Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New Rep Theatre Opens Its Season With The Stunning "Broken Glass" by Arthur Miller

As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright Arthur Miller, New Rep Theatre has inaugurated its season with one of Miller's lesser known works: "Broken Glass."  The play is a brilliant examination on multiple levels of issues of identity, self-image, self-loathing, Jewish identity, love and marriage, sexual dysfunction and the pervasive influence of evil.

When I asked Director Jim Petosa why this brilliant play is not more well known in America, he explained that Miller wrote the play late in his career.  By this time, Miller's name had been linked to the McCarthy witch hunt and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe had failed. The American public was pretty much done with Miller. But they loved him in England, and "Broken Glass" won an Olivier Award when it played in London.

The action of the play is set in motion around the events of Kristallnacht in 1938. Sylvia Gellburg (Anne Gottlieb)reads of the events, and internalizes the threat and becomes hysterically paralyzed. Her husband, Phillip (Jeremiah Kissel) becomes alarmed and calls in Dr. Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett) to find a cure for his wife's paralysis.  Complications ensue as the lives of each of the principals prove to be as fragile as the shopkeepers' windows in Germany. The excellent cast is completed with Harriet (Christine Hamel), Stanton Case (Michael Kaye) and Margaret (Eve Passeltiner.

This is classic Miller at work.  There are elements in Phillip that reminded me of Willy Loman. This is a heart-breaking story with many layers.  Sylvia longs to be loved by her husband, and is drawn to the caring and womanizing Dr. Hyman. An over-arcing theme of the play is made explicit when the question is asked: "Why does it have to be such hard work to be Jewish?"  Phillip is as paralyzed in his struggle to accept his Jewishness as is Sylvia.  She cannot move physically; he cannot move emotionally.

Jon Savage has designed a very effective set with Sylvia's bed at the center - later to be occupied by Phillip - and the seating areas revolving around that central bed.  Costumes by Molly Trainer, Lighting by Scott Pinkney and Sound by David Remedios complete the effect of a 1930's home and office.

Mr. Kissel and Ms. Gottlieb are outstanding in the complexity of their portrayal of these haunted husband and wife. Jim Petosa's direction builds the tension slowly, peaking at a moment of explosion that leaves the audience shaken.

This is brilliant writing, perfectly executed by the artists at New Rep.

The play run through this weekend, September 27.  This Boston area premiere of Miller's important work should be seen.

New Rep Website



Monday, September 07, 2015

Mini-Review of "How To Think Like A CEO" by D.A. Benton - A Practical and Prosaic Guide for Business Leaders

D. A. (Debra) Benton offers a very practical and prosaic look at what it takes to make a successful CEO.  "How To Think Like A CEO" is based on interviews with a large number of Chief Executive Officers. The author has distilled down to 22 traits the recipe for success in the corner office.  Much of what is contained in these 450+ pages is a lot of common sense and commonly understood principles, but it never hurts to be reminded of what is true and what works.

Throughout the book, Ms. Benton uses the metaphor that the trip up the corporate ladder to the highest office is analogous to climbing a mountain - using the right equipment, picking the right path, planning the expedition, etc.  It is an apt metaphor, and created helpful visual imagery. The author is quick to point out that even if one does not aspire to become a CEO, knowing how a CEO thinks and acts can only help one to advance - or at least to avoid getting fired.

This is not the most profound book on business leadership I have read.  I think of it in the category of "Thinking Like A CEO For Dummies."  There is value here, but it will not change the world.



Review of "My Fair Lady" - Lyric Stage Opens Its 2015-2016 Season With A Luminous Production of The Lerner & Loewe Classic

Jennifer Ellis as Eliza Doolittle
"My Fair Lady"
Lyric Stage
Through October 11th
Photo by Nile Hawver/

This seems to be the year of Jennifer Ellis in the world of Boston area theater.  She has been wonderfully ubiquitous in 2015, gracing the stages of numerous venues.  We are all familiar with The Midas Touch.  I would propose that there is such a phenomenon as the "Ellis Touch," for every production she touches shimmers like 24-carat gold.  She has not lost her touch as she interprets the classic role of Eliza Doolittle in the current Lyric Stage production of Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady."

Director Scott Edmiston uses the intimate space at the Lyric very efficiently and effectively as he leads a wonderful cast through a very impressive re-telling of the iconic Pygmalion story, based upon the play by George Bernard Shaw.  Music Director Catherine Stornetta gets just the right sound out of her small ensemble of herself on keyboard, Emily Dahl on violin and Javier Caballero on cello.  The music they produce provides just the right blend with the solo and ensemble singing of the actors. Choreography by David Connolly is wonderfully energetic and inventive, performed on a multi-level set beautifully designed by Janie E. Howland. Hanging banners containing phonetic symbols serve as a constant reminder that in the world of Professor Henry Higgins, vowels make the woman or man and determine class and how he will perceive and treat the person uttering those vowels. Period costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley are loverly! Very effective lighting by Karen Perlow and sound by Samuel Hanson complete the world that Higgins inhabits with his colleague, Colonel Pickering and their laboratory rat, Eliza Doolittle.

The plot is well known.  Cockney flower girl Doolittle aspires to move up the social ladder and sell flowers, not on the street in Tottenham, but in a proper flower shop.  But she cannot be hired unless she learns to speak proper English.  Colonel Pickering offers a wager that Professor Higgins will not be able to turn this besmudged street girl into a Duchess in six months.  Higgins accepts the challenge, and we are off to the races.

I could not take my eyes off of Ms. Ellis as she performed feats of alchemy, transmogrifying Eliza from leaden street urchin to golden princess.  While the obvious change occurs in her speech patterns, there are also concomitant changes in facial features, physical bearing, self-confidence and self-awareness that give this character a sweeping arc. She shimmers as well in singing the songs that have made this show an audience favorite for many decades.  Her cockney-spiced "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" provides a nice contrast with the later elegant "I Could Have Danced All Night."

As Henry Higgins, Christopher Chew returns to the stage where he triumphed in the role of Sweeney Todd.  The dramatic range of Professor Higgins is less demonstrative than that of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, so Mr. Chew is painting with a more subdued palette in this role.  He does a fine job portraying the obsessive and abusive linguist, who can hear the most subtle nuance in speech, yet is totally tone deaf to anything of an emotional nature.  He establishes his character well in two songs: "Why Can't The English" and A Hymn To Him."

Remo Airaldi as Colonel Pickering
Jennifer Ellis as Eliza Doolittle
Christopher Chew as Henry Higgins
"My Fair Lady"
Lyric Stage
Through October 11th
Photo by Mark S. Howard

The estimable Remo Airaldo is Colonel Pickering, alter ego to Professor Higgins - a fellow linguist with more human qualities.  He plays Dr. Watson to Higgins' Sherlock Holmes, who is perpetually looking for linguistic clues to someone's place of birth.

J.T. Turner is perfectly cast in the role of Eliza's roguish and impecunious father, Alfred P. Doolittle.  His rendition of "Get Me To The Church On Time" is a highlight.

Another highlight was the crowd-pleasing "On The Street Where You Live" sung by Jared Troilo as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  Smitten by love at first sight for Eliza, he finds out where she is living and haunts the street where she lives.  He manages to distill a whole lifetime of longing into his tremendously moving  presentation of this gorgeous song.

Jared Troilo as Freddy
Jennifer Ellis as Eliza Doolittle
"My Fair Lady"
Lyric Stage
Through October 11th
Photo by Mark S. Howard
Other standouts in this solid ensemble include Beth Gotha as the refined and sympathetic Mrs. Higgins and Cheryl McMahon as the long-suffering Mrs. Pearce.  Excellent work is offered by the ensemble of Elise Arsenault, Tony Castellanos, Catherine Lee Christie, Meghan LaFlam, Carla Martinez, Katherine McKEllar, Davron S. Monroe, Andy Papas and Aaron Michael Ray.

Featuring: Remo Airaldi*,  Elise Arsenault*, Tony Catellanos*, Christopher Chew*, Catherine Lee Christie, Jennifer Ellis*, Beth Gotha*, Meghan LaFlam, Carla Martinez, Kathryn McKellar, Cheryl McMahon* Davron Monroe*,  Andy Papas*, Aaron Michael Ray,  Jared Trolio* and J.T. Turner*. 

Whether you are seeing "My Fair Lady" for the first time or are re-visiting an old favorite, I can guarantee that you will enjoy this production.  Be sure to have a loved one remind you to "Get Me To The Lyric On Time"!

Through October 11th.

Lyric Stage Website



Sunday, September 06, 2015

Review of "Moon Over Tangier" by Janice Law - A Thoroughly Entertaining Murder Mstery

I really enjoy Janice Law's artistic use of the Queen's English.  In her Francis Bacon Mystery series, she places poor Francis in a series of compromising and harrowing situations, often as a result of ill-considered choices on his part.  In "Moon Over Tangier," he has travelled from London to Morocco to follow his abusive friend, David.  David, recovering from the traumas in WWII, is slowly drinking himself into oblivion.  Francis tries to save him, but is caught in a tangled web of art forgery, smuggling, murder and multi-nation spying.  The adventures he undergoes are vividly described, often with Ms. Law's acerbic wit on full display. She paints with words as effortlessly as her protagonist paints with oils.  The splendors and the dinginess of Tangier are palpable in the meticulously described scenes that take place, with themes of class struggles being explored  with great gusto.  Just as Picasso created cubism to force the viewer to view subjects in a different light, Ms. Law paints a wry and distorted picture of the British ex-patriot community in North Africa to encourage the reader to think differently about the remnants of the once great British Empire in its decline.

The result of the author's labors is a superbly entertaining murder mystery of the first order. I plan to read the other books in this series.



Review of "Small Giants" by Bo Burlingham - A Business Can Be Both Small and Great

In "Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big," author Bo Burlingham has done for small businesses what Jim Collins did in "Good To Great" for large, publicly traded companies.  Mr. Burlingham's criteria for profiling a "small giant" were that the company must be privately held, successful over several years, and the owner must have passed up opportunities to sell or to take the company public.

The profiles of a disparate variety of businesses is both enlightening and inspiring.  From a chain of restaurants in NYC, to a Brooklyn-based storage warehouse to a Michigan bakery, the common thread that appeared in each story was that the men and women who own and run these businesses have a passion to give great service to their customers and to create a wonderful place for their employees to call home.  No matter the size of the company being profiled, there always emerged a sense that there was an intimacy created among the owner, employees and customers.

This is a book that should inspire any business owner to reach for greatness regardless of the size of the business.  The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the search for greatness in the business world.



Review of "Cape Ann" - A Novel by John Theo, Jr. - A Very Satisfying Read With Lots of Local Color

I love John Theo's writing.  This novel, "Cape Ann," was particularly gratifying to read for the author wove a story that took places in locations that I love around Cape Ann and the North Shore of Boston.  I could detect the smells of low tide at Good Harbor Beach, salivate to the tastes of fresh-caught Gloucester fish, and hear the sounds of the waves lapping at the shore in Rockport.  The story is rich in descriptive details, and is fleshed out with characters I came to care about.

Jeremy, a former police officer turned school teacher, finds himself caught up in the aftermath of the murder of a close friend.  He teams up with Carrie, the fiercely independent new Rockport Harbor Master who is out to prove that she is just as competent and tough as any of her male counterparts.  She and Jeremy lock horns at first, but end up partnering and coming to appreciate one another's company.  The author gently suggests that Carrie is also helping Jeremy to consider whether faith might be a missing ingredient in his life, and Mr. Theo accomplishes this feat without being in any way preachy or off-putting.  It is refreshing to find red-blooded heroes and heroines who have a spiritual dimension without them being portrayed as plaster saints.

The duo of Jeremy and Carrie succeed in bringing to light several nefarious plots.  They make a good team, and this thread would make an excellent series of novels.  Let's hope the next Rockport tide brings in another installment of Jeremy and Carrie teaming up to keep Cape Ann free from crime. This book is a very satisfying and enjoyable read.



"Shit-Faced Shakespeare" Graces The Stage at Davis Square Theatre

If you like your Shakespeare with a side of bawdy humor and raucous laughter, then head to Davis Square in Somerville for a rollicking good time.  The phenomenon of presenting a "distilled" version of a Shakespeare play with one member of the cast in his cups has taken off on both sides of the Atlantic

No doubt in Shakespeare's day, there may have been a few members of his theatrical troupe who trod the boards with some stout or mead under their belt, so this phenomenon is nothing new.  The pickled actor attempts to participate in a normal way, but beer goggles often cause him or her to speak the lines and respond to other actors and the audience in some hilarious and unscripted ways.

When I saw the show on Saturday evening, there were many people in the audience who had seen the show before, so it seems to be trending toward becoming a cult classic like "Rocky Horror."  Audience participation is definitely on tap - with one audience member given a bugle to blow and another a gong to clang if they sense that the appointed actor is in danger of becoming too sober.  The bugle call and the gong clang signal stoppage in action so that the actor may be plied with yet another bottle of beer.

We were treated to a delightful, if somewhat expurgated version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  The actor chosen to get himself thoroughly plastered was none other than the estimable Michael Underhill in the role of Lysander. He took to the challenged of playing a liquored-up and lubricated Lysander with flair and panache.  I will not embarrass young Mr. Underhill by quoting his ex tempore soused soliloquies but I will say that some of them were emitted as epithets that were slightly less than Elizabethan in nature.

Tickets are currently on sale through October 24th.  Join the fun and head up to David Square.  The prospect of missing out on the fun is a sobering thought.

Magnificent Bastard Productions presents "Shit-face Shakespeare."

Shit-faced Shakespeare Website



Friday, September 04, 2015

Gloucester Stage Presents The Pulitzer Prize Winning Play "The Flick" by Annie Baker - Through September 12th

The 35-millimeter projector throws a beam of light onto the audience, as if the audience members are the screen upon which the story about to unfold is being projected.  It is a powerful metaphor.  The projector goes dark and is silent, and the lights come up on a seedy and tired movie theater with  torn and faded seats and the detritus of popcorn and candy wrappers strewn across the floor.  Enter Sam (Nael Nacer) and trainee Avery (Marc Pierre).  For the next few minutes, they sweep in almost total silence, with Sam occasionally pointing out to Avery some of the finer points of this thankless job.  Often the only sounds heard are the sweeping of the broom over the sticky linoleum floor, and the rustle of audience members shifting in their seas, wondering when the "action" will begin.

Watching this play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker is a lot like attending a baseball game.  To the casual observer, there are a lot of dead minutes between the action when the pitcher hurls the ball toward home plate and the batter tries to hit it, and fielders try to snag it.  To the trained eye, there are subtle balletic movements happening even between pitches.  Fielders shift position as the situation dictates, the third base coach flashes signs, the catcher moves slightly to the right anticipating the slider that he has called for. For true baseball aficionados, it is the deliberate pace of the game that is part of the charm of the sport.  Ms. Baker forces the audience to adjust to her rhythms, to notice what is happening in the hesitations and the moments of silence - a glance, a shrug, a wave of the hand, a more energetic than normal sweep of the broom across the floor to indicate frustration. Like any great artist, she uses negative space to complete the picture she is creating.

She seems to be saying in setting the pace that she has: "Attention must be paid"!  These three young people are as worthy of our attention as was Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."  In this play, Annie Baker is asking us to consider that the ordinary work of three ordinary people - underpaid cinema employees - is worthy of our attention and consideration. She throws a light on the significance of their ordinary existence and search for identity and meaning in a theater that is a technological dinosaur, holding out against the onslaught of digital projection that is becoming the film industry standard.  A subtext of this play is the author's love for classic 35-millimeter film imagery.  While showing us the quotidian lives of this trio of workers, she is also sending a love letter to traditional film technology and the great movies of the past.  This love letter takes the form of an ongoing game of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" being played between film buffs Sam and Avery.  Rose (Melissa Jesser), who claims not to care about movies, is a frequent observer of these bouts, matching wits between Sam and Avery as they list some of the great classic films and the actors who starred in them

Under the keen direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, this trio of actors bring Sam, Avery and Rose to life in a fascinating way.  Their work is aided by the fine set design of Courtney Nelson, Costumes by Lara Jardullo, Lighting by Russ Swift and Sound by David Remedios.  The action of the play is minimal. Much like the underappreciated Woody Allen film, "Interiors," the significant developments happen in the minds and hearts of each character and in their moments of one-on-one interaction and attempts to connect on a human level.  Sam has a crush on projectionist Rose, and also aspires to be trained to run the projector.  Rose dismisses and ignores him, and complications ensue when she trains Avery as her replacement, ignoring Sam's "seniority."  A ham-handed attempt by Rose to engage Avery romantically leads to mutual embarrassment.  Limits of friendship and loyalty are tested when the new owner of the theater uncovers a plot that the employees have seen as a tradition of skimming some cash off the top of the daily receipts as a sort of tip.

Marc Pierre as Avery
Melissa Jesser as Rose
Nael Nacer as Sam
"The Flick
by Annie Baker
Gloucester Stage
Through September 12

The three principals, aided by two brief character  appearances by James Wechsler, are powerful in their portrayals of these struggling wage earners. Mr. Nacer shows great range, in a character that is vastly different from those he has played in the past.  His physical manifestation of Sam's hopelessness, his verbal quirks, his working class Massachusetts accent, his shaved head and backwards Red Sox cap all serve to show us an ordinary guy whom life seems to be passing by.  It is a powerful performance that should be seen and applauded.  A particularly memorable moment of his performance is the scene in which he confesses to Rose his love for her, but he cannot look at her, even when she demands that he do so.

Equally strong is Marc Pierre, the somewhat nerdy college student who needs this job to pay for school, but who also loves the classic films, and would not want to work in one of the now predominant digital cinemas. Mr. Pierre uses to good effect the black frame glasses behind which he hides for much of the play.  He initially sets himself apart from Sam and Rose by not wanting to participate in the cash skimming scheme of taking "dinner money," but eventually succumbs to their peer pressure, much to his later regret.

Ms. Jesser as Rose is a complex assortment of bored girl with torn jeans and green streaks in her hair, a person who sees herself as not worth getting to know, but also someone who seeks to hang out with and seduce Avery. She shines most strongly in the powerful scene in which she responds to Sam's profession of love, verbally assaulting him for his failure to react to her in a truly human way.

Ms. Baker is to be praised for inviting us to examine and to appreciate the ordinary things in life - simple people worthy of our notice and reflection.  This is a fine production of a brilliant play.  It can be seen this weekend and through September 12.

Gloucester Stage Website



Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Review of "Cool" by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp - How The Brain's Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World

Earlier this summer, a young friend of mine, who was working at the Wall Street Journal, gave me a copy of "Cool."  I was intrigued by the subtitle: "How The Brian's Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World."  Authors Steven Quartz and Anette Asp draw from deep wells of research and analysis to make the case that our propensity for conspicuous consumption is not just a response to aggressive marketing and advertising, but has evolved over many centuries of human development.  The authors draws from disciplines as varied as economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and cognitive neuroscience.

I was skeptical about the premise of the book, but the research is so thoroughly annotated and analyzed that I was compelled to think differently about the impulses that drive us to spend our money in ways that do not always make rational sense.  The implications of the findings of this book apply equally well to the realms of marketing, advertising, retailing and e-commerce.

If you would like to understand why you often find yourself compelled to purchase goods because they will make you feel and look "cool," then this book is for you.  It is chock full of examples of how we as consumers have evolved to the point where we often purchase items for reasons that go far beyond their practical utility.  This book is a welcome additional to the growing field of behavioral economics.



Mini-Review of "Nan-Core" by Mahokaru Numata and translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davis

This small novel, "Nan-Core," is beautifully written by Mahokaru Numata and translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  A young Japanese man discovers some notebooks hidden away in the closet of his dying father.  What he reads in those notebooks causes him to question everything he thinks he knows about his family.  He sets out on a mission to discover the truth of who the people really were whom he called his mother and his father.  Along the way, we see glimpses of several generations of intrigue and struggles with family honor that are quintessentially Japanese in their ethos.  While telling a chilling tale of mystery and murder, Ms. Numata examines the true nature of family, love, forgiveness, honor, and identity.