According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shear Madness is the longest-running play in the history of America, and a visit to New World Plaza near Times Square makes it easy to see why. The play is a comedy whodunit in which the audience gets to spot the clues, question the suspects, and solve the crime – laughing all the way.
Shear Madness earned its Guinness recognition because it has been playing in Boston continuously since 1980 and in Washington, DC since 1987. It also played a 17-year engagement in Chicago and has been running continuously in Paris for the past 7 years, where it won the French equivalent of the Tony Award for best comedy. The play has been performed around the world in 11 foreign languages, in a host of cities including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Rejkavik, Rome, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Seoul.
Yet, up until Fall 2015, Shear Madness had never before played in New York City. That all changed on November 11, 2015, when Shear Madness opened at New World Stages to enthusiastic reviews and cheering audiences.
It all began in the summer of 1976 when co-producers Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, both former teachers, first met. Jordan was directing a summer stock production of the musical I Do, I Do at the Lake George Dinner Theatre in upstate New York, in which Abrams was cast. Jordan and Abrams discovered that they worked well together and quickly became friends. They initially bonded because they shared a similar sense of humor as well as the same favorite play (Noel Coward’s Private Lives) and, of course, as actors in constant pursuit of work, they also shared a similar lifestyle. When the production of I Do, I Do ended, their friendship continued.
Later that year, Jordan was working at a theatre in Rochester, New York when he came across a German play entitled Scherenschnitt (“scissors cutting”), which had been written in 1963 by a writer and psychologist named Paul Pörtner. The playwright had written the script to use as a study of how people perceive or misperceive reality. The brief play was set in a uni-sex hair salon and revolved around the off-stage murder of a concert pianist. Subjects were asked to solve the murder based on their individual perceptions of the events and the six stereotypical characters surrounding the murder.
Jordan was intrigued by the concept of the script and suggested that he and Abrams stage the play together in Lake George. Abrams read Pörtner’s original script, which she describes as “primitive,” and says that if she hadn’t known and trusted Jordan as she did, she “would have run for the hills” at the prospect of revising and staging a production of such a work. She did trust him, though, and they opened the newly titled Shear Madness in Lake George in 1978 with nothing more than a basic outline of a script.
The first year that Shear Madness played in Lake George, it was truly a work in progress, with the majority of the show improvised each night. As an ensemble, the cast maintained the action and the characterizations that received a good response from the audience night after night. They also incorporated the actual audience responses into the play. Jordan says that he continues to instruct the actors to “let the audience win.” He explains, “If the audience has something funnier to say or do than the actors, let them. That is the basic magic of the play.”
Soon Shear Madness developed into a show that changed every time it was performed. The actors followed a basic format and changed the specific lines along the way. Now, decades later, Shear Madness incorporates not only the contributions of the audience, but also frequent references to the latest media scandals and local news items.
Jordan recalls, “It occurred to me when we started actually performing the play that it would work well as a comedy. Early on, most of the laughs in Shear Madness were attained during the times when the audience was actively involved in solving the crimes. And the laughs were derived from the wild and conflicting misperceptions that the audience had.” As time went on, Jordan and Abrams wrote and incorporated more deliberately funny lines.
Thus Pörtner’s serious psychodrama became an interactive comedy whodunit. The show evolved into a raucous comedy that lets the audience in on the act. When they first opened the show, Jordan and Abrams were playing leading roles as well as producing. Because they were on stage each night, Abrams says they experienced the “magical” chemistry between the actors and the audience. They were acutely aware of the audience’s response to Shear Madness, and could see the show’s potential.
Jordan and Abrams then purchased the world, stage, screen, and television rights to the play. Cranberry Productions (as in, they are quick to explain, “What else goes with a turkey?”) was created to nurture the hit that they knew they had cultivated. With complete financial and artistic control over the show, they now had an enormous project on their hands. Receiving rave reviews and frequent suggestions from tourists from the Boston area, they decided that Shear Madness might work well in Boston. Thus, after more than two years honing the comedy, Jordan and Abrams moved their show to Boston.
The play was initially scheduled as a limited engagement at the historic Charles Playhouse in Boston’s Theatre District to begin January 29, 1980. The rest, as they say, is history. And now, nearly four decades and thousands of performances later, in Boston and all over the world, Shear Madness has finally opened in New York City. Sophisticated New Yorkers, tourists, families, suburbanites, and groups are all laughing their heads off at this zany mystery comedy. They have now discovered the fun, originality and the Sheer Magic of Shear Madness. Long may it run!
The Glorious Corner
McCALLUM’S FAREWELL — Last night was the NCIS show dedicated to David McCallum (The Stories We Leave Behind) and it was simply terrific. Written by Brian Dietzen, who essays Dr. Jimmy Palmer on the show, it was extremely touching and featured some great clips from past shows.
The vibrant opening theme for the show was re-cast in a memorial-type tone and worked perfectly. There was also a reference to his cat named ‘Solo’ – a fitting nod to his Man From U.N.C.L.E. costar Robert Vaughn.
McCallum was just a tremendous actor. I one met him once in Bloomingdale’s of all places and he couldn’t have been nicer. There was also last-minute cameo from Michael Weatherly, who left the show several years ago. It was just a brilliant moment and though pundits are already saying he’ll return, I don’t think it will come to pass.
There was also a letter from Gibbs (Mark Harmon) whose shadow always lingers.
A touching tribute well done on every level. McCallum will be missed tremendously; an icon for sure. 7 million viewers thought so too.
SHORT TAKES — Last week’s kerfuffle with Kelly Rowland abruptly leaving the Today Show, where she was pegged to co-host the fourth hour with Hoda, is much ado about nothing. Gossip pundits claimed it was because her dressing room was too small and Hoda herself sort of copped to it on Monday’s show. I predict she’ll be banned from the entire show for quite some time. It was probably more of a stunt pulled by her PR-people, as she generated a heap of press. For those who don’t know: most all of their dressing rooms are small …
17-old wunderkind Kjersti Long (her “Sad Song” was just released) looks to have her Relative Space-play begin in the West End, pegged for later this year …
Vanessa Williams will have for the role of Miranda Priestly in the upcoming musical adaption of The Devil Wears Prada by Elton John, It’ll debut in the West End shortly … SiriusXM’s Evan Levy left the station for Amazon, but has now officially surfaced at Jason Spiewak’s Noble Steed Music.
Congrats … Micky Dolenz speaks to Goldmine’s Tone Scott today about his I’m Told I Had A Good Timebook and upcoming appearance at LA’s Troubadour on April 5 … The media was ablaze Tuesday with news that director Sam Mendes would make 4 movies featuring each of The Beatles. Astonishing. Mendez is a great director and this looms as a challenge for sure. As a group they were invincible, but it’ll be interesting to see how Mendes handles each of their post-Beatles work; which had their ups and downs. Stay tuned, this is a big one …
Rod Stewart sells his catalog for $100 million? … We started watching Feud: Capote vs. The Swans -featuring a bravura performance by Tom Hollander as Truman Capote- and am loving it tremendously. Hollander’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen in years on the small-screen. Absolutely stunning with the direction by none other than the stellar Gus Van Sant. More on this brilliant series next time …
Happy 90th Bday Yoko Ono.NAMES IN THE NEWS — Steve Leeds; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; Adam Sandler; Jennifer Aniston; Curt Smith; Bob Small; Andy Forrester; Rob Dickens; Daryl Estrea; Jane Blunkell; Jane Berk; Eloise Keene; Eppy; June Pointre; Ken Kragen; Kent Denmark; Mark Bego; Jake Malooley; Graydon Carter; and ZIGGY!
NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?
I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.
It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.
The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.
Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.
It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.
Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
NYWIFT Announces Anniversary for Writers Lab for Women Screenwriters Over 40
The Writers Lab will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year supporting women and non-binary film and television writers over the age of 40. The only program of its kind in the world, submissions open February 20th for its 10th Anniversary 2024 development lab.
With the continuing demand for women’s stories, the Lab will once again include pilot scripts as well as narrative features. Continuing the unique nature of this program, attendance at the 4-day Lab and 6-month incubation is once again free for selected fellows. Feature and pilot writers selected for the fall 2024 retreat will work one-on-one and in group sessions with acclaimed screen industry leaders to develop their scripts and their craft, and to build tools and strategies to achieve success, thus expanding the diversity of new content. New this year, The Writers Lab will provide reader scores to all applicants. Submissions are open February 20 through March 28, 2024. Learn more and apply at thewriterslab.nyc.
The Lab also announces this year the inaugural Meg and Alex Weidner Family Foundation Fellowship, for a “female-identifying writer of 50+ with a female protagonist 40+.” The Fellowship will cover travel and accommodations associated with the 2024 New York-based lab.
The 2024 Lab will focus its programming on providing tools and strategies for talented writers to develop their projects and navigate the ever-shifting landscape of professional opportunities. Additionally in 2024, the Lab expands support for its alumni and its entire pool of applicants with virtual programming throughout the year, and additional rewards from partner organizations to applicants who place. Partners include the Writers Guild of America, East, The Black List, Falco Ink, Film Fatales, Final Draft, and Roadmap Writers.
“In our tenth year, we will continue to stand strong with the brilliant, hardworking, fierce women we represent, shepherding electrifying stories and artists into a world that deserves all the beauty it can get,” said The Writers Lab co-founder Elizabeth Kaiden.
Writers Lab 2023 writers gained recognition right out of the gate: two writers were offered shopping agreements and one was offered a writing job as a direct result of their involvement with the Lab. In addition, TWL now boasts 116 alumni, with 3 films made, 7 in pre-production, and more in contracts. Alumni achievements now total over 100, including job contracts, signing with managers or agents, and winning awards – including two Academy Nicholl Fellowships.
“Women storytellers are the engine that is needed to diversify the media that is produced. We believe change is possible. The Writers Lab offers high level mentorship, professional review, peer interaction and a safe place to hone their craft. Strides have been made, each year for 10 years now, in creating a community of women writers over 40 that have loads to say! We can’t wait to meet this next iteration of The Writers Lab storytellers in 2024,” said NYWIFT CEO Cynthia Lopez.
Established in 2015, The Writers Lab is the only program in the world devoted exclusively to script development for women writers over the age of 40. Produced by co-founders Elizabeth Kaiden and Nitza Wilon and New York Women in Film & Television, the Lab is supported by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, the Cornelia T. Bailey Foundation, and the Lynch Hall Charitable Fund. Since 2021, the founders have partnered with Untamed Stories, created by Julia Berg and Ruth Spencer, to launch new labs for residents of the UK & Europe.
The Writers Lab is putting together an expanded roster of influential, experienced filmmakers to mentor participants in development sessions, panels, and story-breaking workshops.
Mentors confirmed for 2024 include:
- Susan Cartsonis (What Women Want, Where the Heart Is, The Duff)
- Anya Epstein (The Affair)
- Amy Fox (The Connors, Equity)
- Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon, Music of the Heart, Conviction)
- Rita Hsiao (Mulan, The Monkey King)
- Jennifer Kassabian (Carter, Frankie Drake Mysteries)
- Meg Lefauve (Inside Out, 1 & 2, My Father’s Dragon)
- Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans, Respect)
- Robina Lord Stafford (Pretty Hard Cases, Moonshine)
- Mary Jane Skalski (Hello I Must Be Going, The Visitor, The Station Agent)
- Shelby Stone (The Chi, Lackawanna Blues)
- Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Memoirs of a Geisha)
- Pat Verducci (Disney/Pixar, True Crime, Smoked)
- Jamie Zelermyer (Focus Features, Boys Don’t Cry, Before/During/After)
Amber Gray, Tony Yazbeck, Robert Klein, Julie Gold and More Win The Bistro Awards
Bistro and MAC Award-winning artist Steve Hayes serves as host for the evening. He is a comedian-actor-writer and the host—for 15 years—of YouTube’s hit show Steve Hayes: Tired Old Queen at the Movies.
Writer and critic Gerry Geddes, longtime Bistro Award Committee member and senior contributor, as well as an award-winning director, is set to helm the Bistro Awards for the third time.
Truly a comedian’s comedian, Robert Klein will be presented with the Bistro Award’s top honor, the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award, for his six decade-plus career as an innovative and influential stand-up comedian—a career augmented with his extensive work as an actor in theatre, film, and television. He has been a source of inspiration for such talents as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Jay Leno, among many others.
Julie Gold will be honored with a special award asIconic Singer-Songwriter-Raconteur. She has been a fixture in New York City’s cabaret community for over three decades. Gold seamlessly blends her melodies with incisive lyrics—then presents her songs to her listeners with grace and nuance.
The committee celebrates Amber Gray with an award for Creative Artistry in a Cabaret Debut. Brimming with talent, wisdom, and emotion, her show Gray Matter was a uniquely personal introduction to the cabaret world.
Tony Yazbeck is receiving an award as Song & Dance Performer. His shows at 54 Below showcased his ability to adapt the energy, heart, and artistry of Broadway performance to an intimate space. Yazbeck’s charisma and versatility made for an extraordinary evening.
In 2023, Karen Mack put her considerable performance and songwriting talent on full display in an array of venues and shows—in solo presentations, in her ongoing jazz/swing series with Elliot Roth, and as part of the vocal group Those Girls. Whatever the occasion, she was a constant delight. The committee honors her for her excellence in a Variety of Cabaret Performances.
A Bistro goes to two singers who created shows paying tribute to legendary songwriters. Wendy Scherl receives her award for Tribute Show. In The Sweetness and the Sorrow: The Songs of Marvin Hamlisch, sheexplored the late composer’s biography with great heart, complementing it with stories from her own life. She performed some of Hamlisch’s most beloved songs as well as some of his lesser-known titles. Jason Henderson receives recognition as Musical Comedy Performer. He impressively harnessed his singing and comedic talents for his show Getting to Noël You—effectively using the songbook of Noël Coward to help tell his own story ofmaking ends meet while pursuing his dream of becoming a performer.
In the Vocalist category, Margaret Curry garners an award for her outstanding artistry. She brought her admirable singing and acting skills to her show The Space In-Between. Drawing the audience into her sphere, she shared a deeper look at life through her carefully selected, beautifully and uniquely arranged songs.
The committee will honor two shows that took an autobiographical approach. Roberto Araujo receives the Autobiographical Show honor for his exuberant show I Just Wanted You to Know. He treated audiences to a sparkling, multimedia-style
Lisa Vroman’s show Ingénue…Ingé-Not-So-New delivered a constantly surprising and engaging collection of songs, acted and sung with passion, humor, finesse, and top-tier musicality. She will receive an award for Theatrical Cabaret.
David Dean Bottrell will
With her recording Permanent Moonlight: Songs of Richard Rodney Bennett, Maud Hixson pays tribute to an icon of the music industry. Showcasing her impeccable vocal talents and her sensitive interpretation of lyrics, the album earns Hixson an awardfor her excellence in Recording.
Linda Kahn likewise receives an honor for Recording, for her outstanding album Wait ’Til You See What’s Next. This collection not only demonstrates her stunning singing talent, but it also shines a light on some of New York’s finest songwriters and musicians.
The evening’s musicians include the award show’s resident maestro, Musical Director Daryl Kojak (piano), along with longtime Bistro Awards musicians Ritt Henn (bass) and Rex Benincasa (drums).
Sherry Eaker, formerly the longtime Editor-in Chief of Back Stage, has produced the event since its inception in 1985. Eaker heads up the BistroAwards.com roster of writers and critics. Mark Dundas Wood, who has been part of the Bistro Awards committee since 2012 and who writes regularly for BistroAwards.com,serves as an associate producer of the show for the third time. Mary Lahti, who has been production assistant on the show for the past four years, is assistant producer.
The gala event will be held on Monday, April 1, at 7:00 pm, at Gotham Comedy Club, 208 W. 23rd Street, in Manhattan. Tickets range from $75.00 to $275.00. Ticket buyers in all categories are invited to the Bistro After Party as guests of the Bistro Awards. For details about the various ticket categories and early-purchase prices, visit www.BistroAwards.com.
Following is a complete list of artists whom, we believe, attained Outstanding Achievement during 2023 and/or for their body of work:
Robert Klein / Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award
Julie Gold / Iconic Singer-Songwriter-Raconteur
Amber Gray / Creative Artistry in a Cabaret Debut (Gray Matter)
Tony Yazbeck / Song & Dance Performer
Karen Mack / Variety of Cabaret Appearances
Margaret Curry / Vocalist (The Space In-Between)
Wendy Scherl / Tribute Show (The Sweetness and the Sorrow: The Songs of Marvin Hamlisch)
Elvira Tortora / Musical Memoir (The Bookmaker’s Daughter)
Roberto Araujo / Autobiographical Show (I Just Wanted You to Know)
Lisa Vroman / Theatrical Cabaret (Ingénue…Ingé-Not-So-New)
David Dean Bottrell / Storyteller
Jason Henderson / Musical Comedy Performer (Getting to Noël You)
Maud Hixson / Recording (Permanent Moonlight: Songs of Richard Rodney Bennett)
Linda Kahn / Recording (Wait ’Til You See What’s Next)
Two Epic Centerpieces in Two Very Different (and Dynamic) Musical Treatments Revel in Their Magnificence in Toronto: “Dion: A Rock Opera” & “De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail”
Within two very different musical renderings inside two different theatres in Toronto, two very different yet magnificently dynamic characters take hold of center stage and create magic out of legends; one myth and the other tragically human, and musical art out of their tales of love and power. Seen back to back over the weekend, these two shows: Coal Mine Theatre‘s Dion: A Rock Opera & Soulpepper‘s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail deliver the musical goods in abundance, finding opportunity and inventiveness in their unpacking, opening up the field with creative power, and fueling our imagination with their energy and superb talent.
With a red-tiled runway and a magnificently gifted soothsayer calling forth a Greek mythology pathway down the center of the Coal Mine Theatre, Dion: A Rock Opera rocks fantastically and enthusiastically into the black and white fashioned spotlight of The Bacchae. The musical tailors, quite tremendously, the tale of Dionysus, orDion, as he is sung and called here, in surprisingly theatrical energy and determination. It’s an epic rendering of an ancient tale with modern gender-bashing sensibilities and a captivating sound and fury, with four chorus souls seated at each end, giving us just a wee flavor of the spectacle we are about to digest. We, the spectators of this extravaganza, sit on each side of this runway, gazing at the statuary and each other, waiting in anticipation for Euripides’ classic tragedy to begin. And within the first few bars of music, sung by the impeccably dynamic and detailed SATE (Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire), we are transported and delivered into the hands of Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff’s Dion.
In the beginning, “the word is Evoi” and SATE sings out loud, magnificently, and emphatically, framing a concept that proclaims the ‘exclamation of Bacchic frenzy‘ as delivered by the blind soothsayer, Tiresias (SATE), who has lived a life as both a man and a woman. Tiresias lays out the foundations in subtle magnificently sung scenarios that hold our attention hypnotically, backed by an energized chorus, made up of the followers of the cult of Dion: Max Borowski (Ovation’s Cabaret), Saccha Dennis (Tift’s Jesus Christ Superstar), Kaden Forsberg (Drayton’s Sh-Boom), and Kelsey Verzotti (Vertigo’s Gaslight). Their voices ring out the proclamation with a deliciously operatic edge and fever that engages and excites us delightfully, as the chorus plays with light and their supple bodies, energized by the captivating choreography of associate director Kiera Sangster (Shaw’s Grand Hotel). As directed with fire and precision by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), Dion unwraps the electric formula and dives fully in, unleashing the nine-person cast with a communal vibe reminiscent of an elevated and gender-fluid Jesus Christ Superstar in the modern world of inclusivity. The musical piece drives forward in both its sound and fury, thanks to the fine work by composer Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s Creditors) and a libretto by Steven Mayoff (Turnstone Press’ Fatted Calf Blues), giving us echoes of others, while finding authenticity and inclusion inside itself.Mastering the duality of the otherworldly central character, this non-binary demigod Dion, played to vocal perfection by the talented Jacob Macinnis (Stratford’s Play on! A Shakespeare Mixtape), luxuriates with style and stature in the powerful position of half-human, half God. Dion, in great magical style, has enraptured the citizens of Thebes, who have been tyrannically ruled in pseudo-Trumpian rage by Pentheus, well played with fury by Allister MacDonald (That Theatre Company/Buddies’ Angels in America). It’s the ultimate powerful match, between absolute power and absolute pleasure, embodied passionately by both Macinnis and MacDonald.
The strange “seduction” of the city, set upon first by Dion on the mother of Pentheus, Agave, beautifully embodied by the captivating Carly Street (Canadian Stage’s Heisenberg), has drenched the city streets with mayhem, violence, and drunken desire, in revenge against the hateful Pentheus for spreading blasphemous lies about Dion’s mother Semele, destroying her reputation after her death and Dion’s birth. It’s epic and delicious, as the two stand facing one another for battle on that long narrow stage, designed dynamically by set and costume designer Scott Penner (Off-Broadway’s JOB), with inventive insightful lighting by Bonnie Beecher (Shaw’s Shadow of a Doubt) and a clever sound design by Tim Lindsay (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), assisted beautifully by technical director Sebastian Marziali (TO Fringe’s Lysistrata), stage manager Fiona Jones (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), production manager Erik Richards (ReadyGo’s Talk Treaty to Me), and supervising production manager Wesley Babcock (Factory’s Armadillos).
The battle is on, “storming and surrendering” to the sound of bursting balloons and agony, all exactly as Dion has planned and dynamically unfolded by this terrifically engaging cast. “It’s you who’s in my trap“, sings Dion, as Pentheus fights back with a “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet“, but the “great reclaiming” is not far away, with Dion, through the powerfully voiced cast (particularly Macinnis, SATE, and Street), working their magic on Pentheus, and us in the audience. We watch in wonderment as this magnificently dynamic reckoning of Pentheus struts its way to the decapitating ending. The music, as delivered solidly and dynamically by musical director Rob Foster (Mirvish’s Rock of Ages), sings and soars non-stop, from beginning to end, touching on the ancient story with a rock opera edge and wit.
The pop song aria energy is dramatic, even when repetitive, finding urgency in its drawn-out meanderings in single-minded non-binary force. The catchy choral arrangements layer the piece with movement and light, on that catwalk stage, and we can’t help but be pulled into the theatricality of the piece, as planned by both the director, Hinton-Davis, and The Bacchae story. It is exactly as it should be, and we can’t help but fall under the spell of Dion: A Rock Opera at Coal Mine, and its magical Rock Opera queerness and sensual subline sensibility.
De Profundis (Latin: “from the depths”) is a hypnotically potent letter written by a ruined and tormented Oscar Wilde during his many years’ imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to the man who ultimately destroyed him, “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde wrote this letter in 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment after his conviction for ‘gross indecency‘, recounting his relationship and extravagant engagement with Bosie, which eventually led to his ruin and imprisonment. He indicts both Bosie’s vanity and selfishness, while also acknowledging, quite poetically, his own weakness in acceding to Bosie’s demands. “I blame myself,” he repeats in Soulpepper Theatre’s brilliant De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, before singing the refrain, “Happy Birthday Oscar!” for the ‘presents‘ he was sarcastically gifted by himself, and by others.
This is just the first half of the letter, wherein the second half, Wilde dives into a spiritual landscape, ending with the framing, “Your Affectionate Friend“. Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, crafted from this very letter, is a powerful and majestic investigation, worthy of all the magnificent theatrical magic that is unveiled here. Through the unparalleled creative energy of adaptor and director, Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage) with original music by composer/music director/arranger/orchestrator Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) and lyricist Sarah Wilson (Soulpepper’s Rose), Soulpepper has unleashed the most magnificent musical fantasy that I have had the pleasure of sitting through. It’s powerfully captivating and emotionally destructive; engagingly clever and beyond witty, pulling quotes from Wilde out of a metal hat, reminding us all of his incredible ability to craft intellectual gold from his quick observations and sharp mind. “If you know, you know.”
Ushered into the fantastic unwrapping of this letter; a 55,000-word communication addressed to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s friend and previous lover, Robbie, touchingly and lovingly portrayed by Jonathan Corkal-Astorga (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), engages directly with us, taking us gently by the hand and guides us through the proceedings, that is until an impatient Oscar pokes his head through the door and chastizes the gentle Robbie, hilariously. It’s a wonderful bit of pre-play, propelling us into the more torturous arena of a confinement cell where Oscar Wilde, played to wild perfection by the intricate and meticulously well-defined Damien Atkins (Factory’s Here Lies Henry), dives right into the specific meanderings of his sharp-witted mind and angry hurt heart.
The unraveling, over 95 minutes, is a not uncomplicated, defined bit of abundance, on a stage meticulously well orchestrated in layers by set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s King Gilgamesh…). Savoini creates some visually arresting magic, as Oscar’s cramped jail cell evaporates to the sides, giving Oscar an ever-enlargening arena to dramatize his damaged psyche and emotional variance. The effect is majestic and deep, with perfect projections elevating the dramatics almost effortlessly, created masterfully by designer Frank Donato (Soulpepper’s Guide to Being Fabulous), with a strong forceful assist by costume designer Ming Wong (Stratford’s Rent), movement director Indrit Kasapi (Buddies’ The First Stone), and sound designer Olivia Wheeler (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time).
Director Prest delivers an exceptional experience filled to overflowing with personality and emotion, playing with the interconnectivity of the framework and giving Atkins the space and platform to really capture and translate his emotional language. De Profundis is not your traditional musical, by any means, it lingers and floats around the idea of love and lust that sometimes is best delivered through song (and some dance). Atkins is the perfect vessel to unpack it vocally, spiritually, and creatively, either through dramatic sequences filled with anger and sadness, or a bouncy Irish song, that spins out of his control most amazingly.
Bosie, magnificently embodied by the gorgeous Colton Curtis (Stratford’s A Chorus Line), flits in and out, playing both the antagonist and the pained lover, edging him forward into emotional chaos with a captivating stare or snarl. For having little to say, like the pseudo-MC role of Corkal-Astorga’s Robbie, the effect is powerfully dynamic and painfully engaging. It’s almost a solo show, with Atkins leading us through the paces expertly, but it would also diminish the piece without these two adding a layer of entrapped emotional engagement. Pirouetting between musical genres most cleverly, De Profundis elevates itself with its unpredictability, cleverly enacted emotionality, and the absolute brilliance in its visual splendor. “Like Byron, but better.“
Atkins’ Oscar is definitely the main and most ingenious focal point, even as he stares longingly and angrily at the beautiful Bosie. The actor is outrageously magnificent in the part, rotating and spinning himself from charming and witty to manic and completely diminished by anger and frustration, mostly for his blind obedience to Bosie’s vanity and eventual dismissal. Curtis’ Bosie mesmerizingly unleashes a silent but meaningful dance behind the singing Oscar, nearly perfect in his frame and form, adding a layer of complicated understanding to the idea that Wilde basically “lost his mind over a beautiful man.” Understandable, but it is Atkins who holds us completely in his hands, leading us through the letter with imperfect perfection right to the last moment of engagement. It’s one of the most stellar performances of the year, inside an absolutely gorgeous rendering, and it should not be missed if you have any say in the matter.
Oscar Wilde wrote this impressive manuscript and poem between January and March of 1897. There was no contact between Bosie and Wilde, even as Wilde desperately pleaded to the prison walls for a reply. After all these trials and tribulations, both public and criminal, and all the suffering from his imprisonment, the physical hard labor of his punishment, and the emotional isolation, his impulse, layered with anger, frustration, love, and forgiveness, was to write a ‘love letter’ to the man who essential caused his destruction. The prison did not allow Oscar to send the long letter, which he was only allowed to write alone in his cell “for medicinal purposes”, one page a day. Each page was taken and saved for him to read over and revise at the end when he was finally released on May 18, 1897. The rest is history, sad, but true. Yet, it made the most magnificent musical fantasy one could ever hope for, from a love-sick artist, struggling to deal with his anger, betrayal, and the art of forgiveness.
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