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I chuckled recently when Playbill Online, obviously quoting a local press release, stated that one of Buffalo’s theaters was picking up the slack created by the closure of Studio Arena Theatre. Sad as that closure may be, artistically speaking, Buffalo’s smaller independent theaters have been picking up the slack for years.

Betsy Bittar and Eric Rawski in the New Phoenix's The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Consider the current moment. On the boards in Buffalo, simultaneously, three artistically ambitious, if forgivably flawed productions: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Paul Robeson, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit at Ujima Theatre Company, and Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the New Phoenix. Of the three, only Beauty Queen has been seen here before—in a production for the Studio Arena 1999-2000 season best remembered for a publicity photo featuring Blossom Cohan as the mother. (She did not actually play the role in the production.)

This theater season in Buffalo has been brimming over with great plays and new works, tumbling out with an energy I never remember before.

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean represents the first decade of the 20th century in Wilson’s play cycle chronicling African-American life. Here we meet Aunt Ester, a former slave who believes she is approaching her 287th birthday. The action is set in motion when Citizen Barlow, his spirit plagued by guilt over another man’s death, pays her an urgent visit in hopes that she will help him cleans his soul. At the climactic moment, Aunt Ester takes Citizen on a journey of the imagination to the City of Bones, a trip that inspires insights about guilt and redemption.

Under the direction of Laverne Clay, the Paul Robeson Theatre production gives a faithful reading to this, one of Wilson’s more difficult and highly symbolic works. While the Robeson has made some stretches in terms of casting actors not ideally suited for the roles, the production unfolds with appealing enthusiasm and efficiency. Ciandre Taylor is especially good as Black Mary, the sister of Caesar Wilks, a ruthless local black business man who is dismayed that she is content to make her living as Aunt Ester’s housekeeper. Kinzy Brown, too, gives a smart and nicely motivated performance as aptly named Caesar. I also found, as the production went on, that Alton Bowens’ performance as Solly Two Kings, a man with a radical soul, continued to gain momentum.

Cynthia Maxwell has been cast against type as Aunt Ester, a role created on Broadway by Phylicia Rashad. While Rashad played the role with aged majesty, Maxwell has opted for clarity, a choice that adds lucidity what it loses in expression. Roger Lamont Killian as Citizen Barlow, Dee Lamonte Perry as traveling peddler Rutherford Selig, and Leon Copeland as Eli, similarly endeavor to tell the story by making clear sense of the words, without taking too many risks with the material, perhaps a wise choice given the limits of the production.

The final result is quite satisfying. Presentation of this important work by the most important African-American playwright of the latter 20th century is surely at the core of the Paul Robeson Theatre mission, and this production of Gem of the Ocean, while not spellbinding, is engaging and insightful.

The Visit

Dürrenmatt’s The Visit is certainly on my short list of favorite plays. I find its deliciously macabre setup and grotesque combination of comedy and tragedy to be irresistible. In short, Claire Zachanassian is a former resident of the central European town of Gullen. Since her departure, in disgrace, she has become the richest woman in the world. As the play begins she has arrived in the economically ruined town for a “visit.” The elated townspeople hope that she has come to rescue them. In time, however, Claire reveals that she will save the town, but that she will exact a price of her own.

It seems that as a teenager she became pregnant by her lover, Alfred. Realizing that having a child with a girl of notorious reputation would ruin his career prospects, he bribed two other men to lie, saying that they too had slept with her. Claire lost her paternity suit and was forced into a life of prostitution. Now, spectacularly wealthy, she will endow the town with a billion, as soon as Alfred has been killed.

Lorna C. Hill plays Claire and Peter Palmisano plays Alfred in this production. Each is cast perfectly, and their moments on stage are the highlights of the production.

Despite an abundance of acting talent on stage, the production has no sense of flow between scenes, as if it had been rehearsed in pieces that were never subsequently strung to together. The result is moments of brilliance, disjointed and disconnected.

While the production never quite finds its spine, and never conjures up the momentum that one would think is implicit in a revenge play, as with Gem of the Ocean, the material is strong enough to sustain our interest. In addition, the sparse staging contrasts nicely with the wonderfully extravagant costumes for Claire.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh is a master storyteller, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, while little more than a predictable melodrama with a healthy dose of unhealthy farce, nonetheless keeps us rapt on that score.

Living in a small Irish town, unbeautiful Maureen is burdened with having to care for her unpleasant mother. When she finds that the old woman has undermined her one chance for love and happiness, she reacts, shall we say…badly.

There is more than a passing resemblance to the work of Sean O’Casey in this tumble of humorous Irish types, and the cast at the New Phoenix tears into them eagerly. Mary Loftus is a natural at the scolding mother who seems to terrorize the house, giving a strong performance that is by turns, hilarious and affecting. Eric Rawski and John Kreuzer are both humorous and touching, giving ample play to the roles of brothers whose lives intersect with Maureen and mother in fateful ways. The surprise of the evening is the performance of Betsy Bittar as the titular and ironically named beauty queen. She gives a strong performance that only gets into a muddle after the climax, when the mad denouement rather spins out of control in unbelievable fashion. This is the most complex and engaging performance I have seen from Bittar, as she gives Maureen humanity, sadness, and intelligence that is wonderfully real.

Under the direction of Joseph Natale, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is strong on narrative, even it if falters slightly on dramaturgy and staging. In addition to the loss of clarity en route to the finish, a large downstage table that get minimal use blocks our view of a sink and stove that figure prominently in the action. I’ll say no more—but watch the kitchen utilities!

Hedda Gabler

Many are curious about the current Broadway production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler starring Mary-Louise Parker, especially since many of the reviews have been hateful. To be honest, I found Parker to be marvelous in the role, navigating the difficult line of humor on the edge of tragedy with thrilling skill. Michael Cerveris, too, is very good as her ineffectual husband, Dr. Tesman, giving the character more depth than I have seen before. Where the production is lacking, however, is in any sense of drive from its beginning to its conclusion. There is little energy between Hedda and the judge in this production, a void that does become rather terminal (and not in a good way). So while I enjoyed Hedda Gabler immensely, especially the central performances, and would urge others not to miss it, I must concede that detractors do have a point.

Michael Tosha

Finally, on a very sad note, in a year that has been difficult in this regard, the theater community mourns the death of Michael Tosha of an apparent heart attack last week. Michael was the associate producer and an actor at O’Connell & Company for the last several years.

In an email to the community, Mary Kate O’Connell recalled that he first worked with the company when he appeared in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. She described him as “this handsome guy with a beautiful voice and just enough wackiness to be a perfect fit with the Company. It was an immediate fit. He never left. Michael was my right hand and my family and I will miss him more than words can say. My unforgettable friend. I will miss his laughter and smile and assuring nods even when he thought I was wrong.”

All who knew Michael mourn his passing.