REVIEW: BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP’S “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD”

THE NEED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION IS UNIVERSAL. HOW THAT CONNECTION IS ACCOMPLISHED, HOWEVER, IS NOT.

Now playing at Berkshire Theatre Group (in Stockbridge, MA), Children of a Lesser God examines some of the various ways that people seek that connection. Originally written in 1979 by Mark Medoff (who won a Tony and Olivier Award upon its publication), the play beautifully showcases the relationship between a speech therapist and his deaf student.

Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff; Wonderstruck, former Miss Deaf America) was born deaf. Growing up, she thought that there was something wrong with her. As she got older, she realized that the world she lives in is not necessarily the same one that the other people around her inhabit. Now a grown 26-year-old woman, Sarah does not feel the need to succumb to the communicative demands of the hearing world. Instead, she embraces sign language as her primary method of interacting with others.

Enter James Leeds (Joshua Jackson; Dawson’s CreekThe Affair). Specializing in teaching deaf students how to speak out loud, James emphasizes tools such as lip reading to help his students communicate more freely with the hearing. His ultimate goal is to educate his students how to overcome their fears and trust themselves enough to use their voices as a comfortable form of conversation.

For James, taking on Sarah as a student presents an interesting challenge. How can he teach someone something that they not only don’t want, but strongly feel that they don’t need to learn? An unconventional teacher from the moment he’s introduced, James quickly goes from being frustrated with Sarah to admiring and ultimately falling in love with her.

Children of a Lesser GodAs their connection continues to deepen, James is forced to call into question his firmly held notion that Sarah must adhere to the standards of the hearing world in order to succeed within it. How can he rightfully claim that she must change how she interacts with her hearing counterparts? How can he argue that she must conform in order to be heard? After all, the way she’s communicated her whole life has resulted in the two of them developing the most intimate relationship he’s ever had. Their incandescent love for and understanding of one another evolved naturally without Sarah ever having to audibly speak a single word.

The ensuing result is a fascinating dichotomy and exploration of human boundaries. Does James put pressure on Sarah to use her voice out of his love and caring for her? Or is it cruel for him to ask and expect her to relinquish her lifelong beliefs to appease him? And despite their passion, can Sarah hold onto her fierce independence while romantically involved with someone who will never fully understand her experience?

The role of Sarah has previously won actresses Phyllis Frelich a Tony Award and Marlee Matlin an Academy Award (for the 1986 film adaptation). Yet Ridloff manages to define her Sarah in simultaneously assertive, comical and heartwarming ways that make this standout performance unique and unforgettable. Her vulnerable interpretation of the character is nuanced and brilliant. Not a moment passes by that Ridloff is unable to relay every thought that Sarah has through her perfectly expressive and daring work. The window she provides into Sarah’s mind and soul allows for a rich and layered understanding of her character that is a real feat to accomplish for any actor in a singular setting.

Children of a Lesser God

Likewise, Jackson’s portrayal of James is a true tour-de-force. His command of sign language is spot-on, and watching James’ journey unfold while he audibly interprets Sarah’s side of each conversation for audience members unfamiliar with ASL, makes for a gripping performance that could easily rebrand the seasoned screen actor as a powerhouse stage presence. Producer Hal Luftig has already expressed interest in extending this production’s life after its initial Berkshires run is over. If a Broadway transfer is indeed in its future, don’t be surprised to find Jackson and Ridloff’s names on upcoming Tony ballots. Both actors give mesmerizing, fully committed and high caliber performances that demand to be seen.

Under the masterful direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray Live, The Wiz! Live), this triumphant production of Children of a Lesser God is as poignant as it is marvelously executed. Even its minimal set provides a crucial sense of intimacy that allows the play to skillfully examine language and love in moving and thought-provoking ways. Now playing through July 22, Children of a Lesser God will deeply resonate with audience members long after the final curtain drops.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Children of a Lesser God, now through July 22 only at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes

5 REASONS NOT TO MISS “THE ROSE TATTOO” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

wtf-2016-heroesThis year, the legendary and revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts is opening its 62nd season with a production of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Rose Tattoo. Winner of the 1951 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark comedy is directed by Obie Award-winner Trip Cullman and is playing on the Festival’s Main Stage now through July 17th.

Here are our top five reasons not to miss this production of The Rose Tattoo:

1 MARISA TOMEI’S ITALIAN HOMECOMING

Marisa TomeiThe last time that Marisa Tomei tapped into her Italian background to bring a character to life, she won an Academy Award. This time around, the My Cousin Vinny star plays Serafina, a Sicilian immigrant in Louisiana who can’t seem to get back on her feet after the death of her husband. A recluse in her own home, she can barely get dressed and spends years drowning in memories instead of trying to create new ones.

Because she’s the only local seamstress, Serafina is on the receiving end of the anger and frustration of neighboring women because she doesn’t bother to fill orders in any sort of timely fashion. As a ferociously devout Catholic, her go-to source for advice, clarity, and purpose, is an old figurine of the Virgin Mary. Her religion also acts as the lens through which sees people – like the village idiot, who she claims must have shaken hands with the devil because of her crooked nails. Then there’s her teenage daughter’s sailor boyfriend. As soon as Serafina meets him, she makes him get on his knees in front of the Virgin Mary figurine to swear to not take advantage of her child’s innocence and return her home with her virginity intact.

Complete with a thick Italian accent, Tomei portrays Serafina as a frantic, emotionally unraveling woman, who at the same time is loud, in-your-face, energetic and full of sassy zingers. This makes her clashes with the townspeople and her overbearing relationship with her daughter hilarious to watch. What Tomei so impressively does is use Serafina’s pain to create a fiercely comical character whose outrageous, highly entertaining, and ultimately heartwarming roller-coaster journey is nothing short of a comedic master class.

2 CONSTANCE SHULMAN’S SCENE-STEALING PERFORMANCE

As Yoga Jones in Orange Is The New Black, Constance Shulman gives off a very mellow, calm, and peaceful presence. In The Rose Tattoo, however, she gets to show off a whole new side of herself. As The Strega, Shulman is outlandish, crazy, and above all, a huge gossip. Physically, she’s disheveled and looks like a cross between a witch from Macbeth and a pirate from a Tim Burton film. Whether she’s chasing the goat or giving foul-mouthed recaps of the goings on she’s seen about town, Shulman steals every scene she’s in with her ridiculous antics and biting banter.

3 THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN MARISA TOMEI AND CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT

Christopher Abbott and Marisa TomeiIn Act II, the grieving Serafina decides to give love another chance when she meets the handsome, younger Alvaro Mangiacavallo (whose last name literally means “eat a horse”). Alvaro, immediately smitten by the widow, goes to extreme lengths to convince Serafina to open her heart again. He even gets a rose tattoo on his chest like the one that her dead husband had. To Serafina, Alvaro has the same body as her ex (but with a “clown face”), and she takes this as a sign from the Virgin Mary to allow him into her bed. The affair that ensues becomes an increasingly over-the-top, uproarious series of dramas and misgivings. Tomei and Abbott carry the comedy beautifully, while also having palpable sexual tension and chemistry. It’s impossible not to root for them.

4 LINDSAY MENDEZ’ VOICE

Stage veteran Lindsay Mendez sings various Italian songs to set an array of tones throughout the show. Mendez – whose impressive credits include Significant Other,Wicked, Dogfight, Godspell, Grease andEveryday Rapture – has a soaring and evocative voice that adds texture and depth to whatever Serafina is feeling at the moment of her next scene. Her emotional, soulful delivery of this music is worth the price of admission alone, and it powerfully ties the play together in a simultaneously stunning and intelligent way.

5 THE SET (+ GOAT!)

Mark Wendland’s meticulous scenic design brilliantly transforms the stage into a genuine Southern coastal town. Extending through the orchestra of the theater is a wooden catwalk that immediately morphs the venue into a boardwalk. The way that Serafina’s house is anchored on its side allows audience members to clearly see her when she goes inside without sacrificing the feeling that they are surrounded by the beach.

The stage is covered in sand, and Serafina’s waterfront property is adorned by dozens of pink flamingos. The flamingos aren’t real, but the show does feature a live animal. A goat makes several appearances on stage, acting as a symbol of Serafina’s intense sexual feelings – whether it is when she remembers her husband or thinking about the temptation of Alvaro.

The Rose Tattoo

Wrapped in the backdrop of the set is Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design of a beach. Throughout the show, the waves constantly crash against the shore, making the audience forget they’re even inside. As the days turn into nights, the beach gets darker and the clear blue water turns into a black abyss with glowing foam washing up in front of it. This produces a truly transcendent effect, which will make you want to drive straight from Williamstown to Cape Cod.


Click HERE to purchase your tickets to The Rose Tattoo, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA through July 17th.

Originally published on PopBytes