ANGRY ORCHARD: SECRETS, PAIN RIPE FOR THE PICKING AT NJ REP

Kersti Bryan and Christopher M. Smith co-star in APPLE SEASON, the play by E.M. Lewis making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by New Jersey Repertory Company

The Russian master Anton Chekhov had his Cherry Orchard and its group portrait of a fast-fading aristocracy, rotting from the inside out as it falls to the axe of social change. In the latest drama to make its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, it’s Apple Season in the Pacific Northwest’s Willamette Valley — and it’s there where the low-hanging fruit of past behaviors and secrets threaten the members of one local family with a one-way trip into a wormhole of regret and suffocating grief.

Opening this weekend at the company’s downtown Long Branch playhouse, the play by E.M. Lewis represents NJ Rep’s first staging of a work by the the Oregon-based playwright who, by her own admission, is “the kind who goes back and forth between smaller, personal stories and bigger political plays.” Describing this one as “an intimate little three character play,” the award-winning dramatist declares that its themes of “the danger of secrets and the importance of truth telling” operate within her desire to “write about rural people…the ones who are less visible on most theatrical stages.”

“Sam Shepard wrote about non-urban people in a way that captured the largeness of human questions,” she observes. “People who live in ‘small’ places are people who are still wrestling with some big issues.”

In the production under the direction of Zoya Kachadurian, a funeral brings a sister and brother (Kersti Bryan, Richard Kent Green) back to the family farm that they turned their backs on years ago — leading to an encounter with a neighbor (Christopher M. Smith) who shares a history with both of the siblings, and a situation in which “a legacy of violence” puts an indelible stamp on the here and now. It all unfolds within “the season when the apples are hanging and ready…with no one there to pick them.” Continue reading

LOOKING BACK ON THE BEST OF LOCAL STAGES, 2018

El Chupacabra terrorizes the alternate reality of a cartoonist turned comic book hero, in the 2018 Two River Theater production EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM. Photo by Richard Termine

Published in the Asbury Park Press, December 28 2018

Star-powered casts — and a set of new and diverse voices — set the pace for the live theater stages of Monmouth and Ocean counties in the calendar year 2018. The area served by the Asbury Park Press continued to draw the attentions and the talents of some top-shelf pros, even as its many creative crannies proved that the most interesting things can occur in the most unlikely of venues. Here are a handful of the Great Performances and all-around Good Things that we happened across in the year that was.

New dramas

Bemoaning the fact that comic book characters seem to be hijacking the entire mass culture? Well, get over it, because back at the top of the year, Red Bank’s Two River Theater set the pace with a “superhero play” of supercharged energy: the intriguingly titled El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom. Emerging from Two River’s annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latinx plays, the play by Matthew Barbot succeeded where the mighty Spidey and Superman fell short in their respective musical misadventures; investing its story (of a young unemployed Puerto Rican-American artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter) with a choreographed visual verve that played, under the direction of Jose Zayas, like a musical minus the music. Throw in a layered plot that segued smoothly between the alternate realities of the dual-identity protagonist, with projected images that heightened the shift between parallel worlds, and the result was a dazzling cultural satire that compared favorably with the company’s trailblazing premiere production of the musical phenomenon “Be More Chill.”

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, some new faces arrived in town with April’s production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say — and those newcomers had a compelling story to tell, in the Chinese-Canadian TV writer’s semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family’s struggles with assimilation, aspirations, and the next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman of Japanese descent. As the play’s 12 year old central character, Christina Liang headed a superb cast in a drama that placed a perfectly constructed, intimately scaled frame around the big issues of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness. Continue reading

A premiere at NJ Rep asks, will the ‘Wolf’ survive?

Liz Zazzi costars in WOLF AT THE DOOR, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, October 26 2018

There is a lyrical, passionate, even magical play inside Wolf at the Door, the drama that’s now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — a play that, like some noble beast within, strives to express itself in the form to which it’s best suited. Like that inner animal, however, it must work its way out through the threadbare fabrics of forced civilization, and layers of forever-flawed human flesh.

Set at a remote hacienda in colonial-era Mexico, and inspired by Aztec folk legends, the script by Chicago-based playwright Marisela Treviño Orta looks in on the household of Isadora (Desiree Pinol) and her husband of one year, Septimo (Oscar A.L. Cabrera). It’s an unhappy place, where the pregnant young wife agonizes over being able to deliver the male heir so desired by her spouse — a near-stranger who has revealed himself as a bitter, emotionally manipulative, physically abusive tyrant of his small realm; obsessed with his “legacy” and his status as a self-made man.

Hovering over this arrangement is Rocio (Liz Zazzi) — housekeeper, nursemaid, frontier midwife, dispenser of old-world wisdom, and spiritual counselor to the troubled Isadora — while just at the perimeter of the property are the unseen wolves that bay in the night; their motives unclear and their music adding a further note of unease to the tense situation. With the news of an impending visit by family members, the pressure to produce a firstborn child is heightened — but when the pregnancy results in a stillbirth, the already fragile equilibrium threatens to shatter like the coffee cups that Septimo “breaks like eggs” — and an appeal is made to the old spirits, to ferry the souls of the innocent to a better place.  

The answer arrives on all fours, in the naked and also very pregnant form of Yolot (Alexandra Lemus) — a mysterious young woman who has “come across the river” to take up temporary residence in the stable. Describing herself as a “porter” and “beast of burden” for a “most precious cargo,” the feral yet eloquent stranger — who may be something entirely other than what she appears to be — becomes in Septimo’s eyes a convenience to be kept chained up, until such time as “the baby is born and the family leaves.”

The vulnerability of the captive “interloper” triggers something in Isadora, who stands up to her husband for the first time — and who, with Rocio’s assistance, attempts to free Yolot, who nonetheless insists that she cannot return home empty-handed. 

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NOT CRYING WOLF: NJ REP PREMIERE IS A GRIM FAIRYTALE OF OLD MEXICO

Published in the Asbury Park Press, October 19, 2018

L-R: Alexandra Lemus, Liz Zazzi, and Desiree Pinol are featured in WOLF AT THE DOOR, the play by Marisela Trevino Orta that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by Suzanne Barabas

According to Marisela Treviño Orta, it all started with a nightmare — one in which “I was being chased by a pack of wolves…they got into my house; I could see their teeth eating their way through the door.”

From the stories of Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, to the lycanthropic legends that spring up wherever the full moon shines, the figure of the wolf has represented everything from the external threats of violence, want and lawlessness, to the uncontrollable beast within. But in Wolf at the Door, the play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, playwright Orta “takes a different turn;” one that draws from Aztec myths of the afterlife, in which the spirits of the dead are ferried along their journeys to purification on the backs of canine creatures.

A Texan by birth, and a young veteran of the Bay Area theater scene, the author of several acclaimed full length scripts (including Braided Sorrow and Woman On Fire, itself inspired by the Sophocles classic Antigone) has been spending time at NJ Rep’s downtown Long Branch headquarters to fine-tune her latest produced full length work, and to “make myself available as a resource for everyone involved with the production.” As one of the National New Play Network’s ongoing series of “rolling world premiere” properties, Wolf at the Door will be produced additionally by stage companies in Dallas, Portland (Oregon), and Orta’s recently adopted home base of Chicago — but the Shore area audience will see it first, in the production that runs in a limited engagement through November 18.

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‘Fern Hill’ is a session of (sometimes weighty) words with friends

Jill Eikenberry and John Glover head a stellar cast of celebrated character players in FERN HILL, the play by Michael Tucker now in its world premiere engagement at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 17, 2018

As painter and college professor Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) tells it, the first time that she raised the specter of an assisted-living arrangement to her mother, “she looked at me like I was a terrorist.” 

That same aversion to the notion of growing old among strangers —a thought no doubt on Sunny’s mind as she approaches retirement age — sparks the proceedings in Fern Hill, the new play by actor-author (and Eikenberry’s husband of some 45 years) Michael Tucker. Now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the ensemble piece assembles six character actors of frankly awesome credentials with an in-demand director of international repute, for a prestige project that turns NJ Rep’s modest shadow-box stage into a rare Shoreside showcase for some top-shelf talents.

In this, the second NJ Rep endeavor for the married LA Law veterans known as “The Tuckerberrys,” the titular setting is an upstate farm house owned by Sunny and her English professor husband Jer (David Rasche) — and yes, regular theatergoers, we are once more planted on the dramatically fertile home turf of that curious species known as career academics — a locale that’s become a preferred gathering place for “the Sunny and Jer Show” and two other couples with whom they’ve maintained long-standing relationships. Vincent (Tony winner John Glover) is a noted painter whose nimble wit belies a body in breakdown mode, while his spouse Darla (Dee Hoty) is a gallery-exhibited photographer in breakout mode, with an impending show in Europe and some guilt over the prospect of leaving her ailing hubby at home. Fellow faculty member Michiko (Jodi Long) is herself the one most often left to hold down the home front, married as she is to the affable but aging tour-bus rocker and bon vivant Billy (Tom McGowan). Ranging in age from a rounded-off sixty to an arguable eighty, these people of education and accomplishment and passionately creative pursuits have one thing in common above all else: they are each, in their own way, feeling a little too old to be doing things the way they’ve been doing it for the past bunch of years. 

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NJ REP WELCOMES (NOT YET OVER THE ‘HILL’) PROS IN A FRIENDLY EXPERIMENT

LA LAW veterans Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry are the playwright and the co-star of FERN HILL, a world premiere play that brings a cast of familiar actors to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo courtesy of Alli Angelou/ NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 10, 2018

It’s an idea that’s so “out there,” that it just might…actually, it’s a perfectly horrendous idea, were any of us to try it in real life. But of such cockamamie notions are the stuff of great “mature comedies” often made — and in Fern Hill, the Michael Tucker play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, a seemingly well-thought out and well-intentioned arrangement creates a situation that tests some long-established bonds of friendship, faithfulness, and fidelity to the truth.

As put forth by Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) — a painter, art history professor and, with her marital partner Jer, co-owner of the farmhouse property from which the play takes its title — the plan is a beautifully simple one at heart. Sunny and Jer invite four of their close friends — two couples with whom they share a love of food, wine, and laughter — to move in with them at Fern Hill; the idea being that this close-knit community of contemporaries would share their lives, work together, and be there for each other as they collectively enter their senior years.

It’s “an alternative to being shipped off to live with strangers,” as Eikenberry describes it — but the question of whether this plan functions as it was intended is one that promises to be addressed in the six-character script (rebranded from its originally announced title of Assisted Living), which was workshopped at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. This is the second mainstage project at NJ Rep for Eikenberry and Tucker — together known far and wide as The Tuckerberrys — following their 2015 turn in The M Spot, and while it stands as only the second full-length play by actor-author-novelist Tucker, it’s a continuation of a rich and multi-faceted collaboration for the partners in life and art.

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The quality of ‘Mercy’ is sort of strange, at NJ Rep

Nadita Shenoy and Jacob A. Ware share an uncomfortable moment at the workplace in MERCY, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

Orville Marks (Jacob A. Ware) is a man with no small share of problems — not least of which is the fact that his pregnant wife was recently killed by a drunk driver, leaving him the entirely unprepared single father of a “miracle baby” who never cries, smiles, or otherwise makes a sound. His boss (Nandita Shenoy) is making unsolicited and un-subtle sexual advances at the workplace; his widowed father Walter (Dan Grimaldi) is urging him to go out and have as much sex as possible — and he’s just seen a man on the street (Christopher Daftsios) who he’s sure is the motorist that turned his world upside down.

It doesn’t take long before the many tragedies, frustrations and stressful situations of Orville’s life threaten to reach critical mass in Mercy, the play by Adam Szymkowicz that’s currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The various ways in which the basically introverted and deeply unhappy office drone manages to deal with his problems — or fantasize about dealing with them — form the thrust of a script that looks at the titular concept of Mercy from some odd angles; ranging from forgiveness, redemptive love and plain old pity, to humiliation, power dynamics, and the cold gunmetal of revenge.

Presented without intermission, and directed by NJ Rep artistic associate Gail Winar — her first mainstage project for the company since the goofy musical Don’t Hug Me in 2006 — Mercy offers its occasional glimpses of dark comedy; the kind that audiences aren’t always so sure they should be laughing at. But while its dramatic flashpoints are tautly constructed, and explode with the jarring energy of a quiet man pushed to the  brink, the real unsettling moments are those in which the slow simmer of the increasingly edgy Orville directs him toward some ever more regrettable choices — and directs the audience to the realization that neither we, nor he, quite know all that he is capable of.

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A FERBER FEST, AND A WORLD PREMIERE, MAKE AN EXCITING JUNE AT NJ REP

The great American playwright and novelist Edna Ferber is the focus of a weekend-long “Five by Ferber” festival, featuring never before seen stage adaptations of the author’s stories at New Jersey Repertory Company’s new West Ends Arts Center. 

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 1 2018

There’s a weekend-long tribute to an American woman of letters whose life and literary legacy continue to resonate in these times — and a new play that mines its “dark comedy” from touchy themes of remorse, responsibility, redemption, and revenge. All of it making its world premiere in this month of June, and all going on at two different Long Branch locations of New Jersey Repertory Company.

Happening right now at the West End Arts Center (132 West End Ave.) — the reborn and repurposed public school building that’s the focus of some very ambitious plans by NJ Rep — the festival known as “Five by Ferber” shines a well-deserved spotlight on Edna Ferber (1885-1968), the late playwright and fiction writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1924 novel So Big. A daughter of the midwest and (like Long Branch-born Dorothy Parker) a member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table, the vanguard feminist collaborated with Table-mate George S. Kaufman on several Broadway hit plays (Stage DoorThe Royal FamilyDinner at Eight) — and new generations of fans have been introduced to such sprawling, socially conscious epic novels of American life as CimarronCome and Get It and Giant through their popular Hollywood adaptations, while Show Boat served as the basis for the groundbreaking Kern-Hammerstein musical of the same name.

With “Five by Ferber,” NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas teamed with the author’s great niece Julie Gilbert to curate a quintet of new short plays, each of them adapted from a Ferber short story by a female playwright. The program presented at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 1 features “salon readings” of Gilbert’s own adapatation of Mother Knows Best, as well as two one-acts from writers who’ve enjoyed a past association with the Shore-based professional company — That’s Marriage by Marisa Smith (NJ Rep’s Mad Love) and The Sudden Sixties by D.W. Gregory (author of the acclaimed Radium Girls).

The scripts — which look at the concept of Love through the missed opportunities, hard choices, and constant challenges which define it for all too many people — are followed up on Saturday, June 2 by Julie Weinberg’s adaptation of Ferber’s You’re Not the Type, plus Every Other Thursday by Sheilah Rae and Debra Barsha. Like many of the author’s works, the stories center around women who find themselves at a crossroads in career and life — or who harbor pursuits and desires that confound others’ expectations of them.

The “Five by Ferber” festival concludes on Sunday, June 3 with a sixth “bonus” attraction; a “concert reading” of a long-lost Ferber adaptation by a fellow Pulitzer winner, the late Texas native Horton Foote. Based on the hard-working and inspirational central character from So Big, the full-length script Selina Peake will be performed at 4 p.m. in a special one-time arrangement through the Ferber and Foote estates. Tickets for each of the individual programs in “Five by Ferber” are priced at $25, with festival passes available for $75, and discounts offered for NJ Rep subscribers. Call 732-229-3166 or visit njrep.org for reservations and additional details. Continue reading