Arms and the Man – Performing Arts of Woodstock

Review by Joe eriole

It’s 1885: in the distance, the Serbo-Bulgarian War is limping to a close in the aftermath of a bloody rout of the Serbs. A Swiss mercenary, with no allegiance to the cause of either side, has dragged himself, battered and bruised, from the front. We find him abandoned, cold, hungry, and desperate. How would George Bernard Shaw entertain us against that rich canvas? Well, with a romantic comedy, of course.

Arms and the Man is romantic in its reflections of 19th Century ideals of love, chivalry, and war. Its comedy is found in poking holes in those idealized conventions amidst legitimately funny repartee between the lovers. Our Swiss soldier, Bluntschli, and the young heiress, Raina, charm each other with the witty banter characteristic of all such romps; the plot unveils itself against the twists and turns of mistaken identity and the impossibly symmetrical  alignment of potential suitors with partners who, in the early going, seem destined for other, less romantic, matches. 

The players are: Raina, who opens the play betrothed to Sergius, the dashing and courageous Bulgarian officer who led the reckless charge which scattered Bluntschi’s Serbian troops; the ambitious Louka, engaged to Nicola, a fellow household servant whose sights are set much lower than hers; Raina’s parents, Major Petkoff and his wife Catherine, who are pragmatists to a fault – staunchly defending the society marriage of their daughter to Sergius, the nation’s most eligible,and wealthiest,  bachelor in the opening Act, and just as pragmatically making way for the happier match of Raina and Bluntschli, when he turns out to be something more than a mercenary soldier with no place to call home.

Bluntschli’s charm is strong enough to do some damage to Raina’s youthful and romanticized notions of war and its heroes, which drives a wedge between her and Sergius. For his part, Sergius has also lost some faith in the luster of his own future as valiant officer and married man. In the aftermath of his derring-do on the field of battle, he is passed over for promotion by others less deserving, and he no sooner returns to the comfort of his fiancee’s warm embrace than he sets out in pursuit of her servant, Louka. The deeper message of the play is in the realization that the Swiss mercenary’s honesty is more noble (and romantic) in cowardly retreat, than is the aristocracy’s deceit in victory. In true romantic comedy style, even the aristocrats learn their lesson, and everyone has a chance to live happily ever after. 

The cast of Arms and the Man

The language of the play, indicative of its author and its time, is beautiful to hear, and every member of the cast speaks it fluidly. Their mastery of the 19th century style makes the experience lyrical in a way we rarely hear in theater today.

In the same measure that the language of the period allows the cast to elevate the experience for us, the cast must overcome, on occasion, certain sensibilities of the period. Most of the time, outdated moral and societal concerns in revivals of plays of much earlier eras can be played as part of a “joke” in which the audience participates. The greatest challenge of this play’s period (and its author) may be in Sergius’ aggressively written “pursuit” of Louka. That it shows him being untrue to his fiancee and leveraging his position of power to encourage her reciprocation, are not, for better or for worse, notions foreign or outdated to modern audiences. That we are later encouraged to think of their match as part of the story’s “happy ending” is where the actors face a challenge. Austin Carrothers as Sergius and Maria Maurin as Louka, find a way.

Carrothers does enough with his character’s “epiphanies” to make the audience believe he may have ended the play as a better man than he was when we met him, and Maurin’s Louka is so self-determinative that we are convinced her choices are her own. Carrothers is an effective and commanding presence as both the brave soldier and insulted aristocrat, and shows range in portraying his character’s own disappointment in the loss of his black-and-white view of the world. Maurin demands undivided attention when she is on stage – funny, sharp and undaunted.

Wil Anderson as the Swiss mercenary Bluntschli, is utterly charming here. The audience never doubts that his lack of commitment to high-minded, cosmic causes, and his preference for life over valor, are quite real. But, at the same time, we are convinced that he is an able adversary in both love and war, a credit to Anderson’s understanding of the role’s potential.

Geneva Turner as Raina is the focal point of the play, always funny but never silly, worthy of the affections of both suitors, as formidable as Louka but armed with more subtle weapons. Turner’s performance never makes Raina less than the old-world aristocrat she is when we meet her, but her abilities do elevate Raina to something more.

Francine Ciccarelli (Catherine) and Andrew Joffe (Petkoff), as Raina’s mother and father, are a joy. Ciccarelli is elegant and absolutely in charge; Joffe will be loved by the audience as completely as he is loved by his wife and daughter. Both play the roles beyond the level of the familiar tropes of the wealthy matriarch and patriarch, into which the play could fit them were they lesser performers.

The cast is rounded out by Sean Owens and Michael Ralff. Owens’ turn as a soldier searching for the set-upon Bluntschli in Act One is suitably menacing. Ralff, playing Louka’s disappointing, “servant-minded” fiancee in Act One, has a wonderful turn in Act Two, in which he does a fine job performing what is perhaps the only truly selfless act in the story.

The production is directed with precision and great aesthetic appeal by Ellen Honig. As noted above, the characters have been developed as funny but never silly, sincere but not wooden. On stage movement is fluid. Marcia Panza’s costumes and Andrea Winston’s sets are both lovely. 

Arms and the Man is well performed, beautifully presented, and a pleasure to hear as spoken art. It runs through April 21 at Performing Arts of Woodstock, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 1:30. 

Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.

The Legend – Westchester Collaborative Theater

Westchester Collaborative Theater Presents The Legend in April

World-premiere production introduces a provocative BBC “commended new play” ranked in an international play writing competition

This April, Westchester Collaborative Theater (WCT) is presenting The Legend, writtenby Rick Apicella and directed by Joe Albert Lima. This production marks the world-premiere of an original play ranked a 2018 ‘commended new play’ by the BBC in a multi-lingual international play writing competition that spanned the continents. The Legend will open on Thursday, April 4 at 8 pm, and run weekends through Saturday, April 27 (no performance Sunday, April 21) at WCT’s Black Box Theater, 23 Water Street in Ossining, New York.

Rick Apicella of Pearl River, NY, is an award-winning actor, director and writer. He was voted Best Actor and Best Director of the Strawberry One Act Play Festival in NYC and writer of the Best Play for a 20/20 Festival in Garrison, NY. In 2018, Rick performed at Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, NY and for the Music for Life creative arts therapy team in Nyack, NY.

Actor, playwright, and director Joe Albert Lima of Stony Point, NY, has performed in over 75 plays and directed 25 plays in the tri-state area. His most recent directorial credits are Stick Fly at Elmwood Playhouse and Metal of Honor Rag at Antrim Playhouse.  Joe directed and wrote A Short Walk into Sunshine, WCT’s acclaimed 2015 mainstage production.   

The Legend is an urban fairy tale about the journey of William Rodriguez, a young boxer who has not spoken since he was brutally bullied as a child. When his mother dies, William decides to embark on a journey into the rabbit hole of professional prizefighting with the help of his trainer and next-door neighbor, only to find that their vulnerabilities are used against them at every turn.

The cast of The Legend

Following its opening, The Legend will run Fridays at 8pm on April 5, 12, 19 and 26; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, April 6, 13, 20 and 27; and Sundays at 3 pm April 7, 14. The cast will offer talk-backs after Sunday performances.

Tickets are $25; $20 discount tickets are available for WCT members, students, seniors and groups of 5+. Advance online purchase is strongly recommended: https://thelegendwct.brownpapertickets.com/

Westchester Collaborative Theater is a multicultural, cooperative theater company located in Ossining, NY, dedicated to developing new work for the stage and bringing live theater to the community. It is comprised of local playwrights, actors, and directors who employ a Lab approach in which new stage works are nurtured through an iterative process of readings, critiques, and rewrites. When work is ready for production, it is presented to the public at its new theater space.

WCT is committed to furthering theater arts in our community. It is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and a recipient of production grants from ArtsWestchester and New York State Council on the Arts.

The Dresser at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck

The 13th Annual Sam Scripps Shakespeare Festival at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck began its run on March 15th with a riveting rendition of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. The play, set entirely backstage in a Second World War theater, follows the dramatic and enigmatic relationship of Sir (Lou Trapani), a world-renowned Shakespearean actor, and his personal assistant, Norman (Kevin Archambault). Throughout the play, Norman labors to do his job, which we soon learn is much more than merely “dressing” Sir.  Norman is a living extension of Sir, perhaps the backbone of the company, who knows more than anyone about his charge. 

The unraveling of Norman as he strives to support Sir in delivering up his Lear, is deftly portrayed by Archambault, who is enthralling from the moment he enters the stage. With humor, Archambault creates a truly memorable character of complex depth and pathos.

Trapani’s Sir is enchanting and powerfully rendered. Mr. Trapani’s performance is a gift to the audience of the sort Sir might strive for, portraying the decline and struggles of a great actor on the verge of a collapse which, if it comes, will come in front of an audience he once held in the palm of his hand. Trapani moves effortlessly through the erratic emotions of the character, and masterfully portrays a character attempting to maintain his composure and his dignity.   

Kevin Archambault as Norman and
Lou Trapani as Sir

It is a credit to director Michael Juczwack and Assistant Director Tina Reilly that the weight of the obstacles faced by the characters never feels like oppression. The production allows the audience the reprieve of laughter amid the uneasy sense of impending theatrical doom.   

The play is set on a replication of Shakespeare’s Globe, which will serve as the the festival’s backdrop for its follow up production of Much Ado About Nothing in April. From the moment of entering the house, one is authentically drawn into the wings of a venerable theater in a war-torn England of the mid-20th century.

The props and costumes are quite literally another character in this play. Norman’s inexhaustible efforts to  tend to these accoutrements for Sir, must have been mirrored  with equal attention by propmaster Wendy Urban-Mead. Her attention to period-specific pieces, from details like tissue boxes and theater make-up, to major pieces like radio-show wind machines, allowed the audience a true peek behind the scenes, and allowed the actors to manage the important and highly choreographed handling of those props with the precision the script demands. Lobsang Camacho’s costumes are flawless and beautiful period pieces. This includes the manner in which a 1940s theater company might dress King Lear, as well as the impeccable dress of Norman, whose personal dress has clearly been as much a part of his life as Sir’s meticulous costumes have been.

Kevin Archambault as Norman and Lou Trapani as Sir

The play brings together veteran actors. The talented Elaine Young portrays a sad and lonely Ladyship, who is struggling to find her own happiness.  Emily DePew is a wonderful foil for Archambault’s Norman – adeptly characterizing a voice of reason, struggling in a leadership role that leaves her looking like a bit of a killjoy while remaining well connected to the audience. Emily McCarthy, most recently seen in Rhinebeck Theatre Society’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time, shines as the ingénue with aspirations for leading lady status – demonstrating battles which perhaps Sir and her Ladyship once played out as younger versions of themselves.  Of particular note is a stunning power struggle with Archambault. 

Jim O’Neill and Russell Austin, as Lear company performers playing parts which might have been taken by younger men now off at war, are strongly played with wit and humor. Alex Skovan and Farrell Reynolds portray ensemble members fluidly, creating the sense of a frenzied life both backstage and onstage.

Kevin Archambault as Norman & Lou Trapani as Sir

The Dresser poses questions to the audience. One wonders what might have happened if each character had made different choices. The success of the direction and acting in this production is in the fact that we care about the answers to those questions for these characters.  It is a richly textured play requiring insightful performances. The Dresser‘s opening of the 2019 Sam Scripps Shakespeare Festival is a worthy and moving accomplishment, and should be seen. This show’s short run ends March 24th, so be sure to reserve your tickets by calling The Center at 845.876.3080 or visit their website at http://www.centerforperformingarts.org.

Almost, Maine – Clove Creek Dinner Theater

Review by Caitlin Connelly

Brandon Patterson as Paul and Josie Grant as Ginette in “Prologue”

Those who read Hudson Valley Ovation’s recent piece on The New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of Almost, Maine and were disappointed to have missed it, you are in luck: the show has been picked up by Clove Creek Dinner Theater and showcases many of the original performers while making some wonderful new additions as well. It is worth noting that even those who saw the premiere performance at the Cunneen-Hackett Theater in February will be entertained by Clove Creek’s production as a show worth seeing in its own right. The chemistry between the actors played out in the more intimate space at Clove Creek allows for the show to be seen in a very new, moving and magical light.

If you are new to this remarkable show, Almost, Maine is a romantic comedy written by John Cariani. It is about a fictional, “unorganized” community nestled beneath the Northern Lights in northern Maine. A place where people pride themselves on their stereotypical small-town-Maine friendliness, but are too far from the ocean for anyone to work on a stereotypical Maine lobster boat. A place where everyone is clearly connected, but you still only “know who you know.” These unifying traits of the community are depicted in a series of short vignettes depicting nine highly relatable human relationships at various stops along the timeline of hope, love, and loss.

Teresa Gasparini as Glory in “Her Heart”

One of the more interesting devices Cariani uses in this play is the sense of surrealism throughout it, which adds magical layers and, often, comedic relief. For example, in the scene “Her Heart”, a woman carries her broken heart in a bag while searching for a place from which to see the Northern Lights. Her search leads her to the yard of a repairman, who claims, in a perfect ending to the play’s first vignette, that he can fix it.

In “Getting It Back”, a young woman rushes into her boyfriend’s house claiming she wants all the love she has given him back, and offering to return all the love he has given her. The symbolic manner in which she returns that love (which won’t be given away here!) is a clever metaphor which delights the audience and sets up her momentary disappointment when her boyfriend responds with something far less impressive. The result is a hilarious, heartwarming twist to the end of the scene. In another story entitled “They Fell”, two longtime friends quite literally “fall” for one another. The exaggerated physical action connects the audience to the characters through the quirks and oddities of Cariani’s style as a playwright.

Louisa Vilardi as Gayle and Steven Bendler as Lendall in “Getting it Back”

Cariani intended that the play could be cast using as many as nineteen actors or as few as four. In this production, it was magnificently done with only five performers. To produce such a quality performance, where the actors must believably transform into new characters, and present distinct stories which hold their own, requires unfaltering professionalism and adaptability from each member of the cast. The cast at Clove Creek includes Steven Bendler, Teresa Gasparini, Josie Grant, Brandon Patterson, and Louisa Vilardi, all of whom skillfully prove up to the challenge.

The production’s deceptively simple set requires careful attention by Stage Manager, Katherine Abell. Scene changes are marked by only the smallest details which distinguish the sense of place and are integral to each scene. The flow of a show with so many quickly moving scenes performed by so few actors moving through costume and character changes requires steadfast attention to detail.

The play opens amidst a simple yet stunning stage and lighting design, created by Teresa Gasparini and executed adeptly by Matthew Woolever and Jeff Wilson. It shimmers with reflecting lights that recreate the beauty of the Northern Lights on a snowy evening in Northern Maine. A bench is centered between snow brushed pine trees and doorways strategically frame each side of the stage. The serenity of the set and lighting, paired with musical repertoire performed and recorded by Vitamin String Quartet, invites you in immediately. The music for each scene enhances the emotional flow of the stories perfectly and was artfully chosen by Ms. Gasparini.

Brandon Patterson as Steve and Josie Grant as Marvalyn in “This Hurts”

Actors Brandon Patterson and Josie Grant open the play by capturing the audience’s hearts in a sweet profession of love that leaves us smiling and laughing in anticipation of a later conclusion. Patterson was exceptional in his comedic timing and ability to embody new characters within very fast scene changes. His ability to make the audience respond to each of his characters in so many ways in one night is astounding. He held natural chemistry with his scene partners throughout, making him easy to fall in love with on stage.

Josie Grant brightens the stage with energy and expressiveness. She makes it easy for the audience to empathize and relate to her frustrations where the moment calls for it, while in other scenes she effortlessly lifts the action and reflects the hope the scene requires.

Teresa Gasparini is a phenomenal performer, an absolute natural on stage. The range of her characters provides her with opportunities to make audiences laugh and cry, and she provides a most memorable performance. Her chemistry with all three of her scene partners was clear and deeply moving.

Louisa Vilardi was convincingly beautiful in all three of her scenes. In her first scene, she plays a woman who leaves someone broken-hearted and has been found by someone else; in another it is her character who hopes there’s still a place for her in someone’s heart, and in a third, she plays a character who knows (she thinks) exactly where the relationship stands. All three are played with great humor and feeling.

Steven Bendler really pushed the limits of creating very different affects for each of his characters as well. In one scene, he has the audience laughing up a storm as he and Gasparini tear off each other’s clothes, in another, everyone swoons as he wraps his arms around Vilardi, and in a third, he and Gasparini leave not a dry eye in the room as a struggling husband and wife before being left sitting alone on stage.

Steven Bendler as Phil and Teresa Gasparini as Marci in “Where it Went”

The show was originally directed by Tamara Cacchione for The New Deal Creative Arts Center. Her talent and vision as a director are carried over here, but are also well combined with new directorial insights from Teresa Gasparini and Louisa Vilardi.

One intriguing choice which distinguishes this production is the use of two women, Gasparini and Grant, instead of two men, in the scene portraying two friends who quite literally “fall” for one another. It is a choice Cariani leaves up to directors. Despite controversy over the same-sex scene within as recently as the last five years, it is a credit to the production that the audience found the scene incredibly relatable. No small part of that credit is due Grant and Gasparini. They each bring the scene to life skillfully and in the universally human way to which Cariani’s script aspires.  

What is truly touching about Almost, Maine is that there is a story in it for everyone. As one sits and watches this show, it touches upon moments in our lives, past, present, or in a foreseeable future. It is storytelling at its finest, allowing the audience to see and understand themselves through the lens of live theatre. Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s rendition of Almost, Maine is so sweet and funny that it inevitably uplifts. On the other hand, it is thought provoking to a degree that may leave audiences doing some personal pondering as well. It makes for a brilliant show and some great discussion afterward.

Almost, Maine runs Thursdays through Sundays until Sunday, March 24, 2019. Matinees are scheduled for Sundays, as well as for Thursday, March 21. The weather outside may still be frightful, but inside Clove Creek Dinner Theater, the Northern Lights are quite delightful. This show, paired with a delicious meal, is guaranteed to warm your heart. Tickets are available at     http://www.clovecreekdinnertheater.com/.

Caitlin Connelly

Caitlin Connelly is an actor, vocalist, and artist living in the Hudson Valley. She is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, from where she holds degrees in Vocal Jazz/ Music Performance, Accessories Design, and Performing Arts. She is an avid storyteller and through it hopes to create the change she would like to see in the world.

Inappropriate Relationships – YER Productions

One Night Encore Presentation!

Inappropriate Relationships presented by YER Productions at Cunneen-Hackett Theater!

Amanda Baumler and Jim Granger in Misogynistic Shoes

Theater-goers relish the comfort of seeing a classic Neil Simon play, or delight in a good old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. However, there is something to be said for going to see an original work to which you have no ties, and can just be in the moment taking in a new, untold story.


As part of the series of stage plays entitled Inappropriate Relationships, YER Productions introduces the audience to several original works in one evening of diverse, humorous, and heart-felt theater. This production is an encore presentation after receiving its debut in early January in Poughkeepsie, followed by a performance at the Tuscon Fringe Festival in Arizona.

Gavin Kayner’s Misogynistic Shoes is a hard-driven suspenseful one act complete with an utterly shocking finale that will leave audiences ruminating long after the lights fade to black. Charlie, a middle-aged urbane man, roiling with inner turmoil, convinces Mavis, a free-spirited young woman to enact his darkest fantasy.

Carol Elkins in Winter in a Summer House


Continuing under the umbrella of Inappropriate Relationships are three short plays by local playwright, Carol Elkins, which have never failed to make people laugh.  The endearing humanity of these characters makes us laugh with them just as we laugh at ourselves. Who among us has not been in some sort of an inappropriate relationship at some point? 

Waxer, the first in the series, tells the amusing short tale of a housewife and a vacuum cleaner salesman can’t resist each other’s charms. This is followed by The Secret Life of Mother Pig where the heroine, in a final grasp at romance, picks the most unlikely suitor of all: The Big Bad Wolf. Lastly is Winter in a Summer House in which a genteel old lady engages a young companion to spend the long winter months in a TV inspired romantic fantasy.  These three plays are directed and written by Carol Elkins and performed by a talented group of actors who are no stranger to the local theater scene: Amanda Baumler, Jim Granger, Laurel Riley-Brown, and Nick Salyer.

Nick Salyer, Carol Elkins, and Laurel Riley-Brown in Winter in a Summer House

This out-of-the-box performance is scheduled for one night only on March 23, 2019 at Cunneen-Hackett Theater (12 Vassar Street – Poughkeepsie) at 7pm. Tickets can be purchased following this link:https://www.eventbrite.com/e/inappropriate-relationships-a-series-of-stage-plays-tickets-55060103251  or can be purchased at the door.This material is for adult audiences only and contains adult themes and strong language.

Almost, Maine – The New Deal Creative Arts Center

The New Deal Creative Arts Center Announces its Presence with Almost, Maine

The New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of Almost, Maine

“There was nothing “almost” about this production of Almost, Maine.”  – Keith Dougherty

The cast of Almost, Maine 
Photo: Louisa Vilardi Photography

In their first adult theater endeavor, Hyde Park’s New Deal Creative Arts Center hit the mark and made a grand entrance on the local theatre scene with John Cariani’s Almost, Maine. Having established itself as a youth arts mainstay in the Hudson Valley with productions like Peter and the  Starcatcher, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  A Charlie Brown Christmas, and A World War II Radio Christmas, New Deal can now add Almost, Maine to their list of successful and well-loved productions. This funny, heartfelt, and touching presentation of Almost, Maine marks New Deal as a local arts organization to watch closely as they continue to grow and flourish.

Almost, Maine is a series of short, seemingly unrelated scenes that all take place under a clear, starry winter sky at the same exact time in a town that’s “almost” in Northern Maine. The audience learns early on that the town is called Almost because the citizens never got organized enough for it to be acknowledged as an official town. The name of the town seems to have rubbed off on its citizens, as it appears to be a reflection of their romantic relationships. In this series of cleverly written scenes, we meet characters who are almost ready to pledge their love, almost ready to end their relationship, almost ready to bring their friendship to the next level, and almost ready to give their relationship another go.

“Story of Hope” – Austin Carrothers as Danny and Louisa Vilardi as Hope

With a simple, yet beautiful set, designed by Teresa Gasparini, spot-on sound design by Brandon Patterson, and a magical lighting design by Jeff Wilson, it was much more than the Northern Lights that lit up the stage at the Cunneen Hackett Art Center. Talented director, Tamara Cacchione, assembled a very competent, and versatile cast to portray the multi-faceted individuals in this character-driven play. The gifted cast transitioned from scene to scene seamlessly, and consisted of Teresa Gasparini, Joe Eriole, Louisa Vilardi, Austin Carrothers, David Sharbowicz, Josie Grant, Stephanie Blake, Nicholas John Salyer, and Steven Bendler.

This fantastical midwinter night’s tale did not only tug at your heartstrings, but has clear comic chops that also made you laugh. It is easy for an audience member to not only see themselves on stage, but friends and family as well. When a play is this relatable and you can undoubtedly identify with the character and stories, it truly makes for great theater. Unfortunately, this was a limited one weekend run for The New Deal Creative Arts Center, but luckily Clove Creek Dinner Theater has picked up this wonderful show. A handful of cast members from New Deal’s production will bring this heart warming production to Fishkill running from March 7 through March 24, 2019. With one performance already sold out, it is encouraged that you reserve your tickets quickly by calling Clove Creek’s box office at 845.202.7778 or visit their website: http://www.clovecreekdinnertheater.com

“Her Heart” – Teresa Gasparini as Glory and Joe Eriole as East

The New Deal Creative Arts Center is a non profit organization located in Hyde Park, NY. New Deal is a creative outlet exploring and celebrating all forms of art (fine, performing, visual, literary) through workshops, classes, special events, and performances. Their main focus is accessibility and  opportunity for artists and audiences of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.  As the New Deal was a new outlook and opportunity for the American people, The New Deal Creative Arts Center provides a new and exciting outlook and opportunity for artists and audiences. For more information, visit their website (www.newdealarts.org) and follow them on Facebook and Instagram @newdealarts.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Rhinebeck Theater Society

Review by Joe Eriole

In reviewing Rhinebeck Theater Society’s (RTS) production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it is necessary to note that the company is producing a remarkable script, by Simon Stephens, adapted from an even more remarkable book by Mark Haddon. It won the Tony for Best Play in 2015.

These advantages are, in fact, dangerous pitfalls.  The material is at once delicate and powerful, and the protagonist written so beautifully, that missing the mark would result in something more than poor entertainment or bad art. Undertaken by a company of ordinary ability and commitment, there would be a tragic gap between the heights the script ascends and the image on the stage.

These risks are noted because RTS has produced something so effective and engrossing that one might be tempted to view it as an inevitable outcome of such a brilliantly written story, but that would vastly underrate what RTS has accomplished here. There is no person credited in the program, whether onstage or off, whose contribution is not evident in its finished product.  We’ll return to the RTS story shortly; first, a brief synopsis of the Curious Incident story.

The focus is on 15-year-old Christopher Boone who sets out to solve the mystery of who killed a neighborhood dog, of whom he was very fond. In attempting to get to the bottom of the matter, Christopher must challenge authorities he has previously obeyed without questioning; he must push the limits of his own experience and abilities; and he must come face-to-face with hurtful and disappointing truths about the most important people in his life. 

All the action is presented through the voice and eye of Christopher – every other character is portrayed only as Christopher perceives them. The high art of the play is that Christopher’s perspective is of a young man on the spectrum. In his playbill notes, Director Andy Weintraub points out that this diagnosis for Christopher is made by professionals who have read the book and the play, and assessed Christopher’s behaviors, as well as his emotional and intellectual processes. Autism, however, is never actually mentioned in the book or the script. There, Christopher is simply one of us – seeking answers to things which have meaning for him by using all the skills at his disposal, and fighting through all the limitations that restrict him. Like the rest of us, his capabilities and restrictions range from negligible to very great indeed.

Michael Wagner as Christopher and Alex Scovan as Ed

It is a challenge of enormous proportions to play Christopher in a way that presents his autism authentically while connecting the audience to the universality of his search for meaning, trust, joy, and achievement. The performance of Michael Wagner as Christopher is simply stunning. You will not see a better performance in any venue, at any level, than Mr. Wagner delivers in this production. The physicality of his performance is mesmerizing, the affectation in his voice and movement is consistent, convincing and utterly effective. When he takes the deep dive digressions into Christopher’s brilliant mind for math and physics, we are transfixed – suddenly intently interested in what Christopher sees, even when we cannot comprehend it. And at the show’s conclusion, Wagner makes us all feel a little better about our own feeble abilities by giving us the impression we know something about triangles that only people as gifted as Christopher really understand. Wagner is a revelation here. 

As Christopher’s parents, Alex Skovan and Dorothy Luongo present heartfelt characters whose shortcomings are balanced by powerfully portrayed love for their son and pain over the compromised relationships the challenges of parenting Christopher have brought to bear. 

Skovan’s Ed is imposing and agitated; we never doubt that he is capable of the missteps and even malice we discover, but Skovan’s performance also maximizes every moment with Wagner so that his devotion to Christopher is never in doubt, either. 

Luongo is an actor of great instinct and emotional energy. Like Ed, the flaws in Luongo’s Judy are stark and, in relation to her son, perhaps even more disappointing. But Luongo’s commanding  expression of her deep love and sadness when alone with Christopher, and her fierceness once resolved to act on his behalf, are moving portraits of a mother’s love and an actor’s craft.

When the play is not carried by Christopher’s inner dialogue, it is narrated by Siobhan, a trusted teacher and touchstone for Christopher. Siobhan is beautifully played by Emily McCarthy, whose portrayal is unabashedly loving, with a believable touch of professional concern for Christopher that a person in Siobhan’s position would need to possess. 

The supporting cast, all of whom are called upon to play multiple roles, each deserve mention. They must each perform characters throughout the play with plausible distinctive traits, while also acting as living set pieces and props. Patricia Seholm, David Foster, Logan Gray Hall, Andy Crispell, Lisa Delia, and Jody Satriani, all do excellent, committed work here. Their desire to support the value and quality of the production in every aspect is obvious. Even amid Wagner’s tour-de-force, there is never a moment when the audience member feels the level of the play drop, a great credit to the quality of the actors who round out this cast.

Emily McCarthy as Siobhan and Michael Wagner as Christopher

As mentioned at the outset, everyone credited in the program made a contribution which could be clearly seen in the finished product. 

Weintraub’s direction allows for a captivating theatrical experience. Deferring, as he acknowledges in his own program notes, to the particular skills and experience of his technical crew and actors, his role in the production is apparent. Choices must be made, after all, from among the collective wisdom of a talented crew. Weintraub’s leadership results in a complex but never heavy-handed production. 

The play is set in the U.K., and every actor speaks in an English accent. The use of accents in live theater is often a disastrously distracting choice; here much credit must be given to the actors, to Russ Austin who is credited as a dialect coach, and to the producer and director for engaging a dialect coach. The dialects are never a distraction and add to the quality of the show. Mr. Austin is also credited as a Music Consultant, and here again, the contribution is evident. The mood of the show is constantly supported by an intriguing musical score. 

The onstage movement must be crisp and angular to match the movement of Christopher’s mind. These orchestrations are not window-dressing; they are integral to us seeing the world as Christopher sees it. Marcus McGregor is credited as Choreographer and Co-Director. The play has no dancing, and yet every moment of it is a dance. Kudos to Mr. McGregor.

Mr. Weintraub doubles his Director’s duties with Set & Lighting Design. The staging of the play is in some respects remarkably simple, but only at first glance.  Its geometric floor and backdrop, its use of spots to delineate time and space, and its gorgeous projection of the spiraling machinations of Christopher’s mind are an entertainment of their own. This cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the quality of the graphics under the direction of Daniel Chester, and the equally impactful work of Patrick McGriff (Sound Design), Harley Putzer (Scenic Design), Tom Starace (Flyer Design), Light and Sound Board Operators Paige Segrell and Liz Crew, respectively, Jan Brooks, Heidi Johnson and Sally Nogg (Spot Operators), and Run Crew Harriet Luongo (Run Crew). Stage Manager, Patti Smith, and Co-Stage Manager, Joe Beem, run a sharp stage production in a story that demands clean lines and seamless movement.

The final credit here goes to Producer Heidi Johnson. This is Ms. Johnson’s first foray into the dangerous waters of Production.This show’s mix of subtlety and overt sensitivity, together with taking the risk of attempting it not knowing whether it could be properly cast and technically achieved, deserves no small measure of appreciation. 

The show is in the final weekend of its run this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with tickets available online atwww.centerforperformingarts.org. It deserves the attention of any serious fan of live theater. Simply put, see this play.

NOTE: In partnership with the Anderson Center for Autism, a special autism-friendly performance will be held on Saturday, Mar. 2 at 2 p.m.  This special matinee, designed to support the needs of those on the autism spectrum and their families, will feature lower sound and light effects and dimmed (not dark) house lighting. The lobby will also be available for those who need to take a break during the show.  All audiences are welcome to attend this performance.

Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.