Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason

This was an amazing production thanks to the remarkable talents of Laura Woyasz and Jackson Thompson. Here are some photos.

"Did you write the hot one?"

"Let's go celebrate!"

"There are 57 comments."

"I can't believe you said that."

"You did it - I'm proud of you"

"My app launched last night"

"Let's go to Paris"

"Well, there is one thing we could do . . . "

"Want some wine?"

Theater Review: Shaker Bridge Produces a Clever Comic Romance
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2016 
(Published in print: Saturday, January 23, 2016)

In Laura Eason’s smart, funny, two-person play Sex with Strangers, currently at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, Ethan Strange, a loquacious, hyper-confident, mid-20s blogger who seems defined more by his media “platform” than actual talent , meets Olivia, an insecure, prickly and obscure but gifted writer on the verge of turning 40.

Ethan arrives in the middle of a snowstorm at an isolated, rural B&B in Michigan that doubles as a writer’s retreat. Olivia is polishing a draft of her second novel and is not at all happy when Ethan, there to work on a screenplay, breezes in, expecting to find WiFi (nope), food (just Cheerios) and chatty conversation (forget it).

Ethan, whose philosophy can be summed up as “I tweet, therefore I am,” is stunned that his phone can’t pick up a wireless signal, which, like many of his generation, he regards as a birthright, a moment that Jackson Thompson plays with a perfectly judged, comic display of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me disbelief.

For her part, Olivia, played by Laura Woyasz with an appealing combination of vulnerability and self-assurance, can’t believe she’s been marooned with a guy whose reputation rests on his blog-turned-book “Sex With Strangers”, in which Ethan writes a no-holds-barred, misogynistic account of his sexual exploits with scores of women.

Predictably but entertainingly, these two individuals, who could not be more dissimilar, set off romantic and sexual sparks. It turns out that Ethan has an agenda: he’s read Olivia’s first and only novel, which he tells her is brilliant. He thinks she’s underrated and deserves a wider literary audience. He offers not only to help get Olivia’s second novel published as an e-book, but also to re-release her first novel through an app he’s developing which will be devoted to discovering new writing.

Olivia is tempted, but suspicious. What’s in it for him? Why is he being so nice? Who’s the real Ethan: the crass, online Lothario or this disarmingly sincere, even gentle, young man? How can she take seriously a man who’s made a lot of money from trafficking in the most salacious details of his relationships and who regards the notion of privacy as so 20th century, like a rotary phone or the first IBM mainframe computer?

The considerable pleasure of watching Sex with Strangers is seeing how these two people spar, yet forge a real bond based on both physical and emotional attraction. I’d say intellectual attraction, but Olivia is the intellectual heavyweight here, while Ethan has much to learn — about books, writing and not least, women.

She’s appalled by just how ignorant he is about literature, which is her life’s blood, but also finds his unpretentious candor appealing. He doesn’t pretend to be other than an immature guy interesting in making a lot of money. Until, of course, he reveals himself to have his own serious literary aspirations. And when Olivia, with Ethan’s help, begins to find literary fame, the balance between them begins to shift. Who’s the acolyte now?

On one level, Eason, who was the former artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago and has written for the Emmy-nominated drama House of Cards on Netflix, has constructed an evening of solid comic entertainment , with frequent laughs arising out of the disjunction between Ethan and Olivia, particularly in the first act.

On another level, she’s examining the enormous cultural divide between those who live on and through social media, and those who either disdain it or just haven’t come to grips with it . The implications of this change are so enormous that we can’t be certain how it’s all going to shake out for future generations.

What does it mean to reveal almost everything about oneself online? How do you give people the benefit of the doubt if you’ve already researched every single detail about them on the Internet, and dismissed or embraced them accordingly? Does the Internet, which seems, on the surface, to be more open and democratic, actually have the effect of sorting people into like-minded camps? Do we really want to know what everyone is thinking from minute to minute?

Eason also ventures onto the always fertile ground of artistic ambition and jealousy, which often go hand-in-hand. It’s easy to be complimentary when one person is up, and the other down, but when they draw even that complicates things mightily.

Jackson Thompson and Laura Woyasz, who was last seen at Shaker Bridge in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, are well-matched. Thompson, acting at Shaker Bridge for the first but not, I hope, the last time, has a keen radar not only for Ethan’s frequent displays of adolescent entitlement, but also his sincere generosity and astute insight, even when he’s pulling the kind of controlling stunts that rightfully infuriate Olivia.

Woyasz’s performance is finely calibrated, as she portrays not only Olivia’s thwarted literary ambition and raging self-doubts about her career, but also her unshaken confidence in her intellectual and literary judgment.

There’s a scene early on in which Ethan talks to Olivia about her first book. Olivia’s been prepared to dismiss him as a know-nothing until he talks intelligently about her writing. And when Ethan tells Olivia that he can help her reach the audience she deserves, watch Woyasz’s face as she see-saws between skepticism and hope, wanting to believe him but distrusting him at the same time.

The second act takes a turn toward straight drama, which isn’t quite as successful as the humor of the first act. And the play has an ending that seems a bit too easy. To say more would be to venture into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that the ending holds out an ambiguous promise, which isn’t entirely persuasive, given what’s come before.

But that’s a quibble for a production that is well acted by Woyasz and Thompson, and deftly staged by Bill Coons, Shaker Bridge’s artistic director, who has the gift of making actors on his stage seem as natural as can be.

Sex With Strangers continues through Feb. 7 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. For tickets and information go to shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Miracle On South Division Street - Redux

Because so many people wanted to see it again, we brought back Miracle On South Division Street and it was a big hit - again. Returning from the original production were Brandy Zarle and Jeannie Hines and new cast members Tim Rush and Donna Wandrey.

"It's my letter to the pope"

"That girl is my mother?"

"It's called the Vagina Monologues"

"They're Grandpa's love letters"

Saturday, November 7, 2015

SEASON NINE begins with an amazing production of 

Michael Weller's play, Side Effects.

Here are some photos from a production that got a standing ovation at every performance.

Lindy embarrassed Hugh

Linda needs another drink

She's excited and nervous!

Get rid of whoever's tailing me!

The worst phone call possible

I will - for a thousand dollars.

I've given up a lot for you!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Fund Drive Drawing

This is the original oil painting that will be awarded 

on May 17 to one lucky donor.

Aline E. Ordman

Truchas Sky
oil on canvas
16 x 20

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Venus In Fur

Just closed Venus today - I'm really going to miss it almost as much as I'll miss working/playing with Lucas and Laura.

Here's the review:

With ‘Venus in Fur,’ Shaker Bridge Plumbs Desire and Power 
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2015 
(Published in print: Thursday, February 12, 2015)

Venus in Fur, the tantalizing, entertaining play-within-a-play by David Ives now at Shaker Bridge Theater in Enfield, is one sure way to shake off the winter blues.

To say it’s a play about sex, power and domination makes it sound more heavy-going than it is. It begins as a screwball comedy — a tightly-wound, buttoned-down man meets a free-spirited blonde bombshell — but the stakes, and the tension, ratchet up as Ives introduces layers of complication and provocation.

Venus in Fur is an intimate conversation between two characters, two actors, but it’s also a play about the dichotomy between the way we present ourselves publicly and privately. And it’s about the deep-down needs, which aren’t always necessarily sexual and not always articulated, that we may not acknowledge to ourselves, but which other people can see in us.
Ives based his play on the erotic novella Venus in Furs, published in 1870 by the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who put the “masoch” in “masochism,” and whose name sounds like something dreamed up by Mel Brooks.

Sacher-Masoch was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the city of Lemberg, now Lviv in the Ukraine. His novella follows the amorous exploits of dreamy, sensitive intellectual Severin von Kusiemski, who becomes enamoured of Wanda (pronounced Vanda) von Dunajew, a woman of great intelligence and beauty. As they become involved, Kusiemski begs her to enslave him, which she happily does. He derives sexual pleasure from her dominance, but also feels the sting of her cruel indifference to him. The more submissive he is, the harsher her treatment, and the more exquisite his agony.

Ives’ play begins in a shabby New York audition room . Thomas, a writer and director who’s adapted Venus in Furs for the stage (Ives drops the last “s” in his title), complains on his cellphone to his fiancée that his efforts to find the right woman to play Vanda have been unsuccessful; the only actresses who have read for him, he says, are dim-witted and unprepared, with Valley Girl vocal mannerisms — and vulgar, to boot.

Thomas, played by a fine Lucas Van Engen, is the kind of New York intellectual who plays as a series of clichés: high brow, pompous and condescending. Beneath that, though, is an earnest idealist, and a man perhaps stifled by the very intellectual constructs to which he pays homage.
Just as Thomas has given up auditioning for the day, there’s a knock on the door. Enter real-life actress Vanda, played by a charismatic Laura Woyasz, swearing and talking a mile a minute, dragging in shopping bags and an umbrella. Flustered because she’s late for the audition, Vanda begs a reluctant Thomas to let her have a shot at a reading. Ives has fun introducing dramatic moments, such as Vanda’s entrance, with claps of thunder, as if we were watching a campy melodrama.

Thomas is tired and frustrated, and wants only to go home. He tells Vanda that he’s finished auditioning. In truth, she seems no different from the women he’s already sent on their way — clueless, and lacking an artistic aesthetic.

But Vanda is undaunted by his dismissiveness, and insists on reading for him. Isn’t it fate, after all, that she happens to have the same name as Sacher-Masoch’s heroine? And look! When she whips off her trenchcoat, she’s already dressed for the part, in black corset, garter belt and boots.
The moment Vanda starts reading her lines, Thomas is startled by her transformation into a poised, steely European aristocrat. And as Thomas and Vanda act out his play, with Vanda coaxing and flattering him into playing Severin (not much persuasion is needed) the balance of power shifts.
Vanda, who has been comically self-deprecating and charmingly flirtatious, begins to exert intellectual independence, poking fun at Thomas’ reverence for Sacher-Masoch’s prose, which, if you take a spin through the novella, has moments of acute insight into sexuality, but which also can read as if Anais Nin were being parodied by P.G. Wodehouse.

Ives takes this trope of the man at the mercy of a cruel woman and reimagines it. He respects the original, with its lengthy considerations of the nature of desire, but takes it further by examining the dynamics of power in more modern ways: The power of a director over an actor, the seduction of director by actor, the power of lust and imagination.
“You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism; I’m in the theater!” Vanda jokes with Thomas, which gets a big laugh.

Isn’t Venus in Furs really just a hackneyed view of women, Vanda demands of Thomas. To cite one gem from the novella: “Despite all the progress of civilization, women have remained exactly as they emerged from the hand of Nature.”
Thomas protests but Vanda begins to, metaphorically, undress Thomas, probing his weaknesses and responding with increasing fury when she feels he’s dissembling.

Thomas realizes that this Vanda isn’t the same woman who walked in the door. But who is she exactly? How does Vanda understand the play so well, if she’s as untutored as she claimed to be? Why does she seem to know so much about Thomas’s fiancee Stacy, pegging her, accurately, as the same kind of uptight intellectual he is? Is Vanda’s intention to seduce or punish Thomas?
As the atmosphere intensifies, Vanda commands Thomas to dress her, just as Wanda commands Severin. The air is taut with erotic tension, of gratification delayed.

Bill Coons, the artistic director of Shaker Bridge Theater, has done a fine job with the actors playing Vanda and Thomas, balancing sensuality with laughter, and vulnerability with control.

Woyasz bursts on stage with the physical comedy of a Judy Holliday or a Goldie Hawn, exuding ditziness and likeability. She’s dynamic on stage, deft at comedy and commanding in the moments that call for a volatile toughness.
As Thomas, Van Engen strikes the right notes of the aspiring artist who wants to be taken seriously, but is also afraid that his life, when the facade has been dismantled, is something of a fraud.

The play ends on an ambiguous note (another point of comedy in the play: the distinction between “ambiguous” and “ambivalent”), with Thomas poised on the precipice of ... what exactly? Revelation or destruction? We’re not sure. The ending is a bit of a let-down after the rapid verbal volleys that have preceded it, but the playful comedy throughout more than compensates.

Venus in Fur continues at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield’s Whitney Hall through Feb. 22. Tickets are $32, $25 for students with ID. For information and tickets call 603-448-3750 or go to shakerbridgetheatre.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

And here are some photos from the production:

Am I late? Fuck!
If you will?

Interesting sentiments . . .


Go to hell, Stacy!

I'll please a man


Just peeping' over the fence?

rumble, rumble, rumble
Where will this end?

Call Stacy

into a woman's hands

Don't Talk To The Actor

Here are some photos from the production, and the review -


They'll like you - I promise.

Bea's reluctant rehearsal

The big ending

Beatrice can sing

Jerry draws the line

The mailman song

Needlepoint . . . 

stage manager extraordinaire

‘Don’t Talk to The Actors’ at Shaker Bridge Brings Laughs
By Warren Johnston
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2014 
(Published in print: Thursday, December 11, 2014)

Just before rehearsals are about to begin on fledgling playwright Jerry Przpezniak’s first Broadway production, Director Mike Policzek advises the young playwright not to talk to the actors. As it turns out, bad and hilarious things happen when Jerry ignores the advice in the Shaker Bridge Theatre’s very good production of Tom Dudzick’s comedy Don’t Talk to the Actors.

In the opening moments of the two-act play-within-a-play, Jerry (Joe Guarino) and his fiancee, Arlene Wyniarski (Michelle Carlson), a school teacher, actor and “one of the best cross-stitchers I know,” are waxing on about how lucky they are to be in a rehearsal room in the heart of the New York City theater district after having just arrived from their home in Buffalo. This is his big break, the one that will change their lives, Jerry says. He’s already rented an apartment in the city and given up his lease in Buffalo, much to the chagrin of Arlene, who saw a return to their hometown as a good back-up plan.

Despite Jerry’s pending success on Broadway, his play, The Piano Tuner, reflects his and Arlene’s homespun values and limited urban sophistication. It is the story of a piano tuner and his wife living in Buffalo. He’s dying of cancer and, as a sign of his undying love, he teaches her the piano tuning trade.

When the remaining four characters arrive and introductions are made, each one can’t say enough about the brilliance of Jerry’s masterpiece, which is bound to be a hit. “The parents in this play are my parents,” they all say. And Jerry and Arlene are reassured.

But as Don’t Talk unfolds, and Jerry talks to the actors, there are just “a few small changes” they’d like to make, and the naive Jerry and the wide-eyed Arlene find themselves swept up in the self-serving, chaotic New York City theater world of manipulation and ego-driven behavior. The dream they were celebrating quickly becomes a nightmare. Where is that back-up plan now?

Don’t Talk to the Actors is autobiographical and based on Dudzick’s experience when he got his first break with the off-Broadway production of his comedy Greetings, a Christmas play starring the late stage, screen and TV star Darren McGavin. The Buffalo native was fascinated by the unexpected events and interactions that happened backstage and during rehearsals, the playwright has said in published interviews.

As rehearsals get underway for The Piano Tuner, relationships and distractions begin to emerge, despite the best efforts of Mike, an understated, calm director, solidly played by Bill Coons who also doubles as the co-director of the Don’t Talk production. The avuncular has-been Curt Logan, an aging stage and television actor whose TV reruns have brought him back in to the public’s eye, is hoping this Broadway appearance as the piano tuner of the title will relaunch his career. The young and attractive Arlene has admired Logan since her childhood and keeps scrapbooks of all his clippings, an affinity the lecherous Logan, played by veteran actor Munson Hicks, is quick to exploit.

Stage Manager Lucinda Shaw (Jeannie Hines), “the best stage manager in New York,” tries to get the rehearsal started despite the absence of Beatrice Pomeroy (Dottie Stanley), a television actress and bawdy comedienne, who plays the wife. Every time the overly efficient Shaw tries to make a point, her cellphone rings, causing her to scream at the caller about being interrupted while she’s working. It’s her boyfriend, calling to tell her he loves her every five minutes, she apologizes.
Things move along slowly until Pomeroy shows up — she’s been delayed by her efforts to bring presents to the cast, toiletry baskets she’s stolen from her hotel — and breaks into the raucous Mailman Song, a number from her raunchy comedy routine. She thinks the play could use a song. Logan thinks the husband could be a stronger character. After spending a misunderstood evening on the town with Logan, Arlene convinces Jerry to rewrite the play to give it more “grit.” Jerry spends a sleepless weekend rewriting the play, and the results are disastrous, but quite funny.

As the playwright and the director in Don’t Talk, Guarino, in his first role with Shaker Bridge after appearances at Parish Players and Pentangle Arts, and Coons, the founder and director of Shaker Bridge, are the foundation of the play and well cast as the hapless straight men. That’s not to say they’re not funny. Jerry’s mounting frustration over his crumbling dream and Mike’s efforts to keep things in line while constantly whining about the prices of “things these days” provide laughs through out the play.

But the bright lights are the women and Hicks. Carlson, who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders in Plainfield, is a natural for Arlene and shines in the lovely and gullible role. This is her second appearance, and she’s also had roles in three Parish Players productions. A veteran of the local stage, Hines has appeared in numerous other Shaker Bridge productions. She’s terrific as the stressed, workaholic stage manager, and nails the British accent, the explosive phone behavior and her poignant emotional breakdowns. In her wonderful portrayal of Bea Pomeroy, Stanley is the life of the play. She’s a familiar face on the stages of the Upper Valley and has been in 17 shows on Broadway. Hicks embodies Curt Logan, just egotistical enough, funny enough and lecherous enough, masterfully pulling off a role that calls for playing a flamboyant over-actor without overacting himself. On Broadway, he’s appeared in dozens of shows, and he has numerous movie and TV credits as well.

Don’t Talk to the Actors, which was co-directed by Coons and Hicks, is an excellent, funny production that is well-suited for the intimate Whitney Hall.
Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of Don’t Talk to the Actors continues through Dec. 21 in Enfield’s Whitney Hall. For reservations and ticket information, email reservations@shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.

Rapture, Blister, Burn review

Should have put this up there with the photos - but here it is, the review of Rapture, Blister, Burn.

Shaker Bridge Opens Season With a Sharp Take on Feminism

By Alex Hanson
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2014 
(Published in print: Thursday, October 16, 2014)

Hello fellow Upper Valley 40-somethings. Have I got a date night suggestion for you.

Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2012 play, now in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, is all about the painful reassessment of life at the dawn of middle age, in this case, 42. That’s how old Catherine, a worldly, sexy academic superstar, is when she comes home to a New England college town to care for her mother, who has just had a heart attack. Being back home puts Catherine, played by New York and Shaker Bridge veteran Brandy Zarle, in the orbit of Don (Joe Reynolds), a former lover from her grad school days. That Don is married to Catherine’s friend Gwen (Victoria Adams-Zischke), well, let’s just say that the play’s first words, which come out of Gwen’s mouth to Don and Catherine are “I knew this wouldn’t be weird!” Cue the nervous laughter.

It’s weird because the people at the points of this love triangle are put in close proximity to their unlived lives, the ones they didn’t choose at 25, at a time when all the possibilities of their actual lives feel exhausted. While the play has been billed as a meditation on whether women can have it all, or feel fulfilled by either career or family alone, it’s as much an autopsy of the first half of life. Any illusions these characters nurtured through their 20s and 30s are laid out on the slab for examination. Shaker Bridge’s production in Enfield’s Whitney Hall communicates the fire and desperation of the characters and, for the most part, the comic pop and hiss of Gionfriddo’s writing.

Although Catherine has all the trappings of success — authorship, TV appearances, a New York apartment, travel — her mother’s heart attack has left her shaken and alone. She sees in Don and Gwen a companionship for which her careerism is ill-suited.

Once an ace teacher, Don is now a dean at what he calls “a fourth-rate liberal arts college.” He is also a regular pot-smoker who has turned irretrievably to online porn for his sexual satisfaction. Gwen is a hectoring recovering alcoholic who can see in her sobriety that she gave up on her own dreams too early; she lives mainly through Don and her two sons.

Don has set Catherine up with a summer class to teach, and in the play’s most glaring contrivance, Gwen and Avery, Gwen’s 21-year-old former babysitter are the only students. Class is held at Catherine’s house, which puts the three women in the company of Catherine’s mother, Alice (Janet Eller). Much of the first act is taken up with a multi-generational discussion of feminism and discontents. Catherine is unmoored and Gwen is stifled. Avery (Caitlin Glasgo) is a harsh, salty judge of the older women, while Alice gently shakes her head and marvels at how the times have changed, and how much has stayed the same, regardless.

After Catherine and Gwen bare their unhappiness, and Don lurches his way from one loyalty to another, a different living arrangement occurs to the members of the triangle.

This is some heavy subject matter, but Gionfriddo’s writing, the solid direction of Bill Coons and capable performances from the whole cast keep the play’s jokes snapping along. Zarle plays Catherine as a learned, independent woman who has reached perhaps the most fragile moment of her life so far. As Don, Reynolds slouches from one scene to another, a sad sack who knows who he is, but wishes he was someone better. Gwen is still searching for her own center, a quality Adams-Zischke brings to the fore. Glasgo steals every scene Avery is in, issuing spiky lines of foul-mouthed disbelief at the cluelessness of her elders. Janet Eller is a steadying presence as Alice.

About Avery and Alice: During the feminism class, they are given some of the play’s most incisive lines as they slice into the middle generation from either end. This is one of the play’s most winning points — its dissection of how feminism and its dicontents change from generation to generation.

A viewer could quibble with Gionfriddo’s decision not to provide a more functional masculine character as a counterpoint to Don, but this is not a play about the sexes. (Indeed the play about a man in this predicament was written long ago and it doesn’t end well. It’s called Death of a Salesman.) Gionfriddo wrote Rapture in part as an homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. She set out to write a play about internet pornography, but her research on the feminist response to porn led her in another direction.

At the heart of Rapture, Blister, Burn, (a title drawn from the lyrics of Courtney Love’s band, Hole) is the notion that feminism has provided women with more freedom, but hasn’t been able to help women, or men, to negotiate it, an idea that Catherine articulates.

This helps explain the play’s spiritual underpinning: addiction. The characters are often found numbing themselves, with booze, pot, porn, sex, as a distraction from an environment that requires constant, almost feverish communication.

Gwen gave up drinking years before and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but while Don seems possessed of enough self-awareness to know he’s stuck, he pooh-poohs Gwen’s participation. Middle age is when it might be a good idea for all of us to ask some sort of higher power to grant us serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer.

In the end, earth-shaking change is hard to come by in middle age. And maybe that’s for the best.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through Oct. 26. Tickets are $32, $25 for students with ID. Call 603-448-3750 or email reservations@shakerbridgetheatre.org.