One of the many gifts in this life is that every day is a surprise, when anything might happen, and magic is always in the air. One can say the same about the gifts given to us by theater and all the people involved in it, from the first kernel of an idea from the playwright, to the crew tearing down the set after the final performance. Whether in the great amphitheaters of ancient Greece and Rome, or in the smallest playhouse in Western New York, whenever and wherever actors take the stage and action commences, there is magic in the air and anything might happen.
Some years ago in the merry month of May, I stood in the stone circle at the center of the 450 BCE Greek Amphitheater at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese and experienced what some might consider brain freeze, but which I recognized as stage fright. I was in awe of this magnificent place. There were several people more or less waiting in line to take my place, so there was not a lot of time to get over myself. My plan had been to recite part of Volumnia’s plea to Coriolanus in Act V in this ancient limestone venue. Before I took my place in the circle, I thought I knew most of the monologue. It seemed the most appropriate piece for the setting from my limited repertoire. It turned out I did not know this one from Shakespeare as well as I thought, but I pressed on because, as Billy Joel once said, “I’ve been a fool for lesser things," and when would I ever have another opportunity to perform for the crowd at an ancient Greek amphitheater?
To back up a little, a friend and I were touring Greece and stopped at Epidaurus at my request. It was early in the season, tourists were not yet thick on the ground, and the summer performances of classical plays in this classical place had not yet begun. So, while the venue could seat 14,000, that day the crowd was more in the range of 30 to 40. I managed to speak at last and voiced a very short version of that monologue and was met with applause, not only from my friend sitting half way up the hill, but also from others. After me, a tenor sang an aria from an opera I did not know. And then someone recited what sounded like a poem in a language I didn’t recognize. And on it went. We sat in various places around the hill, on a beautiful sunshiny Greek day and smiled and applauded each other like mad. We were in one of the oldest theaters in the world, a place where the plays of Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Menander were performed when they were new. Everyone there had a unique experience that will never be repeated, whether they were in the circle, in the audience, or both.
That is what is so exciting about theater. People are willing to stand in the circle and let whatever happens happen. They stumble sometimes as I did, but oh, when it flows, it is the best there is. And as the audience, we are witness to and participate in that flow and are transported and sometimes transformed by it.
It is May again, and the 2016-2017 theater season in Buffalo is coming to a close (see below for the few remaining openings and the upcoming summer offerings), as is my first season as a theater reviewer for BuffaloVibe.com. This is an occupation I never envisioned for myself in any of my dreams, from the wildest to the mildest. Yet, here I am in a role that is both a great responsibility and a great pleasure. I am very thankful to my friend Marti Gorman for nudging me into it and to Kevon Greenidge for publishing what I write.
Over the past six months I have reviewed seventeen plays produced by twelve different theater companies, beginning with the hilarious parody The 39 Steps at Kavinoky Theatre in November and concluding, as of this date, with the popular musical Wicked at Shea’s Performing Art Center. In between, I entered the worlds of Duke Ellington, a failed Mexican artist, a well-known monster, Elvis, a painter who never paints, a lovesick clown, an African-American Scrooge, a grieving widower, a trial that never took place, foul-mouthed Puerto Rican lovers who almost cannot get over themselves, a family of successful and not-so-successful theater folk, an emcee like no other, a brilliant young woman who has lengthy conversations with her dead father, a piano-playing madman named Jerry Lee, a Cockney millionaire, and the most deliciously captivating Cleopatra this side of the Nile. And that is the short list of some of the many and varied theatrical experiences offered theater-goers so far this season in WNY and Southern Ontario.
There was tragedy in A View From the Bridge at Kavinoky, farcical comedy in The Underpants at American Repertory Theater, family tragic-comedy in The Country House at Road Less Traveled, courtroom drama in The Trial of Trayvon Martin at Subversive Theatre, and...on and on and on.
In addition to all of that and more, I was witness to an interview with Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Dinner with Friends. John Elston of Road Less Traveled spoke with him for two hours. Mr. Margulies was charming, funny, and insightful. He said, among many other things, that he likes to write about complicated people who cannot be easily dismissed, and that he has compassion for all of them, even the ones with reprehensible opinions - something we might all keep in mind during these difficult times. His play Sight Unseen about a famous artist whose works are so popular that people buy them sight unseen will be produced by Jewish Repertory Theatre next year.
That is the season that was. What is coming up looks just as intriguing. Here are the local shows, and some highlights from up north and down south.
- On May 26th, Raices Theatre Company opens Desde el Puente/From the Bridge, ten short plays written by local playwrights and members of the Raices ensemble in both Spanish and English. At the Manny Fried Playhouse.
- On June 2nd, Irish Classical Theater opens with Hay Fever, a Noel Coward comedy of manners set in the 1920s. (See below for links and details of all the summer offerings). Keep in mind ICTC offers a free dress rehearsal the Wed. before opening, and pay-what-you-can matinee the first Sat. of each show.
- Also on June 2nd, Second Generation Theatre Company opens The Light in the Piazza at the Lancaster Opera House. This is a musical set in Italy about the romance between a young American who is not exactly as she seems and her Florentine lover.
- On June 9th, Ujima Theatre Company opens for one weekend only a devised theater piece called Free Fred Brown, about a young black man who becomes the reluctant face of a movement. It will be performed at Paul Robeson Theatre and is pay-what-you-can.
- On June 15th, Subversive Theatre Collective opens Radium Girls, about the struggle of young women factory workers in the early 20th century, performed by student actors from Buffalo’s Performing Arts High School.
- June 22nd brings the opening of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the comedy with Falstaff believing he is irresistible to women. This is the 42nd year this company is offering free plays in the Park. If you have never taken the opportunity to bring your lawn chair and cooler and sit on Shakespeare Hill, give yourself a treat and do so this season. On July 27th, Macbeth and his Lady will take the stage.
- July 12th brings the Musicalfare opening of a world premiere musical Pretty/Funny, wherein Imogene Coca helps a young girl come of age.
- On August 15th, Shea’s Performing Arts Center opens Disney’s The Little Mermaid, an underwater love story for the ages, for a six day run.
- Right now you can head north to beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Shaw Festival. Offerings this season that are on stage now include Shaw’s St. Joan; the musical comedy Me and My Girl about a Cockney millionaire and his love (see my Review); the comedy The Mad King George III; Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa; and the modern Canadian classic, 1837: The Farmer’s Revolt. Later in the season, plays will include Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion; Wilde Tales, four tales by the master; An Octoroon, winner of the 2014 Obie Award for New American Play; and Dracula, the tale of the Count with the unusual bicuspids. The Shaw offers backstage tours and other programs for the public throughout the season.
- To the south, the Chautauqua Theater Company at the gorgeous Chautauqua Institute on the lake of the same name is offering Noises Off, a side-splitting comedic look at theater; Detroit 67, set on the eve of the rebellion that ravaged the city; and Romeo and Juliet, first show beginning June 30th. Keep in mind that a ticket to a play at Chautauqua offers access to the campus, and the shops and restaurants therein. So, plan for plenty of time to take advantage of all that Chautauqua has to offer.
- Finally, quite a bit further north the Stratford Festival in Stratford-on-Avon, Ontario, is offering Guys and Dolls, The School for Scandal, Twelfth Night, Treasure Island, The Changling, Tartuffe, The Madwoman of Chaillot, and many more. Stratford is 2-1/2 hours from Buffalo, so plan for a very long day, or better, an overnight or weekend stay.
There is no need to wait for Curtain Up! on September 15th. There is something for everyone this summer theatre season.
So, Vision Heureuse, Feliz Vista, Eard Saeid, Pvawshivin Kvi Shu, Skastlivvv Prostmotr, or as we say in English – Happy Viewing.