Between Pretty Places: Pretty When It Speaks

Review by Bart Greenberg

BPP_0007_22 Between Pretty Places, now playing at The 13th Street Repertory Company, is an intriguing “musical ghost story” that details the frustrated lives of a family stranded in the parched ranch country of central California. Lyle (Philip Callen) and Diane (Ellen Parker) are a long married couple who are struggling financially and spiritually, dealing with a daughter (Julie Fitzpatrick) who committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree on the property. The daughter, Cherlynn, may be dead, but her spirit insists on remaining to continue her emotional battle with her parents and her sometimes loving, sometimes threatening relationship with her young daughter (Jemma Kosanke) who has been dumped on her grandparents by an absent father. Complicating matters, the local librarian and good time gal, Marge (Heather Lupton Rashe) is entertaining a job offer from a library in a distant town, and would love to take a souvenir along with her: Lyle.

BPP_0023_6 The cast is outstanding, with each of the performers finding compassion for their flawed characters without shying away from their flaws.Parker, a veteran of Broadway and off-Broadway, plus an Emmy winner for her long run on daytime’s Guiding Light, suggests a Mother Courage suffering from a nervous breakdown over her responsibility in the death of her daughter. Callen, brings a powerful masculinity that has been hollowed out by frustration and disappointment, still in love with his wife but needing far more than she can now offer. Fitzpatrick embodies the tricky role of the strung out dead daughter, and offers the strongest female voice on the stage. Lupton Rasche finds a lot of colors in a role that could easily turn into cliche and young Kosanke neatly handles the shifting moods of an emotionally battered child.

BPP_0010_19 However, there is a somewhat schizophrenic nature about the piece that is troubling. The program interestingly lists: “Play by Susan Merson” rather than book. The production does indeed feel like a straight play where songs have been dropped in. The effect is furthered by the score by Shellen Lubin (with additional music by Matthew Gandolfo) which is much stronger lyrically than melodically. The lyrics are definitely compatible with the dialogue, admirably carrying the same personalities forward. But, except for an insistent dark nursery tune and a pastiche country-western ballad, the music is rather characterless and lacks dramatic thrust. Of course, the music is not well served by the orchestral accompaniment being limited to a keyboard, no matter how admirably played by Gandolfo. These songs feel like dramatic monologues that might be better spoken than sung.

BPP_0012_17 The brief running time of the show (75 minutes) makes it feel dense and tough, as dry as the world it takes place in. There is nothing pretty here, but there is courage and resolution, and it is a place worth visiting.

DEEP “CONVERSATION”

Amy M. Frateo, reviewer

Michael Mack is very brave. He is also very talented. He is also very brave… was that mentioned?

Mack-Voices_Chair1_6x7_300dpi_350kb_q6 On stage at The Bridge Theatre, Mack stands alone in a black shirt and pants – like a relaxing priest – and tells a story that is compelling, shocking, painful and hopeful all at the same time. The story is CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER and it relates to his awful experience as an 11 year old boy lured into the rectory of a pedophile priest. Yes, just the description alone tightens the shoulders.

michael-mack_conversations_timo085_under-table_6x10_300dpi_credit-Timothy-HansonThis powerful drama, touching on a topic that dares not say its name was part of last year’s Midtown international theatre Festival then ran abroad and now settles here for a limited off-Broadway run. With Pope Francis in town, liberals will stand tall with this piece; conservatives fear its arrival.

Now here’s the twist … it is also beautifully executed. Mack is a true poet, creating soaring and stunning imagery for hellish circumstances. His brilliant use of words transforms trauma into opera; his use of metaphor and description makes you forget the topic – until it reminds you of it – hard. Mack is able to take us on an emotional roller coaster – even a really tepid rendition of Heart & Soul on a rickety piano becomes heartbreaking in context.

Daniel Gidron staged this piece well, cleverly keeping Mack moving throughout to always illicit a high energy – almost production number – feel. This helped in slower parts and heavy exposition toward the later half. Gidron and Mack managed to find moments where just the right delivery created laughter – sometimes nervous and even the rare belly laugh. It’s rare that you forget you’re in a theatre and actually feel that you are “in” the play. With CONVERSATIONS, you feel as if you are there with Michael in the dark rectory feeling his fear … and his pain.

Now here’s the last twist… what you also feel is hope. Mack does not play this drama with anger or vengeance. He provides a smile of understanding – even forgiveness – on his face throughout. This allows us to listen and react and interact (talkbacks are scheduled after each showing).

michael-mack_conversations_timo217_prayer_6x10_300dpi_credit-Timothy-Hanson Pope Francis’ stance on this matter is encouraging, but that doesn’t negate what these children went through or the lesson to be learned. Mack shows us a dark time and how he climbed up from it. He tells us why he was in pain and teaches us how to forgive. Isn’t that what the REAL message of faith?

DON’T SAY THE NAME … JUST SEE THE PRODUCTION.

Review by Bart Greenberg

I6 William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a notoriously difficult work despite being the playwright’s shortest tragedy, a mix of blood, sex and witchcraft. Too often it comes off stodgy and over-directed (and often, over-acted). The play also comes with the extra baggage of being a “cursed” piece, thought to bring bad luck by simply being mentioned backstage by name, and quoting a line from this very quotable work can lead to terrible consequences – or so it is believed.

The American Theatre of Actors’ current production avoids some of these pitfalls. A youthful, athletic cast keeps both action and story going, even in the second half when the play becomes problematic as it leaps around locations, characters and countries, before returning to its central characters. However, the cast is a mixed bag as far as comfort with the language and the brutal aspect of the characters.

Co-directors James Jennings and Jane Culley keep the action moving with the performers scaling the structural set and sprinting through the audience to make entrances and exits. IH There is a strong emphasis on sexuality, with most of the male actors shirtless at some point, and far more emphasis on crotches and masculine endowments than necessary.

A1 Thomas Leverton makes a fine if idiosyncratic MacBeth. If he seems a bit slight in build to be the triumphant warrior in the early scenes, he seems to grow in power and passion as the play progresses as his King suffers a emotional break after Banquo’s death, including a truly harrowing seizure, from which he emerges more cold-blooded and single-minded. E As his lady, Jessica Jennings is hampered by her girl-next-door beauty and her soprano speaking voice that would seem more suitable for any of the Rodgers and Hammerstein heroines than the ambitious ruthless consort.

I3 Outstanding is supporting roles are Zen as a brutal and coldly passionate Macduff and Al Perez (making a very impressive stage debut) as a too trusting Banquo. Shayna Lawson makes something special out of her one scene role as Lady Macduff, while David Remple shows fine growth as Prince Malcolm from frightened prince to worthy King.

While flawed, this is unquestionably a Macbeth worth viewing for its strong points.

Macbeth plays through September 19th at The Chernuchin Theater at 314 West 54th St.