First Stage Lives up to it’s reputation with “Nate the Great”

The cast of Nate the Great at First Stage

It’s not a fast slide from “Nate the Great” to Nate the Average or even the Nate Without Any Ideas.

But it happens, much to the surprise of everyone, but nobody was more surprised that Nate himself.

He had built a teenage career by being a deductive detective, taking cases and solving the riddles for his friends and family.

But this latest one (eventually two) has him flummoxed and the story, “Nate the Great” running now at First Stage is a spellbinding  play that brings the audience along the tortured path trying to solve the mystery.

Brilliantly adapted by John Maclay (book and lyrics) and Brett Ryback (music and lyrics) director Niffer Clarke works her musical theater wizardry to craft the kind of show that is perfect for the First Stage audience, kids, adults and anything else. Even your pets would like this one.

Nate (Seth Hoffman) is a teenager with an unbridled lust for pancakes and an equally unbridled confidence in his talents to solve even the most perplexing cases.

His friend Annie (Makayla Davis) has painted a dog, a painting she loves, but it has disappeared. Not lost, but stolen and she asks Nate to take her case.

He does, and what ensues is a step by step search for clues and solutions. Along the way he suspects and then clears friend Rosamond (Emily Harris) who has lost one of her many casts, a cat she calls her Super Hex.

Turn after turn and Nate runs into an empty basket, no answers to found and his spirits drop steadily. His frustration is overwhelming and he’s more discouraged in his abilities than ever before.

I’m not about to reveal what happens, but suffice it to say that with little brother (Cole Sison) and the always magnificent Elyse Edelman (the only adult ) plays everything from Nate’s Mom to Annie’s dog, Fang does an amazing tango with both Nate and Annie.

One of the most remarkable things about First Stage is the challenge facing the cast and the designers. Everything is done to a high level, while combining the need to make a production simple enough for children to follow.

This is a musical, but instead of simple melodies and lyrics, Mr. Ryback has written music that is complex and not the least bit easy to sing.

Ms. Clarke is a veteran of musical theater and brings her sensitivities and sills to bear on a cast that could easily overwhelmed by the challenges. She understands, as well as anyone, the concept of acting and singing that you need to tell a story, and to move it forward.

I have long held a dream to perform in a musical directed by Ms. Clarke. The discovery process for an actor/singer must be the ultimate in creative satisfaction.

Mr. Maclay, who is the Director of Artistic Development at First Stage has taken a great tale and moved it forward steadily, which honesty and free of gimmicks. Two seasons ago he collaborated with Joe Foust to adapt the best Robin Hood I’ve ever seen. Mr. Maclay has an unerring ear for raking the varied and diverse simple and understandable.

Mr. Ryback captures the synthesis of humor and storytelling with the need to make songs a part of something bigger.

First Stage is a remarkable company, perhaps the best family theater company in the country,  It proves, on a daily basis that there is no need to dumb down – or play down – to create magical enchantment for everybody in the family.

“Nate the Great” runs through Nov. 11.

Production credits: Niffer Clarke, Director; Brett Ryback, Music Director; Giana Blazquez, Choreographer; Joanna Iwanicka, Scenic Designer; Lyndsey Kuhlmann, Costume Designer, Jesse Klug, Lighting Designer, Stage Manager, Melissa L Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Carrie Johns; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.


A quartet of spectacular actors bring brooding Irish alive at Next Act


Deborah Staples and David Cecsarini in Outisde Mullingar at Next Act

There are many joys in this world, but chief among them is having an opportunity to watch the very best in action.

The thing that often sets them apart is not the big stuff, but the little things.

It’s Yo Yo Ma, tilting his head so he can better hear the notes from his cello. It’s  Tiger Woods in his prime, taking just one more second to check before he strokes a putt. It’s Stephen Colbert that lets you know, if you catch it, that a joke is on the way.

With a cast of masterful actors hewing to equally masterful directions, “Outside MUllingar,” The John Patrick Stanley dark  romantic comedy running at Next Act Theatre, it is such little things that prove striking.

The first example comes early when the brilliant James Pickering, playing a crotchety, aging Irish farmer, prepares to add wood to his potbellied kitchen stove.

Before adding the wood, Mr. Pickering touches the top of the stove with a knuckle, checking the heat. It’s a small thing but oh so telling that we are about to watch masters at work.

Carrie Hitchcock and James Pickering at Outside Mullingar

Set in the rural Irish countryside, Mr. Pickering plays Tony, the widowed farmer who lives with his son, Anthony (David Cecsarini). They have just returned from the funeral for neighbor Christopher Muldoon and are soon joined by his widow Aoife (Carrie Hitchcock), who lives with her daughter Rosemary (Deborah Staples).

The first act is the expected brooding and dark affair. Aofie and Tony discuss their impending deaths, Tony is preparing to leave his world and is determined to keep his son from taking over the farm. “He doesn’t love the earth,” he moans, over and over.

Anthony, for his part, is an unhappy man for reasons yet to be revealed. His relationship with his father is tense and unpleasant, adding to the sullen climate.

Of course this being the Irish, there are moments of high good humor among the melancholy. All three actors have their moments when laughs come easily and often unexpectedly.

Introduced near the end of the first act, Rosemary shows the first glimpses into her relationship with Anthony. Her mother confirms that Rosemary holds a permanent grudge against Anthony stemming from a 30 year old incident when he pushed the six-year-old girl to the ground.

Their farms are separated by a strip of land that Tony sold to Christopher 30 years ago. The land, now owned by Rosemary, requires that Tony go through two gates in order to get from the road to his own home, a fact that gnaws at the old man.

The second act is a tour de force for both Ms. Staples and Mr. Cecsarini, who are real life husband and wife.

Like any good romantic comedy an incredible array of obstacles threaten the journey toward love. He is adamantly reluctant to get involved with her, instead offering to introduce her to his American cousin who is coming to Ireland to find a bride.

Rosemary is aghast at this idea and appalled that he “knocked on my door for your cousin.”

Eventually she plaintively asks “Why didn’t you knock for yourself Anthony?”

As expected, Anthony and Rosemary overcome the odds and thebarriers and end up happily ever after. But it is the journey, directed by Edward Morgan, that is so much fun.

People live and die, argue and love, drink beer and eat stew, shun and embrace – in short a fully Irish thang.

And these four actors are such a special quartet that I could have easily watched another couple of hours of this two-hour journey into the heart. The four of them all delve deep into their characters and bring these four vastly different people fully alive. They do all the big stuff that we expect.

And, they do the little things, that sets them apart from the rest of mere mortals.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design,Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, Grover Hollway; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Production photographer; Ross Zentner.

“Guards at the Taj” looks at both beauty and duty

Owa’Ais Azeem and Yousof Sultani star in “Guards at the Taj” Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is only with intelligent and perceptive direction that the truth of “Guards At The Taj” can speak plainly to an audience.

It would be easy to get wrapped up in the humor or the horror of the play, currently running at the Stiemke Studio at The Rep. It would be easy to think this is a play about what makes something beautiful and how important is it to daily life.

But under the maestro touch of Brent Hazelton, what we see on this stage is a piercing examination of the concept of duty – duty to others, duty to family and friends, duty to a cause and, ultimately, duty to yourself.

It’s the mid 1600’s and the magnificent Taj Mahal has just been completed – the most beautiful thing on earth. Humayun (Yousof Sultani) and Babur (Owa’Ais Azeem) are two lowly guards, assigned to the dawn shift guarding the palace. They must stand still, not talk and certainly not turn to look at the building.

Rajiv Joseph’s play breaks the plane of duty quickly with a brotherly banter between the two guards, Humayan intent on obedience to the orders, Babur equally intent on disregarding orders in order to indulge his flights of fancy.

The play starts funny, very funny, and Mr. Hazelton has given his two actors an incredible box of tools to work with and each actor  takes full advantage. They quickly draw portraits of who each man is and how abundant their relationship with each other is.

They may be the bottom of the totem pole, but they suffer each other graciously and find both love and delight in their brotherhood.

One of the most charming and mesmerizing parts of this play are the silences. Long and drawn out, Mr. Hazelton lets the silence breathe and even talk to the audience. They are enraptured.

The 85 minutes from places to curtain are a long and tortured slide from the funny guys to two men wracked with pains, both real and imagined. Mr. Hazelton manages this slide with patience and Azeem and Sultani let those silences ride on the wings of both fantasy mixed with harsh reality.

These two actors are scintillating in their passions and powers. Each draws a precise picture of men who enjoy abundant similarity while sharing a wonder at their differences.

This is a powerful play, full of surprise (which I’m reluctant to reveal). As the disillusion grows in a variety of directions for each character, there is an audience sympathy that mixes with the gnarl of painful repulsion.

I have enjoyed Mr. Hazelton’s work for a long time,and his continued growth as a director of amazing talents has been a joy to watch.

About a decade ago, when there was still a foolish thought that I might be an actor, I did a play at Windfall directed by Mr. Hazelton. One rehearsal we spent half an hour talking about a toothpick I used as a minor prop. Half an  hour about a toothpick.

It is that kind of attention to detail that makes him such a power heading a production. He is more than ably assisted here by brilliant scenic design by Scott Davis, evocative lighting by Noele Stollmack, a vibrant sound design by Barry G. Funderburg and creative scenic design by Scott Davis.

That team has combined efforts to create an evening of troubling theater, the kind of thing that makes you smile before it slams into you, demanding that you think about what you just saw on the stage.