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Off Broadway

Straight From NYMF: Between the Sea and Sky



Between the Sea and  Sky at the New York Musical Festival this last weekend was a wonderful production of an intriguing story, written by a talented team, and presented with passion by a fine ensemble. All that added up to a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience, which proved you don’t need millions of dollars to create theatrical magic. I wish I could leave it at that.  But the show isn’t perfectly formed yet, nor quite sure of whom its audience should be. Whether the problems with the writing get in the way of your enjoying the sum of the parts depends on what you expect from the experience.

The show opens on a mysterious Woman in White (the ethereal beauty, Sarah Jane Shanks), singing with more reverb than an Enya album which is a hint at something, about the stories of our lives intersecting. That accompanies an extended pantomime to introduce the story of a family being torn apart behind her. Emily, meant to be age 9 (Jessica Turn), and Samantha or “Sam” (Jenny Rose Baker) meant to be age 13, both convincingly played by young adults, are seen playing on the beach, where Em gives Sam a book of Shakespeare plays which once belonged to their Grandmother (Barbara McCulloh). Then we see their parents argue in mime, and the two girls each go to one of them. Clearly, divorce is in the air.

My initial suspicion was that we were going to see a play about the pain of divorce and its effect on the two young girls growing up. Surprisingly, that’s not what happens at all. In fact, the entire divorce plotline could be cut from this show and have no effect on the story whatsoever.

Then, the girls go to visit their paternal grandmother at Diamond Beach, where they often played growing up. The Diamond Beach community harbors an old mystery from thirty years earlier, which the townsfolk won’t discuss. I only wish it turned out that they had some hand in it, as in the Nightmare on Elm Streetmovies. But it’s a red herring.

Thirty years earlier, a group of visiting hippies came to Diamond Beach with a beautiful woman, Mary, and her young daughter, Charlotte. When an unexpected storm came upon them, the woman and her daughter were swept out to sea…or were they?  The answer to that question is the heart of the mystery, and I won’t spoil it for you. Luke Burne, who wrote book, music and lyrics for this show, does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing, and finally paying off our expectations.

Matters are complicated when Sam and her childhood buddy, Vincent (Thaddeus Kolwicz) leave Em to play on the beach and she disappears. Sam and Vincent go on a quest to find her, which turns up a genuine ghost story. Without giving too much away, I will say that the ghost, when we encounter it, is far too corporeal and not enough of a threat to Em’s safety.

Throughout al of this, the parents are absent, Grandma is kind but ineffective, and there are no relationship or characters arcs, except for a little friction between the sisters, to deepen the story.  It’s very much a situation dramedy rather than a character driven story.  The songs by Mr. Byrne are really beautiful and well written as far as they go.   But they don’t grow from the needs or inner lives of the characters. Essentially, this show is no more than a Nancy Drew mystery set to music. Detective stories may be intriguing. But unto themselves they lack the emotional moments that makes for a great musical.

The four supporting players, Caroline Lellouche, Jason Moody, Jordan Bell and Anna L. Baker, start the show as dapper anthropomorphic seagulls with a Checkovian flair, and then become  four of the five townspeople. They also move the set pieces with well choreographed fluidity, turning a couple of benches and chairs into various locations and objects. My favorite was the makeshift motorboat, trailing behind four blue umbrellas representing the sea in front of them.  As the townspeople, the four supporting players have several scenes in which they are members of a very bad local theater troupe getting ready to put on a production of The Tempest, which draws Sam to them. There was some funny stuff there, especially a monologue overly illustrated with hand gestures by Jordan Bell. But I’d cut most or all of that to make room for more character development. Sam’s interest in her book of Shakespeare plays is all the motivation she needs to utter Prospero’s speech, which opens the gateway to the other world.

Also, Old Pat, an irish woman with an unexplained connection to pagan magic presumably due to her Celtic roots (also played with gusto by Ms. McCulloh) should probably be a more direct part of the resolution of the story.

Thanks to the unforced fluid and direction of Mr. Bello, aided by fine choreography from Jim Cooney, and the uniformly excellent performances, the total theatrical experience never lags. Credit scenic designer Joshua Warner, costume designer Heather Carey, lighting designer Jessica Creager, and sound designer Josh Liebert for their fine collaborative effort. Also, high praise goes to the fine musical direction by Elizabeth Doran, who wrapped the show in a cozy, musical blanket.

The lack of depth of character in both story and song, no matter how well played, raises the same question I had about Make a Wish earlier in the Festival. Is this is just an overlong Theater for Young Audiences show, or an underwritten family show for the main stage? The high production quality lets the question slide.

For twentysomethings to play pre-teens is a big stretch. So hats off to all three adult performers who were perfectly convincing without ever condescending. Particular kudos go to Jenny Rose Baker, who was simply delightful. She captured all the gawkiness, youthful passion, and innate wisdom of young Sam, with an infectious charm.   Thank casting director Cindy Rush for finding them all.

I don’t know if this show will ever be another Secret Garden. But it deserves to be seen again. And developed further.


Jeffery Lyle Segal is a multifaceted theater artist who has worn many professional hats. He started as a musical theater performer in his teens. He attended Stanford U., Northwestern University, and SUNY at Binghamton to study acting, directing and dramatic literature. He also wrote theater reviews for The Stanford Daily and was Arts Editor of WNUR Radio at Northwestern. After college, he is proud to have been the first full time Executive Director of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company. He left them to work as a theater actor and director. His special effects makeup skills got him into the movies, working on the seminal cult horror film, Re-Animator.He also did casting for several important Chicago projects, sometimes wearing both production hats, as he did on Chicago’s most famous independent movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While living in Los Angeles, he joined the Academy for New Musical Theater, where he developed two book musicals as a composer, lyricist and librettist, Down to Earth Girl (formerly I Come for Love, NYMF 2008), and Scandalous Behavior! (York Developmental Reading Series 2010). He wrote, produced and performed his song “Forever Mine” as the end title theme of the horror film, Trapped! He also has written songs for his performances in cabaret over the years, and the time he spent pursuing country music in Nashville. Most recently he created a musical revue, Mating the Musical, for the Chicago Musical Theater Festival 2016. In NYC, he has attended the BMI musical theater writers’ workshop, and the Commercial Theater Institute 14 week producer program. He is currently creating a company to develop new musicals online. He still keeps up his makeup chops, working with top doctors in NYC and Chicago as one of the country’s most highly regarded permanent cosmetic artists ( and as a member of Chicago local IATSE 476.

Off Broadway

The Journals of Adam and Eve The World’s First Love Story Starring Hal Linden and Marilu Henner



photo by Paul Aphisit

“Some day we’ll look back on this and laugh.”

The Journals of Adam and Eve The World’s First Love Story starring Hal Linden and Marilu Henner is a master class in acting. Created by Emmy-winning comedy writer Ed Weinberger (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Cosby Show), the show is very reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Ultimately an endearing love story, the  show records the couple’s initial ambivalence to growth within themselves and in love.

Done like a reading, the actors are in black street clothes. They refer to their scripts from adjoining music stands. There is water on small tables and a chair for each.

Hal Linden and Marilu Henner are very amusing and powerful storytellers. Linden’s journey as Adam, starts off with “Much to my amazement, I was born a full-grown man,” to “It wasn’t the Garden of Eden. Not by a long shot.” We meet and see a man who is flawed, childlike in full blown ego to a man content with the journey. It is truly funny to see Mr. Linden recall his favorite herb. “A few swallows of the bud and I soon found myself wolfing down handfuls of figs drenched in honey and sprinkled with crunchy chili peppers. It also made me giggle when I counted my fingers.”

Henner commands the stage squeezing every laugh out of goading Adam, flirting in a way that is subtle and innocent. When he tries to rule over her she states; “Well, it just so happens that this living thing that ‘moveth’ is not one of your birds, fishes, or any other animal you have dominion over. So maybe you and this God ought to have another little talk about who is whoest and what is whateth.”

As the mysteries of life and love are explored desire, discoveries, temptation, lust, being the world’s first parents, joys, sorrows, separation and contentment in their twilight years all are explained and shown in a way that makes you think.

This thought-provoking comedy’s makes you wonder did we ever really know the first couple, that in a strange way has influenced all of our lives?

Amy Anders Corcoran’s direction is simple, yet effective and you will leave the theatre more satisfied than Adama dn Eve after they bit that apple.

The Journals of Adam and Eve: The Sheen Center, Loreto Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, until July 28th

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Off Broadway

Cats – The Jellical Ball at PAC NYC Death Drops Deliriously Divine and Feline-Free




This is a ball darling, emote!” and with the glitter dust blown off an iconic album, this Jellicle Ball reimaging eyes the runway in classic form, giving a nod to the old, but radically restructuring this new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats with divine aplomb. The shadow ballet to the overture, as directed by Zhailon Levingston (Broadway’s Chicken and Biscuits) and Bill Rauch (LCT’s The Great Society) with choreography by Arturo Lyons (Madonna’s Celebration Tour) and Omari Wiles (Les Ballet Afrik), sets fire to the excited crowd that has gathered around the runway at PAC NYC, giving mystical divinity to Gay Pride Saturday. It’s clearly the musical theatrical event of the summer, with nothing else coming close, other than a few shows that are coming to an end after reaping the awards of a Post-Tony upswing. And I couldn’t feel more blessed as I took my seat right behind the two special guests who were seated on each side of an empty throne. So prepare yourselves, kittens, for what is about to come, because it’s not what you remember. Not at all. It’s something very different, and magically magnificent in ways I could never have imagined before this construction. It has meaning, deeper than when it first crawled in from the streets, and a unifying sense of community that registers far beyond what one could have anticipated, culturally and emotionally.

For anyone of a certain age, this musical, Cats, which started out in the West End at the New London Theatre in May 1981, was a phenomenon that was unparalleled at the time. Interesting fact: Judi Dench was originally cast to play the glamour cat but tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsal and was replaced by Elaine Paige.  Later, it opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982 with Buckley as Grizabella. Her 1983 Tony-winning performance has etched itself firmly into our collective theatrical minds with all of its pain, beauty, and power. I was not lucky enough to have seen either Buckley or Paige as Grizabella, but I did see Cats for the first time at the newly opened historic Elgin Theatre in Toronto in 1985.  It was a big deal for me and the city when this famous show ushered in a new period of theatrical renewal for Toronto, and I, as a university student studying Theatre Design at York University, could not wait to see it.

André De Shields in Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

I had worn out my record (or was it a cassette tape?) listening to all of those unique and exciting songs over and over again. I cannot tell you who played the part in the Canadian production for this two-and-a-half-year run (if you can tell me, I’d love to know) but I can honestly admit that I loved the experience. An idea that both tells you the state of theatre at the time, and how this musical, even if it has gained a certain level of disdain and unpopularity in the modern theatrical world, ignited something in our collective consciousness that hadn’t been seen on stage before it purred its way forward. It was revolutionary, even as we look back at it down our more enlightened noses.

When I saw the 2016 Cats revival, directed again by Trevor Nunn, it was like revisiting an old magician friend, but one that I had hoped would have tried a few new tricks, and maybe given us a bit different twist.  Cats, to be frank, is a ridiculously silly show in terms of modern-day musical theatre, but I do recognize that at the time, back in 1985, it was historic. Cats started a theatrical trend or model, whether you like it or not, for producers to create what was to be called the ‘megamusical’ phenomenon. It quickly established a global market for musical theatre, focusing the industry towards establishing big-budget blockbusters, as well as creating a theatrical entertainment landscape devoted to family and tourist-friendly shows. The musical’s profound but polarising influence also reshaped the aesthetic, technology, and marketing of the medium for the better, or maybe the worse for the industry today.  It changed what musicals were allowed to be.  And I get that.  But some shows don’t age so well.  Don’t get me wrong, Cats is not a bad show in any way but it was running out of lives, and needed viewing through a completely different lens.

The cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.
But who could have guessed it would be reborn most brilliantly on the runway of Harlem Ballroom; a culture made iconic in shows like 2018’s “Pose“, as well as in the video for Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue“, released in 1989, and Madonna’s “Vogue“, released in 1990, one year before the ground-breaking documentary “Paris Is Burning“, which really brought the iconic framework into our cultural sensibilities. They all did in their own ways, but co-directors Levingston and Rauch (artistic director of PAC NYC) took on this dusty ALW musical, that was famously inspired by “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, and sent it swirling and voguing itself into an astounding new Heaviside Layer (the Cats version of heaven), reforming and rebirthing these former felines into something very different, and absolutely earth-shakeringly fabulous.
Their new Cats has been reborn and redesigned, throwing itself into the competitive Ballroom Scene with a confident power that is intoxicating and electrifying. Played out on a long runway space running from the windows to the judges’ table, designed with a spirited sense by Rachel Hauck (Broadway’s Hadestown; MCC’s The Wrong Man), the newly formed megamusical delivers its mega reframing with an African-American and Latino underground LGBTQ+ subcultural slant, rolled out with pride and self-assurance. The retooling has nothing to do with the four-legged feline. These ‘cats’ are performative alter-ego contestants; magnificent and creative, competing in a captivating, integrated competition that has its historic soul coming from drag balls of the mid-19th Century. And those balls, in response to increasing racism and homophobia, evolved in the 20th Century into house Ballroom Competitions, where Black and Latino participants would ‘walk’ the runway in a variety of categories, resulting in the awarding of trophies and cash prizes. The framework is perfection for these personality introductions, and these ‘cats’ are ready to revel and death-drop dip into these historic roots like no one could have ever imagined possible.The newly formed framing works its magic throughout, creating community within the Cats clan of chosen names and chosen family. Adam Honoré (Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’) delivers a spectacle in lights alongside the solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo), as does the recreated iconic projections by Brittany Bland (Public’s A Raisin in the Sun) that honor, enhance, and elevate. But like any ballroom competition, memorable magic is forever created in the costumes designed masterfully by Qween Jean (TNG’s Black No More) and the wigs created by Nikiya Mathis (Broadway’s Home), and neither let this ball drop.

Sydney James Harcourt and the cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Competing in an assortment of Ballroom categories like “Butch Queen Realness” and “Old Way vs. New Way” voguing, the cast fly themselves forward, finding authenticity in their irresistibility. It’s powerful exciting and theatrical, while only once purring itself a bit too closely to the actual idea of playing Cats. That moment aside, everyone in the cast is beyond excellent, dipping themselves down into death at the drop of a hat, while playing with the structure and feline concepts most majestically. The incredibly sexy Sydney James Harcourt (Public’s Girl From the North Country) makes an irresistible Rum Tum Tugger, winning his trophy easily, while Emma Sofia (Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Skimbleshanks, loses by a whisker. Antwayn Hopper (Broadway’s A Strange Loop) as Macavity steals the scene in designer labels with tags still attached, while later on, ballroom legend Junior LaBeija delivers a touchingly sweet spiriting as Asparagus, the old theater cat. But it is the long-legged “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees“, embodied by the mega-talented Robert “Silk” Mason (“Into the Colors“), that truly brings all that brilliance to the forefront, and ties it all together with such talent and presence.

But really we are all waiting for the arrival of Old Deuteronomy, knowingly played most deliciously regal by André De Shields (Broadway’s Hadestown) to take his seat on the throne. His entrance and demeanor couldn’t have been more perfect for the part, carrying himself forward like many of the trophies given out by MC Munkustrap, portrayed dutifully well by Dudney Joseph Jr. (Public’s The Harder They Come), to the young contestant kitties vying for Old D’s respectful nod. As in the traditional telling of this tale, a tribe of ‘cats’ called the Jellicles have come before the honorable Old Deuteronomy to make the “Jellicle choice”, deciding which of the many worthy cats assembled will ascend up to the Heaviside Layer and come back to the world in a new life. Here, under the strongly focused eyes of its determined directors, the lens has shifted yet remained tuned into the competitive introductions of ‘cats’ vying for the ultimate award of the night. And the experiment works, better than any of us could have dreamed or hoped for.

André De Shields (center) and the cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

It’s a deliciously delivered radical relayering, that completely renders us helpless against the talented ‘cats’ laid out before us, choreographed to the heavens, and performed to energetic perfection by an astounding cast. Anyone familiar with this musical knows we are all waiting for the one who has fallen on hard times, the formally glamorous Grizabella, usually played by “Tempress” Chasity Moore, but on this particular night, understudy Garnet Williams (Parity’s At Hotel MacGuffin) majestically donned the smudged lipstick and ripped coat, delivering the goods with extreme gusto. The other cats pull back and away from her at first, but it’s only a matter of time until Grizabella is given the floor, and Williams, thanks to the strong musical supervision and music direction by William Waldrop (Broadway’s Evita; Cats) and Beats arranger Trevor Holder (Brian Jackson’s Gotta Play; Broadway’s The Wiz), weaves some “Memory” magic all around her, shining radiantly upwards to the Heaviside Layer in shimmering majestic fashion. It’s an exit worthy of the work being done here, and the supreme magic created in this radically magnificent restructuring of Cats – The Jellical Ball. Let’s hope this ‘radical reimagined’ production has a few more lives to live, and runways to walk. Is Circle in the Square its next alley cat Ballroom? Or are the whisperings I hear wrong? see the video click here.

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Off Broadway

Empire: The Musical Wants To Be What It Is Not



I was so looking forward to Empire: The Musical. I was impressed at the press meet and greet, as well as the video on Youtube with the musical scoring, sadly it did not hit the mark. The book by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull is confusing and doesn’t allow for us to become emotionally involved. For the most part the show takes place in Great Depression, however it starts off in 1976 and is seen through Sylvie Lee (Julia Louise Hosack the understudy for Jessica Ranville) eyes. My first question becomes how did Sylvie get to the era of the Great Depression and interact with it considering it started in 1929, the Empire State Building began construction in 1930 and, after an incredible 13 months (just 410 days), was completed in 1931?

Sylvie is the daughter of a worker who died during construction and hates the building and the past. She is resentful and now she is in the Great Depression interacting with  former New York City Governor Alfred E. Smith (Paul Salvatoriello), former General Motors executive John J. Raskob (Howard Kaye), architect Charles Kinney (Albert Guerzon), and Frances Belle “Wally” Wolodsky (Kaitlyn Davidson) who is the person behind Smith and girlfriend of Kinney. Another of the confusion here is Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates were the architect not Charles Kinney.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

As we learn this story we meet the workers which are written so stereotypical. There is Irishman Ethan O’Dowd (J Savage), the racist Italian Mateo Menzo (Robbie Serrano), the Polish Joe Pakulski (Devon Cortez) a dreamer, as is his Mohawk wife, Rudy (also Kianna Labeary), who disguises herself as a man in order to work alongside him.

Dave Clemmons once told me we sing in musicals, because words are no longer enough. The problemm here is though the songs are pretty, there seems no reason to sing them. Sherman and Hull also did the score. Almost all of the songs sound the same and the lyrics don’t always work. They are well sung. especially by Kaitlyn Davidson, Paul Salvatoriello, Julia Louise Hosack and April Ortiz. What is done well is the harmony.

Lorna Ventura’s choreography tries to succeed and does for the most par,t but it seems like this is a poor man’s Newsies. There are even some riffs in the songs, that sound borrowed.

The cast has spirit and energy and gives performances that make you wish they had a better show or director. Cady Huffman seems lost considering she was given very little to work with.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Even scenic designer Walt Spangler seems lost with the odd set that has hidden treasure every where you look, but doesn’t fit the musical.

I do hope to see more of Ms. Davidson and the boy in the chorus Joel Douglas, both stand out and made the most of what they could of their respective roles.

Empire: The Musical: New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, until September 22nd.
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Off Broadway

Pitch Black’s Odd Man Out Immerses You In More Than Darkness




By Will Michael
Pitch Black Experience is passionate about entertaining and enlightening audiences with a unique twist: All productions immerse you in complete darkness, and not necessarily the darkness of mystery or emotion, but the visual kind. An outgrowth of blind Argentinian performance artists based in Buenos Aires, this current iteration of Odd Man Out at the Sheen Center has had successful runs at Bristol Riverside Theatre, The Flea and Here Arts Center.
The passion of this troup was palpable. The whole experience was infused with a refreshing enthusiasm you may associate with an upstart theater company, yet combined with a unique sense of identity and depth of expertise typically associated with well-established makers of innovative theater such as PunchDrunk.
I was quite taken with their thoughtful approach, where upon entering the building, you arrive with other passengers at an airport gate replete with airline staff and a clever instructional video preparing you for your journey. Upon entering the runway to the plane, you are carefully escorted into the dark, and I mean dark, as in completely pitch black. If you happen to be a VIP flyer, AKA first class passenger, you will be treated to a glass of wine and sweets, all in the dark. I found my auditory and tactile senses becoming quickly heightened as more and more passengers were being escorted to their seats by the caring crew. I eventually felt the presence of the person sitting next to me. Despite this being a foreign experience, I felt pleasantly calm to just sit there in the dark in my comfortable chair.  The air quality and acoustics seemed perfect; there was no sense of being enclosed in a small space or concern it was going to get uncomfortably stuffy. Once we all settled in, the sound, tactile and olfactory effects combined with the storytelling were very effective, making me feel I was taking off into the sky, caught in a raging rainstorm (only some mist, no raindrops), smelling food being cooked right in front of me, and the horror of the title character fighting against being drowned in water by terrorists. The actors convincingly conveyed this story of a respected aging blind Argentinian musician Alberto, recounting his life to two passengers adjacent to him. You get to be the eavesdropper as he shares his journey which comes to life with the aid of a strong ensemble.
Odd Man Out is written by Martín Bondone. The directing team of Carlos Armesto, Martín Bondone and Facundo Bogarín ensured the actors were vocally engaging, similar to a traditional radio or audio play, not relying on customary theatrical visuals and physicality to convey emotion or character. Yet as opposed to a solitary auditory experience, here I had a live communal encounter where there was still a sense of other people being present, despite us all being engaged in complete darkness. Many times during the experience I found myself not only “seeing” what was happening, but all kinds of unexpected abstract visual images came into view, sometimes making me think an actual light source in the space had been activated, but that was not the case.  It’s amazing what good storytelling can do. Not only was I able to better understand what it is to be blind, but this man’s challenges to find purpose and meaning through music resonated with me, as he travels to his Argentinian homeland after residing in New York City for forty years. I do wish I got to experience more of this man’s music, that it was more a part of the fabric of this journey, as we learn about his political exile and a very dark time in Argentina’s history, his lost love, and his never ending search for both belonging and freedom.
The cast features Lorenza Bernasconi, Carmen Borla, Agustina Cedraschi, Gilberto Gabriel Diaz, Pablo Drutman, Bree Klauser, Mauricio Marte, Andrés Montejo, and Giorgia Valenti.
Odd Man Out is currently playing at the Sheen Center in the Frank Shiner Theater, 18 Bleecker Street and has been extended to Aug 10. There is one performance each week in Spanish.
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Off Broadway

ATC’s “The Welkin” – Filled with Metaphoric Wonderment in its Compelling Wildness




(front row l-r) Haley Wong (Sally Poppy), Paige Gilbert (Hannah Rusted), Susannah Perkins (Mary Middleton); (2nd row) Simone Recasner (Peg Carter), Ann Harada (Judith Brewer), (3rd row) Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Ann Lavender), Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens); (standing) Hannah Cabell (Sarah Hollis), Mary McCann (Charlotte Cary) in ATC’s The Welkin. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

The sound of giggling children excitedly lead us into The Welkin at the Atlantic Theater Company, but I’m still not exactly sure of the connection. It’s thrilling though, sitting inside the darkness, waiting in anticipation for what will come, instilled with a sense of ever-heightening discomfort and anxiety. Something terrible has happened. That is clear, and we can’t help but feel the tension in that dark interaction brought forth by candlelight. We hear it somewhere in the voice of the unseen woman who has returned home to her perplexed and angry husband, played compellingly by Danny Wolohan (Broadway’s Camelot). He wants to know where his wife has been, but she, Sally Poppy, the cornerstone of this play, played meticulously wild and magnificent by Haley Wong (Playwrights Realm’s Mary Gets Hers), seems to have something else on her mind, and on her body. And in that blood-soaked personage, we realize, for her, that everything has changed, but also, all has stayed the same, just dirtier. It’s a wildly appropriate metaphor of all things female, then and now, and we can’t help but lean forward wanting to know where this play, written with captivating precision by Lucy Kirkwood (The Children), is heading, overpowered by crows’ squawks and devilishly sharp pounds.

As directed with exciting thumping energy by Sarah Benson (PH’s Teeth), the play has us hooked in; curious and enticed within seconds, or maybe minutes. With the next framework being a churning plunge pleasure, headed by a fantastically engaging Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve“) as a mother and midwife named Elizabeth Luke. Her well-regarded commodity is being summoned by Mr. Coombes, played captivatingly well by Glenn Fitzgerald (ATC’s I’m Revolting), to fill out a forum of women, a Welkin, to determine if the previously seen Sally, who has been charged with a murderously horrible crime, can or should be hung for her quickly charged crime of murdering and dismembering Ann Wax, the young daughter of a well-to-do family. She has been found guilty already, after being apprehended as an accomplice to a Scottish vagabond named Thomas McKay, who has already been hanged for the crime. Sally would have also been hung, if it wasn’t for the claim she made in the courtroom that she is pregnant. “She claims the belly,” Elizabeth is told, and if it is indeed true, her neck will be saved, and she will be transported to America, rather than getting the same punishment as her so-called accomplice.

Haley Wong (Sally Poppy), Sandra Oh (Lizzy Luke), Dale Soules (Sarah Smith), and Ann Harada (Judith Brewer) in ATC’s The Welkin. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

It’s a fascinating exchange that takes place in that second scene, between the married Mr. sent to fetch Elizabeth Luke, who, like the somewhat deranged Sally and many of the other women in The Welkin, speaks about the annoying interruption of her tedious housework as cruel, even though it is also described as boring and difficult, yet required. But Elizabeth allows herself to be swung into service, joining a powerful parade of women, played with majestic purpose by a crew of fantastically detailed actors, engaged in playing their part in the same quorum, even though they weren’t, as pointed out by Elizabeth, brought forth to help the woman during her speedy trial. “I know she has been tried in a cold room by cold men on the word of a cold husband, with no one to speak for her and a mob outside the window.” And it’s clear this play and this woman will have much to say about this unjust framework.

The courageous and complex text, filled to overflowing with metaphors and symbols, dives into the complexities with a fantastic sense of purpose, fueled by exacting portrayals, delivered by a most talented cast, somewhat led by a ferociously good Oh. Set in 18th-century England, but given a modern energy of engagement and actualization, this mix of mystery and misogyny finds its forum closed off in the room with a silenced man to watch over them. The setting, designed strongly by dots (2ST/Broadway’s Appropriate) with sharply defined costuming by Kaye Voyce (LCT’s Uncle Vanya), lighting by Stacey Derosier (RTC’s The Refuge Plays), sound by Palmer Hefferan (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), and special effects by Jeremy Chernick (Broadway’s The Outsiders), has its way with us, digging us in and encapsulating all.

Dale Soules (Sarah Smith), Mary McCann (Charlotte Cary), Ann Harada (Judith Brewer), Sandra Oh (Lizzy Luke), Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens), Nadine Malouf (Emma Jenkins), Hannah Cabell (Sarah Hollis), and Emily Cass McDonnell (Helen Ludlow) in ATC’s The Welkin. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

Oh is astonishingly good at staying strongly structured as well as just one of a pack, delivering forth dialogue that floats about in pre-modern feminist language against the rot of misogyny. There’s no attempt to establish this in an authentic period, both vocally and attitudinally, finding a landscape that bridges the gaps between the very specific time-framed setting and the modernist soapbox stumping that our hero, Oh, takes on. And once the dozen women find themselves locked in with the aggressively caged Sally, with a silent male observer inside and an angry mob outside, the jury of women must find their way to a unanimous vote. Is she with child, or not, and only saying this to avoid a hanging? “Even if she is lying I do not blame her,” states Oh’s Elizabeth, “I would lie too. When a woman is being buried alive, she will reach for even the grubbiest tool to dig herself out again.”

It’s a compelling act of investigation, with the midwife Elizabeth, seemingly the expert in the crowd, not being persuasive enough against the suspicious others who believe she should be hanged so they can get back to their chores. They search for signs to speed things up, palpating Sally’s breasts for milk in hopes this would sway the group, but the dirt of the room is stronger than the result. Personas are unwound and unpacked, as alliances shift and reform for differing reasons. But it’s in the interwoven dialogue of women, bantering about their own pregnancies and bodily functions that truly brings this formula to fruition. It’s all thanks to the compelling work of the cast of women (and a few men, who are not so good), namely: Mary McCann (ATC’s On the Shore…) as Charlotte Cary; Nadine Malouf (Public Theater’s A Bright Room Called Day) as Emma Jenkins; Paige Gilbert (Public Theater’s A Raisin in the Sun) as Hannah Rusted; Emily Cass McDonnell (Playwrights Horizons’ The Thin Place) as Helen Ludlow; Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Woolly Mammoth’s we come to collect) as Ann Lavender; Tilly Botsford (ATC debut) as Kitty Givens; Simone Recasner (Public Theater’s Ain’t No Mo’) as Peg Carter; Ann Harada (NYCC Encores’ Into The Woods) as Judith Brewer; Hannah Cabell (TFANA/Soho Rep’s Fairview) as Mary Middleton; and Dale Soules (59E59’s The Lucky Star) as Sarah Smith; giving such detailed performances that we can’t look away for a second. They pull us into their lives and flip us around their solidly formulated vantage points with focused ease. Their combined individualized performances elevate the whole, unleashing numerous narratives that sometimes overwhelm, but mostly embellish the thesis put forth by Kirkwood.

Dale Soules (Sarah Smith), Emily Cass McDonnell (Helen Ludlow), Sandra Oh (Lizzy Luke), Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Ann Lavender), Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens), (kneeling) Susannah Perkins (Mary Middleton), Haley Wong (Sally Poppy), Paige Gilbert (Hannah Rusted), Simone Recasner (Peg Carter), and Nadine Malouf (Emma Jenkins) in ATC’s The Welkin. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

The piece is not exactly a murder mystery, even though the act remains mysterious and unexplained, generally speaking. It really becomes something more akin to the idea that a gaggle of women will ultimately believe and side with a man, giving a shocking and disturbing power to a doctor, also portrayed by Wolohan, who arrives at the door. Kirkwood finds compelling arguments and narratives within the women, floating in their own attitudes towards themselves and life as a female in the 18th century. Unpacking gender inequality and laws that still require debate to this very day, thanks to a corrupted court, both then and now.

The title, The Welkin, is in reference to the sky, ancient and invigorating in its formulation, shooting forth discussion of Halley’s Comet passing by. The subtlety of that metaphor is fascinating, but not as clear and defined as the purposefulness of the many reveals that address hierarchy, social status, and powerful maternal allegiances that live within, not to mention the Devilishly compelling story of childbirth that emulates through the folk horror of a mute Cabell’s Mary. All are metaphorically compelling if not fully fleshed out for consumption. A framing which is not exactly a bad thing, but it does leave us wanting more from these gifted performers and their captivatingly detailed creations. Each could be singled out for a heartbreaking or invigorating moment of praise, but it’s in their unity and complexity, as well as their direction, that gives The Welkin its completely wild bit of wonderment and engagement.

(back row) Mary McCann (Charlotte Cary), Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Ann Lavender), Ann Harada (Judith Brewer), Nadine Malouf (Emma Jenkins), Emily Cass McDonnell (Helen Ludlow), MacKenzie Mercer (Katy Luke), Hannah Cabell (Sarah Hollis), Susannah Perkins (Mary Middleton), Dale Soules (Sarah Smith), Simone Recasner (Peg Carter); (kneeling) Paige Gilbert (Hannah Rusted), and Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens) in ATC’s The Welkin. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

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