Monday, March 29, 2010

Serving up the Agawam ... and more

The Agawam Diner is something of an institution around here, in this remote corner ... you know, you’re almost tempted to finish that sentence by writing “’round these parts,” because the Rowley diner, known for its stainless steel exteriors and art deco appearance, just has that kind of feel, all nostalgic and all New England, the kind of place where you can get food that will put meat on your bones, as folks used to say about, um, wholesome meals, and get plenty on your plate without much distress to your back pocket — served up by staffers who call you “Hun” without irony and don’t get all weird on you when you order pie for breakfast. The Agawam has the same sort of emotional feel as Cheers: The diner, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — no, really — is like a community, an extended family, almost. It’s the kind of place where you figure everybody knows your name — and your stories. And many of your foibles. They didn’t really know Joshua Faigen’s name at first, after the Newburyport resident had been showing up there and hanging out for more than an hour every week while his son Adlai was getting tutoring up the street a little bit. No, it wasn’t the famed New England reserve: They knew him by role, not name: He was Max’s father — not, well, Norm or Cliffie. They didn’t actually know his proper name until last year, after Faigen had finished his play about the diner.

Actually, a couple of clarifications from the playwright at this point: First, the diner isn’t a community exactly, or, rather, not a single community. “It’s a bunch of communities,” says Faigen, “communities come together and fall apart in the course of 10 minutes as people come and go.” Second, despite its name and setting, the play, which begins a three-week run at the Actors Studio on April 8, is not actually about the diner any more than Elvis Costello’s video for “45,” which was filmed at the Rowley landmark, which is also featured on the cover of the US edition of Cruel Smile. Actually, Faigen isn’t even sure what the play is about. “I’m never exactly sure what I’ve written until someone tells me,” he says. Which is fair enough, seeing how his work is rarely, if ever, narrative or plot driven. The work often has a leisurely focus on mood, language, situations. For example, his last play, ironically named “A Very Simple Play,” was built around Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbundlertanzes,” a glorious piece by a fabulously insane composer, a piece that was written to defend the new music against revanchist forces, the classical thugs Schumann imagined lurking in the wings.

It’s not a culinary roman a clef, based on his weekly temptation with blueberry pie, and regulars will not recognize any of the characters — except for the old guy playing his beat-up old tuba to pay for his meal. Tubaman was one of the first intriguing people Faigen encountered at the diner. The rest, well, not so much: Jesus, the real-world night cook; Sully, the vagabond Willy Loman-type philosopher; the nameless Old Man with his Girlfriend-for-a-Day — one kind of tight, the other, er, a little loose; the mysterious Man of God. They all drop by for a bite and some chit-chat with Rita and Elaine. “It’s a kind of magical night, a winter night,” says producer Marc Clopton, “a night that is full of longing and fulfilling, that looks at how we cope with our lives and what we do with our imaginations.” Everyone’s biding his time, wondering when the snow will arrive and what life might have been like had they made different choices, says the playwright. They drink coffee, they eat pie. A miracle happens, maybe two. Then everyone’s life shifts a few degrees in a better direction. Or maybe not.

The show had originally been slated to run in November, but casting problems canceled that order. Not a problem this time out. The current production features an all-star cast: Kathleen Anderson, Missy Chabot, Damon Singletary, Jack Rushton, Kayt Tommasino, John Sheedy and Teddy Speck. Stephen Haley directs. Which, at first blush, seems odd — an unconventional play for a director best known for his intense productions of Beckett and his near-fanatical pursuit of textural clarity, but his comfort zone is actually much broader. Haley closed last season with productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “A Christmas Carol,” and people with especially long memories may recall him as dramaturge for Harbor Theater Festival’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “The work he’s done for this show is absolutely remarkable,” says Faigen. “It’s kind of thrilling to have him on board.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Joshua Faigen’s “The Agawam” runs April 8 to 25 at the Actors Studio, The Tannery, 50 Water Street, Mill #1. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15, $13 for students and seniors. Space is limited. Reservations are encouraged. To make a reservation, log onto the Actors Studio web or telephone 978.465.1229. Rehearsal photo of Kathleen Anderson by Max Faigen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CLUBBING: Vardan returns ... briefly

Before we get down to the real nitty-gritty, something you should know: Jazz pianist Vardan Ovsepian will be back in the area, broadly conceived, for three shows with his new trio and a bunch of new tunes. He moved here in 2000 after taking a teaching job at The Musical Suite. He released four jazz albums with the Barcelona-based Fresh Sound-New Talent label after making his debut with “Sketch Book,” showcasing works for solo piano debut, in 2001. He blew out of town last year, mostly to spend more time with his family in California, but also to be closer to the musical action. Easiest show to catch would be his April 13 date at the Regattabar, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Unfortunately it’s a school night, a Tuesday. But it’s close by. Second best? At 8 p.m. April 17 at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland, Maine. The third show is in the Big Apple. Starts at 10 p.m. April 18. A Sunday. You can do it. We do it whenever the Plastics or Uz jsme doma are around, get home at like 4 a.m. Gets harder and harder to do every year. Just like dealing with these New England winters. Anyhow, could be a while before you get a chance to see him again. Unless you-ve got eyes for his late summer South American tour. Your call. Check out for more info.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Symphony presents Mendelssohn Mystery Tour

It’s not often that smaller pieces grab all the attention — especially when the centerpiece of the performance is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, traditionally an audience favorite. But that’s exactly what’s happening this month with Yoichi Udagawa, left, and the Cape Ann Symphony. The program includes an historical curiosity, an unusual piece for two pianos and orchestra that was written, in part, by a major classical composer, a piece that vanished, pretty much without a trace, resurfacing 176 years later, after getting what amounts to major reconstructive surgery, reassembled after a major musical forensic workup — then getting a premiere half a world away (in Texas, of all places) and hitting the road for its East Coast coming out party with the Gloucester-based orchestra. Adding to the mystery of the rather breathlessly named “Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s ‘Preziosa.’” is the fact that it was written with two endings, both of which will be played during the March 28 performance, without fanfare, without much in the way of comment, and letting the audience know which of the composers wrote which ending — or even, with any certainty, for that matter, which ending was actually used.

Read more at Beyond the Merrimack.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 'Hack' is back

Look in Dan Sklar’s rearview and you see “hack.” He’s been a hack writer ... well, he published a book called “Hack Writer: Poems, Stories, Plays” back in 2001, anyway. And even farther back, he was a hack, or he drove a hack. Works either way. That is to say he drove a cab in New York City, vaguely thinking it might be a way of collecting stories and characters for poems and fiction, but mostly to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly. And now, in the present, soon to be the past, he’s combining the two as the North Shore Readers’ Theatre Collaborative gets ready to put “Hack License,” the Endicott College professor’s new play, under the microscope. The play, which gets its first full reading this Saturday at the Actors Studio, looks at the life of Maryanne Hobson, a Louisiana-born belle making it as a cabbie in the big city. She’s not DeNiro, and this is not “Taxi Driver,” even though it takes place in New York, mostly around 57th Street, mostly in a now-defunct Checker cab. The story is funny and touching, not dangerous and creepy. Her fares spill their guts, using the friendly, pretty Southern stranger as a sounding board, trying to sort out their issues. As she helps others, she ultimately reveals herself through her interactions.

She’s 22 years old, roughly the same age as Sklar was when he drove, back in the late 1970s. He was a young punk not experienced enough to know he should be scared — and, he admits, a little too trusting. Which means that the fare bounding around in a bathrobe not far from Bellevue would be a challenging — and unprofitable — run, that he would get stiffed and attacked — nothing too serious, but still ... He picked up everybody. Yeah, you’re supposed to by law, but not everyone does. You can tell, by cabbie radar, whether a potential fare will be a good tip or possibly a bad trip to a nasty neighborhood.

Sklar was also acting and getting a master’s degree in English from New York University. He eventually fled the city with his wife, Denise, and settled on the North Shore and into a position at Endicott College. His poetry has been published in a variety of publications. He followed up “Hack Writer” with “Bicycles, Canoes, Drums,” a collection of recent work, in 2008.

The Hamilton writer made his Newburyport debut as a playwright and an actor at the 2010 New Works Festival. His short play “Sleeping with the Cat 1963,” is about two female spies at the end of long careers letting their guards down and feeling and trusting again, no easy feat. He also performed in “Knowing,” a comedy by Gregory Hischak.

It only took about 30 years to get around to writing about the cabbie’s life, although Maryanne’s story is nothing like his experience. He never picked up his estranged mother as a fare and had her deny knowing him, even though everyone knows she is. He never had anyone give him a collection of Walt Whitman letters as an incredible literary tip. And the cab never became an escape, a refuge for him. But, like all hacks, he collected stories — and ultimately, “Hack License” is a story about people and the problems that make up their lives.

The production features performances by Missy Chabot, Catherine Colby, Sandy Farrier, Stephen Sacchetti, Mary Shapiro, John Sheedy, Scott Sullivan and Victoria Townsend. Haley Klein directs.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative will stage Dan Sklar’s “Hack License” at 10 p.m. March 13 at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., Mill #1, Suite #5. A talkback session follows. Tickets are $13 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978.465.1229 or log onto

PORT PICK: How much does it cost?

Hmmmm, I always thought it was drug thing. You know? Orange Sunshine? Acid? It was all over the place just around the time Jimi was singing about another lysergical color and meteorological phenomena. C’mon, don’t play dumb. The grandkids aren’t around. Purple Haze! So we all thought “Sunshine” was some kind of anti-drug song. Turns out it was an anti-war song. Who knew? It makes sense, though, when you think about it. I guess we weren’t paying a whole lot of attention. Anyhow, Jonathan Edwards had a huge hit with the tune back in the day and has managed to stay afloat, creatively, through, yikes, four-plus decades. These days, he’s likely to be found on the road with his longtime accompanist Stuart Schulman on bass, piano, fiddle, and vocals and Taylor Armerding, formerly of Northern Lights, on mandolin. “I’ve been doing what I do best, which is playing live in front of people,” he says. “I’ve been concentrating on that and loving it.” He’s back at the Firehouse next week, but you better get a move-on because tickets usually go pretty fast. The show begins at 8 p.m. March 12. Tickets are $33 for SDAH members, or $35 for regular folks. Ask and I bet they’ll tell you how to become a member. Info: 978.462.7336, or

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

PORT PICK: A Little, a lot

You can never be sure just what George Little will be throwing at you, musically: The former folkie from Amesbury, known for funny tunes about love and loss, like “Mr. Donuts” and “The Girl from the Guitar Center,” is a classically trained guitarist equally at ease with Renaissance music as he is with Django-inspired, um, djazz? — and this week he’ll be doing both. Little and violinist Elizabeth Burke, his New Boston Duo partner, will provide the soundtrack for a production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Waring School. The show, which runs March 6 and 7, will be directed by Holly Little — yup, George’s sister and a Port stage regular until she started teaching at Waring a couple of years ago. Then Little will double up with a program of Renaissance music featuring Primal Polyphony on Sunday in Newburyport. Primal Polyphony (that’s them on the left) is an a cappella vocal trio featuring soprano Wilhelmina Bradley, mezzo soprano Annie Philips and tenor Charley Bradley. The program will include “William Byrd’s Mass for 3 Voices.” He’ll also perform a set of songs by John Dowland. The concert starts at 4 p.m. March 7 at Central Congregational Church, 14 Titcomb St. Suggested donation is $10. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” will be staged 7:30 p.m. March 6 and 7 at the Waring School Theater, 35 Standley St., in Beverly. For more information, check out For more mouthy recommendations, check out PortPicks.

Actors Studio looks at women's work

It was just about a year ago that Marc Clopton and Arlene Barnard were sitting around a table, talking about the brave and, let’s be honest about it, scary new direction for the Actors Studio: After nearly two decades of working in the wings, serving as a training/proving ground for the local stageheads, as a school and black box theater, the group was about to break out for the bright lights, for center stage. They were about a year into it at that point. “We were stirring, stirring, stirring,” says Barnard. The Tannery-based organization had acquired nonprofit status, the board was in place. They had been running workshops, programs like the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative, a staged reading and talkback session for local writers, but it was mostly backstage stuff, prepping for the first production of the new, improved Actors Studio premier season. And what an ambitious kickoff it was: Four one-woman shows that put the spotlight on the movers and shakers from the not-necessarily gentler sex, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Ward Howe, and “Songs of Hunger and Satisfaction,” a musical program that looked at the meaning behind society’s cravings for food, sex, acceptance and fame. But ambitious as the premier program was, it’s nothing compared to what’s planned for the sophomore season: There’s more than double the programming. There’s theater, there’s music, there’s even film.

“We’ve got it all happening here, man,” says Clopton, whose “Alice in Wonderglass,” an intriguing, imaginative take of the Lewis Carroll classic children’s stories just finished a three-week run in the former black box theater, which has grown with the Actors Studio’s mission. And while Clopton rehearsed and staged “Alice,” Barnard, a board member of the new nonprofit entity, was getting the March shows together. The program, which opens on March 5 with a performance by Byfield cellist Kristin Miller, will feature three one-woman shows meant to illuminate three very different, but complementary worldviews, a documentary film about grandmothers from around the world and a program of music written by women that will be performed by women. Here’s what’s in store:

• Storyteller Valerie Tutson tells the stories of Black women through the ages who took a stand for freedom, like Queen Nzinga of Angola, who kept the Portuguese from enslaving her people until her death; Duchess Quamino, known as the Pastry Queen of Colonial Newport, who earned her freedom from slavery by baking; and Shayanne Webb, a young girl whose participation in the Civil Rights Movement set the direction for her life’s work.

• ”For the Next 7 Generations” is a documentary that takes us on the momentous journey of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers traveling around the world to promote world peace and share indigenous ways of healing. A post-screening discussion facilitated by Clopton, who is a shamanic practitioner, will follow.

• In “Queenie,” a one-woman show written and performed by Eve Caballero, looks at a quirky, loveable homeless woman.

• The Aliento Chamber Players will perform a series of clarinet trios, including “New England Suite,” which was written by Vally Weigl — a woman, a composer and a Jew who was rescued from Hitler’s Europe and brought to the United States by the Society of Friends; Nino Rot, probably best known for scoring the films of Federico Fellini; and a composition by Louise Farren, the only woman of the entire 19th century to hold the rank of professor at the Paris Conservatoire.

• “Meet Eleanor Roosevelt,” in which Elena Dodd reprises her season one role as Eleanor Roosevelt, this time focusing on “her” years as wife, mother and First Lady.

“It’s a very ambitious program,” says Clopton, “It’s much bigger, much more ambitious than I could have possibly hoped for. The success speaks to the work of so many people willing to stand up and supply their expertise. It’s been such an amazing year.”

The Actor’s Studio celebrates Women’s History Month with a series of music, film and one-woman shows that look into women’s lives and experiences. All performances take place at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., Mill #1, Suite #5, of the Tannery. Unless otherwise noted, shows are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978.465.1229 or log on at Here is the schedule:

Kristen Miller performs “cellobrew,” the east-meets-west, classical-meets-rock musical hybrid the Byfield cellist has developed over the past decade.

MARCH 6, 7: ”Brave Women, Bold Moves: Black Women of Strength and Courage,” a one-woman show by Valerie Tutson.

MARCH 13, 14: ”For the Next 7 Generations” is a documentary film about the journey of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers as they travel around the globe to promote world peace and share their indigenous ways of healing. A post-screening talk will be led by Carole Hart, the film’s director and producer, and Marc Clopton.

MARCH 20, 21: ”Queenie,” a one-woman show written and performed by Eve Caballero, looks at a quirky and loveable homeless woman.

MARCH 26: The Aliento Chamber Players, an all-women classical trio, presents an evening of clarinet trios by female composers.

MARCH 27, 28: “Meet Eleanor Roosevelt,” a one-woman piece performed by Elena Dodd, was a hit at last year’s production. This “visit” with the former First Lady focuses on her life as wife, mother and the White House years.

Monday, March 1, 2010

PORT PICKS: A Romantic 'Rain'

RAIN, I DON’T MIND: Nobody, not even TMZ *really* knows what, if anything, went on between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann, Johnny’s dear friend, mentor, the guy who put his name on the map, musically. He was crazy in love with Clara, but she, alas, merely loved him, like (words no guy ever wants to hear) a dear, dear friend. Even after Schumann died, he apparently struck out, romantically, as Clara, playing a 19th-Century Jackie Kennedy, made sure the big man’s legacy was secure. But, while no one knows what went on inside their heads, it’s pretty clear the dude was hurting big time. You can hear it in Sonata in G Major, op. 78 — the so-called Rain Sonata — in which the yearning is palpable, almost overwhelming. And Mrs. S got the message. In a letter to Brahms she confessed to “bursting into tears” on hearing it. We’re hoping that modern-day audiences can hold it together when violinist Gabriela Diaz and pianist Lois Shapiro play the Rain Sonata during “Eloquent Expressivity: The Violin Sonatas of Johannes Brahms,” the final program of this year’s Jean C. Wilson Music Series at the Unitarian Universalist Church, which takes place this weekend. Diaz, a New England Conservatory-trained musician who acted as concertmistress under Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy, is noted for her polished technique. Shapiro is a founding member of the Triple Helix piano trio. Also on the program will be Brahms’ Sonata #2 in A Major, Sonatensatz in C minor and Sonata #3 in D minor. The concert takes place at 4 p.m. March 7 at the Unitarian Church, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors. Children and students can listen for free ... if they promise to behave.

For more mouthy recommendations, check out Port Picks.