Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller (28 Sept.–26 Nov.)
Skeleton Crew Dominique Morisseau (28 Sept.–26 Nov.)
Into the Breeches! George Brant (25 Jan.–25 Feb.)
Othello William Shakespeare (15 Feb.–18 Mar.)
Native Gardens Karen Zacarias (5 Apr–6 May)
Ragtime Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), based on the novel Ragtimeby E.L. Doctorow (26 Apr.–27 May)
Trinity Repertory Company builds seasons that resonate with the concerns of our times. From last season’s classic drama Fuente Ovejuna, to this season’s lineup exploring The American Dream, productions at Trinity are remarkably relevant. To quote Trinity’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, “… there are resonances between theatrical works of different eras. …I find myself reading a contemporary layer of text into the original, even if it was written a hundred years ago.” The company successfully avoids being didactic. As a result they allow their audience to “read” the contemporary layer of text themselves, which makes for a powerful theatre-going experience.
Trinity’s admirable dedication to their community is evidenced by their philanthropic work (collecting over $60,000 for the Rhode Island Food Bank), and community service (holding a voter registration drive in their lobby). This season the company aimed to “reinvent the public square,” according to Executive Director Tom Parish, who stated that part of fulfilling this mission included staging several shows in the round. The objective seemed to be to engage the audience in a dialogue beyond the confines of the performance. While this is an admirable goal, Trinity’s lobby areas are not designed to facilitate audience interaction. Unfortunately, Trinity’s theatre spaces also present challenges, and their penchant for using stairways and aisles as staging areas kept sections of the audience from seeing key action, or forced them to turn around to see performances behind them (characters delivered dialogue from the aisles behind some audience members in Salesman and in Othello a fight was staged on a walkway behind a large bank of seating). No doubt Trinity will continue to make positive contributions to their community; one hopes they will achieve their aspirations to foster connections among their audience.
Overall, it was a very strong, balanced 54th season that included a mixture of genres and historical periods. Each play explored an aspect of the American experience – even Othello with modern military uniforms designed by Andrew Jean, reflected a vision of American troops stationed in the Middle East.
Rotating repertory productions of Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew opened the season, examining “The American Dream – then and now.” In Salesman, Stephen Berenson gave a stylized, powerful performance as Willy Loman and Matt Lytle delivered a standout performance as Biff. There was unfortunately a striking contrast between the stylized Willie and a modernistic performance of Linda played by Phyllis Kay. Linda’s eye-rolling responses to Willie’s deteriorating mental capacity came as a shock on more than one occasion, and it was hard to know whether this was an intentional choice by director Brian McEleney. Linda’s final speech as performed by Kate Reid in the filmed version of the play still lingers, and regrettably this production failed to bring that moment the emotional tenor it demands. John Ambrosone offered some interesting, Brechtian lighting design, including many on-stage instruments and a light used as the steering wheel that hauntingly illuminated Willie for his fateful last drive.
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew brought the topic of displaced American workers into the 21st Century with her powerful look at Detroit factory workers set in 2008. Lizan Mitchell delivered a commanding performance as Faye, the central character who has fallen on hard times just as she finds herself caught in the midst of a national economic crisis.
This was a good production of Othello with fine performances, particularly Stephen Thorne as an irascible Iago and Jude Sandy as a charismatic Othello. Director Whitney White brought clarity to Iago’s motivation for the vendetta at the top of the play through smart staging choices. The minimal scenic design by Daniel Soule was effective, though the sand falling from the ceiling seemed an unnecessary hardship for the actors.
Parallels to today’s racial tensions were brought to mind with the beautiful rendition of Ragtime that rounded out the season. The company filled the packed house with their gorgeous voices and moving performances in this ensemble production directed skillfully by Curt Columbus. Dan Scully’s impeccable lighting design and Eugene Lee’s simple set design served the sprawling production well. Kara Harmon’s costume design didn’t shift into period clothing until the second act, the conceit being that we were in a modern rehearsal room, but by then the audience had already bought into the modern costumes and the shift was unnecessary.
The standout shows this season were the two most recent plays, both comedies: George Brant’s remarkable new play Into the Breeches! commissioned for the company, and Karen Zacarias’ topical and very funny Native Gardens. And while Breeches! was billed as a comedy, it moved audiences to tears at times, as well as having them crying with laughter.
Zacarias’s Native Gardens parallels a cast of suburban neighbors with the situation on the Mexican/American border with wit and intelligence (before Trump’s most recent, abhorrent separation of families). The production was skillfully directed by Christie Vela, with an attractive set designed by Dahlia Al-Habieli. Lively, entertaining performances were given by the strong cast: Maria Gabriela Rosado González, Daniel Duque-Estrada, Anne Scurria and Timothy Crowe.
George Brant’s extremely clever Into the Breeches! was a triumph. The performances were uniformly wonderful, with central roles played delightfully by Anne Scurria, Phyllis Kay, Janice Duclos and Rachel Warren. The play takes place in 1942, when the men folk are away at war. The central character, Maggie (played by Scurria), wife to a small town theatre director, convinces the Oberon Play House’s board of directors to allow her to stage Shakespeare’s Henriad with a cast of women. To quote her argument, she says, the experience of watching a play “…leaves a glow that lasts for days, weeks, sometimes even a lifetime.” She dubs this phenomenon “The Linger Effect” and argues that great theatre lives on in its audience.
Isn’t that why theatre-lovers keep returning to the theatre – with the hope that we will have a profound experience that will stay with us for a lifetime? Trinity’s very enjoyable 2017-2018 season will certainly linger for a long time to come.
Central Connecticut State University
Ragtime. Photo by Mark Turek.
Beowulf A Thousand Years of Baggage Jason Craig (book and lyrics), Dave Malloy (music) (8 Sept.–9 Oct.)
Appropriate Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (6 Oct.–6 Nov.)
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens, adapted by Adrian Hall & Richard Cumming, Richard Cumming (music) (5 Nov.–31 Dec.)
The Mountaintop Katori Hall (12 Jan.–12 Feb.)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream William Shakespeare (9 Feb.–24 Mar.)
Faithful Cheaters Deborah Salem Smith (20 Apr.–21 May)
Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna Lope de Vega (11 May–11 June)
Trinity Repertory Company billed the 2016-2017 season thematically as Ghosts from the Past, Dreams of the Future. While there was not much in the way of dreams of the future, the productions were firmly focused on ghosts of the past. The company successfully brought each of these works into the present, highlighting the important resonance that several of the plays have with our current political state of affairs. The work this season was definitely in keeping with Trinity’s mission: “to reinvent the public square with dramatic art that stimulates, educates and engages our community in a continuing dialogue.”
Trinity Rep’s audiences were remarkable in terms of their enthusiasm, and the company clearly knows how to engage and excite them. At the interval for several of the productions, the audience was informed of a celebratory adult beverage thematically connected to the show. They had a blood-red punch in honor of Beowulf, and another festive offering during the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was a big hit as most audience members enthusiastically enjoyed the beverages, as well as the intermission activity during Beowulf, when they were invited to write messages with chalk on the set, and play a “Head of Grendel” game, tossing a large red balloon around the auditorium.
Trinity launched the season with the silly, substance-free rock-musical Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. There was a palpable energy in the house before the show―the audience, comprised primarily of the usual over-50 theatre crowd, was clearly revved up in anticipation for an evening of entertainment. They were not disappointed. Beowulf had a decidedly downtown aesthetic, with the set comprised of scaffolding and the panel of “experts” seated at a table with microphones at the top of the show all a seeming homage to the Wooster Group. Shadow puppetry with the use of an overhead projector in a particularly funny segment of the show was right out of Mabou Mines’s playbook. It came as no surprise that the show originated with Shotgun Players, a scrappy, enterprising company based in Berkeley, CA. The rough, on-the-cheap aesthetic of this show at a large regional theatre did come as a bit of a surprise, but the audience embraced the irreverent production, and the energetic performances by the older and younger cast members alike. Standout performances were given by Joe Wilson Jr. as Hrothgar and Anne Scurria as Academic Two/Grendel’s Mother.
Trinity boasts one of the last long-standing resident acting companies in America―an impressive achievement. While it is enjoyable to see actors tackle multiple roles through a season, not every show is a perfect fit. In their production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, directed by Brian Mertes, several performers seemed older than their respective characters, and they used a declamatory acting style that quickly grew tiresome. Additionally, Mertes’ use of Sara Brown’s thrust-style set design left actors’ backs to the audience for long stretches.
Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop was by far the highlight of the season. Joe Wilson Jr. as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mia Ellis as Camae both delivered dazzling, nuanced performances. The significant technical resources Trinity devoted to this production created an outstanding show that was deeply moving. The show was presented in January and February and was likely in that time slot as part of Trinity’s celebration of African American History month, but the timing of the production overlapped the first weeks of the Trump administration, and some disturbing national instances of racially charged language. Set among these current events, King’s words took on a profound resonance; a call to action. Particularly noteworthy for this magical production of Hall’s play was the work of set designer Jason Sherwood, lighting designer Dawn Chiang, video designer Shawn Duan, and director Kent Gash.
Shakespeare’s beloved comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Trinity’s next offering. Set at a 1980s high school dance, complete with a live band and the “traveling players” represented by members of the high school drama club, the production was an enjoyable evening of theatre for the whole family. Dan Scully’s playful lighting design created a garden of light that surrounded the action, and Michael McGarty surprised audience members with his movable risers that were shifted during the production. Standout performances included a wonderful Bottom played by Fred Sullivan, Jr., Theseus/Oberon played by Mauro Hantman, and a geeky, nearsighted Demetrius played endearingly by Jude Sandy.
Playwright Deborah Salem Smith has been Trinity’s playwright-in-residence since 2005. Her Faithful Cheaters was billed as an Aykbournian farce, but the main difficulty with this show was that it was not funny, and no amount of slapstick antics could remedy this shortcoming. The ending, which attempted a serious turn on the subject of relationships, fell flat. Considerable human and financial resources were put toward producing this play; it is unfortunate that the resulting production was not more successful.
Trinity’s final offering of the season was Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega. Several productions, including Fuente Ovejuna, incorporated the use of live music, which was one of the exciting aspects of the season and for which the company should be commended. In this production, the show’s music director was Providencelocal Jerediah “Big Scythe” Gonzalez, who describes himself as a hip-hop producer with an Urban Eclectic style, whose various influences include funk, R&B, rock, jazz, blues, reggae, and salsa. His presence on stage leading the band and playing keyboards and percussion, along with musicians Casey Belisle (percussion), Evan Carley (bass), and Jake Menendez (guitar), contributed nicely to the production. The company delivered solid performances in this sprawling play. The theatrical handling of the interrogation scenes and the townspeople coming together to fight against tyranny were affecting. One line change to “total nut job” underscored connections to the current state of American political affairs, and the end of the show was exceedingly powerful as audience members stood and pledged their allegiance to Fuente Ovejuna, and to fighting tyranny.
Kudos to the Trinity Repertory Company for their brave, impactful and prescient work this season.
Central Connecticut State University
The company of Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna. Photo by Mark Turek.
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