Tuesday, September 17, 2013 • 7:18 AM Post a Comment

Eastward Ho: Plays in Boston and the Cape

posted by Chris Rohmann

Jonathan is dead. His ashes are in an urn on the side table and his wife, Zaida, is packing his things away in boxes. Then the front door opens and a man walks in “wearing his face”—Jonathan’s long-lost twin brother Ernie, too late to say goodbye.

This is Twins, a new play by UMass theater professor emeritus Julian Olf, performed through this weekend by Boston Actors Theater. The plot is built on several ifs, ands and buts. Lebanese-born Zaida was one immigration hurdle short of a green card, and her husband’s demise seems to have shut that door, but she has strong reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, namely its misogynistic society and her overbearing family. Ernie’s arrival just might revive her chances to stay stateside—if he can pass himself off as Jonathan.

Apart from their identical faces, though, the two brothers couldn’t be more unalike: loud redneck Ernie a professional gambler, Jonathan a sensitive gay artist. Yes, gay—the marriage was not exactly one of convenience, but, well, call it friends with benefits elsewhere. Ernie’s reluctant agreement to impersonate the dead husband for the INS is complicated by two unexpected visits—first from an old boyfriend of Jonathan’s, and then from Zaida’s parents, who don’t yet know her husband is dead. But the more complicated things get, the more Ernie enjoys this twist on the card sharp’s game of risk and bluff.

Olf’s script takes a premise rife with comic potential but plays it mostly straight, with the exception of one scene that takes the piece into farce. It’s hard to tell just what the play wants to be—or perhaps that’s the doing of the director, Anna Trachtman, whose unsteady hand on the production keeps it from ever quite coalescing. This was my first experience with Boston Actors Theater, a ten-year-old non-Equity company that, from the evidence here, attracts a mixed bag of talent.

Jennifer Reagan and James Bocock are effective as Zaida and Ernie, he especially feeling perfectly comfortable in his character’s skin. Andrew Hicks, in two roles, is way, way over the top as the gay paramour and oddly nebbishy as Zaida’s afternoon squeeze, while William Bloomfield and Laurie Singletary are tentative and fuzzy in the admittedly underwritten roles of the parents. On the other hand, Maureen Adduci, in the briefest of cameos as the boys’ fearsome mother, is a consummate pro who ignites the stage the moment she opens the door.

Jennifer Reagan, Maureen Adduci & James Bocock in "Twins." Courtesy of Paracelsus Films


NEW AND EDGY

Another actors’ theater is holding forth in Boston this weekend. It’s the Cape Cod-based Harbor Stage Company, bringing its critically lauded adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull to the big city. The company is an offshoot of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and occupies WHAT’s original bayside premises. I saw part of HSC’s inaugural season last year, and caught up with them again this past summer. The actor-run professional ensemble furthers WHAT’s original mission of presenting new and/or edgy work, and each of those elements were represented in the two shows I saw last month.

First, the new. This year marks the 250th anniversary of Wellfleet’s founding. As part of this summer’s celebrations, the company presented The Billingsgate Project, described as “a surreal, compassionate look at a town's attempts to recreate the past and forecast the future.” Written by HSC co-founder Brenda Withers, it reflected on one stark episode in the town’s history: the wholesale abandonment 100 years ago of Billingsgate Island, the fishing community at the mouth of the harbor, drowned by the encroaching sea.

The quirky, episodic piece was framed as four actors struggling to create a play about that event—and disagreeing about form and content at almost every turn. Retelling this fascinating and little-known incident did indeed not only “recreate the past” but “forecast the future,” as onrushing climate change bids fair to treat Wellfleet town itself to the same fate. The show also became, perhaps unintentionally, a metaphor for the new company’s relationship with the town: a multilayered interface of history and originality, memory and imagination.

Then, the edgy: Sam Shepard’s strange and strangely affecting Fool for Love is a tangle of obsessive desire, desperate lies, uncertain truths and frantic violence—a slice of life in the breakdown lane. It’s also a rather surreal study of how experience informs and distorts memory. In a seedy, claustrophobic motel room on the edge of the Mohave desert, half-brother and -sister Eddie and May, bound together by blood and lust, enact what we gather is yet another chapter in a grueling cycle of flight and pursuit. The scene is observed, as if playing out on a screen, by their disreputable old father, “correcting” their conflicting versions of family history. It’s also interrupted by May's would-be beau, as unlike the scuffling siblings as it’s possible to be, that is, sober and well-behaved.

Jeff Zinn’s taut production, oscillating between scalding horror and scabrous humor, featured three of the company’s co-founders plus local guest star Tom Brogan as The Old Man. Jonathan Fielding made effective work of the rather functional character of the boyfriend interloper, but it’s the lover/siblings May and Eddie who focus the play and fired this production. The astonishing Stacy Fischer was a scrappy but pitiful May, desperate to be rid of her obsessive lover/brother but terrified to lose him. Robert Kropf effectively embodied Eddie’s Marlboro Man machismo and rodeo-daredevil charisma without obscuring the inner man, lost in his own incoherent passions.

Harbor Stage Company’s The Seagull, the summer’s early-season hit, plays September 19-22 at the Modern Theater at Suffolk University.


Harbor Stage Company in "The Seagull"

SHAKESPEARE UNDER CANVAS

Quite a different kind of brother/sister act was featured this summer at the Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro. Not a frequent Cape visitor myself, I hadn’t seen this company before, but friends were raving about last summer’s gender-bending Midsummer Night’s Dream, so when this year’s Shakespeare was announced, I scurried to get tickets. It was Twelfth Night, the one about identical twins, mistaken identities and misplaced love that’s not The Comedy of Errors, i.e., the one that’s also about a girl disguised as a boy that’s not As You Like It.

Apparently last summer’s crowd-pleasing production was a bit of an anomaly, and it took a while to adjust my expectations. This one, I realized partway through the performance, reminded me of the summer theater I worked in as a college student. Not performed in a tent, as here, but in an equally classic converted barn, our shows were inspired by amateur enthusiasm and fueled by youthful bravado; in other words, probably not as good as we thought they were.

This show was such a one, staffed by eager young performers who were probably having a better time than the audience. There was a bit of cross-gender casting here, as last year, with the lady’s maid Maria acted by Ben Berry and the foolish swain Sir Andrew Aguecheek by Abigail Rose Solomon—the only Equity actor onstage and, shockingly, the least convincing performer. Where inexperience needed a strong directorial hand, Daisy Walker seemed to sanction self-conscious hamming and moments when the actors didn’t seem to know what their lines meant.

All’s well by the end of Shakespeare’s delicious mixup of class and gender roles, of course, with the shipwrecked twins reunited and paired with appropriate mates. And speaking of twins, both “wearing the same face” and one taken for the other, we’re back where we started, above. Except in this play both twins are alive; it’s the playwright who’s dead.


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