Boston Theaters Showcase Strong Offerings

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A scene from "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" (Courtesy of the Lyric Stage Company)
A scene from "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" (Courtesy of the Lyric Stage Company)

As local theater companies rev their offerings up, WBUR's critic-at-large samples the current Boston theater scene.

'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'
“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” began the trend of marathon theater experiences when the Royal Shakespeare Company unveiled it in the early 1980s, so it’s only fitting that it’s making its New England premiere as part of a month of marathons in Boston.

It’s also fitting that it’s being staged in Boston by the Lyric Stage Company and its leader, Spiro Veloudos. They’ve been at the forefront of making Boston a better town for local actors, and in this production he gives a good percentage of them the chance to strut their stuff. Some of our best actors are here along with up-and-comers like Jack Cutmore-Scott in the title role, and Hannah Husband who, like most in the huge cast, plays a variety of roles.

In addition to being such a great showcase for the actors, it’s really a very nicely paced evocation of the novel, with Nigel Gore and Will Lyman sending chills down your spine as the resident evil figures and many excellent comic turns by the likes of Larry Coen and Neil A. Casey.

It’s a spirited salute to 19th century England. But what great Dickens adaptations have — and what’s missing here — is the sense that there’s something of the novelist’s spirit that’s still alive in the land, whether it’s compassion for the downtrodden or the sense that there’s still the possibility for heroism in our daily lives. That said, it’s still quite an accomplishment for the Lyric and as moving a holiday-season experience as that other Dickens novel we see around this time of year.

-Through Dec. 19, by the Lyric Stage Company

'The Shirley, Vt.' Plays

Shirley, she jests.

Unlike London, Shirley, Vt. doesn’t exist — though if it did I’d move there in a minute if playwright Annie Baker would be my tour guide. Three companies that have spaces at the Boston Center for the Arts — the Huntington Theatre Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company and Company One — have all collaborated to do one play apiece and I can’t give them enough credit for bringing this incredibly talented 29-year-old playwright to our attention. They can be seen in any order and the characters don’t overlap. (You get a discount if you sign on for all three.)

Baker takes this town that’s part Amherst, where she grew up, and part every “alternative” Vermont town or city that you’ve ever visited and populates it with older characters — satisfied with their lives, for the most part, though a bit restless –- as well as teenagers and twenty-somethings who are terribly frustrated with their lot in life and deeply pessimistic about the future. As something of a tweener, at 29, the level of insight and the clashes that she orchestrates among these characters are beautifully unraveled.

Jeremiah Kissel (Schultz) and Nadia Bowers (Theresa) in "Circle, Mirror Transformation" (T. Charles Erickson./Huntington Theatre)
Jeremiah Kissel (Schultz) and Nadia Bowers (Theresa) in "Circle Mirror Transformation" (T. Charles Erickson./Huntington Theatre)

The Huntington’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” deals with an acting class in which a diverse set of characters — in terms of age anyway — have enrolled. It’s a class that starts out seeming like psychobabble, but the key word is “transformation.” All of these extraordinarily ordinary characters end up transforming each other. (Through Nov. 14)

“The Aliens” by Company One has a pair of 30-year-old beatnik/hippies hanging out in back of a coffee shop where a very nervous, tentative, 17-year-old who works there is taken under their wing. His version of “I Had a Hammer,” where he learns to sing his song, also lives up to the theme of transformation. (Through Nov. 20)

SpeakEasy Stage’s “Body Awareness” is the most conventional, on the surface. Two women are in a committed, very politically correct relationship, and one has a son from a previous marriage who may have Asperger Syndrome. They’re visited by a guest artist, a decidedly un-politically correct photographer who takes pictures of naked women, and sparks fly about whether these photos exploit women or liberate them. But this isn’t a sitcom. Like the others, it’s a deeply humanistic, unsentimental view of the way people deal with and influence other people. (Through Nov. 20)

Each of the productions is first-rate, with superb acting and direction across the board. What makes it even more impressive is that they don’t have grand arias that you see in other plays, so the actors and directors need to communicate through body language as well as the spoken word. Baker has been around to see them and I hope it’s the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between her and Boston theater. And perhaps these and other companies will continue to join forces to highlight an important playwright — it’s a great way of immersing oneself in a given writer’s work.

-At the Boston Center for the Arts by the Huntington Theatre Company, the SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Company One

The Coveted Crown: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

You usually don’t get to see the second part of Shakespeare’s miniseries, as it’s Part One where the sparks fly and the Falstaffian spirit hovers. Unfortunately, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project doesn’t make much of a case for either in this badly miscast and misconceived amalgamation, with bits of “Richard II” and “Henry V” thrown in for bad measure. It’s one of the more disappointing efforts by the company.

-Through Nov. 21, at the Midway Studios by the Actors' Shakespeare Project

This program aired on November 4, 2010.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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