Stage Review: Gamm Lightens up Chekhov in Pawtucket

Rachel Dulude and Tony Estrella in The Gamm production of Curt Columbus’s “Uncle Vanya.” (Photo by Peter Goldberg)

PAWTUCKET — Curt Columbus believes there is a mind-set he calls the “Chekhov Industrial Complex,” which he avoids when translating the great writer’s pieces from Russian to English. When directing his works, he actually pushes quite far in the other direction.

The latter dramatic shift can be seen on stage at the Gamm Theatre where Columbus’s translation of “Uncle Vanya” is now playing. As translator and director of the production, Columbus defies the “Complex” by creating an almost lighthearted approach to the sad tale. Instead of drab and depressing scenes and woe-is-me characters, he has worked with the Gamm company, led by Artistic Director Tony Estrella in the lead role, to create moments of laughter and music, light and even joy.

Vanya finds his world turned upside down when his late sister’s husband, a college professor, shows up on the country estate Vanya has worked his entire life with his new, much younger wife and a host of unreasonable demands. The professor’s announcement that he plans to sell the estate given to him by Vanya’s father as his sister’s dowry leaves Vanya and the others living on the estate shocked.

There are fights and weapons are drawn, there are tears and emotional breakdowns. Chekhov is notoriously long-winded and the conversations and dialogues in “Uncle Vanya” are no exception. But the set, sprawled over three levels on towering scaffolding, and the staging of the scenes are so cleverly executed that the pace of the two-hour show is manageable.

Columbus’ interpretation of the story detours around much of the drudgery. It is still there — Vanya, his niece and the professor’s daughter Sonya, Waffles and Marina work hard and rest little, their hard work funding the professor’s urban lifestyle. The professor is cantankerous and egotistical, leaving his young wife Yelena miserable much of the time. And, Sonya finds herself pining for the local doctor who barely notices her and drowns his own sorrows in copious amounts of vodka.

No, it is not a happy story line, but Columbus infuses lightness, often at unusual moments and, more than once, teetering very close to the edge of meaningfulness. The show, for example, opens with music and simple numbers played on accordions, guitars and xylophones throughout. Perhaps the acoustic version of Soft Cell’s 1980s song “Tainted Love” is a bit much, but the inclusion of music is a nice diversion and transitional tool…

Read the full article by Susan McDonald for the Sun Chronicle here.

‘It’s Not Just History’: An Atelier Course Explores Princeton’s Slavery Ties in Song

In the fall semester, alumni Peter Mills ’95 and Cara Reichel ’96 of Prospect Theater Company taught a Princeton Atelier seminar in which undergraduates created original musical theater works inspired by the work of the Princeton & Slavery Project. (Readings of a one-act musical drawn from their compositions will be presented at Nassau Hall Jan. 13.) In this audio feature, PAW intern Douglas Corzine ’20, a student in the course, takes us inside the challenges of telling these compelling stories in musical form.

Former slave James Collins Johnson, left, pictured on campus circa 1890, is the subject of one of the atelier songs.
Princeton University Archives

Listen to the full transcript from Princeton Alumni Weekly here.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL Returns to 59E59 Theaters

59E59 Theaters (Val Day, Artistic Director; Brian Beirne, Managing Director) welcomes the return of St. Louis Actors’ Studio with the LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL, featuring the NYC premiere of one-act plays, including PERCENTAGE AMERICA by Carter W. Lewis.  The LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL begins performances on Thursday, January 11 for a limited engagement through Sunday, February 4. Press Opening is Sunday, January 14 at 7:30 PM. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7:30 PM; Saturday at 2:30 PM and 7:30 PM; and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Please note: there is an added performance on Sunday, January 14 at 7:30 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Single tickets are $25 – $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

In PERCENTAGE AMERICA, a couple on a first date, hoodwinked by each other’s dating profile, parse a story on the local evening news for “alternative facts.”

The cast features Autumn Dornfeld (The Graduate on Broadway); Kelly Schaschl (NY debut); Spencer Sickmann (Last Days of Judas Iscariot for LA’s Lost Angels Productions); and Chauncy Thomas (To Kill a Mockingbird at Bay Street Theatre).

The design team includes Patrick Huber (scenic design); Jonathan Zelezniak (lighting design); andCarla Evans (costume and prop design). The Production Stage Manager is Seth Pyatt.

Carter W. Lewis (playwright, PERCENTAGE AMERICA) is currently serving as Playwright-in-Residence at Washington University. Prior to that he was Literary Manager & Playwright-in-Residence for The Geva Theatre Center (NY). Carter was also co-founder and Resident Playwright for Upstart Stage in Berkeley, California. He is the winner of several national playwriting awards including The Julie Harris – Playwriting Award, The State Theatre – Best New American Play, The Cincinnati PlayhouseA. Rosenthal New Play Prize (1996 & 2001), New Dramatist Playwriting Award, Playwright’s Center Jerome Residency, The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation Award (2003), and he is a two-time nominee for the American Theatre Critics Award. A sample of theaters that have produced his work include The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Syracuse Stage, The Source Theatre, Florida Stage, Studio Arena Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, The Round House Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, The Sacramento Theatre Company, The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, The Phoenix Theatre, The Barksdale Theatre, American Stage, The New Repertory Theatre, The State Theatre Company, Florida Repertory Theatre, The Geva Theatre Center, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Berkshire Theatre Festival, San Diego Repertory Theatre, The Magic Theatre, and The Royal Court Theatre in London. His published works include Art Control, No-Preying, A Geometric Digression of the Species, Soft Click of a Switch, An Asian Jockey in Our Midst, and The One-Eyed Man is King. Other plays by Carter W. Lewis include Golf with Alan Shepard, Picasso Does My Maps, Longevity Abbreviated for Those Who Don’t Have Time, Women Who Steal, Men on the Take, American Storm by Integrity Out of Molly Brown, Kid Peculiar, Ordinary Nation,Evie’s Waltz, The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, The Cha Cha of a Camel Spider, Hit Story, Camden & Lilly,The Hummingbird Wars, The Gun in the Floor, and Echo Location.

‘Draw the Circle’ Puts a Surprising Frame on a Transgender Story

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in “Draw the Circle.” (Stan Barouh)

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen has a good story to tell in “Draw the Circle,” and a fresh way to tell it. It’s an autobiographical solo show about gender transition in which he plays his parents, his classmates, his doctors and his girlfriend – everyone but himself.

By the end he’s fully there, along with projected statistics about the rising U.S. murder rate of transgender people. This activist theater is molded from the raw material of being born to traditional Muslim Indian immigrants to the United States and assigned female; before the show starts, we see a photo of Deen as a young girl.

This 80-minute piece is running in rep at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with another hot-button solo act, Dan Hoyle’s “The Real Americans” – a survey of strangers Hoyle met during fact-finding road trips through the heartland. Hoyle may be a slightly more limber mimic than Deen, but Deen’s tale unspools more naturally.

Deen’s problem for years was feeling invisible (and worse), which is how we experience him as he takes on the voices of the people who give us his history of gender transition. Dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, he chronicles, with surprising empathy, not just what it was like to slowly, painfully come to terms with transition, but what it was like for loved ones who shunned everything about it. The father’s a card able to tell jokes, but the mother is sheer distress and shame. She frets about what the relatives back in India will think and laments the daughter – Shireen was Deen’s name, we are told – she feels she has lost.

Looking out, looking in: Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in “Draw the Circle.” (Stan Barouh)

Viewpoints come from a wide-eyed niece and, perhaps most poignantly, from Molly, who fell in love with Shireen and was then challenged by Shireen’s evolution to Deen. The names of each character are helpfully projected on the back wall; Deen does good work switching vocal patterns and postures, but he’s more compassionate than chameleonic in his characterizations.

Director Chay Yew – a playwright himself, and artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater – keeps the lean performance percolating briskly. It’s all about the information: the stage is a bare white square floor furnished with only a plain white chair. There is nothing else but the names on the screen, and the narrative.

Trans playwrights are still emerging, which puts Deen’s show in the vanguard here (and let’s credit Mosaic Theater for boldly expanding its repertoire all the time). The story’s framework is simple yet striking, and more than a novelty: it’s an apt, big-hearted way to puzzle together many pieces of Deen’s journey. “Draw the Circle” does not sugarcoat his despair or incidents of violence, yet it rather amazingly reaches back to retrieve people who easily could have been cut out for life. The wrathful moment confronting us with the ongoing violence against trans people does not define the tone of this personable, entirely approachable show. Inarguably, though, it’s that flicker of wrath that gives the piece its purpose.

Draw the Circle , written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. Directed by Chay Yew. Lights, Mary Louise Geiger and E-Hui Woo; set, Chay Yew; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. Through Dec. 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $35-$65. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.

 

Review by Nelson Pressley for The Washington Post.