Guys and Dolls

Describing a work of art as “classic” can mean many things, but it usually connotes a sense of durability, of solidity, of wholeness. Those qualities are likely to come in handy for the four theatrical classics currently being run through the modernizing, re-energizing, hybridizing, multi-disciplinary mill of the CoHo Lab.

Continuing to emphasize the development of new work, CoHo Productions has hosted four projects for workshop time during the past two weeks. On Sunday evening it will present excerpts from the four plays in-progress:

Crucible — Philip Cuomo, CoHo’s producing artistic director, flexes his creative artistic muscles with a radical take on the Arthur Miller classic, re-imagined with the help of the CoHo Clown Cohort. Consider it a follow-up to his highly successful comic-yet-poignant clown version of The Glass Menagerie.

 

Scary clowns: A cross-wielding Maureen Porter terrorizes Olivia Weiss in rehearsal for Philip Cuomo’s clowning adaptation of “The Crucible.” Photo: Jessica Dart

House of the Living — director Samantha Shay’s dance-theater interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as “psychosexual grande ballet.”

Girl v Troll (or Dam Things) — A.R. Nicholas (collaborating with a cast that includes such fine actors as Nick Ferrucci and Cecily Overman) braves a troll’s lair, but somehow infuses an internet-age story with the tragic princess Electra as a sort of Greek chorus.

Fire & Meat — writer/director Eve Johnstone looks at the ancient poem Beowulf by way of John Gardner’s perspective-shifting 1971 novel Grendel, employing both feminist analysis and puppetry.

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Saints and sinners toss the dice

Broadway Rose's bright and brassy "Guys and Dolls" revives an American ritual and plays it out with splendid comic verve

During intermission Sunday afternoon at Broadway Rose’s mostly swell revival of Guys and Dolls, a high-powered musical-theater vehicle driven deftly by Ryan Reilly’s mellifluous Sky Masterson and Emily Sahler’s comic knockout of a Miss Adelaide, I found myself thinking, oddly, of the opening paragraphs of Katherine Dunn’s grand and slyly heartbreaking novel Geek Love, the story of a family of genetically mutated circus-sideshow performers and their adventures in the world.

The Binewski kids would sit around enchanted as Papa told the family story, a tale both bizarre and familiar, and would make sure Papa stayed the course:

“We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I’d pipe up with, ‘Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!’ and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa’s chair and Mama.

“Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. ‘Welllll …’ he’d begin, ‘it was a long time ago …’

“ ‘Before we were born!’

“ ‘Before …’ he’d proclaim, waving his arm in his grandest ringmaster style, ‘before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!’”

I thought of Dunn’s novel not only because both Geek Love and Guys and Dolls are uncanny dreams, tales of outrageous characters and situations in search of a normalcy they can call their own, but also because the Binewski kids, wrapped and rapt in the magic of a familiar story that is also their story, seem like stand-ins for almost any audience at a show like Guys and Dolls.

Brandon B. Weaver, Will Shindler and Jesse Cromer in “Guys and Dolls.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale. Even if it’s about gangsters or geeks. Tell us again, Papa.

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