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.

‘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.

Review: In ‘1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),’ cold-calling for a loser

“1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson)” at Jackalope Theatre, with Hillary Horvath and Bryce Gangel.

Did you vote for John B. Anderson in 1980?

If you were of age and followed the advice of this newspaper, which endorsed the moderate congressman from Illinois in the Republican primary over Ronald Reagan, you would have placed your trust in the man the Tribune said “best represents the qualities needed to win nomination and election — and having won those to be a strong, effective president.”

But Anderson lost that primary to Reagan and ran instead as an independent candidate, a move too quixotic for the Tribune, which subsequently offered its then-customary support for the Republican nominee, in this case the governor of California. Anderson started strong in the general election but tanked. He eventually got less than 7 percent of the vote.

So what was it like working in one of his campaign offices?

That’s the question posed by “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” a highly enjoyable and mercifully unpredictable world-premiere play by the experienced scribe Patricia Cotter, open now for voting at the Jackalope Theatre on Chicago’s North Side. On one level, “1980” is a bit like a sitcom of losers, a kind of “Superior Donuts” or a “Parks and Rec,” only set in a regional Boston office of a failing indie campaign.

You have Brenda (Evelyn Gaynor), the tough office manager with the rough personal life; Robin (Bryce Gangel), the fickle Ivy League slummer; and Kathleen (Hillary Horvath), the naive Southie intern who hates cold-calling but whose coming-of-age story is at the heart of the show. And then there’s Will (Sheldon Brown), the man sent from Chicago by Anderson himself to beef up the Boston operations. A forlorn hope, as it turns out, although he does come to better know himself.

Some of the fun here — and this play really is a good time, especially for political junkies — comes from some “Mad Men”-style anachronistic throwbacks to 1980s mores, replete with Kathleen as the Peggy Olson of the story. But although I think the piece still needs more narrative drive, Cotter is also writing about race and gender in the early 1980s and the era’s mostly flailing attempts to create viable coalitions that might one day stand up to the white male establishment. It’s actually quite a hopeful play, despite its setting amid failure.

All of the performances are strong and generous in director Kaiser Ahmed’s carefully toned production, a zippy show that embraces farce but also personal truth. But the piece belongs to the superb Horvath, who is both very funny as she droops around the office and, as all hope vanishes, exceptionally poignant.

The credo of the office: “Most polls say that if people believe John Anderson can win, he will win.” You don’t doubt the truth of that inconvenient paradox, the Achilles’ heel of every third-party candidate. But it is Horvath’s Kathleen, the character who appears to know the least, who actually knows the most about Anderson’s inevitable doom after she finally sees the candidate. “He looked so boring,” she says, “as if he was in black and white and the rest of the world in color.”

Enter Reagan and a sunrise and the future.

Review: “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson)”
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $5-$30 at www.jackalopetheatre.org

Read the full article from the Chicago Tribune here.

Solo performance illuminates Magic’s ‘Eva Trilogy’

Julia McNeal is excellent in the first play of Magic Theatre’s premiere “The Eva Trilogy.”

“Eden,” the beautiful, poetic first play in Barbara Hammond’s “The Eva Trilogy,” is entirely a soliloquy, delivered on a bare stage—the purest form of theater.

And, as directed by Loretta Greco in this Magic Theatre world premiere, and performed by the luminous Julia McNeal, it is engaging from start to finish.

In it, Eva, an Irishwoman in her late 30s, sits on the stoop of her sister’s house in a seaside village, talking to herself in a seamless stream-of-consciousness that evokes James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, or Dylan Thomas’ poetry.

Eva is awaiting the arrival of the hospice worker who will relieve her, temporarily, of caring for her aged mother, who’s upstairs in bed slowly dying, in great agony, of Parkinson’s. Or so we’re meant to think, at first.

Eva left Ireland decades ago for glorious Paris; her mother now lives here, cared for by Eva’s sister and her sister’s husband, who’ve asked Eva to fill in while they take a brief vacation.

For Eva, desperate to return to Paris, this long moment on the stoop leads her to muse over her past: her childhood as one of seven siblings with a sick father and rigid Mum, youthful sexual escapades, the Catholic upbringing she’s trying to escape, her travels, a miscarriage, her regrets, her pleasures. McNeal brings it all to vibrant life.

The end of “Eden” is disturbing, unexpected yet inevitable.

But just as “Eden” is simple and eloquent and full of the rough texture of life as we live it, the following two short plays in the trilogy (the three comprise one full evening’s performance), which are slightly surreal at times, are unconvincing.

In “Enter the Roar,” set a month later, we meet the three other characters plus the conflicted family priest. As written, it’s a purposefully chaotic part of Eva’s story, a roar indeed, but it’s so stagey and over-acted that it’s hard to sort out the strands of Hammond’s deeply existential themes.

Thirty years later, in “No Coast Road,” Eva has become a hermit in remote Corsica; a young American hiker (Caleb Cabrera) stumbles upon her campsite. But Hammond’s Eva of “Eden” is now a cliché of a feisty, eccentric elder (no fault of actress or director), and the flirty-contentious relationship between young man and crone feels artificial, the contrivance of a young playwright.

A plus, though: the gorgeous pastoral set and projections by Hana S. Kim.

REVIEW

The Eva Trilogy
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Fort Mason, Building D, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 12
Tickets: $35 to $80
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

Read the full review from the San Francisco Examiner here.

Why Playwright Barbara Hammond Is on the Cusp of Something Big

The writer behind Magic Theatre’s Eva Trilogy steps into the spotlight.

Barbara Hammond wants you to call your mom. At least that’s one takeaway from her latest work, The Eva Trilogy, premiering this fall at Magic Theatre. The production is conceived as a triptych of plays, performed in sequence—first Eden, then Enter the Road, and last No Coast Road—that together tell the story of an Irish expat, Eva, who finds herself thrown back into family crisis after a soul-searching stint in Paris.

Like her heroine, Hammond is a daughter of Ireland, though she now lives stateside. The work was inspired by Saint Patrick’s Day readings of the rambling Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses with her Irish literary group in New York. After that, Hammond, whose own mother became terminally ill during her writing process, says, Eva “really did start spilling out of me in a way that no other play of mine has done.”

Hammond may not yet be a familiar name, but expect that to change. Her film, June Weddings, was a director’s award winner at the 2013 SF Shorts festival, and her last staged work, We Are Pussy RiotorEverything Is P.R., was staged in Seattle this summer. She was a resident at the New Dramatists playwriting lab alongside Taylor Mac, which put her on Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco’s radar. “When I finally met her in person, I think the first thing I blurted out was ‘I don’t know why you aren’t famous,’” Greco says. “And I mean that.”

Famous, perhaps, in time. But a crowd-pleaser? That’s harder to say. “The play isn’t for people to say, ‘Oh, I enjoyed it,’” Hammond says. “It’s for them to go home thinking about whether they like themselves.” And maybe to remember to call Mom.
Oct. 19–Nov. 12

Read more from San Francisco Magazine here.