Non-Registered Critics: Philip Brandes

Feb

CANCELED - A BODY OF WATER

Director Nan McNamara, who starred in both of those shows, demonstrates an assured affinity for the rhythms and nuances in Blessing’s writing. Leaning into the play’s ever-shifting realities and unmoored characters, McNamara’s in-the-round staging slyly situates the actors in a sea of faces. An immersive rustic sound design by Warren Davis effectively furthers the sense of isolation.

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Feb

NEVER NOT ONCE

For an issue-oriented play, these characters and their story lines are rendered for the most part with believable humanity and specificity. As the caring and committed Allison and Nadine, Cruz and Baxter illuminate the realistic limits and conflicts inevitable in any relationship — particularly when it comes to concealed truths. Their back stories about hard-won social acceptance add further dramatic weight.

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Feb

"The Unseen Hand" and "Killer's Head"

Often hilarious, the play takes pointed swipes at familiar Shepard stalking horses: cliched American ideals of cowboy masculinity corrupted by conformity and mediocrity.

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Jan

Earthquakes in London

The members of this dysfunctional family become increasingly sympathetic as layers of self-protection peel away to expose their traumas and very human weaknesses. Their stories artfully play out against the bigger issues that the playwright frames with formidable clarity.

Co-directors Hollace Starr and John Perrin Flynn deliver the play’s messages with urgency leavened with sly humor...

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Nov

Eight Nights

Weaving these disparate cultural threads involves some narrative artiface, but director Emily Chase and her cast bring the human reality of persecuted refugees to life with breathtaking emotional impact.

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Nov

All My Sons

As illusions shatter, the bare-knuckle confrontations are riveting in De Santos’ well-paced staging, which heightens the intensity but proves problematic for some aspects of the play.

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Nov

Buried Child

For this production, A Noise Within Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott returns to Shepard’s revised script, which the company performed in 1997. This time around, her staging moves briskly through material that could easily clock in at three hours. The lively pacing tends to emphasize the play’s absurdist humor over its creepiness, and some levels of character weirdness could be further explored.

Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking this for “All in the Family.” The production gets all the fundamentals right, and opportunities to see Shepard’s masterpiece done this well are few and far between.

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Nov

Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

William Hauptman’s adaptation faithfully honors the meandering, episodic structure of Twain’s novel. Roger Miller’s score, an artfully crafted regional mix of country, bluegrass, pop and gospel, is woven so seamlessly into these scenic snapshots that it doesn’t lend itself to stand-alone hits. The effect is more like a story with music.

In revisiting the piece, directors Kirby and Beverly Ward lean into that difference with an environmental staging that emphasizes intimacy over spectacle.

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Oct

How the Light Gets In

The play’s frequent reliance on characters’ narration directly addressed to the audience proves a mixed bag. It’s an efficient technique to cover backstories and internal states, but it’s less artful than revelation through interaction. Some particularly effective dialogue is undercut with confessional asides that the conversation actually unfolded a different way — a lazy shortcut to expressing difficult truths.

The four actors consistently engage, hitting all the right emotional beats. In a standout performance, though, Yu adds marvelously ironic character-revealing inflections to even the most matter-of-fact lines.

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Sep

The Gin Game

At Theatricum Botanicum, two fine actors remind us why ‘The Gin Game’ won a Pulitzer...

While Blumenfeld’s comic timing is impeccable, he also shows us how much more is at stake for Weller. Amid the joyless captivity of the nursing home, belief in his card-playing expertise is one of Weller’s few remaining pillars of self-respect, and he loses more of it with each defeat.

With equal nuance, James peels away the layers of prim-and-proper Fonsia’s scolding to reveal her terrified loneliness and the desperation behind her increasingly sharp-edged teasing. As she and Weller lash at each other’s psychic wounds, they shred the self-delusions that can no longer sustain them in the twilight of their lives.

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Aug

Nick Dear's Frankenstein | California Premiere

...fans of Shelley’s Gothic novel will appreciate how elegantly the show streamlines its principal plot points and characters, and how it illuminates the enduring scientific, medical and ethical questions so presciently posed by its 19-year-old author more than two centuries ago.

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Aug

Andy Warhol’s Tomato

Playwright Melocchi has clearly done his homework with respect to historical accuracy. Nevertheless, the play offers more than a biographical sketch thanks to the reciprocal fleeting connection between Chariton’s Warhol and Stevenson’s equally complex performance as Bones, a sympathetic Everyman who harbors an unfulfilled dream of becoming a writer.

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Jul

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Faithfully adhering to Brecht’s characters and plot, the Anta eus ensemble’s abstract style precludes emotional catharsis and ensures we never forget the theatrical artifice we’re witnessing.

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May

VIOLENCE: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer

The visceral staging by Bob Turton makes excellent use of the Actors’ Gang signature impassioned commedia dell’arte physicality, enhanced with unsettling masks and face paint.

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Apr

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED

The performers deliver an emotional wallop, but the show suffers the same problem inherent in adapting any literary work in which the manner of the telling is as integral as the story itself. Foer's sprawling, distinctively stylized novel employed Alex and Jonathan as dual narrators. A streamlined 2005 film version by Liev Schreiber limited the focus to Alex's point of view.

To its credit, Block's play illuminates more of Jonathan's internal journey, but that proves double-edged. In particular, his imagined lives of his distant ancestors and meditations on writing itself are steeped in literary eloquence — they read beautifully on the page but in live presentation remain stubbornly closer to recital than dramatic performance.

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Mar

Fuddy Meers

...under Jenny Sullivan's direction, the cast brings clarity and a sense of genuine stakes to each of Lindsay-Abaire's flamboyant characters.

Accomplished individual performances notwithstanding, there's room for tightening the ensemble's comic timing, especially in the overlapping frenzied slapstick sequences. In the play's more serious aspects, however, the production masterfully illuminates the characters' struggles to move beyond their own limitations.

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Feb

HEISENBERG

England's phenomenally expressive Georgie is a whirlwind of self-defeating manic extremes, the opposite of Parker's cooly ironic cipher. Grifter, lover, damsel in distress — England cycles through Georgie's multiple facets with pinpoint precision.

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Jan

Fine performances and a strikingly original premise. Brian Letscher's new comedy unexpectedly pivots into a quirky take on romantic possibilities in a brave new world of technology.

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Dec

SOUTH PACIFIC

Like the shifting waves in those projected seascapes, the serious message of “South Pacific” still teases, retreats and, ultimately, lands with timely urgency. Although it's easy enough to rail against things we're against, Rodgers and Hammerstein challenged us to dig deeper and recognize what we stand for.

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Dec

BUS STOP

Notwithstanding the sizable cast of characters, Inge's 1955 romantic comedy is fundamentally about loneliness, a timeless theme that director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky illuminates with style and grace.

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