Madoff-Press-1The first productions of the new year have hit the boards–some harder than others. But the New England premiere of IMAGINING MADOFF at New Rep Theatre in Watertown is right on the money. I’ve never personally encountered Mr. Madoff, but Jeremiah Kissel gives us a mighty, provocative, visceral, and wholly credible performance. Written by Deborah Margolin as a philosophical/religious conversation between Madoff and a poet/holocaust survivor named Solomon Galkin (originally written as Elie Wiesel!), here masterfully played by Joel Colodner, we glimpse the soul of a greedy, remorseless sociopath beyond redemption.Madoff-Press-3

Kissel portrays the incarcerated financial felon as a man of prurient tastes, who is attracted not to the “money” but to its “movement,” which he likens to a virus fiendishly replicating itself. Kissel’s Madoff practically salivates over the power and comfort money gives him–“money makes everything softer”–then proposes a metaphor that will forever prevent me from thinking of a wallet the same way again.  It’s a scathing, creepily intimate take on a meticulously turned out man who makes clear to his secretary (Adrianne Krstansky) that he has noticed she has gained exactly 10 pounds; he is repelled by the poet’s touch, warmth, and capacity for commitment, and almost itches to destroy the illusion of a moral world to justify his monumental malfeasance. IMAGINING MADOFF is 90 minutes of inspired, uninterrupted acting in close quarters–the New Rep’s Black Box Theater– through January 26th!

88838VENUS IN FUR over at The Huntington is, oddly, a less provocative evening about the power struggle between actresses and directors, men and women, and ultimately goddesses and mere mortals, with intimations of kinkiness–or at least a pair of shiny, black,over-the-knee, high-heeled boots. I was not as turned on as many in the audience apparently were, judging by the standing “O” and the hoots and hollers at the end of the show. It did feature two outstanding performances, particularly that of the sexy and superb Andrea Syglowski who plays an actress named Vanda (the same as the character she’s auditioning for) who shows up late for an audition one night at the loft of the playwright, Thomas (Chris Kipiniak). The actress initially seems like a dingbat but ends up dominating the playwright with her talent and brilliance.

“Venus in Fur”  a modern play by David Ives set in NYC is based on a 19th century erotic Austrian novel “Venus in Furs” by an “ascetic voluptuary” named Leopold von Sacher-Masoch who codified the conventions of S & M and from whom the word “masochism” derives! I didn’t know that.”Venus in Fur”plays with the notions of sex, power, identity, and the fluid boundaries between what and who is real during the actress’s and playwright’s increasingly charged encounter. It ends up being an anti, anti-female diatribe–a needlessly complicated way of saying it’s a feminist play that lands with a surprisingly literal thud. But it was fun– especially for that guy sitting across the aisle who kept laughing too loudly, and just ahead of the rest of us throughout the 90 minute “play-us un-interruptus.”  Through Feb 2 at The Huntington Theatre.

Which brings us to THE COLOR PURPLE (!) at SpeakEasy Stage Co.,the musical based on the movie, based on the novel by Alice Walker. The leaden book by Marsha Norman, the generic, meandering score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, the awkward staging on an ugly, claustrophobic set choked by a large, gaunt tree and its roots, and the performances by a cast who were Celie_and_Shug_look_out_t580intensely well-meaning but who struggled to hang onto the notes, made this a long, painful evening. This tale of cruelty and resilience as a young African-American woman named Celie (Lovely Hoffman) fights to cling to her humanity has been tweaked into noxious sentimentality onstage by a cheery ending and some character exorcisms that differ from the story’s infinitely more moving movie and print versions. Even Maurice Emmanuel Parent as the mean “Mister,” Crystin Gilmore who sings the hell out of “Push Da Button,” and a sassy, omni-present  chorus of singin’ sistas couldn’t save this exhausting effort from wearing itself out. Through February 8 at SpeakEasy Stage.

the-cast-of-stephen-schwartzand39s-working-now-running-at-88989As for The Lyric Stage Co.’s production of the Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso musical adapted from the book by Studs Terkel– WORKING?  The cast is. The musical isn’t. The songs are insipid, the characters bland, the drama non-existent. I’d sooner a musical called “Twerking.” Through February 1.