There is a barrage of local theater on stages in and around Boston– here’s my take!

Photo: Maggie Hall Photography

ADMISSIONS— Joshua Harmon’s adroit take on one of the most incendiary issues of the day: diversity at an elite prep school. The play heats up on ignition when Maureen Keiller as admissions officer Sherri Rosen-Mason and Cheryl McMahon as Roberta the editor of the school catalogue open the show wrangling over exactly what that brochure should look like. The conversation is funny and fraught. Roberta asks how many “dark-skinned” people should be included.  Sherri recoils from the inflammatory terminology and resorts to white liberal speak to explain what is wanted. The issue blows up again at home as Sherri and husband Bill’s (Michael Kaye) son Charlie (Nathan Malin) is furious at being passed over as a result of what he feels is unfair affirmative action. Marianna Bassham as Sherri’s best friend Ginnie and mother of a biracial son, is shocked when her friendship is upended after a startling revelation.

The characters are all white, and the play in a sense puts to the test whether or not white characters in a dominant white world are capable of becoming aware of their own unconscious biases.  The play puts it this way: “It’s easy to make rules for tables you don’t have to sit at.” Who has access and why? How? The characters end up making admissions surprising to themselves and each other, while leaving many questions raised, unanswered:  What defines “a person of color”? Is it racist to deliberately single out people to include them? Or is it racist not to interfere with the happenstance of a systemically-biased system? Is affirmative action useful? Destructive? Disrespectful? The play is sharply-acted by this cracker jack ensemble, and nimbly directed by Paul Daigneault to leave you by turns, uncomfortable, laughing, and wondering if both or either are all right. DON’T MISS through November 30 at SpeakEasy Stage!

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY— Just in time for the big November holiday, comes another play that takes a crack at white liberalism with all-white characters trying to put on a school play honoring “Native American Heritage month.” Playwright Larissa FastHorse, who is Sicangu Lakota, gleefully roasts these nervous “woke” liberals in their own overstuffed politically correct predilections and raw guilt. Thanksgiving is clearly a loaded holiday when put in the historical context of the genocide that  followed that first friendly harvest celebration in Massachusetts. The humor comes from watching these characters turn themselves inside out trying to overcompensate for the awful truth.

There’s Amanda Collins as Logan, a zealous high school teacher aided by her oh-so-sensitive boyfriend Jaxton, Jesse Hinson, as a tall, touchy feely vegan street performer who pads around in baggy rolled up yoga pants. There’s Barlow Adamson as Caden a nerdy history buff and long-winded playwright whose play they are trying to rein into submission, and Grace Experience (!) as Alicia, a vapid L.A. actress whose claim to fame is her ability to be cast as any ethnicity because of her ambiguous brunette looks. Director Scott Edmiston accentuates the satire as we watch this facile ensemble squirm at the impossibility of the task before them: to peel back the layers of white history, without the benefit of Native American input, and convey to a group of elementary school children, the complexity of Indigenous American identity. We laugh our heads off at the futility of their efforts as they run headlong through the labyrinthine limits of their awareness, even as we appreciate the frustration of those they seek to honor.  SEE THIS through November 10 at Lyric Stage Company!

Photo by Liz Lauren courtesy of Victory Gardens

CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND-– This is one of the most unusual shows I’ve ever seen. A co-production written by Lauren Yee and now onstage at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, tells a tale I’ve never seen dramatized onstage. It begins with the forming of a rock and roll band in Cambodia pre-Khmer Rouge 1978 when that brutal regime murdered millions of Cambodians. The tale then flashes forward and looks back at the horror through the lens of one of the band’s members, a Cambodian emigre (Greg Watanabe) and his American daughter (Aja Wiltshire in a dual role as the band’s excellent lead singer) who’s now beginning to absorb her father’s history, and deepen her own.

This collision of cultures, narratives, and tones– joyous, tragic, absurdly funny, and terrifying–results in an emotional roller coaster that these performers ride with all its attendant ups and downs. Prepare for rock n’ roll songs by Dengue Fever, torturous scenes of internment led by a wise-cracking interrogator (Albert Park), and ultra-passionate performances–some of which could be modulated. The night I saw it, a generator blew (!) and took 20 minutes to be restored, but the fervent intensity of the production never wavered. SEE THIS through November 10!