Reviews Of CPTC Shows
by Christopher Verleger
An unlikely pair becomes the best of friends at the height of the AIDS crisis in Counter-Productions Theatre Company's stirring, superlative production of Steven Dietz's funny, touching drama, "Lonely Planet."
"Lonely Planet" takes place in a small map store, owned and run by Jody (Jim O'Brien), a lonely, older gay man whose only accumulated wealth is the impressive amount of information he has retained throughout his life. The younger, animated and equally lonely Carl (Christopher Plonka) frequents Jody's store during breaks from his many odd jobs, including one where he cleans out the apartments of those who have fallen victim to AIDS.
When the play begins, Carl asks a reluctant Jody to store a single chair at the shop because he has no room for it in his own minuscule living space. As the chairs multiply and become a nuisance for patrons, the increasingly impatient Jody soon relents when he learns who the chairs belonged to and understands what they represent. Meanwhile, the recurring time Carl and Jody spend together, sharing personal stories and dreams, spawns an unexpected yet undeniable loyalty and fondness for each other.
Consequently, the epidemic also turns Jody into a bit of an agoraphobe, which doesn't go unnoticed by Carl. Only after Jody acknowledges that he needs to get tested does he finally venture out, trusting Carl to mind the store in his absence.
James Boswell said, "We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed." That saying especially holds true for these men, since their early exchanges more closely resemble that of acquaintances, however, when Jody calls for his test results, he realizes how much he needs Carl to be present with him in the room.
Michael Ducharme directs this tender two-hander with great diligence, calling essential attention to the text while gracefully showcasing each of the character's inherent humility. Branigan Duguay's marvelous stage design, complete with maps and globes galore, purposefully encases the assortment of chairs within a setting where trips typically begin, yet funereally symbolizes the end of the previous owners' journeys.
I cannot speak more highly of the actors' performances, who master the conversational dialogue impeccably and earnestly with remarkable chemistry. O'Brien's quiet, scrupulously disciplined portrayal expressly conveys Jody's isolation and well-concealed sorrow, complementing Plonka's boisterous, adorably overzealous Carl, who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Despite the unfortunate, underlying matter of the AIDS epidemic, "Lonely Planet" is a beautifully written play with plenty to smile about and provides an uplifting, endearing portrait of friendship. Bring your best pal -- and some tissues.
At the Theatre: Compelling Themes and Poignant Acting Make ‘Lonely Planet’ a Must See
Written by Steven Dietz in 1993, Lonely Planet explores the friendship of two men living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Set in a cozy map store—skillfully staged at AS220’s intimate Black Box Theater—the unlikely friends, Jody (Jim O’Brien) and Carl (Chris Plonka) must distort reality to deal with horror of their friends dying from AIDS.
On the surface, the pair could not be more different. The professorially dressed Jody is calm and organized, while the colorfully clad Carl is manic, brash, and a bit all over the place. Both characters alter their respective realities to maintain some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos and death that surrounds them.
Jody lives in his map store and has not ventured outside of this shop’s four walls for some time. His friend Carl creates elaborate lies and takes on different personas to avoid life’s tumult. Unlike Jody, who has shut people out, Carl desperately tries to cling onto his lost loved ones by adding a chair to Jody’s store each time someone dies. Eventually, the small space is scattered with chairs of the deceased; taking on the appearance of a graveyard, rather than a store.
Although Carl recognizes the deceased, Jody doesn't attend funerals or even acknowledge that his friends are dying. Jody uses one particular map on his shop’s wall to illustrate his increasing isolation. In one moving moment, Jody gives the audience a history lesson on the Mercator Projection map, which is the map we commonly see in grade school. The map depicts Greenland as equal in size to South America—an error that Jody dubs the “Greenland problem.” The map's distortions serve as a metaphor for the distortions in Jody’s life, which he has created.
The two-man cast of O’Brien and Plonka do a great job of creating compelling characters that the audience really cares about. In the first act, Plonka’s acting appears a bit too eccentric and over-the-top, but these concerns recede in act two when we learn more about Carl’s motives and his desire get his friend Jody back out in the real world. O’Brien does a fine job in his role all the way through and especially succeeds in the play’s quiet and subtle moments.
It is in these subtle instances that the play really flourishes. There is one particularly moving scene in which Jody is on the phone awaiting his HIV test results in which the actors truly shine. Although very little is said, the tension, fear, and anticipation that the actors create with their body language and facial expressions is palpable.
Kudos also goes to the play’s director Michael Ducharme who expertly juxtaposes absurdist moments with poignant and emotional scenes between Carl and Jody.
Although we have come leaps and bounds as a society since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, Lonely Planet remains as relevant as ever due to its themes of isolation, friendship, and perceptions of reality. In a world of “fake news,” constant distortions of the truth, and an over-reliance on social media, this beautifully poignant tale of friendship serves as a reminder that sometimes we need to be forced back into the real world. May we all have a friend like Carl who is willing to fabricate a couple of stories in order to push us to take on life’s difficult moments and embrace the unknown.
Lonely Planet Is Not to Be Missed
by Leann Heath
Counter-Productions Theatre Company has a history of choosing relevant plays that create discussion. Their latest production, Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, does not disappoint. You don’t want to miss this incredible two-man show running through May 7 at AS220’s Black Box at 95 Empire.
Lonely Planet is a lovely statement on friendship, memory and fear in the face of disease. It’s a script full of natural poetry confronting life in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The play is set in 1992, the year AIDS became the number one cause of death for men aged 25 to 44 in the United States according to aids.gov. While HIV and AIDS are never explicitly mentioned, the language makes clear the world the characters are confronting as the play unfolds. Through monologues discussing maps, the characters illustrate the distortions we choose to see in life, the sweetness of an unlikely friendship and ultimately, that we can’t ignore the world going on around us.
Christopher Plonka plays the part of Carl to perfection. Plonka bounds onto the stage with the energy and articulation of a musical theater major. At first, the affectation and intensity are overwhelming in the intimate performance space. It feels like overacting, on the verge of wearing out the audience before the end of the performance. Instead, as the play goes on, we see it is a deliberate choice on the part of Plonka. We understand that Carl deals with the fear and heartbreak in his life by being relentless happy. Carl channels his fear into a flurry of motion and words that leave him little time to think about the unnamed disease talked about throughout the play, and Plonka does a phenomenal job slowly unwrapping those emotions throughout.
The other half of the cast is Jim O’Brien playing Jody. O’Brien’s Jody is an understated, but equally outstanding foil to Carl. O’Brien counters Plonka’s high energy, with steady pacing, a calm demeanor and a natural presence. At the top of the show, we see Jody’s bemused annoyance with his old friend’s antics. However, just as we begin to understand Carl’s fear, we begin to watch Jody unravel under the same anxieties. O’Brien is subtle in the unraveling, creating a sense of dread in the audience members in the steady stream of emotions that flows across his face.
This production not only brings together a stellar cast, the designers all need a mention here. The play takes place in the interior of Jody’s Maps. Branigan Duguay designed a store that is at once minimal and visually interesting in the small details. Chairs that become important to the plot are stacked out of the way, ignored by Jody until Carl forces him to see them. Globes are everywhere, and the shop has the feel of being dusty and unused. Duguay also does an amazing job as the lighting designer. The lights reflect the loneliness and fear, along with the joy and friendship. The lighting contributes to the actors’ effectiveness, and perfectly sets the mood for each scene. The sound design, by Ted Clement, perfectly places us in the world of Jody and Carl. The phone ringing becomes another character. The costume design was the only question mark. Counter-Productions chose to set the play in 1992, when the Lonely Planet was first produced. While Jody’s costume is a timeless Mr. Rogers-esque slacks and sweater ensemble, Carl appears to be dressed for the 1980s. Nevertheless, the clothes perfectly suit each character’s temperament. The production clearly benefited from director, Michael Ducharme, having a clear vision, and from dramaturge, R. Bobby, doing stellar research.
Many companies would have let a production like this stand alone as a conversation starter. The script is certainly powerful, and the production is outstanding. Counter-Productions isn’t your average company. Instead of wishing the audience well after the show, we were invited to a talkback conversation on the subject of HIV. Facilitated by a member of the production staff, the panel contains experts on living with the disease. On the day I attended, Dr. Amanda Noska spoke about the medical breakthroughs in treatment, and advocate Marc Paige spoke about stigmas around the disease and vouched for the very real fear for gay men in the 1980s and 1990s. Counter-Productions not only shares a beautiful production, but they allow the audience a space to process questions and emotions that may arise. In this, the production company shows it not only cares about a quality production, but it cares about the audience and creating conversation around an often-ignored subject.
In short, Lonely Planet is a beautifully written script delivered by an extremely talented pair of actors under the guidance of a strong director on an exquisitely designed stage. All this, and a thoughtful talkback, too. Do not miss this show.
Back to the Future: The Final Voyage of X Minus One
by Joe Siegel
The Final Voyage of X Minus One is an affectionate tribute to the world of science fiction, featuring spaceships, aliens and lots of laser guns.
Director Rufus Qristopher Teixiera and his cast have a lot of fun bringing this future world to life. The show is made up of four stories, with some of the actors playing multiple roles. The opener is “Hallucination Orbit,” by J.T. McIntosh and adapted by Ernest Kinoy. Colin Orde (Derek Smith) is on a remote space station and meets several beautiful women. But are they real or just a figment of Orde’s imagination?
I really enjoyed George Lefferts’ “No Contact,” the homage to Star Trek, featuring Christopher Plonka as Captain Thorson, who does battle with a group of women from a hostile planet. Plonka captures the bravado of William Shatner’s legendary Captain Kirk and engages in some hand-to-hand combat with a gorgeous alien (Victoria Ezikovich).
Leffert’s “The Parade” features a very funny performance by Ted Clement as Syd Ryan, a publicist who is hired to promote a Martian invaders movie.
Tom Godwin’s “Cold Equations” is a drama set on a space shuttle. Lt. Commander Barton (Patrick Keefe) is transporting a serum to help a planet’s deathly ill inhabitants and encounters stowaway Marilyn Lee Cross (Meg Taylor-Roth). Taylor-Roth is quite effective as a woman who is desperate to reunite with her wife on the planet.
In addition to the terrific work of the actors, the show’s technical qualities also are first-rate. Clement and Teixiera’s sound effects play a crucial role in making these stories so convincing.
The Final Voyage Of X Minus One is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The Final Voyage of X Minus One
by Christopher Verleger
Despite the immeasurable popularity and enthusiasm surrounding science fiction spectacles like "Star Wars," "X-Men," and "The Avengers," there's a reason such relics like "Doctor Who," "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek" have stood the test of time. Sure, the camp value is a guilty pleasure, but what makes them so memorable to generation after generation is the character-driven stories.
Since 2008, Counter-Productions Theatre Company (CPTC) has been staging episodes of "X Minus One," a 1950s NBC radio series written by Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts that occasionally featured the work of such science fiction heavyweights as Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein. In "The Final Voyage of X Minus One," director Rufus Qristofer Teixeira has selected what he believes to be the four finest entries in the series, and although this was my first foray into the "X Minus One" universe, he and CPTC undoubtedly saved the best for last.
In "Hallucination Orbit" by J. T. McIntosh (and adapted by Kinoy), a willful Derek Smith portrays Colin Orde, a man stricken with "solitosis," a mental condition resulting from long-term isolation that causes him to imagine the hallucinatory presence of female companions. While these fictitious relationships may prevent him from dying of loneliness, his own sanity hangs in the balance.
In "The Parade" by Lefferts, a cagey, courtly Ted Clement masterfully plays Syd Ryan, a public relations agent hired to promote an alien invasion. Ryan presumes -- perhaps too quickly - that his client, Louchaw (Steven Zailskas, brooding and bewitching), secretly works for a movie studio seeking publicity for a big screen release. When it becomes apparent this "spectacle of death" may be more than just hype, an unraveling Ryan goes into immediate damage control mode, arguably too late.
In another Lefferts entry, reminiscent of "Star Trek," "No Contact" features a stoic, consummate Christopher Plonka as Captain Thorsen at the helm of the spaceship, Star Cloud, on a dangerous mission to Volta. Five previous efforts to explore the territory have failed, and just when Thorsen and his crew are ready to celebrate having gone where no man has gone before, their success is only temporary.
Meg Taylor-Roth and Patrick Keeffe steal the show as Marilyn Lee Cross and Lieutenant Commander Barton in the touching final segment, "Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. The two become acquainted by accident when Cross stows away on Barton's ship en route to planet Woden. I won't reveal anything further other than their friendship is short-lived yet significant and both performances are sincere and extraordinarily moving.
The sets and sounds, while simple, are still impressive, and Trey Hendley's over-the-top costumes are simply magnificent. I am not an ardent fan of science fiction, primarily because I'm partial to story over spectacle, so much to my surprise and delight, "The Final Voyage of X Minus One" delivers a winning combination of kitschy nostalgia, amusing anecdotes and thoughtful ideas.
THE FINAL VOYAGE OF X MINUS ONE at Counter-Productions Theatre Company
by Andria Tieman
As a theatre reviewer, I have the privilege of watching all kinds of productions. Everything from Shakespeare to locally-written original works is up for grabs. Occasionally, though, one needs to bring in an expert, which is what I opted to do for my review of The Final Voyage of X Minus One at AS220's Black Box theatre. It's not that this production is hard to understand, or less entertaining to those who are not intimately familiar with sci-fi, but genre works tend to have a lot of subtle nods and winks that may go over the layperson's head, and I was concerned about missing something important. So I brought in a ringer, in the form of my geeky husband Ryan Michney, and I've included his thoughts below:
---Andria takes me to a lot of plays these days. While she was reviewing many of the performances she's written about here on Broadway World, I've been sitting next to her, watching, and not reviewing them.
But I've had thoughts! And this time, she wanted me to chip in, because I'm a sci-fi dork, and for the first time I can recall, we went to a sci-fi play.
My first observation was to idly wonder why science fiction is almost never attempted in a theatrical format. When science fiction is done well, it is a genre in which the setting or reality is altered just enough from our world that the story can provide a commentary on our society or human nature. In TV and film, sci-fi as we know it often leans on action and visual effects that can't easily be replicated in a live format--however that is a more of a function of (relatively recent) technical improvements in filmmaking and earlier examples of the format are hardly unachievable live. Think about the Twilight Zone, or the original series of Star Trek. Outside the occasional monster face or phaser blast, there isn't much that couldn't just as easily done as stage as it is on screen. So why isn't it?
This column isn't long enough to address that question, so I'll just leave it hanging in the air like Cloud City.
The Final Voyage of X Minus One is a compilation of four short science-fiction plays in the vein of the pulp and radio anthologies of the 1950's and 60's. Each takes us to different setting with members of the cast playing new characters every time the story re-starts. X Minus One has been performed since 2008, and in this, the final year, Counter-Productions has selected what they believe to be the strongest of the shows they've done.
They chose well, because each of the stories balances drama with speculative fiction and plays with well-worn references to place us in a setting far more rich than a typical black box production could ever hope to achieve through stagecraft alone.
Introduced through a Rod Serling-esque narrator, we travel to four unique worlds.
In "Hallucination Orbit" by J. T. McIntosh (adapted by Ernest Kinoy), we visit a distant space station where the lone officer struggles to keep the hallucinations brought on by his long-term solitude in check. Derek Smith brings a charismatic touch to a man isolated in deep space with no communication to the human race. As the years pass his consciousness creates companions--whom he knows to be figments of his imagination--to fill his hours. As he doubts his grasp of reality he alternates between acceptance and rage, and Smith simmers but never boils over, while a parade of imaginary ex-lovers (portrayed by probably every female member of the cast) appear in order to test his grip on reality.
In "The Parade" by George Lefferts, we visit a PR agency, paid to raise publicity for a (supposedly tongue-in-cheek) "Martian Invasion". Ted Clement plays a note-perfect version of a 1950's operator who quickly loses his cool as events spin far out of his understanding. Steven Zailskas's cool-to-hot performance embodies a "Martian" with aplomb, and Audrey Lavin Crawley manages her I-know-better part with eye-rolling disdain. The costumes perfectly express the idea of what people from the 50's would imagine futuristic clothes to look like. The story never gets ahead of the audience, but the style and presentation puts them in the place of a viewer from two generations ago and presents the most era-specific encapsulation of that brand of entertainment.
In "No Contact" by George Lefferts, we visit the Starship Enterprise...but not quite. Though everything about this setting and performance is James T. Kirk's Starfleet, if we were to look at the written script, it could be an entirely different world. Counter-Productions uses the iconography of Star Trek TOS to bring us a story about deception and espionage set on a starship, and uses their shorthand to do so. In a way, this act nearly counts as fan fiction--but not without some great performances from Christopher Plonka, Meg Taylor-Roth, and Victoria Ezikovich. Unfortunately, this was blocked far too tightly and everyone was on top of each other. In a small black box show without risers putting everyone at different levels there was no reason not to spread out the bridge crew. Though fun from a perspective of "using Star Trek as a shorthand" unlike the first two plays there was no particular underlying message to this, and sci-fi always needs a guiding message.
In "Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin, we visit an emergency relief vessel. As Patrick Keeffe's brave and empathetic Lt. Cmdr Barton heads out to supply a small colony with important medicine, a stowaway, played by Meg Taylor-Roth, endangers his mission. She powerfully brings a tragic love story into this piece.
The stage crew present a simultaneously minimalist and moveable set which accomplishes the narrative goals of these plays. The lighting and voiceover cues work well to put us in the worlds they attempt to establish, where, as we all know, "the computer" or speakerphone is frequently an important character.
The production uses LCARS monitors [big wink at whoever made them and is probably also the only other person reading this who knows what that acronym means], references from Lost, Back to the Future, Star Wars, The Twilight Zone, and more than anything else, Star Trek. The lighting and sound cues are well-executed, they would have to be for any performance of this type to work.
This, like last season's, Kill the Virgin, is a refreshingly enjoyable version of genre fiction onstage. It felt like being dropped into a viewpoint four feet away from a Twilight Zone episode--which is a wonderful feeling. It's a fun performance and it would be difficult to have a bad time as a audience member. With that, I'll pass the baton back to my more expert spouse.
While the stories presented here are very interesting, it always takes a talented cast to bring them to life. In particular, Ted Clement's performance as the smarmy, money-grubbing promoter in "The Parade" is just perfect in its execution. As events play out counter to what he intended, his mask of smug self-assurance starts to wobble ever so slightly and he manages to convey a palpable panic even while he's still smiling.
Meg Taylor-Roth is absolutely heartbreaking in the final vignette of the evening "Cold Equations". It's hard to say too much without giving away the plot, but this is a performance that will stay with the viewer long after it's over.
Even for those who might be a bit skeptical about going to a sci-fi play, these are well executed human stories that everyone can find something familiar in. And for those who like cataloging references and throwbacks to earlier works, there is plenty of that too. Counter-Productions has concluded the run of X Minus One in a very satisfying way, though new fans may now be disappointed that it's over.
X Minus One takes us back to the future
by Keith Powers
The Providence Journal
Counter-Productions Theater Company stages sci-fi stories from 1950s radio drama.
According to the past, the future has shiny clothes. Wrist radios. Lots of guns. It’s kinda sexist.
At least that’s the science fiction future, when observed by the science fiction past. Bringing both alive, Counter-Productions Theater Company is staging four stories from “X Minus One,” a 1950s radio drama, through Nov. 20 in AS220′s Blackbox.
The four episodes represent the best from Counter-Productions’ decade-long stagings of radio dramas, which originally ran during an era when space travel was mostly rocket ships, and Mars was very far away.
Directed by Rufus Qristofer Teixeira, the four stories vary in seriousness, but not in their old-time campy appeal. The original scripts (unidentified in the program) came from NBC staff writers Ernest Kinoy, George Lefferts and Thomas Godwin. Teixeira adapted them for the stage.
Brashly played in throw-back mode by a dozen members of the Counter-Productions troupe, the tales had vastly different plots. But each captured the kind of gentle threat that the unknown thing called space travel conveyed — before it actually started happening.
In the opening tale, Commander Colin Orde (anxiously paced out by Derek Smith), stranded in space for more than five years, suffers “solitosis.” He imagines one fictional companion after another (female, of course, and either subservient or sexually charged), until they finally gang up in a climactic hallucination.
Madison Avenue–man Sid Ryan (a spot-on portrayal by Counter-Productions’ artistic director Ted Clement) gets hired to publicized a Martian invasion in the second episode. Spoiler: it goes badly. Next, Capt. Thorson (Christopher Plonka) leads his Star-Trek–styled crew to the Galactic Barrier — never to be heard from again. Spoiler again: beware of the “space blues.”
The most realistic drama, and the one episode that stepped outside its science fiction conventions, was the finale, where Commander Barton (Patrick Keeffe), captaining a medical relief spaceship, must eject a stowaway (an emotionally charged reading by Meg Taylor-Roth) or fail to reach his destination. No spoiler here: the climactic scene, inevitable and weighty, was a winner.
There were many levels of enjoyment. Mostly, it’s a chance to relive dramatic presentations that would never ordinarily pass muster for modern audiences, audiences under the spell of technology that presents reality realistically — whether it exists or not.
Kill The Virgin
by Christopher Verleger
Even if you're not a fan of horror films, you have to appreciate their camp value.
Counter-Productions Theatre Company pokes fun at the horror film genre and pays tribute to our favorite slasher flicks with its fun, outrageous, entertaining, unapologetically trite production of Kevin Broccoli's "Kill the Virgin."
Broccoli's smart writing coupled with Ted Clement's skilled direction take the naked-then-soon-to-be-dead teenager horror film formula to new heights -- or lows, perhaps -- with the introduction of a group of stereotypically horned-up high school seniors who proudly acknowledge and willingly participating in the playing out of their lives as victims of a serial killer in a movie script.
This grisly saga begins with Leonard, played by an endearing Jerry Middlemiss, as he awakens and gets ready to leave for school, nonchalantly rattling off a timeline of events that involve a girl, a party and sex. Leonard already knows what's going to happen, but most importantly, he wants the audience to know that he knows. His deadpan delivery is one of the show's highlights and his nothing-could-possibly-go-wrong disposition sets the satirical tone for what follows.
Soon thereafter we meet Ali, the token virgin who typically avoids the killer's wrath in these movies, played by Victoria Ezikovich, being interrogated by Detectives Diaz (Marina Tejada) and Marconi (Adam Florio), after having restrained an intruder who broke into her house. Ali alleges the culprit wanted to rape and murder her and resents the officers' implications that there is more to her story.
As details unfold, including names on the killer's hit list, Ali believes it all has to do with her sexual status and becomes determined to lose her virginity. The rubric of subsequent episodes includes the customary slumber party, graduation day and a confrontation with her assailant at a mental hospital.
Much like the VHS classics of yesteryear and the torture porn of today, the story line here is absolutely ludicrous -- and jumbled, inarguably -- but the absurdity only adds to its appeal and leaves the audience continuously wondering how and when they'll pull the next carefully orchestrated stunt.
The intriguing set features a sheer curtain backdrop where caped, masked figures pace and linger throughout the entire show, pausing only to shout out select words of significance, to equally laughable and alarming effect.
Ezikovich gives a star-making performance as the high-strung Ali, rife with angst yet exuding the innocence of youth. Although the script calls attention to the casting of adults as teens, the actress not only looks the part but wears it with style and sass.
Florio and Tejada are hilarious as the dueling Keystone Cops, and equally moronic -- and funny -- are Carolyn Coughlin and Rufus Qristofer Teixeira as Ali's parents.
David Monteiro is gallant and genuine as Ali's love interest, Darius, and as emptyheaded Evan, Derek Smith wins over the audience with his pensive, profound monologue about dying young and what could have been.
Chelsea Titchenell and Lexie Lankiewicz are both coy and cute as classmates Tracy and Sara, and Jennifer Pierel is fierce as Ali's rival and requisite bitch, Jo.
Counter-Productions' "Kill the Virgin" is silly, twisted, sexy and shrewd to (literally) no end.
Counter-Productions Theatre Company's World Premiere of KILL THE VIRGIN is Sexy and Smart
by Andria Tieman
KILL THE VIRGIN, the latest offering by playwright Kevin Broccoli and produced by Counter-Productions Theatre Company is a cheeky and self-aware look at the cliches in horror movies. Thankfully, unlike the Scary Movie franchise, it manages to stay away from the gross-out humor and instead relies on quick wit and observation of the tropes that we've all seen in teen movies, and may be so accustomed to that they barely register anymore. Excellent acting and the fine direction of Ted Clement bring this fun and twisted romp to life, and while it's still a bit clunky in parts, it's exciting, genuinely funny and awfully sexy.
The play begins with Jerry Middlemiss awaking to the sound of his alarm clock. He gets out of bed, and begins a monologue describing his character, the movie that his character resides in, and what his ultimate role will wind up being. He'll go to school all day, get invited to a party, receive a sexy note from a girl and have sex with her later that night. This is all very matter-of-fact and sets the tone for the rest of the play where the characters are fully aware that they're in a teen horror film. This setup also creates the opportunity for some of the funniest jokes in this production, which include remarking to the one black actor that it's admirable he's managed to outlive so many of the white people, or noting that despite the fact that they're all supposed to be teenagers, they seem to have pretty impressive vocabularies and are probably played by 28-year-olds.
The virgin in this case is Ali, played by Victoria Ezikovich. Playing on the notion that in horror movies, the virgin is always the killer's ultimate prize, Ali finds herself in the predicament that a crazy man broke into her house, and he neither killed nor raped her. Initially, she boasts about outwitting him, but we eventually realize that she's actually a little hurt that he didn't find her worthy of killing. It's a strange and twisted world these teens live in, but it still manages to make sense thanks to the confident self-awareness of the script. Ezikovich in particular deserves full accolades for her performance. She's on stage for nearly every scene, and yet doesn't let her energy drop for a second. She's also got that unique charisma that makes one never get tired of looking at her, and her character's spunky pluck makes her the perfect hero and girl to root for.
The rest of the cast play their parts perfectly. The two police detectives--Diaz and Marconi played by Marina Tejada and Adam Florio are hilarious in their ineptitude. The two actors manage the balance of good cop and bad cop perfectly and their lightning fast banter keeps the pacing perfect, while maintaining the humor and not burying any jokes. David Monteiro as Darius manages to be sweet and considerate in a world where his peers are getting murdered or threatened with murder every day, and he and Ali have a believable and enviable teen romance.
Since this is a new play, there are a couple issues with dialogue and the ending which culminates in a deus ex machina that seems a bit easy. Those things are forgivable though considering how much thought and deliberation seems to have gone into the sets and performances. None of the actors holds back for a second, which makes the surreality of the plot that much more delightful. The stage has a semi-transparent white curtain across the back, behind which extra cast and crew pace back and forth in black hooded robes with red masks--occasionally reaching out to touch the veil between the worlds and heighten the tension in situations that are already pretty fraught. The little details like that really make this production something to experience, rather than just something to watch.
by Christopher Verleger
Counter-Productions Theatre Company's "Frost/Nixon" is a compelling, fascinating portrayal of the 37th President who resigned from office in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. Peter Morgan's drama takes place three years later, when Nixon agrees to a series of exclusive interviews with British journalist, David Frost.
Michael Ducharme directs this extraordinary cast, with Christopher Shane Crider-Plonka and Geoff Leatham, respectively, in the titular roles. Leatham is flawless as Nixon, mastering the former President's voice, walk and towering presence, both literally and figuratively. Crider-Plonka is equally superb as the suave English gentleman who remains determined and unscathed despite the odds against him.
Frost was the Graham Norton of his day and better known as a television personality, so even he is surprised when Nixon agrees to meet with him to be interviewed. Once the cameras roll, things hardly go according to plan, however, as the two men engage in a psychological tug-of-war trying to control the direction and content of their conversation.
Nixon is actually quite charming and manages to shine a light on his accomplishments in office, whereas Frost is a political novice and lacks the disposition of a hard-nosed investigative reporter. Nevertheless, the Frost/Nixon interviews earned legendary status when a flustered Nixon ultimately relents and confesses to conduct unbecoming of the President.
The supporting players are as integral to the interplay as Frost and Nixon, particularly author and historian, Jim Reston (Derek Smith), and Nixon's Chief-of-Staff, Jack Brennan (Clarence Bernard Donath). Smith is fierce as the Nixon naysayer, channeling the magnetic narrative stage presence of Rod Serling, and Donath impressionably conveys angst and exasperation as Nixon's henchman.
An amusing, endearing Steven Zailskas shines as John Birt, Frost's flummoxed producer, Valerie Remillard Myette shows sophistication and substance as Frost's companion, Caroline Cushing, and Ted Clement portrays correspondent Bob Zelnick with energy and eloquence.
While Morgan's play certainly makes for an interesting lesson in history, journalism and politics, the stage drips with tension from start to finish. With only four folding chairs on stage, the superlative script coupled with outstanding performances from the entire cast makes for exemplary theater.
Counter-Productions' "Frost/Nixon" is not to be missed.
Frost/Nixon Is a Compelling Drama
by Joe Siegel
Frost/Nixon, which focuses on interviews British journalist David Frost conducted with President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is a fascinating look at a very flawed man. In 1974, Nixon resigned from office following the Watergate scandal. The break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices and his administration’s cover-up of the crime led to congressional hearings and the threat of impeachment. Despite being pardoned by President Gerald Ford for his involvement in Watergate, Nixon was still widely loathed by most of the American public.
When Frost approaches Nixon about a television interview, Nixon sees a chance at redemption, and Frost is excited by the opportunity to grill Nixon about Watergate in front of an audience of several million viewers. The core of the story is the face-off between these two very different men. Nixon is genial and skilled at depicting himself in a favorable light. Frost, diminutive and unfailingly polite, seems to be in way over his head when questioning Nixon. Frost’s producers grow impatient with his laid-back style and push him to get Nixon to confess to his crimes. They want Frost to force Nixon into offering an apology to the American people for betraying their trust. During a late night phone call, Nixon tells Frost he always wanted to be liked and rails against the people who want to tear him down.
As played by Geoff Leatham, Nixon comes across as likable and even sympathetic. Leatham bears a striking resemblance to the real man. He captures Nixon’s vocal inflections, his mannerisms, and projects a heartfelt vulnerability. It is an absolutely brilliant performance. Leatham’s co-star Christopher Shane Crider-Plonka also shines as Frost, who is put under enormous pressure to break Nixon.
Frost/Nixon shines a light on journalism, the quest for truth, and the complexity of human nature. Playwright Peter Morgan expertly shows how politicians can become entertainers when exposed to the television cameras and lights. At one point, Nixon tells Frost he needs to wipe the perspiration from his lip before giving an answer to a question. Nixon explains his visible sweat and five o’clock shadow were a detriment in his televised debate with John F. Kennedy, who defeated him in the 1960 election. He is determined not to make the same mistake twice.
Director Michael Ducharme staged the play in the round, which allows the audience to see these two larger-than-life figures up-close as they engage in a meeting of minds.
Richard Nixon accomplished some amazing things in his time as President, yet he will always be remembered for a very bad thing. He reached for greatness but was undone by his own demons. That’s the real tragedy.
Counter-Productions Stages Intense, Captivating RICHARD III
by Veronica Bruscini
This month is exceptionally busy on the Rhode Island theater scene. Multiple companies are closing out their regular seasons while others plan to kick off the first shows in their summer lineups. One performance that is absolutely not to be missed the midst of these comings and goings is Counter-Productions Theatre Company's excellent staging of William Shakespeare's Richard III.
Counter-Productions' Richard comes to life in AS220's Black Box Theatre, a cozy, intimate space utilized brilliantly by the company. Actors enter and exit from all sides of the room, even through the unassuming black curtains used to frame the space. This setup puts the audience in the very thick of the action, creating a fabulous "you-are-there" feeling - standing just behind a palace column or hanging tapestry - as Richard's carefully crafted schemes unfold, political alliances form and dissolve, and heartbreak after heartbreak visits the royal family.
Director Terry Shea keeps the narrative engaging with a smart, tight presentation. Props are few in the black box setting (though those employed are well-crafted, from the kingly gilded throne to the intricate royal crown and combatants' glittering swords) and costumes simple and spare, all of which focuses attention squarely on Counter-Productions' utterly superb company of actors.
Michael Puppi heads this outstanding cast in a brilliant performance as the titular Richard. His would-be king is as treacherous and bloodthirsty as ever, but Puppi brings a rascally charm to the role that makes Richard all-the-more dangerous for his flashes of quick, unexpected humor and his silver-tongued powers of persuasion. There is something of the serpent about Puppi's Richard as he revels in his prowess as a master manipulator and delights in the foibles of frail humanity. Though Richard's gleefully unrepentant murders are deplorable, there's no denying the charisma and appeal of Puppi's portrayal; as his friends and enemies soon learn, Richard's smiles and light jests prove even more dangerous than his rage.
Ted Clement appears only briefly as the ill-fated George, Duke of Clarence, but he makes a lasting impression in this production. He so completely inhabits his role that when recalling the horrors of Clarence's nightmarish vision of death and hell, the character's tearful reactions are truly chilling. Clement also brings warmth and earnestness to Clarence's speech to his assassins, and the genuineness of his terror and grief at Richard's betrayal adds to the authenticity of his death scene.
Jonathan Fisher likewise delivers a memorable performance in a short span on stage. His portrayal of the Earl of Richmond is absolutely ideal. Fisher embodies all the noble qualities that so sharply contrast Richard's blackened heart; he is confident without being cocky, cheerful without naïveté, a decisive leader who seeks wisdom from trusted advisors, and a royal leader humble before his subjects and his God. Fisher's compelling performance of Richmond's final speech is steeped in unaffected sincerity and authority.
C.L. Goff brings vengeful vitality to the role of the deposed Queen Margaret. Goff captures the eerie detachment of this royal prophetess, all but spitting her curses in the faces of those who have wronged her. The fiery confrontation between Margaret and Richard is a fabulous scene for Goff and Puppi, intense and rife with danger and malice. Valerie Remillard Myette as Queen Elizabeth and Becky Minard as the Duchess of York also deliver strong performances that depict the depth of the women's bitterness, grief, and anger while gradually tying together the bonds of a sisterhood founded on unimaginable loss.
Steven Zailskas and Kevin Broccoli play Richard's scene-stealing lackeys Sir Richard Ratcliff and Sir James Tyrrel. Zailskas and Broccoli display the hardness that makes them easily bidden to even the most deplorable of tasks, but they also add a wonderful, refreshing dose of humor to the blackest scenes. The preamble to Clarence's execution is especially memorable for the actors' winning gallows humor.
Dan Fisher's lighting design is employed to great effect, both to signal scene changes and for dramatic purposes, such as framing Richard and Richmond's swordplay on the battlefield. In addition, Adam O'Brien's high-resolution projections are used brilliantly in exposition (a red rose withers while the white rose blooms in vigor), to show flashes of Richard's true motives and innermost thoughts, and to provide the ever-growing number of ghostly accusers a platform to vent their complaints.
Theater Review: AS220’s Richard III
by Thom Bassett
It’s not often you get to heap praise on a play for what it doesn’t give the audience, but that’s exactly the case with Counter-Production Theatre Company’s Richard III, currently playing at AS220’s Black Box Theatre in Providence. The costuming is rudimentary, the lighting and sound design are basic, and the stage is essentially bare the entire performance. None of it matters, though, because what you have here, in place of larger, more showy productions, is a chance to directly experience what’s most important about any Shakespeare play: the language of the world’s greatest writer. And under Terry Shea’s direction, the performers together do a very commendable job of making the language come alive.
A Powerful Interpretation
That’s of course never an easy thing to do, but Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s best and most popular plays, presents some particularly strong challenges. For one thing, it’s unusually complicated. Much of the action depends on events that occur in Shakespeare’s earlier depiction of the Wars of the Roses—Henry VI, Pt. 3, a work not familiar to many theatregoers. For another, Richard’s machinations in pursuit of the crown proceed quickly along several lines; you know that Richard’s up to no good, but it can be hard to understand exactly what he’s doing and why. Finally, this is an exceptionally long play, and so it’s important to make judicious cuts that streamline the action while also holding the story together.
So Shea and Counter-Production’s Artistic Director Ted Clement deserve a lot of credit for their shaping of the text. Combined with the very small performance space and lack of staging (which I didn’t miss at all), it keeps the action clipping along. Even more important, they preserve the core moral logic of the play by keeping intact several key women’s roles. Many versions of Richard III cut out or drastically reduce the presence of Margaret of Anjou, the deposed and humiliated former Lancaster queen; the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother; or Elizabeth, the widow of Edward IV, Richard’s older brother. This is a serious mistake, in my view: It’s these women, especially Margaret, who call Richard what he is, while noblemen, politicians, and clergy either hitch themselves to his wagon or try to slink away in self-preservation.
I do wish, though, they’d kept the focus entirely on the play’s language and their actors. A small screen at the back of the stage occasionally shows images intended to correlate with the words and actions in front of it. Many of the images show real creativity, but they don’t really add anything necessary. Why show a dripping strawberry, for example, when Richard juicily eating them as he demands the murder of children is a much more grotesque symbol?
A Strong Ensemble
Of course, without quality acting even the best script is useless, and collectively the company makes the grade. We must begin with the title character, played by Michael Puppi. Unfortunately, not every aspect of his performance works for me. To not even hint bodily at Richard’s deformities, despite the play’s numerous references to his hunchback, twisted leg, and withered arm, seems like a curious omission. And while I guess it’s a defensible choice to play Richard as gay, despite the utter absence of anything in the text to support the interpretation, too often he comes across as more campily preening than menacing. That said, Puppi does a very fine job depicting Richard’s viciousness and torment during his long fall into perdition after taking the throne. Then he’s convincingly dangerous, damned, and defiant.
In addition, while it might be Richard’s play, this production includes a strong set of supporting performers. Ted Clement plays George, Richard’s doomed brother, and he’s a particularly strong example of why this spare, even plain, production works so well: He recounts his dream of damnation while barely moving, but his broken voice gives us everything we need to understand the writhings of his soul.
But it’s Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York who stand out most as supporting characters. C.L. Goff’s Margaret holds her hands piously in prayer but spits out hellish invective against all who she believes have wronged her. You can see why Richard tries to evade her when he can. Further, it’s hard to make lament work, particularly when in such an intimate setting the effects can be just noise in place of emotion, but as Elizabeth, Valerie Remillard Myette’s cries of despair are very affecting. Further, she’s marvelous when late in the play she turns Richard’s rhetoric against him. And Becky Minard gives us a Duchess of York broken by loss after loss but who can still summon the dignity and strength to condemn her murderous son.
Taken as a whole, this production doesn’t fully rise to the level of Trinity Rep or the Gamm (at least when those companies are at their best). But that observation is no criticism. The cast and crew of Counter-Productions nonetheless have created an admirable interpretation of a remarkable play that puts Shakespeare’s genius at the forefront. And for that they deserve our attention and applause.
Richard III: It’s Not Easy Being King
by Joe Siegel
Counter-Productions Theatre Company is presenting a haunting version of William Shakespeare’s Richard III at the AS220 Black Box Theatre in Providence. The show opened on May 8 and runs through May 17.
Michael Puppi is always mesmerizing to watch as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who embarks on a murderous quest for power. Wily and scheming, Richard outmaneuvers his rivals and gains the loyalty of a handful of trusted confidantes, including the Duke of Buckingham (Geoff Leatham), Sir William Catesby (R. Bobby), and Sir James Tyrrell (Kevin Broccoli). Spoiler alert! Richard does achieve his goal of becoming king. But it comes at a terrible price. The destruction he has wrought on other people’s lives becomes a dark shadow, always threatening to destroy him.
Director Terry Shea has drawn fine performances from the cast, which includes Ted Clement as the doomed George, Duke of Clarence, Paige Berry as Lady Anne, Valerie Remillard Myette as Queen Elizabeth, Adam Florio as King Edward IV, Becky Minard as Duchess of York, and Jonathan Fisher as Henry, Earl of Richmond. Shea also appears as Lord Hastings, who is one of Richard’s closest advisors.
What makes Shakespeare’s works so effective is their depiction of human frailties. Greed, pride and self-doubt all afflict Richard III and make him into a tortured protagonist.
Puppi reminded me a lot of Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” His wry vocal intonations are amusing as he plots to destroy those who stand in his way. Richard is an evil man, but he delights in his nastiness. He is also vulnerable and plagued by self-doubt as his minions gradually lose their faith in him.
Black and white videos of Richard and other characters are projected on a mirror in the background. The videos, along with the sound effects, create an unsettling atmosphere. And Shea’s staging of the violent climax is also effective and even terrifying.
This version of Richard III is a must-see for any Shakespeare afficionado.
Topdog/Underdog Shows Audiences Important Performances
by Terry Shea
“Pick a black card, pick a loser” – Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog
Topdog/Underdog has been described as a “postracial” play, but that moniker is purely academic. Suzan-Lori Parks’ story of two brothers who struggle against poverty, identity and each other necessarily uses race as a context, but not a crutch. Parks’ metaphors may be heavy-handed at times and the symbolism of Lincoln and Booth (“dad’s idea of a joke”) foreshadows the play’s conclusion from as far away as the parking lot, but none of that detracts from a story told well and a production mounted as successfully as Counter-Productions Theatre has managed in its second mainstage show of this season.
David Valentin’s Lincoln is the older sibling, unwillingly divorced and paying rent to his unemployed brother. A retired hustler, Lincoln now makes his money putting on whiteface and dressing up as his namesake at a sleazy arcade where tourists pay for the chance to shoot the former president dead again and again. Rudy Rudacious is Booth, who aspires to his brother’s former success at taking down marks and gets by via stealing what he needs to survive and hanging on to dreams of marriage to an unseen but aptly named Grace. The hustle is three card monte and Booth’s struggle to gain proficiency at the racket that nearly killed his older brother sets the stage for the struggle that ensues. Lincoln wants to remain straight, play by the rules and hold on to his job, even if that means humiliation and pay cuts. Booth insists that he be called “3-Card” going forward, and if his brother won’t join him, then he better step aside.
Stripped of any racial context, the play would still work well; one-room dramas live or die not only by the script but by the performances. Director Ted Clement has deftly staged a piece that could devolve into a lot of yelling and posturing, but instead revels in dynamics. Valentin’s grounded assurance is used as a counterpoint to Rudacious’ often carnal amplitude. Tensions simmer and reduce again and again and Clement’s staging wisely allows for just enough physicality to keep Topdog/Underdog from being simply just two-plus hours of verbal sparring. By the time we reach the inevitable conclusion, the audience has been put through the wringer only slightly less than Rudacious and Valentin, whose performances will be remembered as two of the more important ones of this season.
Clement’s set is wonderfully crafted, a one-room apartment with aging and unmatched furniture, some of it consisting of little more than junk. The personality of the room reflects a desire to recreate what little Booth can remember from their aborted childhood. Two milk crates and a slab of cardboard serve as dining room and bookshelf (“now we only need to get some books,” quips Lincoln, half-seriously), but Booth’s primary concern is having a spot for the photo album, the fragile repository of what limited memories they have of their parents before the boys were left to their own devices while barely out of adolescence. An unseen mirror downstage center allows for moments of revelation as each brother unselfconsciously delivers monologues of identity crisis. Sounds of arcades and childhood underscore memories and future wishes as we begin to realize that the hustle and the reality are harder to pick apart.
Topdog/Underdog is, in the end, a history play and the three revolving cards that Lincoln and Booth live by are tools of both the oppressor and the oppressed. For Booth, the black card is a loser while Lincoln, when he deals, chooses the opposite. It is a matter of perception, though, for the game is the same. No matter how hard you work to keep up, the game is fixed and you only win if the dealer allows it. The only way to win is not to play.
Atomic Bride of X Minus One Invades AS220
by Mary Deberry
The current show of Counter-Productions Theatre at AS220 is their delightful, every-other-year homage to classic stories of science fiction. This year, the show named Atomic Bride of X-1 is a collection of four one-act stories originally written as radio plays in the 1950s. Says Ted Clement, artistic director of the Counter-Productions Theater, “From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future, adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds.”
Do not scoff that these may be old-fashioned or dated stories. In fact, it is fascinating that in our contemporary storytelling (e.g., Interstellar), collectively we still pursue the same questions. Is there life on other worlds? Will the earth crumble and force us to move to distant outposts? What happens if Earth is invaded? These stories are cleverly transcribed for the stage. This time Clement serves as music coordinator and Host, with Christine Fox as producer. Clement’s additional notes to each story in between the plays is reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone.”
Along with Clement’s commentary, music from old sci-fi shows plays while clips of ancient space travel films display on the back wall when actors are not on stage. This time, there are four different directors, chosen by Clement, to direct each of the four stories. Rufus Qristofer Teixeira directs Junkyard, written by Clifford D. Simak. A great audience pleaser, this one-act opens the show with a “Star Trek” feel. The actors wear uniforms much akin to the “Star Trek” crew. They use phasers, communicators and even the whirling-sound gizmo used by the Doctor. It’s played with just enough camp to elicit laughs.
On a much creepier note is Perigi’s Wonderful Dolls, written by George Lefferts and directed by Erin Archer. Stuart Wilson gives an outstanding performance as the mysterious Perigi. No spoilers, but for goodness sake, if you ever inherit, find or are given a doll that shortly becomes weird or creepy, get rid of that thing! Costumes and vintage hairdos are wonderfully realized for this story.
Skulking Permit, written by Robert Sheckley, is directed with humor by Billy Flynn. This is a story with a unique twist on the “What if” premise of colonizing other planets or moons. It also demonstrates how communications can be warped over time and evolve into a completely different message. I particularly enjoyed Jeana Ariel Garcia as Tammy Fisher and Erin Archer as Edna Beer. No one is sure how things will work out. But the writing is very clever.
Laura Minadeo directs the chilling Zero Hour, written by Ray Bradbury. The story starts out innocently, with a normal family. Haley Pine plays the daughter, Mink. Pine has no problem holding her own with the adults on stage. She is playing a new game with her friend, Art (Alex Rotella). Parents often don’t understand the games their children create, but Mink’s mom becomes worried when she finds the game to be more and more puzzling after speaking to her sister in another city.
Overall, there is very fine acting and direction in this collection. I was a bit distracted by the slow set changes done in between scenes, which slowed down the pace at the top of the show. It was opening night — perhaps the stage hands will become more efficient as the run progresses.
Counter-Productions Brings The Green Fairy to the Stage
by Terry Shea
In 1914, absinthe was officially banned in France, ending an era (albeit a short one) and creating a legend surrounding the milky green liquid that supposedly fostered creativity, hallucinations and madness. The only true part of that legend, of course, was the fact that the spirit was erroneously made illegal in many countries for about 100 years, but absinthe was and is simply a licoricey alcoholic beverage that has since been reinstated (and subsequently ignored ). What helped made absinthe so popular in its heyday was the ritual and paraphernalia surrounding the highly potent beverage. While it is true that all sectors of society enjoyed sipping on a nice absinthe as the sun set over Paris, the drink became highly associated with artists and bohemians. Creative luminaries, including Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, extolled the virtues of the Green Fairy in overblown hyperbole that aided in the perception of absinthe as fuel for creative madness. Of course, if you drink enough of anything for an extended period, you’ll go off the deep end, but there is something to be said for the contemplative state of mind that results from carefully preparing the drink and then finally taking that first cold sip. A creative personality with an open mind can be inspired by almost anything, but being in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind can open the right person up to inspiration that can change the world.
This notion is explored in a lighthearted, but surprisingly weighty fashion by comedian Steve Martin in his Picasso at the Lapin Agile, currently presented by Counter-Productions Theatre at AS220’s 95 Empire black box. In a conceit that seems to come naturally to Martin, but might draw raised eyebrows for another writer, we are in the Lapin Agile (literally “nimble rabbit”) in 1904, presented with a ribald cast of characters that seamlessly include Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. The two provide much fodder for a spirited debate on the nature of Art and Science and the creative intersection between the two at the dawn of the 20th Century. Director Rufus Teixeira has assembled a facile and funny cast anchored around the Lapin Agile’s proprietor, Freddy (CP’s Artistic Director Ted Clement) and his girlfriend/hostess, Germaine (a simply wonderful Valerie Remillard Myette). Clement delivers a masterclass here of technical ability down to his perfect French accent and dignified simplicity. Clement also serves as Scenic Designer and we first meet him just prior to the start of the show, walking the space he created and prepping the bar for another day of service while appropriately Belle Époque ditties glide tunefully in the background. One by one we are introduced to a motley set of characters who are entreated by Freddy not to enter out of the order of the program in one of Martin’s many departures into self-awareness that occur right up until the final line of the play. We soon meet Geoff Leatham’s Gaston, an aging rake who cannot get his mind away from women, sex and scatological references. Leatham oozes a putrid charm and looks as if he smells like a creepy uncle’s cologne and mostly serves to act as a springboard for many of Martin’s potent one-liners. Stevie Smith’s over-the-top Charles Dabernow Schmendiman represents commercialism and a crass Americanism that attempts to infiltrate the wonderment expressed in the achievements that Picasso and Einstein embody (whether intentional or not, his character ends up chugging absinthe straight from the bottle, perverting the subtle designs of the spirit in effort for more, more, more). A more subtle subterfuge of creativity is Erin Archer’s brassy, ebullient Sagot, an art dealer who confesses to gouging the price of her clients’ work while evidently knowing little about their inherent value. Colleen Farrell gamely delivers two different women — the naïve, spirited Suzanne and the supposedly more worldly-wise Countess, but fails to match the same level of performance as some of her castmates. Audrey Crawley has a brief but fun turn as a female admirer who is really just another of Martin’s punch lines, but we should all be so lucky.It is, of course, Picasso and Einstein who consume everyone’s attention and the well-rehearsed and finely tuned pacing make up for what are fairly basic performances by Jeff Ararat and Steven Zailskas. They both look wonderful (as does everyone else, thanks to some wonderful design work by Laura Minadeo), particularly Zailskas, whose unruly hair springs into the familiar Einstein halo on demand. The two verbally spar throughout, each offering their unique viewpoints on the creative process and their place in the universe. Einstein sets the stage for the ultimate theme of the work, by becoming immediately enamored of a dashed off sketch of Picasso’s that Suzanne carries with her. He seems to be the only one to grasp the sketch’s full potential and he states, “I‘m lucky tonight; I was open to receive it. Another night and I might have dismissed it with a joke or a cruel remark.” Upon meeting Picasso, the opposites attract until finally forced into a duel which, in a Steve Martin meets Bugs Bunny moment, consists of both men using a “2,000 year old tool” to sketch an instant masterpiece in an attempt to prove which is more creative, Art or Science. They both win, of course, and then the play is wrapped up with a deus ex machina completely unexpected, yet not out of place in Martin’s strange little world. It’s a relatively short play, done without interruption, but we feel as if we’ve traversed eons (in a good way) to get to this point, right here and right now, even if now is 1904.
It all makes sense upon viewing, actually and Teixeira has massaged this script and this cast into something quite beautiful, quirky and comfortably familiar. We are dared to “dream the impossible and put it into practice.” Easier said than done. But, perhaps, when the light is right, and the absinthe is slowly prepared just so, we can all be open to the universe around us. As Martin writes, the difference between talent and genius is that they are spelled differently. Did absinthe make artists more creative or were creative people drawn to the beauty of absinthe? The answer is somewhere in the middle, in that “moment of convergence between the thing done and the doing of it.” The only real question is, are you open to receive it?
Counter-Productions Presents a Perfectly Delightful PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE
by Robert Barosi
Lately, it seems as if there's been something in the air in the Rhode Island theatre scene. Or maybe something in the drinking water. Something rather dark. There are a number of plays that have just ended, are running currently, or are about to open, which deal with very dark, disturbing or depressing themes and images. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. And no rhyme or reason for why it's so pervasive right now, it's mere coincidence. Still, there's a lot of dark out there right now and it's nice to mix things up with lighter fare, perhaps something along the lines of the wonderful, delightful production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, presented by Counter-Productions Theatre Company, which just closed at Ninety-Five Empire.
Written by Steve Martin, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is the perfect play for an intimate black box theatre such as the one found at 95 Empire Street. Set in a bar in Paris in 1904, the story imagines a chance meeting between a young Albert Einstein and a young Pablo Picasso. Just on the cusp of their great works of genius, the two men banter and philosophize, trading theories about art, science and creation. Over a few drinks, some storytelling, and a joke or two, they herald the beginning of the 20th century, raising their glass to the innovations and creative brilliance yet to come.
For this production, Director Rufus Qristofer Teixeira kept things appropriately light and breezy. There's a warm feel to the production, an approachability to the proceedings, making the bar feel like a place the audience wants to spend an hour or two. The pace is kept lively, with the play clocking in at around ninety minutes. Not always feeling completely natural, some of the blocking seemed contrived, with a little too much standing and sitting with little motivation other than "the director told me to."
Teixeira assembled a fine cast of actors for the production, all of whom take full advantage of their individual moments to shine. As Einstein, Steven Zailskas is perfectly quirky and eccentric, just the kind of slightly off-kilter young genius you might imagine Einstein really was. He handles the German accent just as well as he does the speeches about relativity and scientific theories. As the other half of this genius tag-team, Jaff Ararat is wonderful as Picasso. Ararat brings a palpable intensity and charisma to the role, creating a Picasso who is deeply brooding and insightful. He skillfully brings to life what one might believe to be Picasso's true enigmatic and passionate nature.
The radiant Valerie Remillard Myette is also wonderful as Germaine, a waitress and the girlfriend of the bar's owner. Myette delivers a performance that is self-assured, confident and energized. Her Germaine is the standout among the female cast, a perfect blend of strength and sarcasm. As her boyfriend, Freddy, Ted Clement is also fabulous. He is something akin to the play's center, the rock that holds it all together, and he handles that role very well. His Freddy is at times hilarious and always lovable.
Colleen Farrell does double duty as Suzanne, a young woman who is enamored with Picasso, and The Countess, a woman who is loved by Einstein. When she first appears, as Suzanne, Farrell seemed a bit shaky and nervous. After she settled into the performance, she was as delightful to behold as the rest of the ensemble, even if her accent was a little harder to understand at times. A charismatic actress, Farrell's moments with the equally charismatic Picasso were among the show's best. As Picasso's art dealer, Erin Archer had a smaller role but was no less charming. She had some great comic moments and achieved them perfectly. In a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" role, Audrey Lavin Crawley was also very funny.
There were a few other ensemble members, each of whom deserves a quick mention. Stevie Smith was hilarious as Schmendiman, a young man who has an invention of his own and seeks fame on the level of Picasso and Einstein. Equally entertaining was Geoff Leatham as Gaston, a man who must use the restroom almost as often as he talks about woman and sex, which is a lot. Finally, Stuart Wilson played a mysterious visitor who arrives towards the play's end. It would ruin the surprise to say more, but Wilson gives a very funny performance in a role that is rather odd.
The play does that, it gets a little odd, towards the end. Martin, it can only be assumed, intended it that way. It does feel a little like he ran out of cool things for Einstein and Picasso to talk about, so he injected this strange visitor into the mix to shake things up. Still, for most of the play, there are fascinating discussion which bring up many intriguing questions. Questions about art and science and how the two may actually be much more alike than they are different. And questions about what the past can teach about the future and what, exactly, the future holds for us all. While this particular show ended its run on April 19th, there's little doubt that the future for Counter-Productions Theatre Company will include many more excellent productions like this one.
Nico Rises Above
by Terry Shea
The 95 Empire space, now controlled by AS220, was the home for one of the most formidable productions in RI theater history, Perishable’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a punk rock opera “visiting” Providence and taking up a decadent residency in the black brick room that still has the promise of grimy theatrical possibility hanging in the air. Counter-Productions Theatre, helmed by Ted Clement and Christine Fox, have made a circuitous route from Watertown, Massachusetts, into Rhode Island (where their noteworthy Speed the Plow played at the new Artists’ Exchange space in Cranston) and have now taken up residence where Alex Platt and team brought Hedwig to life. Fitting then, that Nico Was a Fashion Model, CP’s current effort, dredges up some of those ghosts and, instead of disguising 95 Empire’s grunge, embraces and augments it with a play about punk, identity and belonging.
Drawing comparisons to Hedwig is not meant to make an easy comparison or to imply that Nico resides in those lofty heights, but the mood, the energy and the atmosphere are close enough to make you wish that Hedwig could come back for a double-header with a show that stands comfortably with two feet in that world. J. Julian Christopher’s original script uses the closing of CBGB’s in 2006 as a jumping off point for a story about two friends, both minorities and both punks (to varying degrees that are called into question as the storyline moves along) hoping to snag tickets to see Patti Smith close the legendary Bleecker Street venue.
As we meet Jesse (Ronald Lewis) and Luis (Michael Flowers, who also pulls double duty as Nico’s scenic and projection designer), they are playing a game of “punk alphabet” while hanging out at the dumpsters behind a Babies R Us and debating the merits of their newly purchased fake IDs. The IDs serve as a symbol of the desire to “pass.” Jesse is black, not the stereotypical punk fan, yet clearly more knowledgeable than Luis, who is a white-skinned Latino who knows what he likes, but clearly doesn’t have the depth of fandom that Jesse displays (playwright Christopher also clearly knows his stuff as he rightly has Jesse rattle off a litany of punks of color in order to shut down Luis’ simpleminded argument that punk is a white man’s game, as well as making Jesse curiously Straight Edge). As the conversation turns toward Nico and the Velvet Underground, we begin to explore the notion that sometimes icons, as well as simple everyday identities, are forged and manufactured, not born. Nico was a product, a fashion model that, like Greg Brady’s Johnny Bravo, happened to be in the right place at the right time and fit the suit. That fact makes her no less a punk goddess and, to these boys trying to frame themselves into a picture that they don’t quite fit, the question looms large: is authenticity born or can it be earned through paying dues and believing in both yourself and, more importantly, having people who believe in you? “We matter,” declares Jesse before bemoaning his own timelessness. “I should have been born in Berlin.”
Luis soon meets Christa, who works at the abovementioned retail store, a symbol of suburban white middle class wealth. She is young, pretty and blonde, immediately drawing Luis’ attention as a doppelganger of Nico. It also happens that Christa was born with a tarnished spoon in her mouth as her family has ties to the genuine punk community (“Joey Ramone changed my diapers”) and she has passes to the show that night. Luis compromises his identity in order to win her favor, pronouncing his name as “Louis.” Jesse is overjoyed at the news, but once he meets Christa, her disfavor of Jesse’s color is obvious and the conflict begins.
The show benefits from a great set that feels like somebody threw a bucket of sewer water on a prototype of an old scenic design from Runaways (or a particularly bad version of Rent). Projections give us the sights and sounds of CBGB’s heyday with judicious slices of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry in classic performances. The trio’s performances are mostly solid and Ron Lewis particularly stands out with a steely, edgy performance that complements the sense of comfortable displacement that his character feels. If there are any issues with Nico, they tend to be technical and/or script-related. Some of the elements seem a little forced, such as a monologue by Luis about broken glass that seems almost like it was forced into the script at a later rewrite to make sure there were enough metaphors included to elevate the literacy level. An anticlimactic scene where Luis has an asthma attack seems rushed and slightly ineffective, although this may have improved as the run continued. And, it seems that stage cigarettes are abound in several shows at present, drawing more attention to their magic-shop fakeness than their similarity to actual smoking and, at times, action slowed down while actors looked for proper places to “extinguish” the prop. This is the curse of an intimate space however, and even the clear knowledge that Paige Barry is wigged is not reason enough to want to see this entertaining and unique new script done in any other venue.
Minor distractions aside, Nico delivers in its main pursuit, which is to draw attention to issues of identity and belonging in a setting that can be quite close-minded in its pursuit of anarchy. When Christa, the ostensible antagonist of the piece, tells the boys, “Neither of you know who the hell you are,” we have to agree with her.
Nico was A Fashion Model presents the idea that we have opportunities in life to rise above our preconceptions. For both fans of music in general, punk in particular and all theatergoers, Nico presents an opportunity to revisit a legendary Providence performance space that, not unlike CBGB’s, has some pretty elegant ghosts in its walls. Catch it before it closes this weekend.
Trio of Young Actors Will Rock You in Counter-Productions' NICO WAS A FASHION MODEL
By Robert Barossi
What's in a name? A rose by any other name...well, you know the rest. A name can, in truth, mean everything or it can mean nothing at all. For some people, their name is everything, their entire identity. For something like a play, for example, a name or title can be a little perplexing. Counter-Productions Theatre Company's current play, Nico Was a Fashion Model sounds a bit like it might be a reality show. But to let the unusual name dissuade you from seeing it would be a mistake. This is a fine production of a thought-provoking play populated by three excellent young actors.
It's October of 2006 and the famous CBGB club in New York City is about to host its final concert before closing forever. Over in Levittown, on Long Island, two young punk-rock-loving teenagers are plotting and planning their way into the club to see the final performances. Jesse, who is African-American and Luis, who is Latino, have failed at getting fake IDs and prospects are looking dim. Suddenly, in walks Paige, a teenage platinum-blonde punk fan who works at Babies 'R Us next door and may offer the boys a way into the club. Things don't go as planned, though, when racial tensions and prejudices rear their ugly head and everyone is forced to face their moral and ethical demons.
Nico is written by J. Julian Christopher and his script has a lot in common with many other plays making the rounds these days, not the least of which is that it primarily deals with the issues of race. At least five plays dealing with race have appeared on area stages recently. Christopher does, though, offer something different by putting race into the context of adolescence. It's hard enough being a confused, conflicted, hormonal teenager, but add race and prejudice into the mix and things can get even more volatile.
There's a slight missed opportunity in the other context Christopher provides, that of the punk rock music scene. It would have been nice to see him really dig deep into how the punk scene and punk music affected these teenagers, including how that music scene impacted the racial tensions between them. Christopher flirts around this possibility but never really dives in with both feet. Lots of name dropping of punk artists and songs doesn't really get to the core of how punk and race did or did not intertwine.
Another place where the script doesn't fully succeed is giving us characters that are truly developed. They have lots and lots of personality for sure, but personality does not equal depth. It would be nice to really get to know them, their stories, backgrounds, families, etc, but that never really happens. In a number of ways, they remain "the African-American kid," "the Latino kid," and "the white girl." Christopher also doesn't really give them a chance to truly resolve their issues. He seems content with letting them just yell and scream and jump up and down a lot. On the other hand, one could argue that teenagers just deal with things that way. They yell and scream and lash out at each other, erupting in a volcano of emotion and confusion, get it out of their system and then go right back to their day-to-day lives.
Script weaknesses aside, Director Ted Clement has done a lot of things right with this production. First, of course, is the undeniably good casting. Clement has found three age-appropriate actors who bring an amazing amount of energy and commitment to their roles. Getting to watch actors on stage, giving it their all, leaving everything out there and not holding back is always a pleasure for an audience to watch. It's also clear that Clement is doing something right during rehearsals. He's gotten these three actors to develop fantastic chemistry with each other, a relationship of communication, trust and respect that comes across in their performances.
To put one actor above the other would be to do them a disservice since they are such a formidable team. Ronald Lewis as Jesse and Michael Flowers and Luis seem like they truly have been friends forever. And if they don't like punk music in real life, they certainly act as if they do in the most convincing way imaginable. Flowers gets a little more to do as Luis and has some intimate, personal moments that he handles very nicely. His scene with Paige Barry as Christa, when they discover a budding teenage romance, is perfectly sweet in the best sense.
Barry has a little more of a challenge on her hands as Christa, the girl who shakes things up from the moment she enters the alley where the boys are congregating. Paige, as she is written, is not a very well-developed character, little is ever really revealed about her, and her shocking actions are never given any real reason or motivation. The character could easily devolve into a stereotype, a hollow cliché, but Barry and her director are not satisfied with that easy way out. Instead, they create a fully realized, complicated and conflicted person. Maybe she's a racist or maybe she's acting out of some sort of rational fear or justification, an answer is never given, but Barry's performance gives the audience much to mull over.
Counter-Productions Excels When They Keep it Simple With SPEED-THE-PLOW
by Robert Barossi
Once upon a time, a director told a group of young students of the theater to, "keep it simple, stupid." I know it happened cause I was there. This idiea of simplicity is not new or confined to theatrical productions, of course. In many facets of our life, simplicity is the way to go. Sticking to theater, though, Counter-Productions Theatre Company's current production of Speed-The-Plow is another good example of why simple is better.
The play is written by David Mamet, a writer who also utilizes a kind of simplicity in his works. They are not simple-minded by any means, often digging deep into important themes, questions and universal human problems. But, his writing is sparse. It's direct and to the point. There isn't anything superfluous or unnecessary. It is razor-sharp and cuts fast and deep.
Mamet has also been a writer who explores his own genre, with plays or movies that deal with writers, playwrights and screenwriters like himself. State and Main and Wag the Dog are two of his most well-known works of this type. Another is Speed-The-Plow, a biting examination of the world of Hollywood studios and movie-making.
At the play's center is one particular maker of movies, Bobby Gould, who has recently been promoted to head of production for a major Hollywood studio. One day, in walks Charlie Fox, an old friend of Bobby's who is also tyring to work his way up the Hollywood ladder. Charlie has a script, with a big-name star already attached, that is sure to be a sure fire hit. Things get complicated when Bobby's new temporary secretary, Karen, enters the picture. The two men place a wager on how far Bobby can get with her romantically, but Karen has her own agenda and may be the real manipulator of the three.
Director Ted Clement keeps things, you guessed it, simple, allowing Mamet's words and his actors' talent to drive the show. Clement doesn't complicate matters with unnecessary staging or blocking. Everything feels natural and relaxed, even though the pace is kept at a rate that never slips into lethargy. At the same time, he shows a talent for creating a beautiful on-stage picture, often staging scenes for maximum tension or dramatic effect.
Clement has also assembled a fine trio of actors. As Bobby Gould, Patrick Cullen looks like he just walked in from an episode of Mad Men. He's perfectly slick but never seems like a shady character. At least not on the surface. There's definitely an occasional twinkle of something almost sinister in his eye but there are also moments of true human feeling, especially when those feelings are hurt in some way. Cullen pulls it all off and remains as smooth and cool as the chrome furniture in Bobby Gould's office.
As Charlie Fox, Charles Lafond doesn't fare as well but comes very close, showing signs of real talent, especially toward the play's end. The problem for Lafond is that he's seriously overacting the nervousness of his character during most of the play. Yes, the character is tense and nervous, but Lafond's shaking and twitching and foot thumping and everything else just come off as annoying and distracting. Especially so in a black box theater, where the audience is up close. In a big proscenium, you need to make sure the people in the cheap seats get that you're nervous, but in a black box, you don't have to do nearly as much to get the point across. Towards the end of the play, when Lafond stopped twitching everywhere, calmed down and just acted, he gave a great performance.
The trio is completed by Ashley Arnold as Karen, the secretary who seems at first to be naïve in the ways of Hollywood and big movie studios. Arnold's performance is nearly perfect, as she never gives away any of what's really going on behind Karen's eyes. The audience needs to believe Karen, believe that she's really this pure, innocent girl, so that the payoff at the end packs a powerful punch. Arnold provides just that believable performance, allowing us to wonder and really question whether Karen is a gentle lamb or a just a wolf in sheep's miniskirt.
Arnold's performance, like Cullen's, proves again that less is more and simple is better. They both keep things from getting muddled in extra, unnecessary actions, movements, etc, and just stick to the truth of their characters. One complaint about the production is that the set design could have followed the less is more example. In such a small, intimate space as the Theatre 82 blackbox, you just don't need so much set with so many pieces of furniture and décor to move around. The change in between scene one and two was unnecessarily long and really stopped the show's momentum.
Counter-Productions Theatre Company is relatively new to the area, having relcoated to Rhode Island from Boston in 2011. They seem to be fitting quite comfortably into Thaetre 82, the new space affiliated with the Artists' Exchange in Cranston. If Counter-Productions keeps offering these kinds of high quality plays, written by the best playwrights, utilizing highly talented actors and excellent directors, they will no doubt succeed. It's just that simple.
Speed-the-Plow at Theatre 82
by Christine Pavao
David Mamet’s satirical look at the business of art leaps off the page and into the capable hands of Counter-Productions Theatre Company. Ted Clement directs a production that is at once hilarious, familiar, brutal, and surprising.Speed-the-Plow is the story of Bob Gould, a Hollywood executive whose longtime subordinate and sometime friend, Charlie Fox, drops the chance to work with a big name on a predictably successful film project that fell into his lap. In the day before the meeting with his boss to pitch the film, Gould bets Fox that he can sleep with Karen, his beautiful temporary secretary, who he lures to his home under the pretense of discussing a courtesy read. Karen, however, turns out to be sharper and more motivated than either man had anticipated and throws a wrench into their usual modus operandi.From the soundtrack to the staging, Clement’s careful and deliberate choices come together to form a seamless composition. Upon entering the theatre, we are immersed in a 1980s executive office. Queen, Steve Perry and Phil Collins play softly in the background. Details like the landline phone, glass-top coffee table and the use of leather and metal in the furniture are dated without being showy, giving the effect of a film made in the 80s rather than a theme party. Regarding the sets, subtlety is the name of the game, even when the décor involves leopard skin. Our protagonist’s home is hung with zebra skins and leopard throws, evidence of his prowess as a hunter both on safari and in more mundane encounters.Patrick Cullen plays Bob Gould, the typical soulless Hollywood executive; he’s lost sight of the movies he produces, and his career consists of speculating on the next big deal. Cullen’s Gould is self-assured and lordly, having been in the business long enough to know his way around and be comfortable with his power. He wears his smugness like an aura, and it is easy to dislike him from the minute the lights go up on his office.He and Charles Lafond—in the role of Charlie Fox—play well off each other, exchanging corporate sentiments and insubstantial banter at an impressive speed. Lafond’s movements are manic and unceasing, which contrast with Cullen’s relaxed attitudes. We see in Lafond’s Fox someone with a surprising amount of hope for the cutthroat business he’s in, someone who has spent the past decade doing all right for himself but not spectacular, biding his time and paying his dues until he gets his big break.Fox and Gould are on different levels of the hierarchy, but clearly speak the same language. Just when it seems as though the entire show is going to pass in a whirlwind of clever yet soulless repartee, Ashley Arnold (Karen) enters the scene like a wedge: unobtrusive at first, but eventually causing undeniable change. Her tentative and apologetic introduction grows into guileless curiosity, which in turn becomes passion and self-assurance. It is a treat to watch her in scenes with Cullen, as their characters react to each other and subsequently evolve.This is a play that, despite its small scale, transports the viewer into a complete world. In the cozy blackbox and with only three actors, we may be sitting in on a meeting in Hollywood, too lowly to be acknowledged but absorbing everything. It is a play that asks why we do the work that we do, and posits that there are no happy endings—there are only choices we can live with and those we can’t.
Counter-Productions Theatre Gives God-Speed to the Plow
by Mary DeBerry
Speed-The-Plow, by playwright David Mamet, is a cross between the popular television show, “Mad Men” (about cut-throat ad salesmen) and Mamet’s earlier work, Glengarry Glen Ross (about cut-throat real estate men). In the new Theatre 82 in Cranston, Mamet’s classic tale of how Hollywood works is brought to life with great energy by the Counter-Productions Theatre (CPT) Company.
Set in the 1980s, Speed-The-Plow is a satiric skewering of the movie business, as well as a true cautionary tale for those who jump in to swim with the sharks. Be warned – there is plenty of salty language, especially between the two old studio pals, newly promoted Bobby Gould and his compatriot, the hyperactive Charlie Fox. But the dialogue is a realistic representation of two men boosting their own egos while fulfilling each other’s needs.
Ted Clement, artistic director of CPT, guides the hand-picked cast on a rollercoaster of emotion, yet he gives each actor the freedom to take individual parts to their greatest height. The play opens in the nicely appointed office of newly promoted production chief, Bobby Gould, played with a steely focus by Patrick Cullen. He and long-time co-worker Charlie Fox, played with constant nervousness by Charles Lafond, are celebrating a new opportunity brought to them by a popular celebrity.
“We’re both whores,” admits Gould (Cullen), as head of production. “Yeah, we’re whores,” agrees Fox (Lafond), who has been promised a co-producer credit. But such is the way of the business world. “I’m not an artist,” confesses Gould. This is where young actors and others should pay special attention. “My job is to make the studio money,” Gould concludes. No wonder the independent film world has expanded so rapidly in the past 20 years. And so their plan is set until in walks the beautiful temporary secretary, Karen. Naïve as a newborn babe, Karen (played convincingly by the lovely Ashley Arnold), asks Gould and Fox to explain the way of picture-making to her when she picks up and reads a script tagged as unmarketable.
While the play proceeds rather as expected, the performances are genuine. The second act is an amazing zinger with Fox taking control, bringing the action to a climax. The first act drags just a tad at the top. Perhaps it is the nicely dressed, detailed prop set. I was waiting for Fox (Lafond) to impale his forearm on a combination award/pen set on Gould’s desk during his constant gesturing.
Although it is nice to see real furniture on a black box stage, it takes an eternity to reset during a blackout so that lights can come up on the interior of Gould’s home. However, the costuming is spot-on, and Clement adds a perfect soundtrack of signature 80s hits that might have you singing under your breath.
Counter-Productions Theatre Goes Boldly
by Mary DeBerry
“Return to Planet X Minus One” is a show for everyone. You can even bring the kids. This series of 1950’s radio plays, adapted for the stage, is currently running at the Artists’ Exchange at 54 Rolfe Street in Cranston, RI through October 21.Counter-Productions Theatre Company has presented three other similar shows of “Return to Planet X Minus One” to audiences. Two of their shows were done in Boston, where the troupe was originally founded in 2007. “We really enjoy doing these”, announces Ted Clement at the top of the show.Ted Clement and Christine Fox are the principals of Counter-Productions Theatre, and both teach at Rhode Island’s CCRI. “We try to bring college students into our productions, so they can learn by way of the real theatre world”, says Fox.The Black Box at the Artists’ Exchange seems just the right venue for this company’s productions. A few key set pieces, well-designed and brightly lit, are enough to engage the audience in the intimate theater.The poster in the front window of the theater, painted by Gary Deslauries, is creatively artistic, and evokes a sense of camp. The first piece of the evening, “No Contact”, lends itself perfectly to a campy vibe, but it is not the only genre of the evening.I enjoyed “No Contact”, originally written by Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts, which is typical of a space opera, a genre that has been readily embraced by audiences for generations. Adapted and driected by Rufus Qristofer Teixeira, the adaptation was fun with many “winks” to the audience. However, I would have preferred to see even more “campiness”.The audience understands the “winks”, and while you’re making fun of something, why not take it to the limit? Edward Warren as Captain Thorson is a strong leader, but could add to the fun by perhaps imitating the…halting…speech…of another….space…Captain. Doctor Smithson, played by Ted Clement has a great line, “I’m a doctor not a physicist”, which sends the audience into roars of laughter. The multi-talented Meg Taylor-Roth is wonderful as Commander Pauleson, but again, could add to the fun by being even more stiff and monotone. Laura Minadeo as Lieutenant Collier is spot-on as the plucky new spaceship flyer who hides a terrible secret.This collection of adapted radio plays packs a great punch since the giants of the science fiction genre are part of the picture. “To The Future” with Meg Taylor-Roth and Billy Flynn as the time travelers attemtping to escape their fate has the crisp, efficient, yet impactful dialogue of a practiced hand, Ray Bradbury. It doesn’t get better than this, folks. This piece was adapted and directed by Ian Conway.“To The Future” is a brief drama that makes us examine the complicated pros and cons of society’s advances. Timesless discussion points brought home by the apparent villian Simms (Rufus Qristofer Teixeira) and an obnoxious Hollywood character, Milton (Ted Clement).“Lulu”, written by Cliffoerd D. Simak and adapted and directed by Billy Flynn explores the ever-present question, “what do women want”. Even if the woman is embodied by a machine. In Simak’s story, women are all the same, so to speak, and they are always young, alluringly dressed, and beautiful.The last piece of the evening, “Universe”, was written by Robert A. Heinlein. Yes, the one who added “grok” to our literature lexicon and wrote passionately about individual freedoms. This piece, “Universe”, adapted and directed by Ted Clement explores even greater universal themes of our existence. Yet it is suspenseful and exciting and relavent now - more than fifty years later. Elizabeth A. Lebrecque plays young scientist Ellen Mahoney with intensity and conviction. We are able to identify with her confusion and sense of betrayal when she witnesses the truth about her existence.So jump on your land-speeder, or open hailing frequencies on your phone and call the Artists’ Exchange for tickets. Reservations highly recommended for this intimate theater space.
'Art' Comes to Boston
By Sheila Barth
Talented Saori Kaneko, who graduated from Salem State College (SSC) but lives in Tokyo,Japan, has traveled to Boston to direct three of her alumni cohorts and Counter Productions founding members in Yasmina Reza’s 1-1/2 hour, two-act, fast-paced, bittersweet comedy, “ART”.Besides raising the question of difference in individuals’ artistic values, “ART” tests the value of true friendship, its solidity, and how far friends will or won’t go to sustain their relationship. When “ART,” the story about three upper class Parisian suburbanite friends, premiered in Paris in 1994, it earned three Moliere awards for best author, best production, and best play. It was also touted the best comedy in London and best foreign play in Germany; and its momentum continues.Locally, the South End Piano Factory --- an intimate, hidden theater tucked away in the back of the huge, Tremont Street complex --- provides an ideal setting for the play.Kaneko ensures Jess Schneider’s carefully planned, sparse set doesn’t detract from the characters. In the background hangs a 5-by-4-foot painting that’s a blank, white canvas. On the stage floor are three carefully-spaced, metaphorically symbolic triangles that serve as seats - like an unconnected seesaw with a centered fulcrum. There’s also a few bookcases and a stacked bar as background props, but that’s it. To indicate a shift in location, the white canvas rises and descends, replaced with changing paintings indicative of the three men’s individual tastes in art. Ian Conway’s low-key lighting design and original musical compositions intensify the drama and levity between scenes.Serge, a divorced dermatologist, fancies himself as an abstract art connoisseur. He bought the white painting for 200,000 francs, which, he tells Marc, his best friend for 15 years, he can re-sell for 220,000 francs if he wants to - but he doesn’t want to.Marc, an aeronautical engineer, a pragmatic, self-proclaimed maverick who plays by his own rules, denigrates the painting. He calls Serge pompous and a social climber. Marc is upset, disgusted with Serge, who, in turn, says Marc is bitter, sardonic.Their awkward friend Yvan, who has switched careers from textiles to stationery and is getting married in a few weeks, finds himself uncomfortably in the middle of his two best friends. Between his pre-marriage plans and his friends‘ potentially disastrous disagreement, Yvan tries to assuage both through neutrality, but raises their ire. Instead of appreciating Yvan’s peace-making efforts, they call him an amoeba, who lacks substance.Ted Clement as Marc, Dave Perkinson as Serge, and Dan Grund as Yvan deliver powerful performances, playing off each other and during streams of consciousness. As tensions mount between Serge and Marc, Yvan provides comic relief, garnering hearty applause. A thought-provoking epilogue provides the finishing touches to the friends’ characters and the plot.
REVIEW: Psycho Beach Party
By Kilian Melloy
Counter-Productions Theatre Company has produced some terrific stuff on the proverbial shoestring: “X Minus One,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and now Charles Busch’s sea-side romp Psycho Beach Party.Chicklet (Hannah Cranton) is determined not to let chauvinism stand in her way: she means to learn how to surf with the best of the boys, so she approaches the best to ask him to become her instructor.His name is Kanaka (Ian Conway) and he’s far from interested in teaching tiny little Chicklet any such thing… until a sudden change in her demeanor brings forth Chicklet’s hidden dominatrix side, another personality that calls herself Anne Bowman. Anne gets what she wants–and Kanaka gets hot and bothered, a little bi black and blue, into the bargain.Kanaka’s beach posse includes a pre-med dropout named Star Cat (Kevin Letourneau, doing a passable Frankie Avalon), and Provoloney (Gregory Glenn) and Yo-Yo (Brian McCarthy), a couple of guys whose homoerotic chemistry is ready to hit the boiling point under the summer sun. The boys are planning a big luau, despite a rash of mysterious attacks that have taken place on the beach.Meantime, Star Cat is torn between his lust for the trampacious Marvel Ann (Kristina Spinney); Chicklet’s various multiple personalities lay their plans for summer fun, seduction, and world domination; and Chicklet’s mother (Alison Meirowitz) proves to be one wire hangar short of a full-blown Mommie Dearest.The sudden appearance of a runaway movie star, Bettina Barnes (Priscilla Swain), who takes Chicklet’s best friend Berdine (Christina Kingsbury) on as a personal secretary only adds spice to the young scenesters’ plots and plans.Director Meghan Hamilton guides her cast through cartoonishly semaphorical poses that add luster to their already brightly hued performances. Ryan Kasle’s lighting design accentuates Hamilton’s approach, and provides visual cues for Chicklet’s various personae, adding oomph and helping the audience keep track. And Amy McHugh’s cutout waves and sand-evoking floor, together with kitschy beach touches, makes the set design a tongue in cheek delight.Busch’s script is silly, a takeoff on an already-silly genre: the talents at the Counter-Productions Theatre ensure that the play is not only silly fun, but that it’s silly and fun in fine style.
REVIEW: X MINUS ONE
By Kilian Melloy
X-1–pronounced “X Minus One”–is good old-fashioned fun, and by old-fashioned I mean pre-TV, pre-CGI movie spectacle, pre-iPod… pre-just-about-everything, except, of course, for theater.Which makes the stage the perfect place for a new rendering of three episodes of the 1950s NBC-radio program by the same name, which, in its turn, has its roots in an earlier anthology series of radio plays called Dimension X.In the tradition of other anthology dramas of the period like TV’s The Twilight Zone, X-1 featured fantastical stories each week, including a mix of adaptations of short stories and scripts originally written for the show. (Unlike The Twilight Zone, X-1 never made it to the new medium of television.)In the Counter-Productions Theatre Company’s stage production of three episodes of the X-1 radio series, director Brian McCarthy has near-carte blanche when it comes to the matter of visual storytelling, and he uses the shoestring resources of independent theater to convey not only the “awe and mystery” of Outer Limits-like fables, but also the cheesy fun of such creakily vintage fare.My husband couldn’t resist telling people at the theater that I am a Twilight Zone enthusiast and that I had been looking forward to this play with glee. Guilty as charged: and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. The three episodes adapted for the stage by McCarthy were a worthy mix of comedy and drama, tinfoil and galaxy-spanning vision, pulpy sci-fi tropes and high-minded, if far-out, speculation.The first episode, The Parade, is based on a story by George Lefferts, and concerns a Martian who approaches a New York City publicist with a briefcase full of cash and a big advertising campaign: “We are selling a concept,” the Martian, a big-haired, sunglasses-sporting fellow named Looshaw (Gregory Glenn) tells ad-man Syd Ryan (Ted Clement). “The concept of invasion–from Mars.” But is it all a matter of shock and awe in the name of subduing the Earthlings… or a studio’s clever ploy to attract attention to a War of the Worlds-style epic?Sci-fi great Murray Leinster provided the story for the second episode presented here, A Logic Named Joe. This is a brisk and breezy comedy in which the year is 1974, and futuristic contraptions called Logics make everyday tasks like commuication and research a snap. Indeed, Logics do everything that computers and the Internet do… including, unfortunately, providing bratty teens like Freddy (Glenn) with step-by-step instructions on how to make your own ray gun, giving your home address to psycho former flames, and helpfully offering up recipes for untraceable poisons.Unlike the Internet, however, Logics are not supposed to do any of this: they are meant to operate within benign parameters. But a Logic named… that’s right, J.O.E… has developed a glitch and spread chaos to the whole system. If heroic repairman Frank Caldwell (Ian Conway) can’t fix the system and save the day, his wife Gertrude (Meghan Hamilton) will leave him, his murderous ex-girlfriend Lorriene (Alison Meirowitz) will make hamburger of him, and a chrome-plated cop (Rob Gustison) will hunt him down.Episode Three, Hallucination Orbit, tackles one of the great motifs of science fiction: discerning reality from illusion. If everything you think you know is the product of the brain’s interpretation of the senses, then how can you ever be sure that what you think you see, hear, and touch is really there at all? What if it’s all some sort of dream, brought on–in the case of Collin Orde (Devon Scalisi)–by years of solitary duty on a far-flung outpost located on an uninhabited planet?Star Trek had its big-lobed Talosians with throbbing veins and telepathically projected illusions used for control; The Matrix played with the idea that life is but an electronically generated dream; even The X Files dipped a toe into the well with a story about killer hallucinogenic mushrooms. But this story pre-dated them all, and in this case it’s a matter of a man’s own mind working against itself: a terrifying proposition, because the brain is the ultimate black box, and a plot exploring its ability to fool itself (or reason its way out of its own trap) is the ultimate puzzle-box story.John-Eric Strom’s props are bargain-basement and note-perfect; Ted Clement’s sound design is half the fun, with its screaming crowds and intermission music mix (everything from David Bowie’s Starman to the theme from Back to the Future); and Meghan Hamilton has too much fun entirely with the purposefully unconvincing costumes.“A million could-be years on a thousand maybe worlds,” the title narration to each episode promises, and with these three selections, McCarthy and his gallant crew (and cast) engage the imagination while tickling the funny bone in a pleasantly nostalgic way. Campy and classic!
X MINUS ONE A SCI-FI HIT
By Sheila Barth
East Boston Times
Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem, especially in stage adaptations of an old 1950s science-fiction radio series. Daring young theater company, Counter-Productions, has left its earthly boundaries and entered the world of the unknown, the surreal, the ironic, taking us with them on an exciting, two-hour, three 30-minute episodes futuristic ride.The group selected George Lefferts’ “The Parade,” an ironic play about a Martian invasion in New York City that’s on the same plane as mass hysterics-evoking Orson Welles’ terrifying program “War of the Worlds” in 1938; Murray Leinster’s wild and wacky “A Logic Named Joe,” and JT MacIntosh’s “Hallucination Orbit,” that are both in the same genre of Rod Serling’s 1959-1964 successful, creepy TV series, “The Twilight Zone”. Each episode is separated by two 10-minute intermissions.Counter-Productions Theatre, a multi-talented group many of whom were spawned at Salem State College’s acclaimed drama department, raised eyebrows and critical attention last June with its production “Glengarry Glen Ross”. The group is doing all that and more in this latest production that ends Sunday.Besides being a talented group of actors, they work magic, converting a small space at black box Piano Factory Theatre into a 1950s office in Manhattan, a futuristic company office (in 1974) and a one-man outpost on Pluto.Time flies swiftly in all three episodes beamed as radio programs, deft-ly directed by Newburyport resident Brian McCarthy. The group makes great use of an upper tier and simple props, relying on the actors’ abilities and impressive eye-popping special effects provided by lighting designer Jess Schneider and realistic sound effects – piped-in radio broadcasts, stir-ring dramatic music, lift-offs and blast-offs, crowd, bleeping outer space and robotic sounds -designed by actor Ted Clement.In “The Parade,” Clement is razzle-dazzle, fast-talking promoter Syd Ryan, who thinks he organized a huge special, surprise promotion with a parade down Fifth Avenue, using 150 movie extras and related events, for a 20th Century sci-fi movie about an invasion of the Martians. Ryan is overwhelmed when the surprise is on him – and the world. The supporting cast is equally effective, save actor Anthony Dangerfield, who as radio announcer Ken Daily, speaks too softly and too quickly to be discernible at times.Episode Two, “A Logic Named Joe,” features Clement as Mr. DeMarco, a futuristic, simpleton dad with a wild son named Freddy (well played by Gregory Glenn), who comes to a Logics store to buy a machine that does everything, other than breathe for its patrons, but includes built-in safeguards. The machines suddenly reprogrammed themselves, creating terrifying havoc. Ian Conway as concerned Logics employer Frank Caldwell does a great job here, as does Nathan Seavey as Frank’s complacent coworker, Mike, and Rob Gustison as a bullying police sergeant. Devon Scalisi as Archibald the drunk is a riot.Scalisi does a full turn in the starring role of astronaut Collin Orde in Episode Three, “Hallucination Orbit,” who has been alone for 6-1/2 years at Pluto Station outpost 3, unaware he is about to be rescued, deprogrammed, and returned to the US. He struggles with distinguishing hallucinations from reality, seeing girlfriends, visiting airships, fighting off the dreaded “solitosis,” (losing his mind from his long-term solitude). The rest of the troupe – Jennifer Lindquist, Alison Meirowitz, Meghan Hamilton, Joye Thaller – are also colorful.