Be Still Be Silent Review
Is it appropriate to bring an autistic teenager, who has difficulties expressing their emotions in ways that others may consider “socially acceptable”, to see live theatre? Inspired in part by a real-life outburst by an autistic teen at a Broadway performance of The King and I, that is the question that sets Daniel Tobias’ intelligent and thought-provoking new play Be Still Be Silent, currently being given its world premiere by SOOP Theatre Company in Pelham, into action.
It is also the question facing Eugene Thomas (Paul Romanello), on the opening night of the new Broadway play he is directing. The teenager in question is Danny (Joshua David Robinson), who is equally fascinated by the works of Tennessee Williams and Disney animation, and who expresses emotion through a stuffed Olaf from “Frozen”. Danny is the nephew of Cynthia (Janet Dickinson), Eugene’s costume designer girlfriend, who has invited Danny to the opening as her “plus one”, much to the horror of acerbic theatre critic Peter Grey (Terence Keyes). As they gather in Eugene’s apartment before heading to the theatre, all three characters initially seem absorbed only by their immediate needs (such as Eugene dealing with last minute phone calls from his difficult leading lady). Danny’s presence allows Mr. Tobias to reveal the deeper stakes, both professional and personal, facing these complex characters who are not as one-dimensional as they might initially seem.
Director John Treacy Egan has assembled a fine cast who more than do justice to these characters. As Danny, Mr. Robinson faces the difficult task of portraying the autistic traits of the character without crossing the line into caricature, and does so successfully. He makes admirable use of both his voice and physicality, particularly when rapidly (and impressively) rattling off a list of Tennessee Williams plays in chronological order. Mr. Romanello shows genuine warmth toward and desire to include Danny, even as he knows Danny’s presence could have an impact on the success of his show. Mr. Keyes, in what could easily be a one-note character, makes the most of both Mr. Tobias’ best barbs, and the opportunities to soften his character’s sharp edges. This is especially so as he develops a bond with Danny, yet remains fiercely aware of how fragile the illusion of theatre truly is. Ms. Dickinson’s Cynthia, perhaps the true pivot point of the show connecting all of the other characters, plays tenderness and loyalty toward Danny, desperation to help Eugene, and anger at Peter deftly, without resorting to histrionics. Mention also needs to be made of Josh Hyman as Otto, the building’s doorman, with his own connection to autism. Initially wry and friendly, he is truly moving when he gets a chance to speak his mind, and lets the other characters know there are many more challenges to dealing with an autistic child among the less privileged than theatre attendance.
Rounding out the cast are Sachi Parker as Danny’s mother Jo and Ann Marie Yoo, as the characters Arinya Wong, an actress in The King and I at the aforementioned performance and Bonnie Haze, an outspoken, edgy NY actor. Jo, who is dying of cancer, delivers moving monologues about raising and loving an autistic child, about not being able to see her son grow into a man and about the others who will look after him. Ms. Yoo completes a truthful study in contrasts, as she reacts kindly and with sympathy to the outburst from a paying audience member while she is onstage (as Arinya), but less so when awakened at 3 a.m. by Otto’s daughter (as Bonnie).
As precise and realistic as each individual performance is, Mr. Egan brings them together smoothly into a cohesive whole, especially as emotions run high and true motivations come to light in Act II. He also makes excellent use of the well-designed set (by Reilly Rabitaille immediately evoking the exact kind of sleek, modern Manhattan apartment Eugene would live in) in the relatively small space.
Be Still Be Silent does not deal in easy subject matter. While it ultimately provides its answer to the question it poses, it is not done in a preachy or judgmental way. It goes to great lengths to be fair and does so with truth and honesty. Audience members are likely to see themselves in both of Ms. Yoo’s monologues. Mr. Romanello, at the top of Act II, muses on the event in his character’s life that led to his career in the theatre, and how the outburst of an autistic audience member could have changed that forever. Perhaps his choice came at the cost of denying someone access to the theatre. “Whose experience”, he asks, “is worth more”? Regardless of the answer, this is a piece worth seeing.
– Gary Skidmore
Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play “Amadeus,” a fanciful account of the toxic relationship between composers Mozart and his jealous elder Salieri, stormed the London and New York stages when first performed, winning a Tony and later an Oscar for its filmed version. In this story Salieri, who is intensely jealous of the casual genius that God has bestowed on what he considers an unworthy vessel, destroys the hapless Mozart with a series of court intrigues and carefully machinated humiliations. The play provides, in Salieri, one of the great vehicles for stage actors and has been much revived in repertory.
The SOOP Theatre Company, whose regular productions of youth musicals at The Manor Club have enthused so many aspiring thespians and delighted audiences, decided it was time to bring adult theater to this storied but underused stage. The Company is to be congratulated for its sterling efforts to promote acting and theater in our community. “Amadeus” is the first of what we can only hope will be a series of new productions.
SOOP artistic director Paul Romanello took on the daunting role of Salieri in this unadorned and straightforward rendering of the play, which, however, came across as surprisingly refreshing. Mr. Romanello’s robust stage presence swept through the production consumed by his hatred and thirst for revenge and raging against an ungrateful God. The flashbacks between the old and dying Salieri to the younger version were achieved seamlessly, his voice and posture changing on a dime from that of a wobbly old man to the sharp tongued and sly younger self. He deftly brought out the irony of Salieri’s position (he is doomed to be the only one to really understand Mozart’s genius) and his faux-solicitous interactions with the young genius and his wife were subtly conveyed. It’s a big, demanding role and Mr. Romanello managed the marathon performance with élan under the unassuming direction of Francesco Campari.
Also of note in the cast was Rebecca Strimaitis in the role of Mozart’s wife and enabler Constanze. She brought off this complicated character perfectly, which combines innocence, playfulness and shrewishness in equal measure, and is not easily portrayed without descending into caricature. Stephen Zuccaro and Jimmy McDonald were naturally and hilariously paired as the gossipy servants and Matthew Baker’s Emperor Joseph was suitably fatuous. In fact there were no weak spots in the cast and if I single any out for praise it is no reflection on the other actors all of whom offered solid support.
Lighting design by Devon Allen was noticeably stark, the characters slipping in and out of shadow and emphasizing the secrecy of Salieri’s plotting. As in most recent SOOP productions Cindy Judge proved ingenious in her costume design on a limited budget. All in all this was a well-presented and entertaining piece that was well received by the audience—and here is my beef.
On the Friday I saw the show it was not particularly well attended and I consider this to be a blot on our community. While our other art institutions, particularly The Picture House and The Art Center enjoy considerable local support for their events, live theater has yet to attract the same kind of enthusiasm. Why is this? Perhaps high-priced Broadway shows are seen as less accessible than other forms of entertainment, a pastime only for the elite, a rarefied world like opera, and this turns some off. Perhaps people forget the power of live entertainment. Perhaps it is mere apathy. And perhaps, even, we expect too much from an over-entertained community. Whatever it is, this reluctance must be combated by those of us who believe that openness to the arts is as important to us and to our children as participation in sporting activities. Let’s not become Philistines.
An appreciation of the arts is a vital component of a strong and successful populace and should not be taken for granted. The immediacy and transience of live theater (and live music for that matter) cannot be achieved in any other medium and convey a power that film or television lack, providing a visceral and direct human connection and intellectual stimulation. It is an invaluable medium.
So I encourage the community to cherish and support all future theatrical efforts wherever they are presented locally. The SOOP Theater Company in particular does so much good for the community and our children that they deserve our greater support. Come on Pelham—let’s go to the theater!
– Mark Sidgwick / PelhamPlus.com
Reviews for ITALIAN AMERICAN CANTOS
“Anthony Pennino’s new play contains 26 scenes–Cantos–that collectively delineate nearly twenty years in the history of one Italian American family… It makes for a funny and often thoughtful evening of theatre…
– Martin Denton / nytheatre.com
“… And if you’re running late for a Sunday matinee at 3pm, well, there’s always a 4pm matinee of Italian-American Cantos by Anthony P. Pennino by the SOOP Theatre Company. Take it from someone brought up in this culture, Pennino gets the details right…. Yet even those who have no experience with or any interest in Italian-Americans will find Pennino’s play a potent night in the theater, because its story of family in chaos is one with which many will identify.”
– Peter Filichia / TheaterMania.com
“Anthony P. Pennino does a fine job of depicting what it’s like to be Italian-American through his multi-generational play ITALIAN-AMERICAN CANTOS… and is an accurate portrayal of the emotional roller coaster ride that accompanies the culture.
– Laurie Lawson / ELJ All Arts Annex