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Three hits for the fall

by Jules Becker
Thursday Sep 15, 2016

Blasted by Off the Grid Theatre Company
Blasted by Off the Grid Theatre Company  

Blasted, Off the Grid Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, through September 18. 617-933-8600 and bostontheatrescene.com

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through September 18. 617-547-8300 and amrep.org

Cheers: Live on Stage, national tour by Stageworks Media and TROIKA Entertainment LLC, Citi Performing Arts Center's Shubert Theatre, Boston, through September 18.

Off the Grid Theatre Company is committed to "re-imagining classical and contemporary repertoire" as well as developing and staging new works. Last season, the Hub -based troupe brought richly provocative understatement to the Peter Shaffer modern classic "Equus." Now, under the taut guidance of John Kuntz, Off the Grid is capturing the disturbing vision of Sarah Kane's visceral first play "Blasted." This timely local premiere virtually explodes to life in the intimate space at the rear of the Calderwood Pavilion's Wimberly Theatre.

"Blasted" is unabashedly not for the squeamish. Be prepared to see a dystopian world including rape, suicide (the profoundly depressed dramatist a suicide herself at age 28) and even cannibalism in the unlikely setting of a room in a luxurious Leeds hotel. Besides male and female nudity, Kane's uncompromising play contains simulations of masturbation and oral and anal sex. Even so, the gifted British playwright's theatrically vivid effort is in very good company.

The initial rendezvous of journalist Ian and job-seeking Cate may have Sam Shepard aficionados thinking of the motel meeting of lovers in the latter's "Fools for Love." Disarming, sometimes menacing dialogue that invites audience members to read between the lines may call to mind such Harold Pinter plays as 'The Birthday Party" and "Ashes to Ashes."

Similarities aside, the nightmare tableau of "Blasted"-initially denounced by theatergoers and critics alike-proves very compelling and particularly resonates in an age of escalating hatred and polarization. Gun-toting homophobe and bigot Ian speaks of "faggots taking over" and asks Cate if she is a "nigger-lover." Kane sharply undercuts their rare moments of tenderness with the play's contrasting venomous ambience of menace and violence. That alarming combination-during which Ian seems to rape Cate- takes a striking turn in the later going. Here a rifle-carrying soldier with both psychological and physical war wounds verbally intimidates Ian as the journalist had earlier overpowered Cate and proceeds to rape him and blind him. A variation on Brechtian survivor images kicks in with a horrific eating scene involving a dead infant.

Kuntz skillfully balances all of these disarming and disturbing elements without sensationalizing the most harrowing moments or sacrificing the play's ironies and dark humor. Christopher James Webb captures all of Ian's early bravado and belligerence and finds the curious pathos of his later vulnerability. Alexis Scheer catches Cate's early adventurous spirit and naiveté and her gradual transformation into a tenacious survivor. Maurice Emmanuel Parent delivers an electrifying performance as Soldier- stoic one moment and war-weary at another. His war-weary venting is very compelling, and his overpowering of Ian both theatrically visceral and properly scary.

Off the Grid's playbill mission statement includes the objective of "engendering social empathy." Kane's unquestionably disquieting play nevertheless cries out between the lines for such empathy. Off the Grid is more than living up to that high objective with its haunting edition of "Blasted.''
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Anna Deveare Smith is a riveting veteran stage educator. Just think of the powerful lessons this gifted African-American actress-writer has taught about the primacy of understanding the full spectrum of ethnic, religious and societal points of view. Hub theatergoers surely remember her landmark solo efforts "Twilight:Los Angeles,1992" and "Fires in the Mirror." Her latest and equally timely original theater text "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education"- seamlessly directed by Leonard Foglia at American Repertory Theatre-not only ranges as before back and forth between participants and observers in a documentary-like piece but also includes an intriguing interactive 25-minute middle section calling on audience members to listen to and teach each other through questions, answers and comments.

With "The Death of Freddie Gray" as a kind of event anchor, Smith evokes such essential voices- from principal, teacher and psychiatrist to parent and student. Diversity is always a trademark of her portrait-rich pieces, and the arresting repertoire here includes former correctional facility inmate Steven Campos and Yurok Tribe chief judge Abby Abbinanti. Before Smith's impassioned Coda, audience members split up into small groups that in effect turn audience members into portraits ourselves meant to educate each other about personal and communal concerns and increase understanding about educational challenges and potential solutions.
Smith's shimmering Coda begins with a brilliant evocation of gay African-American writer James Baldwin's own insights. Here she captures his rich attitude and graceful demeanor in his "Walk on a Leaf." Especially stirring in a kind of performance epiphany is her concluding spirited delivery of "Brother" from civil rights movement giant Congressman John Lewis. Do time with Anna Deveare Smith; her inspiring "Notes from the Field" frees us all.
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"Cheers," everybody knows your name- whether as the warm and winning Glen Charles & Les Charles and James Burrows series on CBS or in cherished re-runs. Now younger and older fans alike can enjoy "Cheers: Live on Stage." A kind of distillation of the style, sensibility and singular humor of the award-winning comedy, the two hour stage version (including one intermission) now on tour at the Shubert Theatre does recreate the show's 1982-set Beacon Hill neighborhood pub - kudos to designer Michael Carnahan for a wonderfully detailed central bar-as well as the infectious camaraderie of the staff and regular customers.

Director Matt Lenz makes the focal ensemble persuasive and easily recognizable. Grayson Powell has the right combination of attitude and likeability as Sam Malone. Jillian Louis, a standout in the complex role of Diane Chambers, catches the apprentice cocktail waitress' amusing fussiness as a former teaching assistant and her ambivalence about her attraction to Sam. Powell and Louis have just the right chemistry as the unlikely romantic couple. Sarah Sirota is wonderfully cocky as Carla Tortelli, and Paul Vogt displays crack timing as often soft-spoken Norm. Look for a sharp double entendre about "finishing off Kierkegaard," Diane's humorous attempts at mixing drinks and a rhythmic push and pull between Sam and Diane as they try to hold back their feelings for each other.

Toast the comfy nostalgia of "Cheers: Live on Stage."

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