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LOVE’S PASSIONATE FIRE – Shakespeare’s Sonnets – at The New Phoenix Theatre on the Park

THE BASICS:  LOVE’S PASSIONATE FIRE – Based on Williams Shakespeare’s Sonnets, directed and conceived by Kelli Bocock-Natale, starring Eric Rawski, Bobby Cooke, Nick Lama, Michael Wachowiak, Noah Doktor, Joseph Natale runs through February 27, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 at The New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. (853-1334). www.newphoenixtheatre.org. No intermission, run time is an hour. Beer, wine, and soft drinks available. Thursday nights (February 18 and 25) are pay what you can nights.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Shakespeare’s sonnets are presented in contemporary situations (a one sided cell phone conversation, a poetry slam, a rap contest) that help “bring them to life” after 400 years and countless high school English classes. Everyone on stage is very accomplished, so, if you just relax and let them do their thing, you’ll have fun. There is no test at the end, but there is a quiz during the show.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION

Kelly Bocock-Natale conceived this evening of theater several years ago and with a Valentine’s weekend opening in the 400th year anniversary of the death of Shakespeare (April 23? 1564 – April 23, 1616), she re-read, and then re-read again, every one of his 154 sonnets, let them inspire her very creative mind, and then cherry picked a few for the play.  If you saw her direction of PETER PAN or FOOL FOR LOVE (both Artie nominated for best play direction), not to mention her MACBETH and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (both at New Phoenix), you know how she likes seeing things in new ways.

If you go into the evening with some trepidation (let’s face it, Shakespearean English can be dense) the director gets that. She really does. And so the first sonnet, spoken by the rough and tumble Eric Rawski, has all the other players scratching their heads saying things such as “Huh? I don’t get it.” Ahhhh. They don’t get it either. We’re in good company.

Favorite scenes: The overheard cell phone conversation in which, as always, we only hear one side, in this case a sonnet, but delivered as if each line is in response to an unheard question or comment. The Poetry Slam in which sonnet fragments are hurled back and forth. The gay pick-up on the park bench. The sonnet delivered as a rap. And that was followed by “Everybody’s favorite! audience participation!” which consisted of hearing a phrase and then voting on whether it was Shakespeare or rap. Rappers quoted were Dr. Dre, Wu Tang Clan, and Eminem with an uncredited earlier quote from Biggie Smalls (“and if you don’t know, now you know.”)

Bocock-Natale has assembled a very accomplished cast. In alphabetical order they are Bobby Cooke whose bio says “Buffalo Actor, Singer, Dancer, Choreographer, and Director.” Well, he is. He may not be 20-something anymore, but, the man can still dance! Big applause.

Noah Doktor is only 8 years old, but has great stage presence and very clear diction and is a name to watch for.  Noah appeared with his mom, Jamie Doktor, who is also a great dancer and physical actor. She is the only female in the cast.

Nicholas Lama’s acting lacks a certain edge that makes his characters not quite focused and therefore not quite believable. I’ve seen him in several NPT productions now (HARVEY, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, ASSASSINS) and I’m not sure what’s missing.

Joseph Natale’s age is a nice contrast to Noah Doktor’s youth. When they appear on stage together, it’s reminiscent of those huge Renaissance canvases that included a variety of human types, or, more prosaically, those depictions of “the ages of man.”

Eric Rawski is one of those actors who just commands the stage. Perhaps the role that was written with him in mind, over 400 years ago, was “Bottom” in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, the fellow who not only wants to write the play-within-the-play, but direct it, and take on all the parts. Although suffering with laryngitis on opening night, he was the center of the production. And even ad-libbed when it was his job to fasten the stage swing back out of the way. Sometimes props misbehave and Rawski negatively compared his fumbling with the magic of Harry Potter movies. It was funny and in “breaking the fourth wall” it helped break the ice, breaking the barriers between us and Shakespeare.

Michael Wachowiak plays “nice” very nicely and conveys, under that pleasant exterior, an internal energy ready to burst forth.

Kudos go to Paul L. Bustaph for designing, months ago, a mini-version of the halftime stage for Superbowl 50, a center area with four rays, or platforms, in the four directions. New Phoenix stages are always interesting.

Three-Buffalo

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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