Author Archives: CambCooks

The Perfect Musical Survival Guide for 2021 America

Songs for a New World, production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, recorded at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. (Live streaming, through June 8. speakeasystage.com and 617-482-3279).

By Jules Becker

Call “Songs for a New World” the perfect musical survival guide for 2021 America. Although Jason Robert Brown first staged this theatrical song cycle Off-Broadway in 1995, its insights about human hopes and choices possess new urgency for a nation grappling not only with COVID-19 but even more with racism and domestic terrorism. Thanks to a powerhouse SpeakEasy Stage Company revival—recorded with all necessary protocols during the pandemic, those insights prove freshly timely as America commemorates the centenary of the massacre of black Tulsa and continues to deal with the deadly January 6 attempted coup at the Capitol.

Under company artistic director Paul Daigneault’s strong guidance and Jose Delgado’s inspired musical direction, “Songs”‘ historical and individual implications bear new clarity. The early entreaty “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship 1492” may call to mind Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” Lincoln tribute as a captain prays for the welfare of his passengers.

(L to R) Rashid Al Nuami, Jennifer Ellis, Dwayne P. Mitchell, Laura Marie Duncan, Davron S. Monroe in SpeakEasy Stage Co’s Songs for a New World.

Davron S. Monroe brings great feeling to his caring. The later pleading “The Flagmaker, 1775” creates a kind of thematic frame with its predecessor as a woman sews stars and stripes while hoping her husband and son are well fighting in the Revolutionary War. Jennifer Ellis delivers the song’s concern with singular poignancy. The challenges to hopes and dreams have an important place in the cycle’s conception as well. In “The Steam Train,” a young would be basketball superstar sings of locking up a deal with Nike. At the same time, he confronts the alarming history of his class—four fellow students in jail and six dead. During this brilliantly edgy number, the ambitious African-American descends from early optimism to eventual grim awareness as he promises “You don’t know me but you will.” Riveting Dwayne P. Mitchell displays a richly lyrical voice as the character’s insecurity grows. He also demonstrates his athleticism, particularly with an impressive split.

Rebecca Rae Robles

Monroe, wearing a T-shirt tellingly bearing the plea “Stop Killing Us,” delivers this powerful call for dignity with a strong combination of vigor and vulnerability. All of the talented nine performers in “Songs” (originally sung by a quartet but just as effective in the SpeakEasy configuration) easily capture the vigor and vulnerability that also distinguish individual narratives.

Laura Marie Duncan is stunningly taunting as a Fifth Avenue New Yorker trying to gain the attention of a neglectful husband in “One Small Step.” Rebecca Rae Robles catches all of the façade of bravery and catalogue of contrasting fears in the ironic song “I’m Not Afraid of Anything.” Rashid Al Nuami displays deep resonance as a man frustrated by the quickly changing moods of his love in “She Cries.” The arguable high point is Ellis’ devilish Mrs. Clause complaining about Nick’s holiday absence in “Surabaya Santa,” a clever parody of the Kurt Weill gem “Surabaya Johnny.” Look for equally solid work from Mikaela Myers, Alexander Tan and Victor Carrillo Tracey. Brown, who makes an appearance from his home before the close, has said that “Songs for a New World” is about a moment of choice and taking a stand. Daigneault and Delgado have made SpeakEasy Stage’s choices a state-of-the-art revival.

Hub Theatre’s Split-Screen Exuberance Provides Wit and Humor in this Smart Adaptation

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hub Theatre Company of Boston. Hubtheatreboston.org

By Jules Becker

Picture young men socially distancing from their girlfriends for an extended period of time. Sounds like a COVID-19 era situation, does it? Actually this scenario is part of the challenge facing four students of Navarre in the fanciful Shakespearean comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

Enterprising director and adapter Bryn Boice (a sub-textually stunning all-female cast “Julius Caesar”) has handily inserted such figures as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson and even President Biden in academician Holofernes “nine worthies” counsel. There are also references to the importance of global vaccinating as well as contemporary allusions to BFF’s and bitcoins in a staging that underscores the impact of the pandemic on human relationships even as it makes the most of the play’s wit and humor.

The result is an exuberant effort that relies on smart split screen configurations and makes the virtual couplings and scene changes very clear. At the same time, Boice’s savvy direction keeps the respective male and female ensembles sharply articulate in their contrasting priorities and attitudes. Michael John Ciszewski makes Navarre’s King Ferdinand properly aggressive in the challenges to his three lords. Lauren Elias exhibits the right cockiness strategizing as the Princess of France with her three ladies. Jon Vellante brings both thoughtfulness to Lord Berowne’s reflections and fearlessness to commitment to honor. Regie Vital displays intellectual delight as Holofernes—especially in the ”nine worthies” passage. Jessica Golden captures Rosaline’s vulnerability and sensitivity. Fernando Barbosa is fittingly pompous as self-important Don Armado. Best of all is Duncan Gallagher’s scene-stealing Costard—winning in his punning, clownish mischief and physical comedy removing attire.

Berowne rhapsodizes about the learning to be found in a woman’s eyes. Hub Theatre’s freshly studious “Love’s Labour’s Lost” makes virtual Shakespeare fun-filled learning.

A Richly Flavored Drama Simmers with Memories and Questions

Black Beans Project, online play presented by Huntington Theatre Company. (At least through June 13. Tickets: huntingtontheatre.org and 617-266-0800.)

By Jules Becker

With people spending more time in the kitchen during COVID-19, the online play “Black Beans Project” — written and acted by Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez — serves up an ideal dish of family tradition and sibling warmth. Set in split screen kitchens — respectively in Ithaca, New York and Orlando, this sister-brother collaborative finds Mariana (Marie) and Henrique (Ricky) sharing not only their late Cuban-American mother’s ‘secret’ recipe for the title legumes but also cherished family memories and concerning issues as adults.

“Black Beans Project” may be a disarmingly simple mixture (under an hour in length). Still both tax preparer Mariana and graphic designer Ricky are characters in flux. Mariana tells Ricky that she has been getting rid of her husband Carlos’ things since their divorce. She is even offering up the piano their mother played and considering doing the same with her condo. At the same time, she has become a kind of COVID-19 era agoraphobic who depends on home deliveries.

For his part, Ricky has been spending about a year with their Orlando-based Puerto Rican-American father, who keeps their mother’s ashes “hostage” in a closet box rather than the striking urn his son had purchased. A ‘serial monogamist,’ her gay New York City-centered brother lacks privacy at his father’s place for a relationship with a new boyfriend and resorts to frequent masturbation during a “celibate” year.

Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez, the writers and stars of “Black Beans Project” presented by the Huntington Theatre Company (Photo: Courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company)

Clearly the recipe project provides a welcome escape from their respective limbo-like lives and a potential culinary GPS for more fulfilling family connection – even as COVID-19 and political factors involving Goya’s CEO are mentioned. Smartly, Lopez and Perez have divided their play into parts fittingly labeled “Prep,” “Simmer” and “Taste.” During the prep, Marie vividly remembers sorting beans the morning before Christmas Eve as her talented mother played piano. By contrast, Ricky reminisces about ‘spellbound’ campsite beans. Both fondly recall stargazing experiences, and Ricky mentions their mother’s belief that owls were a good omen. Lopez and Perez are so adept at blending the recipe’s ingredients and the characters’ reflections that many theater viewers are likely to try their own hands at the play’s vegetable and spice-rich mixture and call up their own memories.

Could the simultaneous preparation, simmering and tasting of their respective bean dishes become a good omen? Might Mariana and Ricky take a timely lesson about living from their father’s hatred of Quincy and their mother’s dissatisfaction with Florida heat? Does Ricky have a point when he contends that Mariana’s willingness to sell the family piano means “You’re getting rid of her?” On the other hand, should their father join them and their mother’s ashes on a journey to the White Mountains she loved, as she advises? Lopez and Perez incorporate the answers to these questions in a satisfying resolution.

Under Jaime Castaneda’s sharp direction, “Black Beans Project” has all the warmth and authenticity of a real sibling zoom. Lopez and Perez are always convincingly affectionate if direct as Mariana and Ricky. Lopez has all of the sister’s ease in the kitchen and her deep caring for her brother. She brings stunning force to Mariana’s warning that Ricky is running away from grief. Lopez captures Ricky’s charm and unassuming manner. He delivers the brother’s counsel about Mariana hiding with singular intensity. Making the sibling dynamics and memories all the more expressive are Hana S. Kim’s painterly video design and Taylor Ness’ radiant zoom and lighting.

“Black Beans Project” is a richly flavored Huntington Theatre Company presentation. Do not miss its savory combination of ethnic cuisine, family tradition and human caring.

2020: Hub Theater on Stage and Online

By Jules Becker

Is social distance performance real theater? This question, of course, has informed virtually all stage efforts since the outbreak of COVID-19. Given the challenges of presenting split-screen and zoom productions, a best of the year list is unavoidably brief. Still, 2020 boasted some notable initial pre-COVID efforts and several following well-conceived presentations that provided online audiences with provocative fare until the re-opening of area theaters.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presented the Hub premiere of the tough-talking yet thoughtful street corner-set Off-Broadway drama “Pass Over” (2019 Lortel best play prize). Antoinette Nuandu’s timely play riffs on Beckett and Exodus in a resonant look at the frustrations and difficulties of two African-American young men. Hubens “Bobby” Cius was forceful as Kitch and Kadahj Bennett commanding as Moses. SpeakEasy has since tackled LGBTQ issues with an audio presentation of M.J. Halberstadt’s (the deservedly acclaimed “The Launch Prize”) informative bookstore-set play “The Usual Unusual” — one that the company is likely to stage fully post-COVID.

Lewis D. Wheeler, Hubens ‘Bobby’ Cius and Kadahj Bennett in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘Pass Over.’ (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

American Repertory Theater paid tribute to 85-year-old activist Gloria Steinem with an exuberant area premiere of the Emily Mann Off-Broadway play “Gloria.” Audience members sat on pillows and bean bags as well as regular Loeb Drama Center seats for this informative if overly busy portrait of the Ms. Magazine founder, supporter of gay rights and inspiring contemporary of Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug. Patricia Kalember powerfully captured Steinem’s fire and feeling.

Spring found the Hub Theatre Company of Boston bringing new zest to “Much Ado about Nothing” in a lively split-screen revival. Lauren Elias was a buoyant Beatrice and Jon Vellante a standout as Benedick in a solid ensemble. Veteran actor Arthur Waldstein — wearing a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and yarmulke — proved very affecting as Rabbi Francis (originally, of course, Friar Francis) in director Bryn Boice’s persuasive adaptation.

New Repertory Theatre began a project called the Showstopper Virtual Play Series with back to back online one-person one-act plays. Colombian-American playwright Alexis Scheer’s “A Very Herrera Holiday” impressed with a disarming Martha Stewart-like crafts show that eventually darkened via suspicions of the host about the fidelity of her husband. The second work, Miranda ADEkoje’s Instagram-employing “[keyp-ing],” builds on the worries of an African-American producer’s about the security of her director husband and fellow black film crew members testing for COVID in a virtually all-white community. This smart Zoom duo bodes well for New Rep’s commitment to diversity.

Arlekin Players continues to show itself to be an envelope-pushing troupe. If its one-woman trial-based drama “State vs. Natasha Banina” needed stronger development and fuller back story, the company nevertheless deserves kudos for a well-acted, technically imaginative effort.

* * *

Three pioneering gay playwrights were lost to America and the world in 2020 – Mart Crowley (84), Larry Kramer (84) and Terrence McNally (at 81 from complications from COVID 19).

Crowley’s pre-Stonewall “The Boys in the Band” (1968) broke ground for dramatists seeking to focus on the fortunes of gay characters. Theatergoers can catch a film version of the Tony Award-winning 2018 revival (complete with the entire Broadway cast) on Netflix. Kramer’s Tony-winning play “The Normal Heart” (powerfully staged on Broadway) combines a touching romance in the age of AIDS, insights about activists like the playwright himself and timely comment about politicians favoring opportunism over courage and caring.

Terrence McNally (whom this critic was privileged to meet at a talkback after a stellar SpeakEasy Stage Company production of his Off-Broadway gem “A Man of No Importance”) was rightly known as “the bard of American theater.” The multi-talented writer and opera aficionado won Tonys for plays – “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” – as well as the books of musicals — “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”

Smart, Sharp and Challenging – New Rep Originals Take Creative Approach to Drama Online

A Very Herrera Holiday and [keyp-ing]. (Showstopper Virtual Play Series, part of first installment). Presented by New Repertory Theatre, online through December 13. Show partners: Letters Against Isolation & The Spark. Tickets: $20. http://www.newrep.org/productions/showstopper-virtual-plays

By Jules Becker

The maxim “Necessity is the mother of invention” is taking on fresh new meaning for Hub area theater without audiences. New Repertory Theatre has commissioned two virtual new plays to begin its Showstopper Virtual Play Series.

Presented through December 13, the one acts premiere (75 minutes total with a brief intermission between them) — written and directed by female BIPOC playwrights and directors — share a creative approach to internet realms in dealing with very different concerns.

The opening “A Very Herrera Holiday” — smartly written by Colombian-American actress-writer Alexis Scheer and sharply directed by Sarah Shin — takes the form of an online how-to show with the kind of advice about making crafts and mixing drinks familiar to Martha Stewart fans. Boston-based hostess Emma Herrera — played with high energy and comic skill by Amanda Figueroa — details a recipe for coquito, a tequila-based drink. While sitting on a kitchen stool, she also provides a “super unique take on gift wrapping” and advice on making eco-friendly holiday cards with pens and markers. Her instructions include such basic materials as butcher paper, yarn and twine.

A Very Herrera Holiday, Alexis Scheer, part of the New Rep’s Showstopper online play series.

If she seems very cheery despite COVID-19, that ostensible nonchalance gradually recedes as she speaks of her husband Kevin. Has he driven to his New Haven office on business? Could he be cheating with Lauren, the mother of Emma’s goddaughter — whom she is gifting mittens? Is his unseen duffel bag a matter of alarm?

Playwright Scheer cleverly peppers Emma’s disarming banter with revealing clues. Call “A Very Herrera Holiday” a rich mix of flavorful guidance and edgy marital insight.

Where the concerns of “A Very Herrera Holiday” are personal, the disturbing areas of the following play “[keyp-ing]” (blindly defending someone no matter how wrong they are) are strongly racial. Playwright Miranda ADEkoje has intriguingly turned this intense drama into an Instagram live posting during which African-American freelance commercial producer Monica Jenae powerfully denounces white supremacy. As Jenae (wearing a Harriet Tubman T-shirt) awaits the arrival of her director husband and three fellow film crew members — all of whom are testing for COVID-19 in nearly-98-percent-white Norwell, she bewails the apathy of Americans with white privilege and racial inequities. At the same time, she hopes that her baby will remain asleep as her angst and anger increase.

[keyp-ing], a new play by Miranda Adekoje.

Jasmine M. Rush, under Dawn M. Simmons’ driving direction, commandingly captures Monica’s emotional conflict as she vents about the unfairness of the commercial’s contract in the age of COVID-19. She also displays sharp timing battling Instagram postings that challenge her claims about racism and white privilege. Playwright ADEkoje has her unrelenting play ask audience members, “What do you think happens at the end?”

“[key-ping]” provides no easy answers. After all, racism continues to prove as widespread and lethal in its own way as COVID-19. Still, ADEkoje’s timely drama should provoke Zoom viewers to brutally honest discussion and real action.

Nutcracker Still Sparkles – Even in Virtual Viewing

Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, one-hour special excerpted from the 2019 production at the Boston Opera House, presented by Primark. December 25, 5 p.m. (Telemundo). December 25, 7 p.m. (NBC 10 Boston). Also available free for a limited time on bostonballet.org.

By Jules Becker

Ballet, by definition, is a wordless language of movement. Due to COVID-19, Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” has moved to television in an excerpt under an hour in length. While the second act Palace of Sweets in the celebrated winter classic may seem on a diet in this condensed broadcast, the company and individual dancers fully sparkle in scenes from the recorded 2019 production.

For television, NBC (the recent initial broadcast on NBC 10 followed by Sunday’s on NECN) has Today Show co-host Hoda Koib making introductions and briefly commenting on the ballet. At the same time, armchair narrator Colton Bradford of “Boston’s The Hub” provides vocal program notes about 1820 young heroine Clara’s dream and the title magical Christmas gift. Koib’s assistance is more of a mere network addition, while Bradford’s narrative bits are likely to benefit young newcomers unfamiliar with Clara’s workshop wizard godfather Drosselmeyer and the ballet itself.

Tigran Mkrtchyan as Nutcracker Prince and Mia Steedle as Clara in Boston Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ (photo: Liza Voll, Boston Ballet).

Even in an excerpted form, company artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s smart choreography is vividly evident. Paulo Arrais, arguably Boston Ballet’s finest male principal, captures Drosselmeyer’s elegance as well as his skill with the nutcracker itself at designer Robert Pertziola’s sharply detailed workshop.

Mia Steedle has all of Clara’s wonder and grace. (Missing in a broadcast also shortened by commercials is the heroine’s envious sibling Fritz.) Tigran Mkrtchyan catches the Nutcracker Prince’s bravery in the amusing first act battle of cadets and mice. Closing the first act as always is the radiant snow scene, gorgeously lit by Mikki Kunttu. Here Paul Craig as Snow King pulls off strong high lifts with Seo Hye Han, who displays impressive leg extension as Snow Queen.

Once Clara arrives at the Palace, the congenial Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince greet the dancers who will charm and amaze Clara and escorting Drosselmeyer. Boston Ballet fans will notice the absence here of such entertaining feats as the richly sensual Arabian and the acrobatically spirited Russian. Still, the pleasures of the remaining ‘sweets’ cannot be denied. Pertziola doubles as costumer throughout the ballet and especially at the Palace — most notably in the lively Spanish opener’s fiery red outfits and the pastel poetry of the dancers in the Waltz of the Flowers.

In the famed latter sequence, Viktorina Kapitonova combines rapid turns and lyrical entries and exits. Mkrtchyan brings good length to the Prince’s turns, and Ji Young Chae has the right lightness as well as speed during the Sugar Plum’s pivotal solo. Their iconic pas de deux impresses with breathtaking lifts. Music director Mischa Santora and the Boston Ballet Orchestra do beautiful justice to the evocative Tchaikovsky score.

As always, Clara wonders whether everything was reality or dream. With COVID -19 vaccines now an approaching reality, Boston Ballet newcomers and aficionados alike can dream of the 2021 return of “The Nutcracker” in all its fully realized glory.

The Challenge of Adapting ‘Much Ado’ for the Zoom Age

Much Ado about Nothing, Hub Theatre Company of Boston. Live online performances November 14-15, 20-21. Pay-What-You-Can. Tickets: http://www.hubtheatreboston.org

By Jules Becker

Are you hungry for live theater in the age of Covid-19? If so, Hub Theatre Company has a timely option. As producer-actress Lauren Elias revealed in a recent Zoom meeting, “We (Hub) have acted to give everybody a respite from what’s happening now.” Fellow actors Arthur Waldstein and Jon Vallente and director Bryn Boice joined her to preview the company’s upcoming live, on-line revival of “Much Ado about Nothing” (November 14-21).

Director Boice heartily embraced the challenges of a Zoom production. “I’m trying to get as much into this little area (the online rectangle) as I can.” To that end, the seasoned Shakespeare stager (including “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) is calling on modern day costumes from Chelsea Karl, digital design from Justin Lahue and sound design from Kyle Lampe. At the same time, Jessica Golden will play ukulele and Robert Orzalli, the Euphonium. “We’ve story boarded the whole show,” she noted. While the limitations of online performance mean “not being able to have total control,” Boice did look to the added factor that, “The actors have to be self-starters.”

Personal initiative was clearly evident in Elias, Vellante and Waldstein’s comments. Elias pointed to the independence and confidence of the heroine she plays. “There’s something so modern about Beatrice. She does not question her own actions.”

Vellante spoke enthusiastically about his own role and Benedick’s emotional awakening. Initially “It’s me (Benedick) against the world,” he observed. Later the somewhat loner hero reasons that, “It’s OK to love other people.” Vellante acknowledged, “I love the moment when he realizes that someone loves him and jumps for it.”

Waldstein differentiated between two clergy roles — his earlier Friar Laurence, who counsels Juliet, and his current Friar Francis, who advises Hero. Seeing the latter as “not too different from Friar Laurence,” he nevertheless felt that “Francis is much more focused on dealing with a specific relationship. He has rachmanus (Hebrew and Yiddish for compassionate feeling) for Hero.” Boice praised Jamie Hernandez, who plays Hero’s conflicted love, Claudio. “He has innocence in abundance,” she promised.

As for the director’s adaptation of the play, veteran actor Waldstein gave it high marks. “There another form of pure. There’s a purity to the integration of it.” For her part, Boice said, “We changed very few words. I am a purist. I believe in iambic pentameter. It’s about 95 per cent Shakespeare. It felt as though (the play) lent itself to the way we’re living now.” Referring to the witty banter that Beatrice and Benedick volley at each other, she added, “We’ve added that they not only fight (verbally) but also twitter away.”

Topically, Vellante noted, the characters at the masked ball wear Covid-19-type surgical masks. With Francis becoming Rabbi Francis, Waldstein will be wearing a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and yarmulke. In this gender-bending production (as in Boice’s envelope-pushing all-female “Julius Caesar”), Hero’s parent will be Leonata (originally Leonato) — played by Regine Vital. The director described her as a “helicopter parent.” Also look for sight gags and hiding gags.

Going forward, Elias speculated, Hub Theatre Company will present a dead of winter play yet to be announced. She hopes that the group will return next summer to Club Café for its annual production there.

A Mixed Verdict on This Courtroom Drama

State vs. Natasha Banina, Arlekin Players, through July 12 On Zoom (www.arlekin players.com)

By Jules Becker

Igor Golyak and his Needham-based Arlekin Players have distinguished themselves for pushing the envelope with such intriguing stagings as last season’s thoughtful and absorbing “The Stone.”

Now they have risen to the challenges of presenting theater in the face of Covid-19 with a live Zoom interactive art experiment premiere – namely “State vs. Natasha Banina,” Golyak’s adaptation of “Natasha’s Dream” (first staged in 2009) by Russian playwight Yaroslava Pulinovich.

Darya Denisova stars in ‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ (Courtesy of Arlekin Players Theatre)

Audience members become the jurors at the 60-minute online virtual courtroom. As for Natasha, played with strong intensity by Darya Denisova (herself an honoree in the Norton Award-winning “The Stone”), the courtroom by turns becomes an emotional prison as she “testifies” about the prison-like small town orphanage from which she longs to be free.

Is tough-talking, ballistic defendant Natasha an incorrigible detainee? Is she an unreliable witness as she describes her feelings for a writer and his own response? Is she truly spilling her whole life out as she appeals to jurors–a life damaged by abuse and institutional neglect–and ultimately deserving of empathy and redemption? Denisova’s compelling performance–by turns conflicted, and defiant–will certainly make audience jurors’ judging a properly complicated task.

Anton Iakhontov’s clever animation and Golyakov’s own vivid video design do much to enhance the proceedings. Even so, the text of the play needs more back story about Natasha’s emotional odyssey and ultimately suffers from uneven dramatic development.

Arlekin Players deserves kudos for its embrace of the medium of Zoom, and Denisova makes an always eye-catching defendant. Unfortunately “State vs. Natasha Banana” rates a mixed verdict.

The Enduring Tragedy of Shakespeare’s Jewish Comedy

Shylock again becomes a ‘comedy’ of eras

By Jules Becker

Is “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic?

Scholars, directors, actors and theatergoers continue to debate that question and diverge greatly in their interpretations of the late 16th century play. The late Shakespeare expert Harold Bloom called the portrayal of Shylock “savagery.” By contrast, many performers since the great 19th century English actor Edmund Kean have often looked to the Jewish moneylender’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech in making the role sympathetic. Now Igor Golyak is taking his cues from the Elizabethan era itself when audiences would have seen Shylock as a ‘villain’ and the play was termed a comedy. The Needham Jewish director recently spoke to the Journal about his take for the present day-set Actors Shakespeare Project at the Boston Center for the Arts — halted by the Hub theater shutdown in the wake of COVID-19 — a revival he hopes to resume late summer or early fall.

“For me, it’s absolutely clear that this play was anti-Semitic,” the Arlekin Players artistic director asserted. “The (Elizabethan) public would have laughed. I think Shakespeare’s genius gave birth to something that changed over time.”

Sympathetic interpretations aside, Golyak observes in a director’s note that “The Merchant of Venice” was a prescription by Goebbels (the Nazis’ propaganda director) as part of the Final Solution and proof of why the Jewish people deserved to be exterminated. In fact, the Nazis made the play a significant part of their radio broadcasts after Kristallnacht (1938) and presented productions in Nazi territory. “In Nazi Germany,” Golyak submitted, “people were booing Shylock.”

In the ASP staging, Golyak has audience members reacting in a variety of ways to reflect their changing reactions. “For me, the journey the audience is going through is even more interesting than what’s going on,” he acknowledged. Here there are applause signs. Golyak recalled theatergoers both applauding and crying after the previews and at a talkback.

Golyak means to challenge audiences. Alluding to Sasha Baron Cohen’s unusual look at anti-Semitism in his in-your-face film “Borat,” he explained, “We took the clichés and stereotypes that people use. The first time Shylock (played by Nael Nacer) comes out, he is wearing a mask and a big nose. This is the way Nazis would see him.”

In the ASP revival, the perception of Shylock is essential. For example, when ship merchant Antonio and his financially strapped best friend Bassanio step offstage, Shylock takes off his mask and becomes a real person. “[That perception of him] is a shock to the audience,” said Golyak.

As for Shakespeare’s audiences, he contended, they would have seen the play as “a comedy that ends with a happy ending.” That “happy ending” would have meant the respective marriages of Bassanio (Alejandro Simoes) and Portia (Gigi Watson) and Lorenzo (Peter Walsh) and Jessica (Anna Bortnik) and the downfall of Shylock for trying to obtain a pound of Antonio’s (Dennis Trainor) flesh without a drop of blood. “For them, [the play and its meaning] was very simple.”

No such simplicity applies today according to Golyak. “I think that after the Holocaust there’s no way to look at the play that way.” In his view, “There is absolutely no evidence that Shylock converted [to Christianity].”

Golyak sees the play moving “from a Venetian Carnivale-cabaret into the Holocaust.” Here he greatly credits scenic and costume designer Nastya Bugaeva, a Moscow Art Theatre professor who also worked on Arlekin’s “The Stone” and “The Seagull.” Working with an eight-member cast — the others: Mara Sidmore as Portia’s maid Nerissa and Jordan Palmer as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo — Golyak has also relied on the efforts of Washington, D.C. puppet designer Ksenya Litvak. Here secondary characters Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio become puppets. In the revival, he explained, “We do [their dialogue] as a radio show. They’re there to tell what’s happening.”

Summing up his approach, Golyak confessed, “I didn’t try to be provocative but I think [the revival] came out to be.”

Golyak remains very positive about the revival’s future, citing ASP artistic director Chris Edwards’ search for space to remount it, and discussions with the BCA and other venues.

Arlekin Players’ production of ‘The Stone’ won three Elliot Norton Awards.

While the ASP production is on hold, Golyak and Arlekin Players recently collected considerable theater gold at the 39th annual Elliot Norton Awards. A strong production of the Marius von Mayenburg post-Holocaust-set play “The Stone” won three small or fringe theater awards —including best production and direction by Golyak, while “The Seagull” won the best design award. The Leo Frank trial-centered show “Parade,” another big small or fringe winner, took home best musical, actor and musical direction honors.

Israeli Stage’s premiere of “The Return” won best fringe or small theater actor honors (Nael Nacer). Huntington Theatre Company’s presentation of “Indecent,” a Paula Vogel play dealing with the controversy surrounding the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance,” won the best visiting production award. Ben Levi Ross took home the best visiting actor award for his portrayal of the title character in the tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” (presented by Broadway in Boston). The versatile actor Gabriel Kuttner was remembered during the virtual ceremony, as was the gifted Johnny Lee Davenport, the posthumous winner of the Norton Award recognizing sustained excellence.

For a complete list of winners, go to http://www.elliotnortonawards.com.

Apocalyptic Vision and Frolicking Fun in Wellesley. Black Lives Considered at BCA.

boom, Wellesley Repertory Theatre (Through February 9. 781-283-2000 or wellesleyrep.org)

Pass Over, SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective (Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through February 2. bostontheatrescene.com)

By Jules Becker

Apocalyptic images are nothing new on screen — with some of the most striking going back to the Nevil Shute-based film “On the Beach.” If Stanley Kramer’s movie was a still-timely cautionary tale about a world in which all life is dying from the effects of radiation, a more hopeful if potentially claustrophobic tableau takes stage in the 2008 Off-Broadway hit Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play “boom.”

Here two young people — a marine biologist named Jules and a visiting journalist named Jo — cope with being enclosed in the former’s underground university lab space along with a fish aquarium — all the while hearing what may be explosions outside. By turns quirky, humorous and affecting, “boom” — notably in Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s disarmingly charming staging — proves satisfyingly loud about the needs and desires of these very different characters.

Nicholas Yenson, Stephanie Clayman (center) and Chloe Nosan in ‘boom.’ (photo: Micah Fong)

While Jules puts up an ad promising “sex to change the course of the world,” the actual rendezvous looks to be a flirtation with disaster. Jules, by his own admission, believes he is gay, and Jo claims to be opposed to having babies. Still, the eccentric biologist is prepared to give intercourse a try to repopulate the world a la Adam and Eve should the explosions be killing off the rest of humanity. As for sex-driven Jo, she is already ordering Jules to strip down to his underwear and socks. Nachtrieb’s dialogue as they get to know each other sparkles with sardonic wit and irony. Rounding out the play’s appealingly singular mix is curator-like Barbara, who may be maintaining the pair as a kind of future Artificial Intelligence exhibit — complete with occasional percussive accompaniment.

A play like “boom” needs actors that can smoothly balance madcap movement, crack timing and an unaffected style, and director Marta Rainer’s seamless production delivers on all three. Lanky Nicholas Yenson displays natural physical comedy as his jaunty Jules embraces the possibility of a relationship with Jo. Chloe Nosan brings good attitude and acerbic tone to Jo. Stephanie Clayman aces the tricky role of Barbara with an ample amount of spunk and panache. Her narrative moments are vivid.

Look for frolicking fun in Wellesley Rep’s buoyant “boom.”

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Think of the streetlamp in “Pass Over” as the modern counterpart of the lonely tree in “Waiting for Godot.” Antoinette Nwandu may not be directly influenced by Samuel Beckett, but her 2019 Lortel Award play does focus on an African-American outdoor pair as tied to each other as the former’s Vladimir and Estragon. Moses has the force and vision of his namesake, while Kitsch demonstrates a flashiness and vulnerability that might call to mind Estragon. Exodus from fear of being shot and a Promised Land of tranquility and dreams are priorities which they await at all times.

Lewis D. Wheeler, Kadahj Bennett and Hubens ‘Bobby’ Cius in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘Pass Over.’ (Photo courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

This SpeakEasy Stage Company-Front Porch Arts Collective collaboration forcefully examines day-to-day life for African-Americans from their own perspective rather than that of whites who either demonstrate disinterest or deadly opposition. Under Monica White Ndounou’s taut direction, Kadahj Bennett as Moses and Bobby Clue as Kitsch have strong authenticity as the brother-like friends. Bennett possesses Moses’ thoughtfulness and vocal fire. Clue has the right grace and ease as Kitsch. Lewis Wheeler captures Mister’s enigmatic geniality and Ossifer’s arresting volatility. Kathy A. Perkins’ nuanced lighting reflects the ups and downs of their fortunes as they deal with domineering police and whites.

Ignore “Pass Over” at your own peril. This is a play that rightly asks audience members to open their minds and hearts to the challenges that stress out African-Americans regardless of their individual situations.

At the conclusion of the play, white theatergoers are asked to leave to allow black and brown audience members to consider Nwandu’s insights and their own. White counterparts will do well to do the same.