Friday, June 25, 2010

Family Secrets Preview

Carolyn Michel takes the stage this week in Florida Studio Theatre’s production of “Family Secrets,” a one-woman show by Sherry Glaser and Gregory Howells. Michel portrays all five members of a Jewish family who have moved from the Bronx to Southern California. It’s a family affair in more ways than one. Michel’s husband, Howard Millman, is directing.

“It’s a relief to know I’m in good hands,” says Michel. “This play is a high-wire act without a net. I transform in plain sight and never leave the stage. I do all my costume and wig changes in front of the audience.”

Michel’s characters include: Bev (“a mom with her own story to tell”); Mort, the father (“a straightforward guy in a complex family”); their rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Fern; their 20-something daughter (“who’s still finding herself”); and Grandma Rose (“an octogenarian who never lost herself”).

According to Millman, the characters are loosely based on Glaser’s own family members. “The play’s family is very specific. At the same time, it’s every family. You’ll laugh, but it’s the laughter of recognition and unflinching honesty.” He adds that the playwright has known her share of personal tragedy, and isn’t interested in saccharine stereotypes. “Glaser is gritty and fearless as a writer,” he says. “She makes us laugh through the pain of real life and real relationships. She never denies the heartbreak.”
Doing justice to Glaser’s edgy material was anything but a heartbreak. “It’s what we live for,” laughs Michel. “This really is as good as it gets.”

Millman’s and Michel’s creative collaboration dates back to their years at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Millman held dual tenures as the Asolo’s former producing artistic director; Michel is a longstanding Asolo Rep actress.

Millman understands Michel’s process. “Before she walks into rehearsal, she has the role down,” he says. “She’s memorized her lines and plotted it all out in her mind.”
Michel says, “Howard is my mirror. I can’t see myself, but I can see myself through his eyes. I may think something works. He can look at me and say, ‘That doesn’t work; try this.’ And I’ll try it.”
“Family Secrets” marks Michel’s fifth one-woman play. It’s a form she is drawn to. “There’s an intimacy in any solo production,” she says. “You’re speaking directly to the audience, drawing them in, getting them on your side.”

She adds that it’s really the play speaking to the audience—and that the play deeply spoke to her. Michel says she was surprised by the play’s warmth and humanity. “Sherry Glaser is a legendary comic talent,” she says. “I expected belly laughs. But I didn’t expect it to touch me the way it did.”

“We can all relate to the Fishers,” says Millman. “They’ve been called a dysfunctional family. I think that’s a mistake. Families function by being dysfunctional! We all have skeletons in our closets.”

“Family Secrets” runs June 30-July 25, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota; Tickets: $19-$34. For information, call (941) 366-9000 or go to

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I ain't afraid of no "Ghosts"

Ibsen had his axes to grind. Religious hypocrisy, the fear of social disapproval and blind conventionality were at the top of his list. What will people think? It's a deadly thought. People ruined their lives to keep up appearances. Evidently Norway in the 1880s was not a swinging place.

In Ghosts -- the Banyan Theater's latest offering -- Ibsen swings all of his axes. Well, let's switch metaphors. The play reminds me of Mousetrap -- that classic Rube Goldberg-esque toy game where boots kick balls, gears turns and ultimately a cage traps a plastic mouse. Here, the wheels turn, and at the end, a charity asylum burns down, rotten secrets emerge, and the machinery crashes down on a young painter. (He's been running with the early free love crowd, but forced to return home to mom.) The family maid he's fallen in love with is his sister. His saintly father was actually a randy bastard. (Mom covered it up and faked dad's sainthood. What will people think?) Dad passed his brain pox on to sonny boy. Now, he's going mad with syphilis. Blind too. OK, that's the bad news. There's no good news. He begs for death. Mom, be my Mother Morphine. Please kill me. It's living damnation; hell on earth. This play is so grim you expect the playwright to add "The dog died" as a postscript.

Letting the horror of the past touch you takes an imaginative leap. If the 1800s was the age of hide-it-all, ours is the age of tell-it-all. The free-to-be-you-and-me crowd won out a long time ago. Lady Gaga and Howard Stern can be a pain in the ass. But a cult of self-immolation at the altar of the ghosts of the mind seems worse.

As someone once said, the past is another country. Based on this play, I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.

OK, now a quick take on the Banyan performance itself.

Contemporary translators Rick Davis and Brian Johnston put Ibsen through the Pinter blender. Gil Lazier follows their lead and turns the flame down on Ibsen’s histrionics. Peter Thomasson plays Pastor Manders as a prick. Jessica Peterson plays Helene (the mom) as a tower of strength with cracks in it. (There are cracks of self-contradiction in Ibsen’s original characterization. Somebody that strong wouldn’t be a coward. I don’t buy it, but let it pass.) Steven Clark Pachosa plays the smarmy, gimpy con artist and gets most of the laughs in the play. Gretchen Porro plays Regina, the maid who’s really the sister. She plays it straight. Not oversexed—just sexed. A typical teenager in a bad time and place to be a teenager. As the doomed son Osvald, Gordon Myles Woods kicks ass. A damn tough role, but he totally lives it and makes you buy his character.

These characters go through hell. The actors put in a hell of a performance.

A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 11
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota