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The Arts Fuse: Best Stage Productions of 2019

This post is excerpted from The Arts Fuse Theater Feature.

The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, staged by Lyric Stage Company, Boston. Scott Edmiston directed this blemish-free production starring the sublime Anne Gottlieb as Regina Giddens, who, circa 1900, engages in psychological warfare to reclaim her share of the American dream. Hellman planned to write a trilogy about this pernicious Southern family, but completed only two entries. Her prequel, Another Part of the Forest, hasn’t been performed in Boston in years (read: decades). The Lyric Stage production of Foxes was a critical and financial success. Will someone conscript Edmiston (and cast) to stage the Hellman prequel in 2020?

Kinson Theodoris, Amelia Broome, Cheryl D. Singleton in the Lyric Stage production of The Little Foxes. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express Production Photos

Remo Airaldi, Will McGarrahan. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Will McGarrahan, Remo Airaldi, Celeste Oliva. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Remo Airaldi, Davron S. Monroe, Kerry A. Dowling, Scot Colford. Photo by Mark S. Howard
The cast. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Remo Airaldi. Photo by Mark S. Howard
Remo Airaldi, Scot Colford, Will McGarrahan. Photo by Mark S. Howard
The cast. Photo by Mark S. Howard
The cast. Photo by Mark S. Howard

The Thanksgiving Play production photos.

Photos by Glenn Perry

Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Grace Experience, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Grace Experience, Amanda Collins, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins, Jesse Hinson, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Barlow Adamson, Grace Experience. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Barlow Adamson, Grace Experience, Amanda Collins. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Grace Experience, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Grace Experience, Amanda Collins, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Grace Experience, Amanda Collins. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins, Jesse Hinson, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins, Grace Experience, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Grace Experience, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amada Collins, Barlow Adamson, Grace Experience. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Grace Experience, Barlow Adamson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins, Jesse Hinson. Photo by Glenn Perry.
Amanda Collins, Grace Experience. Photo by Glenn Perry.

Program Note: A Short History of Trigger Warnings

The debate over so-called “trigger warnings” continues to simmer, boiling over in the media every month or so. These warnings – statements alerting students, and other members of the public, if writing, video or other materials contain confronting images or ideas – have taken center stage in the campus culture wars in the US and beyond.

Proponents argue that trigger warnings protect vulnerable and traumatized students from harm. Warnings allow students to prepare themselves mentally for distressing experiences or to avoid exposure to them if they feel unable to cope.

Critics see things differently. Where trigger warning proponents see protection they see coddling. Where proponents see sensitivity, they see censorship and threats to fearless pedagogy.

The Concept of ‘Triggers’

Rather than enter this political minefield, we might consider the concept of “trigger warning” itself and ask where it comes from. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a trigger can be something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction.

To trigger something is therefore not just to bring it about in some general sense, but to cause it in a way that is mechanical and automatic, like a reflex. Pollen is an asthma trigger because it sets off muscle contractions in the airways among people who are sensitive to it. The muscular reaction is involuntary and requires no conscious deliberation. It just happens.

The idea of trigger warnings originates in the psychiatric literature on post-traumatic reactions, where triggering had the same connotations. The primary features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include so-called “re-experiencing symptoms,” like intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.

These thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic.

When trigger warnings were first introduced, they adhered closely to this post-traumatic sense of the term. Warnings were intended to alert traumatized people, who had experienced rape and sexual or physical assault, that soon-to-be presented material might spark their traumatic memories. Trigger warnings now commonly alert people not only to content that relates to sexual or physical trauma, but also to material that is potentially offensive, disgusting or politically questionable.

For example, one recent proposal urged trigger warnings for vomit, spiders and insects, slimy things, food, eye contact, pregnancy, classism, racism and transphobia (including, presumably, critiques thereof). Lists such as these indicate that trigger warnings have expanded their conceptual territory to encompass almost anything that could be a focus of strong emotion or conflict.

That expansion is revealed by statements that trigger warnings relate to material that is “emotionally confronting” or “distressing” rather than narrowly traumatic. Indeed, much of the content now subject to trigger warnings has no direct association with trauma in the psychiatric sense.

Over-Expansion?

The fact that a concept such as “trigger” has inflated far beyond its original meaning is not in itself a cause for concern. Concepts evolve all the time, and so they should. However, it is important to ask whether the expanding meaning of “trigger” has come at a cost.

Sir John Tenniel

Responding to Humpty Dumpty’s claim that a word “means just what I choose it to mean,” Alice [Through the Looking Glass] asked: “The question is … whether you can make words say so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty replied: “The question is … which is to be master,” he or the word.

Trigger warning advocates may be the masters when it comes to defining “triggers,” but they may be over-egging the definition.

The emotional signature of trauma is intense fear or horror. It is fear that dominates the reexperiencing symptoms of PTSD. However, the newer triggers often involve markedly different emotions: sadness or depression, social anxiety, disgust, or moral indignation at an offensive -ism. These diverse emotions can be rolled up with fear into an undifferentiated ball of “upset,” “distress” or feeling “confronted,” but crucial distinctions are
overlooked in the process.

Traumatic fear, for example, is intense, evoked by reminders in a largely automatic manner, difficult to override and related to a personal catastrophic experience. Mercifully only a small minority of the population suffers from PTSD at any point in time; 3.8% over a six-month period according to one recent study.

In contrast, most people experience some disgust at slimy things and vomit, but rarely to a pathological degree and not necessarily as a result of a traumatic personal history. To group together “triggers” for sexual trauma and for everyday disgust is to mix apples and rotten oranges.

The angry offence that people may take to undesirable social attitudes and political ideologies is even more different from traumatic fear, and even more questionably described by the language of “triggering.” Outrage or indignation is not as automatic as traumatic fear, involving a more complex moral assessment of the situation.

The ire we experience when we take offence is not generated by an involuntary trigger-like mechanism but by a complex process of moral cognition.

Gabe Hartwig for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The differences between traumatic fear and moral anger do not stop there. One motivates avoidance, the other motivates attack. People taking angry offence at classism or racism are unlikely to be responding reflexively to a personal trauma, and more likely to be responding in an, at least partially, reasoned way to injustices felt on behalf of (or as part of) a group, including groups to which they do not belong.

To argue trigger warnings are required for class content that refers to colonialism or Islamophobia is to stretch the meaning of “trigger” to breaking point, making it refer both to pathological fear and to normal moral disapproval.

As Alice said to Humpty Dumpty: “That’s a great deal to make one word mean.” To which Humpty replied: “When I make a word do a lot of work like that … I always pay it extra.”

About The Thanksgiving Play

Four well-intentioned white high school teachers scramble to create a pageant that somehow manages to celebrate both Turkey Day and Native American Heritage Month.   What could possibly go wrong?

THROUGH OCT. 5: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Susan Mulford

     Best production of this delightfully fun show that I have experienced in my 33 year reviewing career!   The Lyric Stage Company at 140 Clarendon St. in Boston presents this award-winning sci-fi pulp musical on its award-winning, popular and intimate stage. The musical is also currently enjoying a successful off-Broadway revival in NYC.  With an upbeat
score composed by Alan Menken and a  Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, this production has been inoticebly directed
and choreographed with many delightfully clever and extraordinarily perfect details by IRNE Award-winner Rachel Bertone.

The quirky story takes place in a failing flower shop in a run-down, “skid row” neighborhood in NY City. Four time IRNE and four time Norton Award-winner, Scenic Designer, Janie E. Howland*, thrusts the audience into the center of the sad, little shop that is situated in the slums.

The tale opens with the timid, clumsy, and overtly submissive Seymour Krelborn played by Dan Prior. Seymour, who was taken from an orphanage and has been brow-beaten to work for the abusive and greedy Mr. Mushnik (Remo Airaldi), the owner of the shop. Seyomour has always had a fascination for propagating strange plants. He also harbors a secret crush for his  coworker Audrey (Katrina Z. Pavao), a simple, sweet and kind girl who is under the influence of her sadistic, physically and verbally abusive, motorcycle-riding, psycho dentist boyfriend, Orin (Jeff Marcus). During a mysterious total eclipse of the sun, Seymour acquires a rare and very strange plant that resembles a super-sized Venus Fly Trap.

But the plant, affectionately named, Audrey II, is struggling to survive until Seymour accidentally pricks his finger on a thorn and the plant responds to his blood. Throughout the show, Audrey II’s growth becomes insanely rapid and highly animated…which is cleverly achieved through the creative puppetry of Cameron McEachmen The unusual plant, revived by Seymour’s blood is placed in the shop’s window where its sudden notoriety results in unprecedented success for the business. But unbeknownst to everyone, this mysterious, and as we learn, conniving and voraciously carnivorous plant begins to speak. It goads Seymour into satisfying its blood thirsty needs by promising to fulfill Seymour’s every wish. The seductive, off-stage lyrical vocals for Audrey II are supplied by the IRNE Award-winning Yewande Odetoyinbo.

For the flawless cast selection, Dan Prior as Seymour and Katrina Z. Pavao as Audrey provide perfect vocals and gentle chemistry to their roles.  From the fine-tuned, tonal harmonies of the mega talented trio chorus, consisting of the award-winning Lovely Hoffman”, Carla Matinez* and Pier Lamia Porter* to the, always show pleasing and hugely funny antics of
long time Boston favorite Remo Airaldi (Mr. Mushnik), as well as to Jeff Marcus*’, who one would swear had studied Steve
Martin’s movie role as Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist and Audrey’s violently abusive boyfriend, the musical is wonderful. Jeff also enchanted the audience with his multiple other roles during the production. The orchestra and music direction were all attained, behind the scenery and were under the keyboard and baton of the IRNE Award-winning Dan Rodriguez. I must add that when one sees the names of Bertone and Rodriguez, together on the Playbill, you can be
assured that the show will be stellar. The NY Times stated that Little Shop of Horrors was, “A show for horticulturists, horror-cultists, sci-fi fans, and anyone with a taste for the outrageous.” Tickets for this incredibly entertaining and engaging classic musical may be purchased at  www.lyricstage.com

Little Shop of Horrors Production Photos

All photos by Mark S. Howard

Lovely Hoffman, Carla Martinez, Pier Lamia Porter, Katrina Z Pavao, Dan Prior
Remo Airaldi, Katrina Z Pavao, Dan Prior
Dan Prior, Lovely Hoffman, Carla Martinez, Pier Lamia Porter
Katrina Z Pavo and Audrey II
Dan Prior, Katrina Z Pavao with Audrey II
Dan Prior, Remo Airaldi
Dan Prior, Audrey II
Katrina Z Pavao, Dan Prior
Jeff Marcus, Dan Prior, Katrina Z Pavao
Remo Airaldi, Pier Lamia Porter, Dan Prior, Lovely Hoffman

Culture Pass Program

We are happy to offer four free tickets to Lyric Stage mainstage performances through the Boston Public Library’s Museum Pass program.

“We strongly believe that art belongs to all people and we’re so pleased to be part of the BPL’s Museum Pass Program, which we hope will help provide access to live theatre for many members of the Boston community.”

Courtney O’Connor, Associate Artistic Director

Each pass must be reserved in advance online through the Boston Public Library (BPL), printed, and brought in person to the Box Office to claim your tickets 30 minutes prior to showtime.

Passes are not exchangeable, have no cash value, and must be redeemed by at least 30 minutes before the performance start or the seats may be released.

Our space is fully accessible, close to the T and multiple garages, and we have put together a handy newcomers guide to help you if this your first time visiting!

Learn more about our season and our performance dates at lyricstage.com/45th-season

About the Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library provides educational and cultural enrichment free to all for the residents of Boston, Massachusetts and beyond, through its collections, services, programs, and spaces.

Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library is a pioneer of public library service in America. It was the first large free municipal library in the United States, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room. As a City of Boston historic cultural institution, Boston Public Library today features a central library and twenty-five neighborhood branches, serving nearly 4 million visitors per year and millions more online. Boston Public Library is a department of the City of Boston, under the leadership of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Plant Talk with the Designer of Little Shop Puppets

We chatted with Cameron McEachern, the Puppet Designer for Little Shop of Horrors about Little Shop revivals, his design process, and experience with puppet-making.

Little Shop Plant Thoughts:

This has always been one of my favorite shows. Great story, great music and the fun-factor of a man-eating plant. The only usual downside is that most companies do not build their own plants, but rather rely on rentals. So it’s very exciting that Lyric is producing the show with brand new, never before seen puppets. I’ve always believed that the charm of the plants is that they ARE a foam rubber monster, like the b-movie creatures that they are referencing. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a puppet show … but somehow the over the top text of the show combined with well-made puppets makes it work.

Design Process:

We are building our plants utilizing the blueprints for the original off-broadway puppets designed by Martin P. Robinson who, fun fact, is Mr. Snuffleupagus and Telly Monster on Sesame Street. While we are staying true to the original shape and structure of the pods, I have chosen to use a color palette that is more natural and plant-like rather than the brightly colored rainbow puppets that are commonly used. While designing the plants, I worked hard to not only convey growth in size but also show the evolution of the plants from cute baby pod to giant monster. She starts off a pale yellow but as the show progresses and she is fed more and more, her pod becomes greener and greener. As she grows, she develops roots, thorns, warts, and vines. The taper of her lips and snout become more pronounced and menacing.


My Background / Experience with puppets:

To be honest, I don’t have a huge amount of experience with puppets. I have had the opportunity to create puppets for shows in the past, but the majority of the work I do is as a scenic artist with a little prop fabrication thrown in there. What I have really enjoyed about this project is the wide range of skills I have been able to utilize while creating the plants … Paper mache, foam sculpture, sewing / patterning, painting / airbrushing and even a little carpentry… There is a lot more that goes into puppet building than meets the eye.

More About Little Shop of Horrors

This award-winning sci-fi pulp musical about nebbishy Seymour who haplessly pines after his coworker Audrey. Suddenly, opportunity falls into his lap in the form of a mysterious, carnivorous, conniving – not to mention singing – plant that promises to fulfill Seymour’s every wish.

“A show for horticulturists, horror-cultists, sci-fi fans, and anyone with a taste for the outrageous.” – NY Times

About Cameron McEachern

Cameron McEachern (Puppet Design) is a Boston-based scenic artist, designer, prop fabricator, and costumer making his Lyric Stage debut. As a freelance artist, he has been fortunate to work with companies including the American Repertory Theater, Moonbox Productions, Reagle Music Theatre, North Shore Music Theatre, The Company Theatre, and New England Scenic. He is also the paint charge for Wicked Amusements – an escape room and interactive amusement design company.

Authenticity, Appropriation, and Identity

Micheline Wu on the choreographic process of Pacific Overtures

In my opinion, to be a musical theater choreographer is to be a dance historian and movement anthropologist. Dance in musicals is more than aesthetic entertainment. Whether it’s 1962 in Baltimore, 1906 in Oklahoma, or 1853 in Japan, the movement must clearly demonstrate the time and place of the story. And in order to do that, the choreographer needs to have done their research.

A show like Pacific Overtures is particularly challenging because it is a constant negotiation of the balance between the needs of the storytelling in that moment, the implementation of authentic traditional gestures, and the navigation in and around cultural appropriation. On top of that, there is theater dance having its own vernacular that is a common visual language expected by musical theater audiences. And then there is the need to serve the overall vision of this production, which is not in the traditional Kabuki style. My job has been to blend all of this into an overall homage that pays honor to the rich physical language of Japanese dance and theater while still maintaining that we are in the world of a musical written by Americans and performed in America.

The cast of Pacific Overtures

A prime example of the necessary fusion of physical styles and components is the first group number: “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”. Opening numbers in musicals fundamentally must establish the world of the play, often introduce the primary characters, and present the storytelling framework that will be utilized. While not technically the opening number because of a short musical prologue, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” illustrates that this is a story told by a reciter and an ensemble of actors, many of whom play multiple roles. A challenge for me when creating movement for this number was that the lyrics are not only often just generally descriptive of society in mid-1800s Japan, but also occasionally do not parallel movement that would be traditionally illustrated in traditional Japanese dance. My approach was to present the wide and varied physical vocabulary used within the show through a blend of quotations of movement from other numbers, non-traditional gestures stylized in an aesthetic similar to but not the same as Nihon buyō, and pedestrian vernacular of genuine every-day movement. This number is the product of a true collaboration between myself and Spiro to ensure that the storytelling was effectively established and would move seamlessly into the rest of the show.

Kai Chao dancing “The Lion Dance” in Pacific Overtures.

Within this script, cultural appropriation cannot be completely avoided because it is used as a storytelling technique. This is particularly true in the Lion Dance, which closes Act I. The stage directions state that the dance is a “combination of the traditional Kabuki lion dance and an American cake walk.” The Kabuki Lion Dance is dignified and the shishi – or mythical lions – are of the divine. In contrast, the cake walk is a dance that emerged from plantations and was appropriated into minstrel shows by performers in blackface. The juxtaposition of these two forms and appropriation of the Japanese dance movements is intended to be offensive and therefore must be choreographed and performed grotesquely. This parallel appropriation is fundamental to telling the story of the United States forcing intrusion on Japan.

On the other hand, Tamate’s dance during “There Is No Other Way” I choreographed with primary attention to the Nihon buyō style, which was then delicately customized to the needs of the story told through expected musical theater norms. The dance is pivotal moment for Tamate and is a visual inner monologue with two observers and according to the script: “The first sings about her, the second sings her words and thoughts.” This is one of the most complex and multi-layered pieces of choreography I’ve ever created.

The cast of Pacific Overtures.

In performing this dance, I cannot and will not make the claim that I am a Japanese fan dance expert, especially since this dance takes liberty with the traditional form due to the needs to both communicate the story as well as fulfill the richness of the music. Growing up training and performing traditional Chinese dance, I have the highest respect for traditional dance forms. I did more research on dancing with a mai ogi than I did for any other movement used in the show.

In creating the dance, first I made it beautiful. Then I ripped it apart and set different sections to the appropriate parts of the music. Then I teased out which sections would contain pantomime and if so whether it would align perfectly with the lyrics of the music, as indication of lyrics is to be avoided as much as possible in musical theater choreography, or would be back-phrased or anticipatory. Then I adjusted, inserted, or deleted movements to work with or against the music itself. Then I layered in any additional acting that needed to be clearly gestured within the dance itself. Then I allowed the acting to blossom from within through feeling the physical sensations of performing the dance, the ebb and flow of the music, as well as the enormity of the circumstances in which the dance was being performed. And finally, after working with our Japanese dance consultant Michiko Kurata, I added in some very specific movements that were fundamental to Nihon buyō that must be included in a dance illustrating these circumstances. I have never drafted and redrafted a dance so much in my life.

Karina Wen, Alexander Holden, Gary Thomas Ng, and Kai Chao in Pacific Overtures.

At the root of all of this was an incredible amount of time doing research. One cannot be intentional with choreography like this without acknowledging what is, and what is not, correct according to tradition. This means that I am working in a grey area where I perhaps do not know the lines, or perhaps we collectively are in the process of establishing these lines. Is it appropriate for me to choreograph in another Asian dance style that is not my area of expertise? Is my training in Chinese dance less legitimate because I studied it in the US, even if my teacher was from Taiwan and is a traditional Chinese dance expert? Does it make a difference that I am American born or that I am mixed-race, despite the fact that I speak two dialects of Chinese and was raised exclusively by my Chinese family? Personally, I am excited to be living in a time of grey areas where societally we are increasingly open to the conversation of what lies in the mists in between definitions and delineations. It is a blessing to be able to have conversations that address questions such as these, a circumstance that is not true everywhere. So bring on the dialogue. I’m game. Are you?

About Micheline Wu

Micheline Wu (Choreographer/Ensemble) is making her Lyric Stage debut. A Boston native, she trained and performed with the American Chinese Arts Society’s Traditional Chinese Dance Troupe for ten years. In contemporary dance, she received a Young Artist Grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, two artist residencies at The Firkin Crane in Ireland, and her choreography and dance films have been shown across the country. Theater performance credits include Allegiance (SpeakEasy Stage Company), My Fair Lady (New Bedford Festival Theatre), Little Shop of Horrors (Priscilla Beach Theatre). M.F.A. Musical Theater, Boston Conservatory. @michelinewu

About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.

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We have postponed the remainder of our 2019-20 season.Read about how we are responding to the coronavirus.
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