Two Shakespeare Comedies For 2017; Bill Raymond's Last 'Bah Humbug'

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center marked the 25th anniversary of its National Theater Institute's Moscow Art Theater Semester program with a series of special events in Russia, including a Dec. 13 performance hosted by U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft. Thirty-one students are currently involved in the program, and noted alums include Elizabeth Olsen and Van Hansis. The Moscow Art Theater was founded in 1898 and earned its place in theater history early on by championing the works of Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and Maxim Gorky, and the directing techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski.

Labours And Errors

The Shakespeare is getting funnier this year. Capital Classics, which presents the bard's works annually outdoors in the summertime on the University of St. Joseph campus in West Hartford, has announced it will be doing "Love's Labour's Lost," directed David Watson, in July. Last year, the company did the gloomy "Othello." Details at CapitalClassics.org.

Hartford Stage, whose last three Shakespeares were all tragedies — "Romeo & Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" — is lightening up with "The Comedy of Errors" Jan. 12 through Feb. 12. The mistaken-identity comedy features not one but two sets of twins. For added frivolity, director/scenic designer Darko Tresnjak is setting the play on a "sun-kissed island off the coast of Greece in 1965."

The cast was announced over the holidays, and features Ryan-James Hatanaka as Antipholus of Ephesus, Tyler Lansing Weaks as Antipholus of Syracuse, Matthew Macca (who did "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Playhouse on Park in 2010) as Dromio of Ephesus and Alan Schmuckler (a 2014 Goodspeed Writer's Colony resident) as Dromio of Syracuse. Hartford Stage stalwarts in the show include Johanna Morrison (as Amelia and Abbess) and Noble Shropshire (as Aegeon), both of whom just appeared in "A Christmas Carol."

Also onstage: Michael Elich as Duke Solinar, Jolly Abraham as Adriana, Mahira Kakkar (a witch in Hartford Stage's 2013 "Macbeth," Viola in Westport Playhouse's 2011 "Twelfth Night") as Luciana, Tara Heal as Luce and a Fortune Teller, Brendan Averett (one of the gangsters in "Kiss Me Kate" at Hartford Stage in 2015) as Angelo the goldsmith, Louis Butelli as Balthazar and others, Paula Leggett Chase ("Dames at Sea" and "Annie 2" at Goodspeed) as Courtesan and a recent graduate of UConn's Puppet Arts program, Kalob Martinez, as an Officer.

The ensemble that handles all the other roles consists of Lauren Bricca, Jamaal Fields-Green, Daisy Infantas, Evan McReddie, Monica Owen, Tyler Pisani and two musicians, Alexander Sovronsky (who composed scores for "The Three Musketeers" at Connecticut Repertory Theatre and numerous shows at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass.) and Louis Tucci.

There are dances choreographed by Peggy Hickey (who's done numerous Goodspeed shows, including Darko Tresnjak's 2010 production of "Carnival"), and acrobatics are also involved. Details at hartfordstage.org.

A Long-Serving Scrooge

Bill Raymond bah-ed his last humbug Dec. 30 at Hartford Stage, relinquishing the role of Scrooge he'd performed for 17 of the 19 seasons that Michael Wilson's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" has graced the theater.

Raymond is not retiring from acting, and there are high hopes that he may be enticed to perform in Connecticut again. Before "A Christmas Carol," the actor did shows at Hartford Stage, Yale Rep and Long Wharf, and on tour with the experimental troupes Wooster Group and Mabou Mines.

His final night as Scrooge prompted more than a half-hour of speeches, tributes and reminiscences following the curtain call, with the entire cast of "A Christmas Carol" onstage and many alumni of the production in the audience. Michael Wilson spoke at length about how, when the show was first planned in 1991 as a lavish spectacle budgeted at nearly a million dollars, "we knew it had to be extremely successful." The director/adaptor also knew that "our 'Christmas Carol' wasn't going to be your grandmother's 'Christmas Carol,' though we wanted your grandmother to see it." When Wilson met with Raymond about the role, he realized "a great artist, a great human being, was going to give us a post-modern Scrooge."

Among the many gifts and honors presented to Raymond at that final Friday night show: keys resembling the ones he jangled incessantly in one of his finest bits of comic business; a first edition of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," handed to Raymond by longtime castmate Johanna Morrison; songs (which strangely had a non-Dickensian "Wizard of Oz" theme) sung by the children in the cast; hundreds of notes from audiences members; a citation from Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin; and the promise that an area of the soon-to-be-renovated men's dressing rooms at Hartford Stage will be named in Raymond's honor.

With all this post-Christmas cheer, it was hard for a clearly humbled Raymond to get a word in edgewise. "My hat is off to you," the actor said, doffing Scrooge's stovepipe hat. "That's why I wore the hat — I wanted to say that line."

Best Plays Of Last Year Now

It's a lean time for theater reference books. The venerable "Best Plays Yearbook" hasn't been published since 2007, and the "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" not since 2014. But "Best Plays" script compilations continue to thrive. Applause Books' "Best Short American Plays" comes out in the summertime and defines a theater season as fall-to-spring. The same publisher's "Best Plays From American Theatre Festivals" and "Best Plays" series are released in early November and use a calendar-year format; the 2015 editions of both books are in stores now.

The first script in "The Best Plays of 2015" is "Eclipsed" by Danai Gurira, which was produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 following its world premiere at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and another production at Centre Theatre Group in Los Angeles earlier that same year. "Eclipsed" ran at New York's Public Theater in 2015 and at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway in 2016 with the same director and some of the same cast members as the Yale Rep production. The "Best" book uses a version of the script from a 2015 production at the Gate Theatre in London.

The other "Best Plays of 2015" (as selected by series editor Lawrence Harbison) are "King Liz" by Fernanda Coppel, "The Guard (Black White Ochre Red)" by Jessica Dickey, "Lost Girls" by Mark Roberts and "Nice Girl" by Melissa Ross. That's four female playwrights out of six. You can find a complete list of Applause Theatre & Cinema Books at halleonardbooks.com.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the names of Ryan-James Hatanaka, Mahira Kakkar and Paula Leggett.

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