Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘jacqueline thompson’

District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

Read Full Post »

Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 9, 2017

Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is back again, producing their remarkably ambitious, dynamic brand of theatre and this time succeeding in transforming a theatrical classic into something that’s at once faithful to the source material and dynamically immediate for today’s audiences. Of Mice and Men, as presented at the Chapel, features a remarkable cast and truly innovative direction, making for a must-see theatrical production.

As far as I can tell, not a word of the actual script has been changed. What has changed, instead, is the subtext, and deliberate casting and directorial choices that make this old story into something new. It’s still the story of migrant farm workers in 1935 California, centering on the small-statured, world-weary George (Adam Flores) and his friend, the larger, much stronger but developmentally challenged and somewhat childlike Lennie (Carl Overly, Jr.). The story follows them as they have left a recent job and are about to start a new one. George is protective of Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength and isn’t aware of the consequences of his actions or of the way he is perceived by others. The new job is on a ranch owned by The Boss (Jack Corey), whose son, Curley (Michael Cassidy Flynn), is highly insecure and suspicious, with a grudge against anyone bigger than him and mistrustful of his new wife (Courtney Bailey Parker). The work crew consists of a disparate group including Candy (Natasha Toro), who is drawn to Lennie and George and wants to help them achieve their dream of getting a place of their own, joining them in living “on the fat of the land”. There’s also the somewhat impulsive Carlson (Shane Signorino), the gossipy Whit (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), the more easygoing Slim (Joe Hanrahan), and stablehand Crooks (Omega Jones), who doesn’t get to share the bunkhouse and is treated with more suspicion than the other workers because he is black. The story plays out as written, as trouble continues to find Lennie and George, and tragedy follows. What’s different about this production, though, is the relationship dynamics brought about by the insightful direction and deliberately non-traditional casting, which works to emphasize the element of secrecy that’s already inherent in the plot.

The casting really does change things up, forcing the viewer to see this well-known story through a new lens. It still works for the time and place, as well. Here, the traditionally white roles of Lennie and George are played by Flores, who is Latino, and Overly, who is black but of lighter complexion than Jones, who plays Crooks and whose character is clearly treated as inferior by his co-workers. Here, a key scene between Lennie and Crooks gains new power as Crooks points out the difference in their situations, also making it clear that Lennie is unaware of the reason for this difference, although Crooks is very aware. There’s also the casting of a Latina woman, Toro, playing the traditionally white male role of Candy, although the clear suggestion, made even more obvious by a scene with Curley’s wife, is that this Candy is a woman living as a man, although few people seem to realize that fact. The relationship dynamics bring a lot to the story, making the sense of alienation and looking for a place to belong even more of a prominent theme than it was already in this story.

The casting is first-rate, with strong, memorable portrayals by all of the players. Overly, as Lennie, gives a truly remarkable performance especially, portraying Lennie’s childlike enthusiasm and a sense of longing that underscores all of his actions, and his affection and rapport with Flores as George is apparent. Flores is also strong in a poignant performance as the determined, weary and protective George. There’s also excellent work from Toro as Candy, Jones as Crooks, who also has a poignant musical moment singing “The House of the Rising Sun” at the beginning of Act 2, accompanied by the production’s musical director, Chris Ware, who is a presence throughout the production, sitting just offstage playing his guitar, supplying the music that underscores this production. There are also strong performances from Flynn as the belligerent Curley, and by Parker as his lonely wife. Corey, Signorino, and Lawson-Maeske lend excellent support, as well. It’s a fully inhabited, real, human world on stage at the Chapel, and the excellent chemistry of the cast adds much to the drama and immediacy of this production.

Also adding to the production is the strong sense of time and place conveyed in the technical elements here. Bess Moynihan’s versatile set and evocative lighting suggests an authentic setting as well as the transience of the characters. Liz Henning’s excellent costumes, Rachel Tibbetts’s props, and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contribute well to the overall mood of the production, as does Chris Ware’s aforementioned striking music and Lawson-Maeske’s fight choreography.

This is the story you may know, but it’s also not. It’s old and it’s new, and it’s profoundly affecting. Of Mice and Men at SATE is another superb, intelligent and challenging production from this continually impressive theatre company.

of Mice and Men-267

Natasha Toro, Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores, Courtney Bailey Parker, Omega Jones Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

 

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Of Mice and Men at the Chapel until November 18, 2017.

 

 

Read Full Post »