Perception seems to be the buzzword for three very different local productions and a fresh riff on classic Shakespeare comedy.
Two women star academic Cathy and unsatisfied mother and housewife Gwen - wonder about balancing career and family in the Huntington Theatre Company season-closing new Gina Gionfriddo comedy “Rapture Blister Burn.” The title character of “Jimmy Titanic”; the Boston premiere by Tir Na Theatre of a Bernard McMullan one-actor play imagines God, Heaven and new afterlife arrivals from the ship on which he worked with fellow immigrant Tommy. Jessica Dickey’s 2009 drama “The Amish Project” means to dispel stereotypes about its title community as it explores a 2006 shooting tragedy and the uncommon combination of forgiveness and understanding that followed. Film director Joss Whedon captures the wit and whimsy of “Much Ado About Nothing” in a fresh new light. Stage production and performance virtues notwithstanding, audiences may find Whedon’s disarmingly playful film the most eye opening of the four.
Gina Gionfriddo previously enchanted Huntington audiences with the insightful comedy of her cleverly offbeat play “Becky Shaw.” By contrast, “Rapture, Blister, Burn” proves much too predictable. While Gionfriddo’s new work may call to mind “The Heidi Chronicles,” Wendy Wasserstein’s title heroine experiences a much more compelling odyssey as an art history scholar and a woman than either romance and family- seeking Cathy or academia—hungry Gwen. Where Heidi’s personal and professional journey teems with real feeling, Cathy and Gwen’s experiences depend too often on plot set-ups. After all, Cathy has only two students- namely Gwen and sometime babysitter Avery, and the sessions take place at Catherine’s mother Alice Croll’s residence. In seminar-like scenes, somewhat witty but diagrammatic discussions about diametrically opposed women figures like Betty Freidan and Phyllis Schlafly and schematic views of horror films and pornography lack the emotional development Wasserstein brought to Heidi’s academic presentations.
Also telling are the plays’ very different perceptions of their male characters. Wasserstein gives dimension to the two men who are important to Heidi’s life—especially her gay confidant. The lone male character in Gionfriddo‘s play— a relatively un-ambitious, pornography–addicted dean at a fourth-rate New Englan liberal arts college borders on caricature. If he comes across as more than a sex object for Cathy and a somewhat clueless American male, credit Timothy John Smith’s vivid characterization and Huntington out artistic director Peter DuBois- who made “Becky Shaw” an unexpected delight. Kate Shindle does well conveying Catherine’s confidence as an in demand writer-teacher, and Annie McNamara-who favorably resembles Edie Falco, has the right mix of weariness and talkativeness as Gwen. Nancy E. Carroll, one of the Hub’s best actresses, adds depth to the potentially one-dimensional role of cocktail maven and old-fashioned yet very warm Alice. Shannon Esper makes Avery an appealingly sharp-tongued but incisive young woman.
Gionfriddo could have livened up her play more with the appearance of important unseen male character-namely Don and Gwen’s teen-age show-enamored older son. As an actual character, he would do a lot to dispel the tired stereotypical perception that he might be gay since he loves Broadway musicals and demonstrates a strong interest in acting and the world of theater. For the record, “Rapture, Blister, Burn” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Thanks to DuBois’ strong staging, Gionfriddo’s clever but ultimately uninspired play often crackles.
Rapture, Blister, Burn, Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts through June 30. 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org.
Problems with stagecraft prove even more glaring in “Jimmy Titanic.” Playwright Bernard McMullan has one actor playing about 20 roles- from the title hero, his best friend Tommy and New York Times journalists to Saint Peter, Jesus and even God. Along the way, there is a lot of name-dropping-including Benjamin Guggenheim and John Jacob Astor-without any real attempt at insight about them. God comes across as an often assuming deity who smokes. “Jimmy Titanic” would be a much stronger play if McMullan had focused on the bromance-like relationship between Jimmy and Tommy, who face the sinking together. Also, the author needed to give his play a clearer identity-either as a play that truly explores the idea of afterlife through Jimmy’s own adventures in Heaven or one that devotes substantial time to God’s judgment of ship mogul Bruce Ismay and his ilk. In the absence of a genuinely good play, theatergoers can embrace the dazzling performance of a first-rate actor. Under Carmel O’Reilly’s smooth direction, Hamell makes quick and convincing character and accent changes. His Jimmy is convincingly good-natured and inquisitive, and his Tommy engagingly cocky. Thank Hamell for crests of humor and feeling that cover the iceberg-size flaws in “Jimmy Titanic.
Another seriously flawed play is Jessica Dickey’s earnest but overloaded “The Amish Project. “ Though 70 minutes in length, “The Amish Project” never rises to the caliber of “The Laramie Project.” Unlike the earlier and much tighter Moises Kaufman play, Dickey’s drama fails to really capture the conflicted feelings of the community about the 2006 shooting of five girls at an Amish schoolhouse. Fortunately, Circuit Theatre director Alexandra Keegan stages the uneven play with an eye to the poetry and striking simplicity of Amish traditions-especially a procession of young believers with candles that becomes a motif of understanding and serenity in the face of tragedy. The five actress—in ensemble and individual roles as man and women—are all radiant. Emma Johnson is riveting and edgy as shooter Eddie Stuckey’s quirky wife Carol. Janet “Becky“ Bass is a standout as big-hearted America and incisive observer Bill North.
Jimmy Titanic, Tir Na Theatre, presented by New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through June 30. 617-923-8487.
On the strength of “The Amish Project” and its earlier powerhouse staging of “Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play,” Circuit Theatre Company has become a must-see force in Boston. Expect ambitious, provocative fare with actors that rise to any challenge under strong direction. Next up is “Nicky Park Memorial Park” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, July 5-7, followed by “The Valentine Trilogy” (in repertory) in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, August 2-17.
The Amish Project, Circuit Theatre Company, through June 27. YMCA Theatre, Cambridge.circuittheatre.com
There is nothing like live Shakespeare, but Joss Whedon’s exuberant new film of “Much Ado About Nothing” certainly comes close in its appreciation of the eternally fresh comedy’s wonderful wit, bountiful humor and luminous humanity. Shot in crisp black and white by Jay Hunter at the director’s own Florida home, Whedon’s “Much Ado” keeps Beatrice and Benedick’s “skirmish of wit” a perfectly matched championship bout.
Amy Acker has Beatrice’s verve and vulnerability. Whedon establishes Benedick-dashing Alexis Denisof, and Claudio, an impulsive Franz Kraz, as bosom buddies early on with some quick roughhousing. Two of the best sequences respectively find Acker’s Beatrice a prisoner-like eavesdropper hiding below a kitchen island and Denisof’s agile Benedick flipping and maneuvering outside as he does his own spying. Reed Diamond’s undaunted Don Pedro contrasts well with out actor Sean Maher’s understated cunning as his brother Don John. Gender bending allows for striking intimacy between Maher’s and Riki Lindhome as Conrade. Nathan Fillion makes a hilariously inept constable Dogberry.
Could this delightful “Much Ado About Nothing” be the first of a series of Whedon Shakespeare a la Kenneth Branagh’s rollicking earlier version and his own satisfying series? Hope springs eternal.
Much Ado About Nothing (2013 film), Coolidge Corner Movie House, Brookline, 617-734-2501.