Two to see as we head into Christmas WEEKEND!
Moonbox productions continually grows in stature as a presenter of first-rate productions in a consistently excellent repertoire! This time it’s Harvey Fierstein’s classic TORCH SONG (Fierstein’s 2017 reworked and reduced revival of “Torch Song Trilogy”) with a funny, tender performance by Peter Mill as Arnold Beckoff drag queen, loyal son, kvetch, and all around nice guy just trying to find love and get through life in one piece. The play in three parts, gracefully directed by Allison Choat takes place from 1974-1980: Act I (The International Stud) Arnold tries to find love in a monogamous relationship with Ed (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia); Act II (Fugue in a Nursery) Arnold, post breakup, navigates a weekend house party and a pretzel of twisted romantic relationships involving his and ex-lover Ed’s new partners: the young, sexy Alan (Jack Manning) and Laurel (Janis Hudson). Act III (Widows And Children First) finds Arnold 5 years later at home trying to raise a foster teenage son, the charmingly rebellious David (Jack Mullen), as Ed lingers along with the memory of Alan–when Arnold’s opinionated mother (Bobbie Steinbach) crosses the threshold!
The show is written for maximum laughs and heartache. But Mill takes it easy on the jokes, choosing to tone down what could have been a superficial tour de flamboyant force and instead go for something deeper. Mill leans into Arnold’s warmth and humanity, and in the process makes Arnold’s life and lifestyle keenly relatable and universal. Similarly, Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia as Ed whose bisexuality and inconstancy triggers every insecure bone in Arnold’s body, gives us access to the pain of straddling the fraught choices anyone who isn’t strictly heterosexual faced 50 years ago, and to some extent still does.
The play reignites after intermission when Bobbie Steinbach hits the stage as Arnold’s Ma and sets off a series of brutally honest interchanges with her son. Their scenes are wonderfully written and remain as germane as ever, Arnold struggling valiantly to hold his ground, and gain his mother’s approval without compromising his identity, while Steinbach’s Ma pushes back with equal parts love and anger, struggling to understand without judging but inevitably clinging to her identity as a Jewish woman of a certain age. Their standoff is powerful and tests the boundaries of love and tolerance as the differences among us all come into view. These themes in an era of deep division, and this production at a time of year when we all seek out home and family — remain as poignant and crucial as ever. ONLY THREE PERFORMANCES LEFT! See TORCH SONG at Moonbox Productions, The Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts through December 23!
LIFE OF PI based on Yann Martell’s 2001 novel, followed by Ang Lee’s 2012 film, is now a visually gorgeous theatrical adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti involving a fantastical, metaphorically-layered plot about a tiger and a teenage boy, alone and afloat in a boat. Fresh off its success in London as the winner of five Olivier Awards including Best New Play, the production has washed ashore in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theater with wondrous visual effects, and vast possibilities for contemplating this mortal life.
The premise is striking; 16 year old Piscine — Pi (Adi Dixit) for short–is forced to flee India with his family of zookeepers who take the creatures with them. They set sail, animals and allusions aboard; it’s a Noah’s ark of tigers and giraffes, orangutans, zebras and hyenas, storm and strife, life and death, god and nature…which turns into a 227 day sojourn for Pi after he’s shipwrecked with a Royal Bengal Tiger in a battle for survival. The story is told in flashback by Pi- whose tale may be as infinitely decipherable as the numbers his mathematical moniker “pi” suggest. As he tells his tale to various agents and administrators who want the facts, the “truth” proves elusive: Is he lying? Delusional? A mystic? Insane? and so on.
Let it be said, I’ve never seen such emotive puppets! They were ALIVE! Almost invisible puppeteers snake around the stage in a starry sea of light and waves, moving the sinews of these flesh and blood beasts! We feel their beating hearts and desperation as they panic aboard a heaving ship! I was absolutely mesmerized. Each creature seemed to be in possession of a unique personality and soul. I felt for them (I am an animal lover) and these puppets conveyed the ferocity of living, breathing wild animals! The lighting is otherworldly– a swirling ocean of tides and starlight onstage…. A raft of puppeteers, scenic, costume, video, sound and lighting designers are the stars of the show!
But therein lies a problem for me. The animals seemed more alive than the protagonist, which I suppose is partly the implication– the animals as extensions of Pi’s identity and worldview. It’s very difficult to dramatize a philosophical proposition on stage and this production/adaptation doesn’t fully crack it. The puppets are certainly literal and figurative constructs, constructs which may help us cope with the conundrum at the heart of the piece: how do we survive life? Well, we don’t. But there are certainly a myriad ways to take the trip. The play, like the book and the film, posits that it’s the stories we choose to tell ourselves which help us corral the physical and spiritual parts of ourselves into an approach to living and dying. Those stories may encompass faith, or not.
I didn’t want to be that much in my head– which is right where the climax of the play puts us as a metaphor is dissected onstage in full view of the audience and the ultimate question posed feels rhetorical rather than open-ended. I’d leave that scene out and let the infinite possibilities latent here wash over me. LIFE OF PI is especially relevant now when facts are evermore elusive and all the world’s a stage… SEE LIFE OF PI at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square through January 29, 2023.