There’s a whole lotta theater goin’ on– here’s my take in short:
ETHER DOME presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at BU is neither a gas, nor did it put me to sleep. Billed as a medical thriller about the very first surgery performed under anesthesia in 1846 under the “dome” at MGH, the real story is fascinating, but the play by Elizabeth Egloff– not so much. Who couldn’t make the following “stranger than fiction” historical facts dramatic: a doofus of a dentist dabbling in laughing gas, a dandy of a con-artist who betrays him, greed, competition, and the good, old-fashioned hubris of ego-driven medical professionals, almost willfully blind to the suffering of their patients!?! But these facts have not been dramatically shaped, and the result is a meandering tale with no heroes, no through line, no clearly developed conflict, no mounting tension. The disjointed action of the play, is ironically mirrored by its hapless, soon to be disjointed characters–screaming patients in the process of being separated from their gangrenous limbs by doctors with saws whose remedies also included bleeding with leeches, injecting milk, or a person’s own blood. Speed was ultimately the only thing these medicine men could offer; how quickly they could sever a person from his body parts, might at least cut the pain in two! As it turns out, half of their patients died of shock, or committed suicide before submitting to these gruesome, excruciating procedures. By contrast, the set is quite beautiful, but it doesn’t make up for this hack job of a script. I prescribe watching but ONE episode of Cinemax’s thrilling, enlightening, and tightly constructed THE KNICK directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen as a pioneering surgeon in NYC’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the beginning of the 20th century. Or, snooze through ETHER DOME until November 23.
On the other hand, I LOVED Boston Theater Company’s update of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, I’ve seen it dozens of times, and much more luxuriously ensconced, but the play’s the thing and all the player’s in it are what ultimately carry the day; my day was carried to almost giddy heights within a few moments of this 90 minute stripped down production which subsumes 24 characters into 8, and is played in a modest space on the second floor of the Calderwood Pavilion. There are three sets of lovers: Leonata and Don Pedro, Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick, and a jealous bastard of a half brother Don John lurking in the shadows to muck everything up. An unfunny take on the role of the idiot constable Dogberry is the one dull spot. But most of the cast is fresh and funny, not only in full possession of their iambic pentameter, but also their iPhones so as to text the Bard’s text for a contemporary twist on mis-communication. Marge Dunn and Jeff Church Jr. especially have the right snap, crackle, pop as the dueling lovers B & B. Their sizzling exchanges immediately suggest the fiery passion they so desperately fight to tamp down, while we and most of the characters can’t wait for it to explode. The production does as much justice to the heartbreak beneath the slapstick as it does to the romance, and is supported throughout by a cool, original sound design, and beautiful melodies/voices for Shakespeare’s songs. At the BCA’s Stanford Calderwood Pavilion through November 2.
IT FELT EMPTY WHEN THE HEART WENT AT FIRST BUT IT IS ALRIGHT NOW is an American premiere of a modestly engrossing piece of theater kicking off Theatre on Fire’s 10th season, co-presented by Charlestown Working Theater. It stars Elizabeth Milanovich as Dijana, a young woman from Eastern Europe who has been seduced and trafficked into prostitution in London. Inventively directed by Maureen Shea, the play happens in three scenes, and the audience moves from one room to another as the action unfolds.
The drama by Lucy Kirkwood would benefit from some judicious editing. Milanovich would too–she doesn’t have quite enough range to sustain the piece, virtually alone, and overcome a repetitive script with its leaden “dead bird” metaphors, but Milanovich does give us the right balance of vulnerability, toughness, and denial necessary to survive such a life, and is an actress to watch. The drama gets a much needed jolt in the second scene when the powerful Obehi Janice enters the picture, and the two women circumscribe an entire relationship, from heaven to hell– in 30 minutes. The last scene takes us back to the beginning, shedding light on how Dijana got roped in in the first place. But the play goes on too long, long after the dots have all been connected. Heartbreaking and worthy nonetheless– at Charlestown Working Theater Through November 1.
Finally, Happy Medium Theatre Company ironically opens its 6th season with a farewell to the space from which it and many fringe theater companies have been unceremoniously evicted: The Factory Theatre. The final show on that hallowed ground is LANGUAGE of ANGELS, a ghostly drama by Naomi Iizuka about the tragedies that haunt us. The play probes the disappearance of a N.C. teenager who went missing in a cave, and what then befalls her nine friends. With a few shafts of light, and an eery black
box of a space suggesting everything from the aforementinoed cavern to a lonely hillside cottage– the production is a mysterious work that circles around its themes of guilt and retribution, back and forth in time, sketching in piece by piece what may have happened one night in the dark. But the truth is as ephemeral as our memories. This production does its best with difficult material: characters and situations bleeding into one another, shrouded in the mists of time, and wrapped in a kind of visual poetry of language and execution. Several performances pop– Matthew Fagerberg as the sexy hothead Billy, Michelle Rubich as the doomed Allison, and Alexis Scheer as the missing but ubiquitous Celie. The piece is a fitting valedictory to a place that no doubt has its share of ghosts, and promises some interesting Karma to those who plan to turn the space into a gym for condo owners. At The Factory Theatre through Nov. 1. Happy Hallowe’en.