‘Emma When You Need Her’: An enrapturous romp through the life of Emma Goldman

There are some plays where, the moment you step into the theatre, there’s an enthralling energy that grabs you immediately. When you first walk into the Vortex Theatre for “Emma When You Need Her”, and you’re literally greeted by the cast, dancing to eighties music, the audience writing their hopes for the future on the wall, you know you’re in for something special. Director Rudy Ramirez, along with the rest of the cast, has come together to create a celebration of the life of famous anarchist protestor Emma Goldman, based mostly on her memoir “Living My Life”, while also pulling from other writers of the time to give a briskly-paced, post-modern look at one of the most troubling periods in US, and World, history.

We first meet Emma Goldman as she is arriving in Russia, during a quite tumultuous period, where anarchists and protestors are being sent to the gulag. From here, we flash back to several different, pivotal parts of her life, during which we see the many sides to this complex figure. We see her from her first arrival in New York, through her time in prison, through her many world tours, and during this time we see her grow and change into the infamous figure we recognize today. This is never a dull experience, thanks to Ramirez keeping the action constantly moving. Even during the many speeches that populate the piece, we see the story presented in a fast-paced, riveting way that keeps us rapt. The proceedings are underlined with a bevy of dance tunes, mostly pulling from the eighties and nineties, shaking the audience and keeping them on their toes. Even as the play ends, the dance party doesn’t end, as the cast invites the audience themselves to join in.

Emma Goldman is presented in many different ways throughout the play, and as such is portrayed by several different actresses (and one actor). The Emma we see here is not just the stalwart defender of rights, but also a woman, with her own desires and needs. We follow her through her several loves and lusts, and see how they shape the way she lives, and even protests. She’s never shown as the perfect paragon, either, as we see several moments of weakness, as her methods, and her very ideals, are allowed to be tested, and there are moments we don’t see her win.

All of the performers bring something special to their performances as Emma, whether it be her youthful innocence, her fiery protesting, or her righteous anger, but the most paramount and important of these performances is Shannon Grounds, who plays Emma during her time in Russia. It’s here that we see each of the sides of Emma we’re shown in her past, her joyful brightness, her furious anger, her dejection in the face of injustice, and Grounds carries it all with remarkable skill. In the past, Grounds has also shown a high degree of versatility, and here she puts these chops to the test and comes out with a strong performance.

“Emma When You Need Her” is a piece bursting with energy and fire, a piece of dynamite and dance, celebrating the life of this history-making revolutionary, while always reminding us of the harsh things she went through, and the hard times our nation, and the world, were facing. It’s also a ringing reminder of how far we have yet to go, especially in its clever “Speech” scenes, in which the cast members pull from their pocket actual messages from everyday people, and it’s startling how far we are from a truly free society. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen in some time, and one that I cannot recommend enough.

“Emma When You Need Her” is playing at the Vortex Theatre through May 16th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Vortex Repertory website at vortexrep.org

Photo Courtesy of Shrewd Productions

‘The Wars of Heaven Part 1’: A well-crafted wonder of puppetry

Trouble Puppet is never one to rest on their laurels. They could easily just half-assedly throw something together and still pull in the crowds on reputation alone, but they come back year after year with original, intriguing tales based on everything from science fiction novels to historical events. With their latest, Trouble Puppet, led by award-winning director Connor Hopkins, begin what looks to be their most ambitious project yet, a three-year trilogy of productions called “The Wars of Heaven”. Part one follows a pair of paranormal figures as they make their way through the great battles of history, and along the way we’re taken on a wildly imaginative ride.

As we begin, the audience finds themselves thrust in Stalingrad in one of its most bloody skirmishes, where we’re soon introduced to the protagonists of our tale, one demon, and one angel. We’re shown through flashbacks that these two have been in battle with each other for decades, one siding with the revolutionaries, one with the oppressors. This dynamic makes up one of the most fascinating parts of the work, as we begin to see them grow and change with their constant meetings over the centuries, and when we meet them again in Stalingrad later in the play, we see them as very changed figures.

Per usual, there is not an element of the proceedings that is not immaculately crafted. The puppets themselves are expertly designed, playing with cliches and images of angels and demons, but showing their own flair to make them something wholly unique. How the characters visually change over the centuries is also fascinating to watch, as, with each time period, the puppets take on different appearances, while remaining wholly recognizable. Also standing out is the projection design and shadow puppetry. It is always well-timed and intriguing to watch, and helps to move the story forward in an incredibly riveting way that might not be possible through table puppetry alone. Underscoring all this is the ethereal yet industrial score by acclaimed composer Justin Sherburn, who is joined by the the gorgeous voices of Convergence to give the proceedings an otherworldly feel that leaves audiences slightly unnerved.

With “The Wars in Heaven”, we’re taken on a fascinating journey through a history that it at once easily recognizable, but also wildly different, in this original take on Milton’s classic tales. The production team, led by the ever-brilliant Connor Hopkins, has truly outdone themselves, using their skills to present us with a dirty, lived in, torn apart world, and a set of world-weary, torn-apart figures to live inside it. I cannot wait to see where this tale may take us in future years as this trilogy of tales unfolds, but it’s certainly off to a great start.

“The Wars of Heaven, Part 1” is playing through May 17 at Salvage Vanguard Theatre. For more information, visit Trouble Puppet’s website at troublepuppet.com.

Image Courtesy of Jennymarie Jemison and Trouble Puppet

‘All the Way’ is a well-acted look at this nation’s turbulent past

“All the Way” drops its audience into 1960s America, right after the death of John F. Kennedy, one of our nation’s most beloved presidents. We follow Lyndon Baines Johnson following this horrific event, and during the period of his first year, a year with focused on fighting the horrible treatment of African Americans, and his attempt to bring about change, despite the protestations of his friends in the South. It’s harrowing and heartfelt, given just the right amount of humor thanks to Johnson’s enormous personality and charisma, and the crisp script by Robert Schenkkan. With the help of a skilled cast, and the fine guiding hand of Dave Steakley, Zach Theatre creates a powerful, professional production of this Tony nominee.

One of the play’s biggest successes is its portrayal of LBJ. Charismatic, fast-talking, and brash, LBJ was a Southern boy through and through, and Steve Vivovich takes on this role with gusto. From the moment he walks on to stage, he seems to be possessed by Johnson himself, bringing his swagger and charm in a very remarkable way. He doesn’t pull any punches, cursing up a storm and exerting his influence with the best of them. It never seems one note, however, as there are moments of true sensitivity mixed in, particularly one late in the play, during a final vote in the Senate over his Civil Rights Bill, in which Vivovich removes his armor, both literally and figuratively, showing the heart and emotion within.

Melvin Abston provides the second performance of Martin Luther King this year, and though it may lack the swagger present in Marc Pouhé’s performance in “The Mountaintop” earlier this year, what he does bring is authority. When Abston walks on to stage, his presence demands your attention, even as the large stage is filled with actors. His performance never feels forced or strained, and is full of dimension, showing King as more than just a speech-giving holy man, but as a man, with his own desires, and his own needs, and his own methods for getting things done.

Garry Peters is one of Austin’s best character actors, an actor who may not get as much attention as many other actors in town, but who pulls out amazing performance with almost every at bat. With his performance as Senator Richard Russell, he may give his best performance yet, as a Southern politician who’s forced between friendship and keeping his Southern values. Peters captures this balance with skill, bringing his trademark grump, while tempering it with some real affection towards LBJ. It’s a surprisingly sensitive performance, one that allows Peters to show real heart, and a range that’s hard to find.

“All the Way” run roughly three hours, and at time it does feel its length, but there’s never a time when you’re thoroughly engrossed in what’s happening on stage. Vivovich seems born to play the part of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his supporting cast shines in equal measure throughout. It’s a thought-provoking picture of one of the nation’s most turbulent periods, and how with gumption, wit, and perseverance, a powerful man was able to at least help Americans take a large step forward towards equality.

“All the Way” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through May 10th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach Theatre’s website at zachtheatre.org

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Tuck