Friday, October 26, 2012

THE LILY'S REVENGE, ART/Oberon, closes Sunday 10/28

Company, Act Five, THE LILY'S REVENGE
I know that sometime in the future, at a party, an audition, during intermission or after a show, I'll be able to draw attention with the phrase, "Well, I saw THE LILY'S REVENGE at Oberon".
And I'm very happy I did.

With a limited three-week run and a fixed audience of 150 per performance, there weren't that many opportunities to see it, and with my Uncle Vanya performance schedule (both shows opened the same week, days apart) I only had two chances: either Tuesday October 16 or Tuesday October 23.  As the 16th was sold out when I was able to buy a ticket, I went to the A.R.T. Box Office at the Loeb Drama Center, and was able to get a $25 ticket (each performance had a limited number of tickets on sale at @ $25, while the rest of the tickets were $45; and, as it was open seating, the ticket price didn't define where one sat) for Tuesday October 23, and counted the days.
Since I first read about the New York production and followed it's reviews, I've been reading about this show, and when the ART announced it as part of the 2012/2013 season,  I wanted to know more.  Had I not committed to performing in the revival of Uncle Vanya I would have auditioned 
myself (I was invited to audition  by the A.R.T. casting coordinator, who also asked me to spread the word that this show wanted to hire many locals, union and non-union).  surfed on over to to see and read his own description of the event, and became immersed in the material there, including photos of the original NY and subsequent SF productions, interviews, and a piece on collaboration, that reads:
"I believe theater is community action and as a playwright I am a community organizer. LILY continues this approach to making theater. It is a five-act, five-hour play with a cast of 40. The first four acts have roughly ten performers each, the final act has all forty. Each act is directed by a different director. A sixth director creates the intermission performances (what I loosely refer to as kyogens), which also utilize the entire ensemble."
And that's basically how it went here in Cambridge at ART/Oberon in only the third production of THE LILY'S REVENGE.  But here, the cast numbered thirty-something, and one director, 
Shira Milikowsky a graduate of the A.R.T. Institute, and Artistic Director Fellow at the A.R.T., presided over the entire show: all 5 acts and the kyogen intermissions.
Written and conceived by Taylor Mac, the multi-talented performer has been involved with each production so far (there was a New Orleans production in October 2012 produced without him), and by performing as "Lily" with a new community of performers and artists, he increases the "fish out of water" (flower out of pot) feel of The Outsider, a flower amongst other flowers and metaphorical prototypes: The Bride, The Groom, The Great Longing (A Curtain), etc. By employing local actors, singers. musicians, artists and performers of all kinds, the show creates a community force that Lily faces and forges ever onward in it's quest to marry The Bride.

Margaret Ann Brady texts and Twitters to communicate during one of the Kyogen intermissions

Though publicized as "5 acts, 5 hours", the show clocked in at about 4:20 ... appropriately so for this trippy "happening" of a show that might have been conceived in the Haight/Ashbury or the Greenwich Village of the 60s. In style and substance, it pays tribute to the early 60's Off-Off Broadway Ridiculous Theatrical Company aesthetics of Charles Ludlam, the Radical Faerie movement started in the United States among gay men during the 1970s sexual and counterculture revolution, and the 80's Alphabet City/Drag/Gender Illusionist parody/homage of Charles Busch, while becoming a thing unto itself, unique not only production to production but also night to night. The "Kyogen", drawn, like the structure of the play, from Japanese Noh Drama, are so completely interactive and individual that no two audience members will have the same experience: while listening to a nonsensical "frat guy" interpretation of Susan Stewart's theses in the men's room (complete with "football-play"-like diagrams drawn with a bar of soap on the bathroom mirrors), I forfeited getting a neck and shoulder massage from a cast member, but later I stopped by the "disco dressing room" where performers, mostly in drag, danced and dished, surrounded by costume pieces and flamboyant accessories that audience members could try on, select, and wear for the remainder of the show (or until the novelty wore off). This effort to get the audience to "let it's freak flag fly" (a 60's slogan, not a show quote) worked, and the feeling in the audience was a relaxed open attitude, willing to follow where they led us. From the earliest moments, there were the elements of direct address, an "is he or isn't he a "plant" character entering from the audience (along with the entrance of an actual plant), and the use of some old and "hoary" "audience involvement" bits of borrowing someone's seat and actual audience/actor touching. I managed to avoid getting drawn in, literally, until, in the final moments, Taylor Mac lept from the stage and planted a kiss smack dab on the lips. I kissed a former Lily ... and I liked it.

Lily (Taylor Mac) and Subprime Deity Mary (Margaret Ann Brady)

John Kuntz's Poppy out on the street
(iphone photo by Karen Kosko)

The local performers in the cast make up a cross-section from both the mainstream and the fringes of Boston's theatrical landscape. A.R.T. mainstays Tommy Derrah as The Great Longing (a theatrical and domineering red velvet curtain, characterized mostly through Derrah's deft vocal work and facial expressions, highlighted by a pair of glaring eyes, until later, reduced to human size, he struts his stuff, and performs an outrageously comic striptease) and Remo Airaldi as the Master Sunflower (who is more a Mistress), actor/playwright John Kuntz as the Poppy (in ghoulish makeup suggesting the faded elegance of a Gloria Swanson),  and, in her A.R.T. debut, Margaret Ann Brady as Mary Subprime Deity (one of the Marys, a group of former bridesmaids, a cross between the Radical Faeries and the Chorus in Marat/Sade), are the Equity actors in the group, with credits across the local boards. Gene Dante, a rocker and a performer with the Gold Dust Orphans, drag divas "Rainbow Frite" and "Sabina Sydney, Matt Mauriello, who was hysterical in Roller Disco: The Musical at Oberon last summer, and Alexander Cook (also a member of Actors' Equity) from Underground Theatre's Arabian Nights  are among the familiar faces from the smaller stages, working alongside graduate students of the A.R.T. Institute.
Despite fears to the contrary, the evening did not drag on forever (pun intended). Each of the first four acts is divided by a kyogen intemission, and food and drinks are readily available at a few cash bars and a grilling station set up alongside the Zero Arrow Street building.  Act four, a silent movie projected onto two opposite walls of the Oberon space (cropped down by hanging screens into a cube which we all stood within), segued into the fifth and final act.  And when that act ended, in a moving speech by Taylor Mac that spoke of equality and the right to marry whoever one chooses, I was hoping for a cathartic celebratory dance that could involve the entire room.  It didn't happen.  Could be that, having received that aforementioned kiss, I wanted to dance from the joy in that unexpected "reality check".  (There was some dancing earlier on, during the Dream Ballet Act Three, when cast members drew individual audience members onto the performance space.)  Also, we started at 6,  and it was nearing 10:30.  But more than many other shows that have tried an audience-participation dance finale and only partially succeeded, this was an evening that needed to dance its way out.  Nevertheless, it was an evening that will continue to percolate and pop up in memories of the colorful visuals, the delicious performances, and the genuine heart and talents of Taylor Mac.
A Murderous Pope

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Up and Running: BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON/SpeakEasy, and THE CHOSEN/Lyric Stage

I've fallen behind in covering shows ... as the previous post will detail, I've been "otherwise engaged" but still dashing around town to see everything I possibly can.  Keep inviting me: I'll keep trying to get there.
So, here are a few current offerings ...

With perfect timing, SpeakEasy once again produces a knockout production of a recent New York hit that skewers the American political system by looking back, anachronistically and irreverently at the life of Andrew Jackson.  The cast (including the triumphant return of Mary Callanan, the Boston singer/actress who just toured the country with the ABBA musical MAMA MIA) sells this show with the energy and talent of a company twice their number.  As an antidote to the constant campaigning of an election year, the show gave me a cathartic opportunity to LOL, often, and often ROFL (though I thankfully did not actually get onto the floor).
The "emo" rock score is performed by a small kickass band and complimented by cast members occasionally strumming, blowing a horn, on banging on percussion props and instruments, often giving it a down home feel, while the genocide of Native Americans under Jackson's administration creates a solid and disturbing backdrop, and the history is told with the anachronistic and anarchic energy of a pulpy graphic novel.

The Lyric Stage follows up last season's highly successful dramatization of Chaim Potok's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV with an adaptation of Potok's THE CHOSEN.  The 1999 script, which, unlike ASHER LEV, Potok worked on before his death in 2002, focuses on the main relationships of the novel, with five actors seamlessly presenting the memory play: Charles Linshaw as the adult Reuvan Malter, Zach Eisenstadt as the young Reuben, Luke Murtha as his friend Danny Saunders, and Joel Kolodner as Saunders's father, a revered Rabbi, and Will McGarrahan as Reuvan's Father.  Directed by Daniel Gidron, the production lovingly creates the moods and the tensions within the relationship of the childhood friends and their fathers. 


Kate Paulsen (Elena) and Kevin Fennessy (Telegin) in Apollinaire's UNCLE VANYA
For the past two months, I've been in rehearsal and performance (we're entering the third of a four week run, that's been extended to five) for the remounting of Apollinaire Theatre Company's UNCLE VANYA.  The Craig Lucas adaptation of Chekhov's play was produced last winter, running from Dec.29 for a run that was extended through January 22, and starred John Kuntz as Vanya.
That production was important to me for many reasons: for one, it was my return to acting after seventeen years (aside from a dip in the waters as one of The Miseries in the ART/MIT/Chicago Opera Theatre collaboration "DEATH AND THE POWERS: THE ROBOTS' OPERA", at the Cutler Majestic in the spring of 2011).  Following a long career in theatre as an actor and award-winning director, in 1994 I was offered a job in casting with Carolyn Pickman (CP Casting) and followed it for a run that included my own Casting company and office, which was destroyed in a fire in 2002. (Though the company folded, I continue to "dabble" with some freelance clients and in consulting with colleagues).  My last stage appearance was as the Narrator in the New Repertory Theatre's HOLIDAY MEMORIES, the holiday season show of 1994 that combined two Truman Capote stories, The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory.  (Coincidentally, the New Rep is producing HOLIDAY MEMORIES once again this year, at their Watertown home in the Arsenal Center for the Arts).
But the winter 2011/12 production of UNCLE VANYA came at a very difficult time for me.  My Mom, Georgia Ravanis Fennessy, died on October 25, 2011, and her funeral was on Nov.2, just 9 days before I went into rehearsal.  (The auditions for UNCLE VANYA happened in late August 2011.  I read that John Kuntz was playing Vanya and called director Danielle Fauteux Jacques to set up an audition.  Casting was completed in early September and a rehearsal schedule went out shortly after.  If I hadn't already been cast, I doubt I would have followed the funeral with an audition search).
Telegin (Kevin Fennessy) and Nanny (Ann Carpenter) at tea with the samovar
The rehearsal period and performances were just what I needed to get through a very dark time.  The Theatre, capital T, picked me, wrapped its arms around me and carried me through.  Mom was always so proud of my career in the theatre, and enjoyed saying "Kevin's an actor".  She would beam with a mile-wide smile every time she told the anecdote of my returning home from school one day in the first grade, bursting with the announcement that "the teacher said I read with expression!".  Having the world of the play to immerse myself into, and finding connections to my family in the play, were what kept me going through a period that included my birthday (1/21) and Mom's (1/22).  (As I mentioned, UNCLE VANYA ran through Jan.22, with performances on both of our birthdays.  And with our birthdays so close to each other, that end-of-January time of year became "our" time to celebrate).
It's a year later, and here I am once again performing in UNCLE VANYA, as the anniversary of Mom's passing approaches.  The sadness and grief of October 2011 has gotten easier, as the happiest of memories fill my thoughts.  I miss her now and always, but it does get easier and the joys with which she lived her life daily have become more available to me.  She truly is with me, in my heart, and available whenever I need a reminder.
During the summer, we learned that John Kuntz had been offered a role in THE LILY'S REVENGE, in direct conflict with the planned revival of UNCLE VANYA.  Initially this was taken by the company as a huge blow: how would the show go on?  But this is theatre, and we all know from song and history that "the show MUST go on" ... and that of course it could, and should. We already knew we'd be recasting the roles of The Professor and Elena, as both of the actors in that original company had chosen not to continue in the revival.  I looked at the challenge before us and made a casting suggestion: Diego Arcienegas, a respected and talented actor who could be, and indeed is, the right fit.  Diego was auditioned, along with other appropriate and exciting possibilities, and was cast.  With Diego and two additional "new" actors to the company, Jack Schultz as The Professor and Kate Paulsen as Elena (who Danielle discovered through additional auditions), the rehearsal period became more involved, but also richer than a "mere remounting" would have been.  Our talented newcomers to the cast brought new energies and interpretations, which in turn offered us the opportunity to look at moments and relationships in a different light: not better, not drastically different, but "fresher" than just dusting off the sets and costumes and brushing up our Chekhov.
Diego Arcienegas (Vanya) and Kate Paulsen (Elena) in Apollinaire's UNCLE VANYA

Come see for yourself.  UNCLE VANYA continues Wednesday through Sunday evenings (Wed., Fri., Sun. at 7:30, Fri. and Sat. at 8).  As it's a revival from just last season, most of the area's critics weighed in with reviews on the first round, resulting in nominations from the IRNE and Elliot Norton's , including a win for Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques as Outstanding Director/Fringe Theater from the 2012 Elliot Norton Awards. We did receive a review from WBUR's Critic-At-Large Ed Siegel, which you can read here.  Tickets and additional info at