A Theatre Cornucopia: Emerging America

Groundbreaking Performances
in Boston & Cambridge

Nélida Nassar  07.02.2012

Boston and Cambridge were flickering last week with the “Emerging America” a four-day festival and theatre extravaganza bringing to both cities a group of promising directors, writers, singers and performers. This collaboration between the American Repertory Theatre, the Huntington Theatre and the Institute of Contemporary Art featured groundbreaking performances by American artists. Five plays occurred concurrently in these three venues: Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, directed by Sean Graney, performed by The Hypocrites; The Hotel Nepenthe written by John Kuntz, directed by David Gammons; Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce; Experiment America and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I was able to attend two plays out the above five selections.
John Kuntz’s six performances of The Hotel Nepenthe launched the festival at the Huntington Theatre.  Performed by Boston local artists and designers, it has received the Norton Elliot Award for “Best New Play” and “Best Ensemble” and the IRNE for “Best Play.” The plot is inhabited by a rich variety of characters on an unpredictable trajectory from a starlet, her lover, a senator’s wife, a prostitute, a taxi dispatcher dreaming of being an astronaut, a bus driver, a brother, a rent-a-car gal and many more.

The Hotel Nepenthe and a rental car agency cohabit with interconnected and inventive staging that recreates a storefront deconstructing in front of our eyes. The scenario manages to convey the merry side of America, but never sells its audience’s intelligence short, with plenty of fun along the way. Kuntz is unafraid to challenge the politically correct and the societal stereotypes and archetypes with irreverence to serious subjects such as sex, nudity, religious belief, gay prejudice “do you know that all gay people go to hell,” politics, murder and even child abduction” small babies are not easy to find, you can stuff them anywhere.” The four actors perform with mastery each of their numerous roles, Daniel Berger-Jones as a bell hop, taxi driver or a one-night stand is superb; Marianna Bassham is dazzling in her fluidity of transforming herself with great ease from the senator’s wife to a rent-a-car gal; Georgia Lyman as the starlet or the whore is uninhibited, luminous while showing her beautiful curves or being flirtatious and John Kuntz’s joy, exuberance and irresistible charm as the woman with wings or the boyfriend are infectious. The art direction, exquisite costumes and set are designed by David R. Gammons and the glorious lighting is by Jeff Adelberg; while the slick and polished choreography is by John Kunth.

There are few moments where the play could have benefited from cuts and from being tighter. However, there is no shortage of a great plethora of stars and historical figures dead or alive of name dropping from Lady Gaga, Marie Antoinette, Meryl Streep, Paris Hilton, the Kardashians family, Byörg, Sylvia Platz, Plato, Socrates, Confucius, Mary Magdalena and Jesus to make you laugh. The duo of “excuse me can you take our bags please, it is the honey moon suite” with its palette of international travelers characters and accents is virtuosic. In addition, the play ponders serious existentialist questions, in particular towards the end, but it is the narcissistic sighing of “there is no one likes me” that brought the audience to its feet roaring in laughter and applause.

The following evening, I headed to the OBERON in Cambridge to see Chicago best avant-garde theatre group the Hypocrites in the production of Pirates of Penzance that will perform four times only. Directed by Sean Granney the play was full of ridiculous plots presented more in cartoonish style than as an operetta with cuts of almost 80 minutes from the original Gilbert and Sullivan’s scenario. Some parts were a lot easier to understand, thanks to the extra care taken to deliver the most crucial play moments, other Gilbert and Sullivan-isms were even denser than usual, due to the breakneck speed at which they were delivered, and the non-stop hilarious stage settings.

Despite the edits, the play preserved some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s glorious harmonies. The singing and instruments playing by Nikki Klix, Ryan Bourque, Emily Casey, Shawn Pfautsch, Becky Poole, and Doug Pawlik were sometimes spotty with the guitar chords now and again out of synchronicity but still enchanting. The play also had a manic energy of a tipsy musical comedy with actors playing every role with besotted hilarity. The costumes were full of fantasy with the actors dressed in pajamas, water toys and remarkable random wacky costumes from the attic raiding someone’s funky instrument collection to try their luck with whatever instruments from a squeeze box or ukulele they could get their hands on.

But whether or not the plot was comprehensible, the acting was spectacular – especially Matt Kahler in the role of the Major General, and Christine Stulik as Mabel/Ruth, who is a force of nature. She sings brilliantly both the role of coloratura and mezzo soprano while performing as effortlessly the banjo. Ruth, the poor woman’s role pathetic persona she plays made you cringe but here was a twist: for the finale, Mabel and Ruth became one, a Janus-faced wearing half-and-half eyeglasses, thus they both got their man!

I was puzzled why the Major General’s “Sighing softly to the river” echoes were not sung by the entire company, as is usual. The cast, all brilliant comedic actors, were manifestly capable of handling it, and without them, the joke of the song was missed, though the tenor floated in for the echoes/ harmony had a lovely voice. And no “Ha Ha!” from the hidden pirates and police at “I thought I heard a noise,” was another dropped joke, one wonders why? Oh well, there were plenty others to make up for it. There were also lots of other petty quibbles and jarring musical liberties but still the play sparkled, it rip-roared and the entire audience laughed non-stop having a great time.

We are especially indebted to the American Repertory Theatre artistic director Diane Paulus’ tireless efforts and work in propelling Boston and Cambridge to the rank of great American theatre cities. This festival could not been possible without the dedication of three gracious ladies each directors of press and public relations of the hosting institutions: Colette Randall at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Rebecca Curtiss at the Huntington Theatre and Katalin Mitchell at the American Repertory Theatre, numerous kudos and praise for a greatly successful festival.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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