she’s brought to the band.  All the arrangements were done by Childsplay members Hanneke Cassel, Keith Murphy, and Bonnie Bewick so we had a lot of fun in making this last album.

SC:  One of the tracks with Karan’s vocals, Where are You Tonight I Wonder is lovely.  It’s like a little lost love song.

BC:  Andy Stewart from Silly Wizard wrote it in Scotland shortly before he passed away.  It’s a beautiful song and Karan’s voice is absolutely stunning.  The song is meant for a lost lover and her singing in the band really conveys that blue feeling you get when a relationship ends.

Award-winning Mastering Engineer Bob Ludwig has mastered so many great albums such as U2 and Springsteen.  He mastered our album as well and he played Karan’s voice right in the center of the sound.  It is absolutely magical to hear that and understand how he really had the ear to make that happen.

We also offer free fiddle lessons.  Different members of the band give fiddle lessons and people can go to the website and download them.  We’ve had a half million people do that over the years.

SC:  You guarantee we’ll be experts at it in the end.

BC:  I’ll do my best to help you.

SC:  The band has evolved so much over the years.  How do you feel about how the band has come along?

BC:  It’s an inter-generational band with the youngest member 17 and the oldest person in their 70s.  More than that, there is a maturity that comes from years of playing together.  The band members have been together over 20 years and there is a sound that emerges over time.  I started making violins in ‘83 and I first started in ‘76.  Not until ‘83 did the violins start sounding like how I made them.  It takes several years of playing together to develop an ear for each other and a real sense of creating our sound and that has happened.  I’m so proud of the band!  It’s remarkable to be onstage and see the audience receiving and reacting to the music.

SC:  What do you hope people will take away from your music or when they attend a live show?

BC:  The one thing I hope to convey to people through our music that it’s possible to create things yourself.  As Karan Casey wrote in her liner notes, ‘Childsplay is an exercise in democracy.  There’s no one leader in the band and everyone takes turns leading and it’s a real creative process.’

I’m hoping when people are moved by our music and its creativity, they’ll be inspired to make their own music or do something creative to add to the world. The world is in very difficult times right now and I’d rather have a legacy making beautiful things and connecting people.

Click here to learn more about Childsplay, their tour schedule and how to get The Bloom of Youth which is also available on ITunes and CDBaby. Follow Childsplay on Facebook or all their latest updates.