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11-30-10 Review by Libby Hansen for KC Metropolis; Kansas City’s online performing arts journal.

“Dense and Domineering ‘Awake and Sing!'”

With powerful performances all around, the MET tackled Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” with articulated verve and deep understanding of the complex, riveting story.

Dense and domineering "Awake and Sing"

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing was riveting. Though a period piece set in the 1930’s, the themes of economic turmoil and familial politics are as pertinent today as when it was written. The play, an early example of Jewish-American drama, is considered one of Odets’ greatest plays. Karen Paisley directed a stellar cast through the dense script in a demanding performance.

The action takes place in the Berger family’s Bronx apartment in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s a typical lower middle-class household of the era, worn but clean. Each character is yearning to find their fulfillment of the American Dream. The family is controlled and manipulated by Bessie, mother of Hennie and Ralph. Her husband, Myron, takes a back seat to her domineering nature and her father, Jake, is likewise subjected to her acid tongue when he tries to stand up for his grandchildren’s future while espousing Marxist ideals. Moe Axelrod, a wounded veteran of World War I, is a friend of the family and boarder, but also a gambler and has his own ax to grind. No one is spared Bessie’s tirades and belittlement, with the exception of her brother Morty, a rich garment manufacturer, and Sam Feinschreiber, a recent Russian immigrant who has his sights set on Hennie. Even the apartment janitor, Schlosser, bears the brunt of her pointed anger.

The plot centers on Bessie’s obsessive desire for what she thinks is best for her family, but doesn’t see their feelings as having anything to do with it. Jeanne Averill played Bessie almost to the point of caricature, though unfortunately people as caustically manipulative as Bessie exist. Robert Gibby Brand, as Myron, played the only calm character because he seemed oblivious to the consternation surrounding him. Brand had the few true laugh lines in an otherwise heavy play and delivered them with the subtly of one not trying to be funny. Ralph, played with a ruptured innocence by Sam Cordes, fretted over a girl and his position at work. He’s young and ambitious, but tethered by family alliance and chomping at the bit. Hennie is likewise tethered, dreaming of a rich man to whisk her away, but dallying with boyfriends in the meantime. Natalie Liccardello played the beauty only a few bitter years from turning into her mother.

Doogin Brown and Natalie LiccardelloJake and Moe are the only people who attempt to stand up to Bessie’s conniving. Richard Alan Nichols played Jake as an immigrant who works hard for his family, yet regrets that their lives are still a constant struggle and sees capitalism as the problem. Nichols was a strong player with tremendous emotional undercurrents. Doogin Brown’s Moe was similarly emotionally subtle, yet defensive and harsh.

The remaining characters find themselves drawn into Bessie’s schemes. Coleman Crenshaw played Sam, a hard-working immigrant used as scapegoat. Crenshaw had a spot-on accent and radiated nervous insecurity that befits a man who was unsure of his wife’s love. Uncle Morty, played by Greg Butell, was drawn in willingly, a wily businessman who unconsciously flaunted his wealth while complaining of the hard times in front of his family. Morty and Bessie are two peas in a pod, demanding respect, yet giving none, shouting down others’ opinions and denying anyone else to disagree with their plans.

In an otherwise powerful performance, the accents were a little off. Alan Tilson’s Schlosser had thickly accented lines are brief but believable, as are Crenshaw’s. Most of the younger cast had passable Bronx vernacular, though Brown alternatively chewed and spat his words. However, it seemed that Bessie spent more time in the old country than her father Jake. Averill’s accent choice heavily vacillated between Eastern European and strident shrieking. Brand, Nichols, and Butell were more light-handed with sprinklings of Yiddish.

Costume design by Atif Rome affirmed the characters’ social status and the times. I enjoyed the evolution of Hennie’s costume changes. The set pulled together well, with beams designating rooms that simultaneously defined the open space of the stage and captured the cramped space of the apartment. The sound design was fitting until the climactic moment following Jake’s ultimate decision. The incidental music at that moment, especially after the dramatic run-up, was distracting.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production was outstanding and the actors tackled this complex story with articulate energy and verve.

REVIEW:
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

Awake and Sing

Runs through December 5
(Reviewed November 21, 2010)
3614 Main Street, Kansas City, MO
For tickets call 816-569-3226 or online at www.metkc.org

Cover photo: Jeanne Averill as Bessie


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