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Famous Figures, Fond Memories, and Farm Hands

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"Orson's Shadow"

Written by Austin Pendleton; directed by Adam Zahler; scenic design by Janie E. Howland; costume design by Molly Trainer; lighting design by Jeff Adelberg; sound design by Scott G. Nason

Cast in order of appearance:

Kenneth, Jason Marr
Sean, Adam Soule
Orson, Steven Barkhimer
Larry, Tuck Milligan
Joan, Helen McElwain
Vivien, Debra Wise

Performances: Now through March 18 at New Repertory Theatre, Watertown, Mass.
Box Office: 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org

The Playbill for Austin Pendleton's acerbic comedy, "Orson's Shadow," currently receiving its Boston area premiere at the New Rep in Watertown, Massachusetts, lists its cast of legendary theatrical characters by first name, mocking their gargantuan egos and superstar status while also suggesting that, behind their temperament and their genius lie real people with real foibles and real fears. On that score, the device is clever and prophetic. But like much of the play itself, it presumes a degree of familiarity with the subject matter that the audience may not possess.

"Orson's Shadow" takes place in London in 1960, when famed theater critic Kenneth Tynan convinces Laurence Olivier to hire Orson Welles to direct The National Theatre's production of Ionesco's absurdist play "Rhinoceros" in which Olivier will star. The situation is complicated by Orson's sensitivity over his most recent stage flop, "Chimes at Midnight," by Larry's deteriorating marriage to the manic-depressive Vivien Leigh, and by the casting of Larry's youthful paramour, Joan Plowright, as the female lead.

Much of Pendleton's dialog in this production directed by Adam Zahler comes across as a frantic theatrical history lesson and weighs down what could otherwise be a barbed and bristling backstage romp. The greatness of the play's lampooned theatrical giants is also diminished by a somewhat heavy-handed emphasis on their quirks, vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Steven Barkhimer's Orson is marred by too much physical posturing and not enough intrinsically imposing authority. His voice is also all wrong for the part. Instead of filling the theater with a quietly booming baritone, he compensates by shouting and thus appears whiney where he should be drolly sarcastic. Tuck Milligan as Larry is eerily perfect in his delivery. With trademark precise diction and dramatically elegant movements, he seems to be channeling the great Olivier with no visible effort. His private weaknesses contrast heartbreakingly against his larger than life abilities and persona.

Debra Wise is a delicate and delightful Vivien Leigh, vacillating between a dependent, fragile flower and a grandly self-effacing woman on The Edge. Helen McElwain as a young Joan Plowright gives us a beautifully subtle indication of the wide-eyed, astute, and forceful actress her character will one day become. As quick witted theater critic Kenneth Tynan, Jason Marr balances his sharp intellectual tongue with a stuttering hero worship that lets him move seamlessly back and forth between his roles as narrator and close friend. Rounding out the cast is Adam Soule as the modest gofer Sean, a simple Irish lad whose lack of theater savvy is an amusing counterpoint to the self-aggrandizement of the stage and screen titans swirling around him.

"Souvenir"

Written by Stephen Temperley; directed by Spiro Veloudos; set design by Skip Curtiss; costume design by David Costa-Cabral; lighting design by Robert Cordella; wigs designed and supplied by Jason Allen

Cast:

Leigh Barrett as Florence Foster Jenkins
Will McGarrahan as Cosme McMoon

Performances: Now through March 17 at The Lyric Stage in Boston, Mass.
Box Office: 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

It's difficult to imagine how entertaining bad singing can be. But Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir," a beautifully written tribute to the horribly tone deaf society soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, is a bouquet of exquisite grace notes. Smart, touching, gentle, and very, very funny, this critically acclaimed and well received fantasia of an eccentric but remarkably passionate opera aficionada is being given a wonderfully warm and witty embrace by the Lyric Stage of Boston.

Starring the region's brightest leading lady, Leigh Barrett, as the irrepressible self-made concert diva and the affable Will McGarrahan as her pragmatic but compassionate accompanist, Cosme McMoon, this "Souvenir" is equal parts bemused reverie and ardent love letter. While Barrett exuberantly arches her normally magnificent singing voice into sounds reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard, McGarrahan wavers between wincing comic asides and beguiled admiration. Through her hopes and dreams and his eyes and ears, we are able to see and hear two women in one – the world-class coloratura soprano that Jenkins thinks herself to be, and the grossly untalented aging heiress whose legendary public performances are mocked and ridiculed.

McMoon, like the New York audiences who clamored for Jenkins' incomprehensibly bad music recitals during the 1930s and '40s, is all too keenly aware of his patron's laughable inadequacies. Unlike those who came to revel in her foolishness, however, he finds her inability to hear herself as others do a remarkable achievement. He envies her self delusions, in a way. If he were as engrossed by his love for composing as she is by her unbridled joy in song, he might be a much happier – and more successful – man.

While McGarrahan provides the perfect support as friend, protector and accompanist, "Souvenir" ultimately belongs to Barrett. In what can truly be described as a tour de force performance, Barrett accomplishes the near impossible. She makes her off-key singing sound pleasurable instead of painful. With child-like enthusiasm, she brings Jenkins' passion for her art to life in every sour note, revealing a lady who is at once confident, vulnerable and delightful. Barrett's unselfconscious portrayal triggers both affectionate laughter and sympathetic tears. Her final aria – the Ave Maria that Jenkins hears in her own head at the conclusion of her famous Carnegie Hall recital – is nothing short of magical.

Costumes by David Costa-Cabral move comically from whimsical to preposterous. Skip Curtiss' set and Robert Cordella's lighting work together seamlessly to create a sumptuous art deco interior set against a pulsing New York City backdrop. Spiro Veloudos' fluid direction builds the comic pace perfectly, taking Temperley's wisely crafted script to a crescendo of laughter that then resolves in great poignancy. Incidental music sung and played by McGarrahan adds dimension to his narration and depth to McMoon's relationship with Jenkins.

For a show about a woman who sings irrevocably off key, "Souvenir" achieves wondrous harmony.

"The Grapes of Wrath"

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck; adapted by Frank Galati; directed by Weylin Symes; set design by Gianni Downs; costume design by Sara Liebmann; lighting design by Christopher Ostrom; sound design by Nathan Leigh; music director, Jeff Warner

Cast in alphabetical order:

Muley Graves, Richard Arum
Ma Joad, Susan Bigger
Elizabeth Sandry, Dee Crawford
Al, Jeffery Dinan
Noah, Gabriel Field
Aggie Wainwright, Emma Goodman
Uncle John, Doug Griffin
Connie, Timothy Hoover
Winfield, Samuel Ingram
Pa Joad, Ed Peed
Mrs. Wainwright, Ellen Peterson
Tom Joad, Jonathan Popp
Granma, Fran Renehan
Al's Girl, Allison Russell
Rosasharn, Alycia Sacco
Ruthie, Katrina Skidmore
Jim Casey, Derek Stone-Nelson
Man with Guitar, Jeff Warner
Floyd, Darius Omar Williams
Granpa, Jim Wrynn

Performances: Now through March 18 at Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham, Mass.
Box Office: 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org

Sometimes there is great power in simplicity, and this is ably demonstrated in the Stoneham Theatre's beautifully understated production of Frank Galati's masterful Tony Award-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." A uniformly talented ensemble cast moves and speaks with a down-but-not-out grace that at once sobers the audience to the plight of transplanted families during the Great Depression but uplifts, as well, with a spirit of determination and hope that is the backbone of survival.

At the heart of the story is the multi-generational Joad family, displaced Oklahoma farmers who pack up what little they still own in a run-down pick-up truck and head west for the green fields of California. Filled with dreams of orange trees and little white houses, they persevere in the face of starvation, tyrannical migrant farm bosses, police controlled tent cities, and untimely death.

Ma Joad, played with a centering firm optimism by the flinty and feisty Susan Bigger, is the spiritual and moral compass of the family. Her eldest son, Tom, the smoldering Jonathan Popp, is the short-fused prison parolee whose natural-born leadership qualities eventually lead him to become the hope for the future. Ed Peed's Pa is the aging but still proud one-time breadwinner, and Alycia Sacco is the spoiled daughter Rosasharn whose pregnancy and troubled marriage teach her some life lessons that help her mature. Middle son Noah, played by Gabriel Field, is the fragile one for whom the pressure of itinerant life becomes too great; and youngest son Al, played by a winning Jeffery Dinan, represents the innocence of youth for whom love is still possible, even in the face of overwhelming despair.

A key philosopher and observer (and perhaps the voice that expresses Steinbeck's own questioning of faith and politics amidst the inequities of great power and great suffering) is former preacher Jim Casey, played with a self-effacing sincerity by Derek Stone-Nelson. Convinced he is no longer capable of advising others because of his own uncertainty and sin, he nonetheless inspires all those around him by simply being a man of truth and uneasy conviction. He is the catalyst for Tom Joad's transformation. It is his humanity that provides an ever-present calm in the storm.

Director Weylin Symes keeps his large ensemble cast moving fluidly through numerous scene changes and plot twists. He has also centered them around a realistically simple acting style. Incidental folk, gospel and bluegrass music led by Jeff Warner nicely underscores the pathos and mood changes of the epic story, while subdued period costumes and sets made primarily of barn board and muslin add an earthy feel that's in perfect harmony with the show's somber tone.

Frank Galati's well-crafted adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath" uses elegant but simple language to bring a powerful piece of American literature to the stage. Stoneham Theatre uses elegant but simple staging to bring Galati's powerful dialog to life.

PHOTO CREDITS:

1. Steven Barkhimer as Orson and Jason Marr as Kenneth
2. Leigh Barrett as Florence Foster Jenkins
3. Will McGarrahan as Cosme McMoon and Leigh Barrett as Florence Foster Jenkins
4. Ed Peed as Pa, Fran Renehan as Granma, Jim Wrynn as Granpa, Jonathan Popp as Tom and Susan Bigger as Ma Joad (Photo by Paul Lyden)
5. Derek Stone-Nelson as Jim Casey, Doug Griffin as Uncle John, Alycia Sacco as Rosasharn, Timothy Hoover as Connie, Ed Peed as Pa, Jeffery Dinan as Al, and Jonathan Popp as Tom Joad (Photo by Paul Lyden)

 


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