March 16, 2016

Theater rev

MURDER LURKS: Mollie (Jessica Bedford) finds herself in the midst of a deadly intrigue, in an isolated old manor house, cut off from the rest of the world, surrounded by an odd assortment of complete strangers, one of whom is a murderer, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” the longest running play in the history of English theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952, and 64 years later, after more than 25,000 performances, it is still playing, by far the longest running show in theater history. Though McCarter’s current rendition of the classic murder mystery will run only two more weeks, until March 27, the high-energy, captivating Matthews Theatre production displays vividly the lasting appeal of this show. Whether you’re a whodunit aficionado or not, this show with its eight finely drawn, deftly presented characters and its rich visual appeal is highly entertaining from start to finish. more

Theater_PPL

The first African-American expedition to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak, is the subject of An American Ascent. The film is being screened Saturday, April 2, as part of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival at Princeton Public Library. Now in its tenth year, the festival features a line-up of more than 25 acclaimed films with filmmakers and other speakers presented over the course of 7 days. For a complete list of festival films, and updates on speakers, see princetonlibrary.org

March 2, 2016

Anne_BalletWhen Mary Pat Robertson and her husband Michael came from New York City to Princeton in 1980, she thought she’d be retiring from her dance career. But the town, where the Robertsons moved so that he could pursue his doctorate at Princeton University, turned out to have a lot more dance to offer than she expected.

It wasn’t long before Ms. Robertson began teaching at Princeton Ballet School. Six years later, she was named the school’s director. In June, she will step down after 35 years teaching and administrating hundreds of students, some of whom have gone on to professional careers.

“I’ll miss the kids,” she said during a telephone interview last week. “But it’s time. I’ll probably do a little private coaching, and I look forward to getting back to choreography. I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking and I hope to expand that. I’m even contemplating writing a book for parents about what to look for in a ballet school.”

While ballet has played a major role in Ms. Robertson’s long career, contemporary dance has also been a focus. Before becoming the ballet school’s director, she co-founded the company Teamwork Dance and did a lot of freelance dancing and choreography. In New York, she studied the techniques of José Limón, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham. more

February 24, 2016

Theater revWhen Dawn Breaks, an original play created and directed by Princeton University sophomore Nico Krell, is based on 1,001 Nights, but this is an “immersive” theater experience, so you will surely get less, and more, than you expect, as the actors lead you out of your seat, onto the stage, under the stage, into dressing rooms, workroom, hallways, greenroom, lobby, and every corner of the Hamilton Murray Theater.

You will encounter, at least in part, the familiar story of Scheherazade and the brutal King Shahryar, who, in anger at his first wife’s infidelity is determined to marry a new bride each day and execute her at dawn. But after three years, Scheherazade offers herself to the king and tells him a bedtime story so captivating that he decides to postpone the execution so that he can hear the end the next day, and the stories continue for 1,001 nights.

There’s little evidence here of the stories Scheherazade tells — “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” — that make up the original 1,001 Nights (sometimes called The Arabian Nights), but the story of Scheherazade (Anna Zabel); King Shahryar (Tom Dowling); her sister Dunyazade (Anastasia Repouliou); her father Jafar, who is the king’s vizier (Daniel Krane); the king’s brother Shah Zaman (Jake Hamel); Delilah, the ghost of the king’s former wife (Julia Mosby); and Azraq, a genie (Glenna Yu), is richly developed during the 70-minute production.  more

February 10, 2016

Rider ProfA new documentary on race; written, directed, and produced by Dr. Sheena C. Howard, assistant professor of communication studies at Rider University; will have its premiere screening on February 25 at The Landmark Theatre, Ritz, and the Bourse, in Philadelphia.

Remixing Colorblind examines how the current educational system shapes national understanding of race, and by extension, race relations. These areas of racial misunderstanding are explored through in-depth conversations with faculty, administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and young people from a variety of Historic Black Colleges/Universities, predominantly white institutions, and inner city high schools.

Remixing Colorblind is Howard’s first film. She is also scheduled to appear on NPR and WBUR Boston’s Here and Now on February 21.

To learn more, visit www.rider.edu.

February 3, 2016

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EXPLORING ISLAMIST EXTREMISM: (left to right) Playwright Emily Mann, scholars Dr. Stuart Gottlieb, and Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi and moderator Paula Alekson discuss with the audience the issues raised at Sunday’s performance of Ms. Mann’s new play “Hoodwinked.” (Photo Courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center)

“It’s about the 21st century’s responses to Islamist extremism,” Emily Mann explained in describing her documentary drama Hoodwinked, performed as a reading in the McCarter Theatre Center Lab last weekend, “but it’s also very much about asking questions and sharing information.” The drama was a springboard for a lively discussion.  more

Elektra

A BLOODY TALE FROM ANCIENT GREECE: Evelyn Giovine. a senior in Princeton’s Program in Theater, will perform the title role in Sophocles’ “Elektra,” opening February 5 at the Lewis Center for the Arts. (Photo Credit: Hawa Sako)

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Elektra by Sophocles, the classic, dark, bloody tale of familial vengeance from ancient Greece, is explored anew by guest director Alexandru Mihail and senior Evelyn Giovine in the title role. Performances will take place on February 5, 6, 11, 12, and 13 at 8 p.m. in the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio located at 185 Nassau Street.  more

January 20, 2016

Photograph © T. Charles Erickson

HUMOR AND HUMANITY: (L to R) Lymon (David Pegram), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks), Doaker (John Earl Jelks), and Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) share stories and memories of the past in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 7. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Twenty-eight years after its original creation, 90 years distant from its Depression-era setting in the Pittsburgh Hill District, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (1987) speaks powerfully, lyrically, and eloquently of an African-American family in conflict and of their past, which they must confront, embrace, and overcome in order to move forward. more

January 13, 2016

Gaslight

Metuchen-based Raconteur Radio presents a staged radio play of Gaslight Sunday, January 24, at 3 p.m. in the Community Room at Princeton Public Library. The production is adapted from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play about an opera singer whose husband attempts to drive her insane and the Scotland Yard detective who intervenes on her behalf.

Featuring Laurence Mintz, Jason Jackson, and Danielle Illario, the 55-minute production includes theatrical lighting, period costumes, Golden Age radio equipment, sound effects, and vintage commercials.  more

January 6, 2016

Mummenschanz

Mummenschanz is back to celebrate its 43rd anniversary with a new show at McCarter Theatre on Wednesday, January 27 at 7:30 p.m. The ordinary becomes extraordinary in the wordless universe of Mummenschanz when common materials, everyday objects (like toilet paper) and colorful abstract shapes and forms like the famous “Clay Masks,” “Slinky Man,” and “Giant Hands” spring to life.  more

November 18, 2015

Theater rev 11-18-15 Bengal

GO, TIGER!: The Tiger (Victoria Davidjohn, center), who serves as narrator, aggressor, victim, and philosopher; is guarded by two U.S. Marines, Kev (Max Feldman, left) and Tom (Matt Chuckran) in war-torn Baghdad in Theatre Intime’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s dark surrealistic comedy “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” (2009), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 21.

The legacy of Saddam Hussein and the repercussions of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq continue to haunt us. Playwright Rajiv Joseph, who understands the power of ghosts and the inexorable reverberations of violence and corruption, would not be surprised.

Mr. Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2009) is a war story, a dark comedy, with much more darkness than humor. Set in Baghdad in 2003, the first days of the Iraq War, the play is strikingly, shockingly realistic in its depictions of the brutalities of war and its effects on all parties involved. But it is also disturbingly surrealistic, with ghosts gradually taking over the stage from live characters, and an eloquent, acerbic, philosophical tiger presiding over the proceedings.  more

October 21, 2015

Photo By Roger Mastroianni

At dinner Saturday night before the show, with some old friends I hadn’t seen for a few months, the conversation was not unexpected. With a pleasant balance of seriousness and humor, we caught up on the latest news in our middle age (late middle age?) lives: our children and their challenges in school and in starting out in the world after college; other friends and family, and how difficult it can be for adults to get along with each other; politics and our worries about the dysfunctions in our government; the state of our environment, and what sort of world we’re leaving for our children; mortality, aging, and and how fast the decades have sped by. more

October 14, 2015

Theater review

Fifth grade teacher Heather Clark (Hope Kean) is about to get a visit from a parent she doesn’t expect. Eleven-year-old Gidion has committed suicide after bringing home notice of his suspension from school, but his mother Corryn Fell (Ugonna Nwabueze) is determined to keep her scheduled appointment with his teacher.

Filled with feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, sadness, and frustration, Corryn arrives at Heather’s classroom. She wants to know why Gidion was suspended. She wants to understand why he killed himself. She wants an outlet for her anger and emotions. She wants a target for her revenge. The play takes place in real time as the two women square off over the next 75 minutes. more

September 23, 2015

Lindsey Ferrentino     Playwright Patricia McGregor     Director Tim Brown     Set Design Dede Ayite     Costume Design Jiyoun Chang     Lighting Design Jessica Paz     Sound Design Caite Hevner Kemp     Projections Vincent T. Schicchi and Thomas Denier

DANGEROUS LIAISON: Silva Vaccaro (Dylan McDermott) pursues his seduction of Baby Doll (Susannah Hoffman), as passions for vengeance and love coincide, in Tennessee Williams’s  “ Baby Doll,”  adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 11. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Baby Doll Meighan, 19-year-old virgin wife of middle-aged Archie Meighan, lies provocatively sucking her thumb in her tiny bed as the lights rise on McCarter Theatre’s American premiere production of Baby Doll, adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from Tennessee Williams’s “scandalous” 1956 movie. more

September 16, 2015

Alice Theater web

IT’S A MAD, MAD WORLD: Alice spends time with a tea-drinking mouse and other wondrous creatures in an original musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, presented by the award-winning Kaleidoscope Theatre at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre on Saturday, September 19 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tickets are available at www.kelseytheatre.net or by calling (609) 570-3333.

Kaleidoscope Theatre at Mercer County Community College present the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland. Performances are scheduled for Saturday, September 19 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at Kelsey Theatre, located at MCCC’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.  more

September 9, 2015

 

French Theater ArtistsPrinceton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Department of French and Italian, and L’Avant-Scène will present the fourth annual Seuls en Scène French Theater Festival, which will take place from September 24 through October 24 at venues across the University’s campus. All performances are free and open to the public. While performances will be in French, three productions will include English subtitles: Jaz, Le 20 novembre, and De mes propres mains.

Marking the launch of the fifteenth season of the student French theater workshop L’Avant-Scène, Seuls en Scène brings celebrated French actors and directors to the University and the local community. This year’s festival features an exciting line-up, including a play from the 2012 Avignon Theater Festival, a preview of a new production to premiere at the 2016 Avignon Festival, and works by some of the greatest contemporary playwrights in Europe and the Francophone world. Seuls en Scène has been organized by Florent Masse, Senior Lecturer in the Department of French and Italian and director of L’Avant-Scène. more

September 2, 2015

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LEAPING INTO A NEW SEASON: American Repertory Ballet dancer Mattia Pallozzi is among those to be introduced to the public at the company’s first “On Pointe” event of the fall at Rider University on September 23. The series is designed to familiarize the community with the company, it’s dancers, and repertory. (Photo by Richard Termine)

When Douglas Martin took over as artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet five years ago, he knew he wanted to forge relationships inside and outside the studio. Having a continuing dialogue with the public was as important as training his dancers. So Mr. Martin, who was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and later with ARB before becoming its director, began to focus on a monthly series called “On Pointe.” more

August 12, 2015
DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

In Eurydice (2003), currently playing at Princeton Summer Theater, Sarah Ruhl takes an original slant on this familiar myth of the brilliant musician Orpheus, his bride Eurydice, who dies on their wedding day, and his journey to the Underworld to try to bring her back to life. Ms. Ruhl’s version presents quirky, contemporary characters, relates the story from Eurydice’s perspective and brings the relationship between Eurydice and her father, who does not appear in the original myth, to center stage. more

July 29, 2015

Nightmare1

Princeton Summer Theater’s double bill of one-acts, The Actor’s Nightmare (1981) by Christopher Durang and The Real Inspector Hound (1968) by Tom Stoppard, is an insider’s delight with both plays set in a theater, both plays about plays, performances and actors (and, in the latter case, critics too). The highly skilled young performers of these brilliantly clever works at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 2, enjoy themselves immensely in their madcap endeavors, and the enjoyment inexorably spreads through the loudly laughing audience.  more

July 15, 2015
WARS OF WORDS: Eliza Doolittle (Bits Sola) has successfully discarded her lower class background and learned from Henry Higgins (Jake Robertson) how to speak and behave like a duchess, but where does that leave their relationship and her future? Princeton Summer Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (1913) runs through July 19 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

WARS OF WORDS: Eliza Doolittle (Bits Sola) has successfully discarded her lower class background and learned from Henry Higgins (Jake Robertson) how to speak and behave like a duchess, but where does that leave their relationship and her future? Princeton Summer Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (1913) runs through July 19 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

There are reasons why Pygmalion has been the most popular and most famous of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. More than 100 years after its 1914 London premiere those reasons ring out loudly and clearly in Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) striking production.

Shaw’s fiery, intelligent language, his rich sense of comedy and his irreverent and searing social commentary all sparkle in this play, and the top-flight PST ensemble of eight with a polished professional production crew under the direction of R.N. Sandberg make the most of this brilliant text.  more

June 24, 2015

 

TREACHEROUS SEAS—Ceyx (Ross Baron) stands tall on deck, sailing far from home, as his wife Alcyone suffers alone waiting for him, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998),  based on Ovid’s tales of Greek myths, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 28.

TREACHEROUS SEAS—Ceyx (Ross Baron) stands tall on deck, sailing far from home, as his wife Alcyone suffers alone waiting for him, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998), based on Ovid’s tales of Greek myths, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 28.

Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s 1998 theatrical updating of Ovid’s 8 AD fifteen-volume poetic masterpiece based on Greek myths, is, as the title indicates, all about changes. The ten tales featured in Ms. Zimmerman’s 75-minute narrative drama, opening the Princeton Summer Theater season at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, range widely from the most familiar (King Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice) to the most obscure (Erysichthon, Myrrha) and from comical to deeply somber. Often it is death that brings about the transformations here.

The transformations are sometimes literal, as characters turn into gold, into birds, into flowers and trees or literally dissolve into tears, but also psychological, as characters learn how to love, how to forgive, how to live through the pain and suffering to experience a catharsis, a purging of emotions. The play is also about the transforming power of story-telling and theater, as characters and audience find meaning, understanding and redemption in the telling and performing, the hearing and seeing of these stories.

The staging, as Ms. Zimmerman points out in her notes to the script, should “provide images that amplify the text, lend it poetic resonance, or, even, sometimes contradict it.” The myths from Ancient Greece are rich in the textures of life and psychology, timeless in the human passions, joys and sorrows that they evoke.  The challenge here is to communicate this richness to contemporary theater audiences.

This Princeton Summer Theater ensemble, under the direction of Maeli Goren, is abundantly creative, imaginative and talented, and they do succeed—albeit unevenly—in finding visual metaphors for the ideas and emotions embedded in these powerful stories and bringing this text to life. Made up this year mostly of recent Princeton University graduates, the PST Company of three men and three women, shows extraordinary energy and flexibility in taking on numerous different roles, shifting rapidly from scene to scene, and collaborating seamlessly as a unit.

Each actor assists in telling the stories and must also convincingly embody many different characters. The evening is replete with humor and emotion. Memorable characters come to life, and unforgettably moving moments—King Midas with his daughter who has turned to gold, the beautiful reunion and transformation of Alcyone and Ceyx into seabirds, the moment of Eurydice’s final farewell and return to the Underworld, the shocking realization and confrontation between incestuous father Cinyras and daughter Myrrha, a cocky, brash, contemporary Phaeton out of control behind the wheel of his father Apollo’s sun chariot, and the eternally loving (“Let me die the moment my love dies”) Baucis and Philemon transforming into trees with branches intertwined—leave no doubt about why these myths have survived,  stirring human hearts and souls for thousands of years. Some of the staging here, however, (Narcissus, Pomona and Vertumnus, Eros and Psyche) is less clear and effective.

Beginning with her colorful retelling of The Odyssey in 2000, Mary Zimmerman has brought several plays to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, including also The Secret in the Wings, Argonautika and The White Snake, all featuring captivating storytelling and dynamically visual, inventive staging, Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, aptly called “the genius grant,” Ms. Zimmerman is as renowned for her directing as for her playwriting. Her magic touch would be helpful here.

All these plays rely heavily on the versatility and imagination of actors, director and designers, with minimal set, props and costuming, but this PST production is at times too minimalistic to deliver these stories in their full power and clarity. Audiences, even those well versed in Greek mythology, will have some difficulty following two or three of these tales.  Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and props include ingenious use of several bedsheets hoisted and lowered, six colorful chairs employed for numerous purposes, seven multi-purpose hula hoops, a collection of buckets with an ocean-blue floor and sky-blue backdrop, admirably complemented by Alex Mannix’s dramatic and nuanced lighting design, Steven Tran’s indispensable musical composition and piano playing, and Keating Helfrich’s all-white costume design.

But a bit more color and a few more props and costume pieces would help greatly in activating the audience’s imagination and clarifying, enlivening these characters, situations and stories. How about an actual plant to help illustrate Narcissus’ transformation from self-absorbed young man to flower? And for Vertumnus, whose courting of Pomona is all about disguises, how about a couple of costume pieces, maybe a wig and hat, to help the actor to embody this contrast between his disguised and real selves?

In her director’s notes in the program, Ms. Goren describes how in staging the action of the play her collaborative company has departed from the traditional large pond on stage and “decided to ditch the pool in favor of a grown-up surrealist playground that shifts and changes along with the stories we present.” This is a smart, creative director with a highly talented ensemble of actors and a first-rate professional crew, all making the most of the Hamilton Murray performance space. But we do miss the pond, which brilliantly would highlight so many details and themes of these stories, and was such a strikingly memorable feature of the original production at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, then in New York, eventually, where I first saw it in 2002, at Circle in the Square on Broadway.

The six actors provide a model of collaborative, ensemble performance, making it impossible to single out individual stars here. Ross Baron is a tall, strong, manly husband and sea captain as Ceyx, and certainly impressive in a range of roles from Myrrha’s father to the immature teenage dude Phaeton. Evan Thompson creates an affecting King Midas, who learns his lesson; a sympathetic Orpheus, with some fine fiddle playing; and an array of humorous supporting characters. Brad Wilson, from Bacchus to Hermes to Eros and Vertumnus, proves highly resourceful, adaptable and consistently engaging.

Maeve Brady, as Midas’s daughter, Eurydice, Psyche, and other narrative and character roles, is convincing, focused and appealing. Caroline Hertz is powerfully affecting as Alcyone, Myrrha and others.  And Bits Sola bravely overcomes crutches and bandaged foot to skillfully portray Pomona, Baucis, Phaeton’s therapist and numerous different narrators.

In her final commentary on the fatal Phaeton episode, the therapist reflects on the meaning of it all: “It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions.”

Dreams public and private come dramatically to life here in this Princeton Summer Theater opening production.  It’s important to consider the enigmatic, irrational and ambiguous in life as well as the rational and easily understood.   And remember, “love conquers all, so don’t scorn Aphrodite.”

Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998) will run at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for just one more weekend, Thursday through Sunday, June 25-28, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.  Call (732) 997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org for tickets and further information.

April 22, 2015
FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

“I beg you, open your eyes … you have arrived at La Cage Aux Folles,” announces the master of ceremonies for the evening. In the opening number, “We Are What We Are,” of the 1983 hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the characters of the show present themselves and their world, a popular drag nightclub theater on the French Riviera.

The captivating Theatre Intime-Princeton University Players’ production currently at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, does indeed present a remarkable array of characters from the glittering world of drag performance. “What we are is an illusion,” they sing, “We love how it feels, putting on heels, causing confusion,” and, as the lyrics of the opening number declare, “You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.”

Directed by Princeton University junior Morgan Young with a talented cast of 14 undergraduate performers, this production is fun and appealing, to the eye and the ear. Though it was the first Broadway musical to focus on a gay romantic relationship, it was designed as a family-friendly, song-and-dance entertainment in 1983 when it debuted, ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.

Thirty-two years later, though at times overly sentimental or stereotypical or old-fashioned in characterization, plot and theme, La Cage Aux Folles still resonates powerfully in its moving portrayal of a loving couple — and family — and in the ensemble’s dynamic presentation of these characters and their theatrical world of glitter, performance, and illusion.

Carey Camel as Albin, aka the temperamental star Zaza, and Evan Strasnick as Georges, manager and emcee of the nightclub, are first-rate, committed, and convincing both individually and through the ups and downs of their loving relationship. The seven lively, quirky, flamboyant “Cagelles” are also consistently fun and fascinating to watch in their dramatic performances onstage and backstage at La Cage nightclub.

Based on a popular 1973 French stage play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 movie, which was followed by two sequels in 1980 and 1985, “Les Cages Aux Folles” is set in the St. Tropez nightclub, backstage and onstage, and in the adjoining apartment of Georges, Albin and their 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Paddy Boroughs), who, conceived by Georges in a brief tryst long ago, hasn’t seen his actual mother in more than 20 years.

Early in the evening the point of conflict arises and the stakes rise rapidly as Jean-Michel prepares to marry — a female — and has invited not just his fiancée Anne (Lydia Watt) but also her ultra-conservative — Dad is the leader of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party — parents (Dan Caprera and Nadia Diamond) home to dinner to meet his family. The situation is ripe for humor and dramatic tension (shades of the Sycamore family in Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 You Can’t Take It With You trying to act normally as they entertain their daughter’s stuffy future in-laws), as Georges and Jean-Michel revamp their apartment, Georges straightens up his deportment and they struggle to figure out what to do with the flamboyant Albin, who is first uninvited, then transformed into a macho Uncle Al (“walk like John Wayne”), before he takes matters into his own hands with startling results.

In addition to the French films and the original Broadway musical version, this show has seen numerous other productions in the U.S. and around the world, including two popular Broadway revivals, 2004 and 2010, both of which won the Tony Award for Best Revival. Also, Mike Nichols directed a successful U.S. film adaptation, The Birdcage, in 1996, set in South Beach (Miami) and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Mr. Camel’s Albin provides the heart of the show here, as he draws the audience into his life as an aging prima donna, and also a devoted partner to Georges and “mother’ to Jean-Michel. His numbers provide high spots of the evening, including “A Little More Mascara,” as he reflects at the make-up table on the illusions of theater and life before going on stage as Zaza, then in his show-stopping, act one solo finale “I Am What I Am,” as he publicly refuses to compromise his identity to accommodate the expectations of society, and also in a second-act Edith Piaf-style refrain that brings his whole audience — onstage and off — into the beautiful world of his song.

Mr. Strasnick is a worthy counterpart, presiding over “La Cage Aux Folles” nightclub and the larger Hamilton Murray stage. Caught in the middle between the demands of his life with Albin at La Cage and his son’s plans for the future, Georges is a sympathetic character, and Mr. Strasnick presents a credible, interesting figure. Though at times uneven vocally, he is particularly effective in leading the nightclub proceedings and in portraying the depth and emotion of his 20-year relationship with Albin.

Mr. Boroughs as Jean-Michel, contrasting sharply with the world of “La Cage Aux Folles,” presents a clean-cut, likeable young man in love but desperately apprehensive as he prepares to introduce his fiancée and her parents to his unusual family. Ms. Watt is suitably sweet and innocent as the fiancée, and Mr. Caprera and Ms. Diamond successfully portray the one-dimensional, cartoon-like characters of the straitlaced, shocked parents of the bride.

The wonderfully creative — in dress, movement, dance, and characterization — Cagelles deliver memorable, relentlessly interesting and entertaining characters, including the alluring and athletic Jacqueline (Victoria Lee, who deftly doubles as an effusively distinguished restaurateur), the expressive, sarcastic Jacob (Dylan Blau-Edelstein, who also plays with panache the sassy butler/maid for Albin and George and is outrageously funny enough to almost steal the show in a couple of scenes), the amazing operatic-voiced Chantal (Julia Peiperl), Phaedra (Matt Blazejewski) with the acrobatic tongue, the dominatrix Hanna (Kat Giordano) in black leather, red boots, and a whip that she knows how to use, the curiously mustachioed but feminine Mercedes (Alex Vogelsang) and the colorfully cross-dressed Nicole (Brian McSwiggen). Cat Sharp provides a down-to-earth, believable contrast to the gaudy Cagelles as Francis, the nightclub stage manager (though her visible injuries, apparently due to her relationship with Hanna, upsettingly miss the mark for humor).

Choreography by Tess Marchant is simple but successful in rendering this diverse assortment of characters in their wild nightclub setting — with a rich variety of slithering, undulating movements and provocative poses and a kick line or two that might challenge Princeton Triangle Show’s all-male chorus.

The capable eight-piece orchestra positioned behind the set, under the direction of Sam Kaseta, provides strong, appropriate musical accompaniment to the action and singing on stage. David White’s set, depicting backstage and onstage at The Cage nightclub, as well as the apartment of Georges and Albin and several other scenes around town, is less than lavish, but effectively economical, in creating multiple locales without delay between scenes, and striking in its centerpiece curtain made up of dozens of gold mylar strips shimmering in the wind and light (designed by Marissa Applegate) to create the tone and ambience of this play and its world. Rebecca Schnell’s numerous, vivid costumes are on target in further complementing characterizations and tone in the production.

Despite the uniform youthfulness and relative inexperience of the undergraduate cast, some problems and unevenness in the book and score, and the ambitious scope of the entire undertaking, Ms. Young has directed with such fine intelligence and spirit, and her company performs with such admirable focus, energy, and commitment that the show transcends its limitations.

Ms. Young’s wise, perceptive comments in her program note get the last word here and provide compelling motivation to see La Cage Aux Folles in its last weekend at Hamilton Murray Theater: “I have always been drawn to drag as an art form. The eccentricity, excess and inherent performativity of drag is a form particularly suited to musical theatre, the singing, dancing, sparkling queen of the stage world. I find it is also a form particularly suited to self-expression. Drag, to me, is not a disguise, deception or escape, but a heightened representation of self. When something is more extravagant than it is natural or “real” — when someone’s inner monologue is musical, someone’s face is covered in make-up, someone’s hair was bought at Party City — it is not, as a consequence, less “truthful.” Drag performances can be moments of pure self-acceptance, a medium through which everyone can strut their assorted stuff and proclaim, “We are what we are!”

March 18, 2015
MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29.(Photo by Margot Shulman)

MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

You might think you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, but Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will take you into surprising, hilarious realms of sheer theatricality, wild inventiveness, and over-the-top farce.

Running at McCarter‘s Matthews Theatre through March 29, Mr. Ludwig’s world premiere adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a bloodcurdling 1901 story of a family curse, a gigantic hound attacking its victims on the foggy Devonshire Moors, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson navigating a slew of suspicious characters and situations to pursue the case, is as much about the magic of theater as it is about murder and mystery.

Baskerville is larger than life in its spirited embrace of the melodrama of the original story and also in its sheer delight in the rich array of theatrical contrivances necessary to create this world on a bare stage: the exuberant, versatile acting with just five actors playing more than 40 parts; wildly imaginative props and set; the astonishing abundance, cleverness and speed of costuming; and the sensational lighting, music, and sound effects.

Sherlockians and other murder mystery fans will enjoy the intrigues, the shrewd plotting and brilliant detective work, the colorful late 19th century world of London, the moors and the baronial manor of the Baskervilles, not to mention this “hero we can really believe in,” as Ludwig describes his protagonist, and the inevitable comparisons to Basil Rathbone (1939 movie), Jeremy Brett (1988 TV movie), and Benedict Cumberbatch (2012 BBC production).

But the greatest gifts to the audience here are the wild comedy, as Mr. Ludwig plays with plot, character and theatrical conventions, and the outstanding production values driven by the five brilliant actors and the dazzling technical feats involved in staging this action-packed melodrama.

The story is, of course, full of suspense and thrilling drama, but Baskerville delights in breaking through the fourth wall to show its audience its clever theatricality, as props and set pieces fly in through trap doors or from the wings or the rafters, venues change with the rising of a sunken platform, characters appear and disappear, then appear and disappear again, with the speed of a change of costume or maybe just hat and wig and accent. Over the top? Larger than life? Contrived? Artificial? That’s melodrama. That’s farce. Maybe that’s what theater — or at least this particular brand of theater — is all about. The performers and crews are obviously relishing the theatrical adventure, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it with them.

Director Amanda Dehnert keeps the complicated plot moving at a torrid pace and skillfully balances suspenseful drama with broad, deftly timed comedy. Mr. Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) knows his craft, and McCarter’s first-rate actors and production team ensure that this material engages the audience and never becomes tedious.

Produced in association with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, where it opened in January, Baskerville is a classic whodunit. Of course, as Doctor Watson, both narrator and major player, draws the audience into the intrigue, the question is not only “who?” but also “why?” and “how?” and “when will he or she do it again?”

 Early in the first of two acts, a visit to Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street London residence by an eccentric Dr. Mortimer (Stanley Bahorek) draws the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) and his no-nonsense assistant Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) into the mystery of the Baskerville curse.

Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall create a dynamic duo indeed, contrasting and complementary in their teamwork as they collaborate to solve the case. Mr. Wooddell’s Holmes is a dashing, histrionic figure, fearless and charismatic, while Mr. Hall’s Watson, more conservative, cautious, and approachable, provides the audience with a character foil to Holmes and an entrée into this wild Sherlockian world. As Mr. Ludwig states in his program notes, “[Sherlock Holmes] is quixotic, dangerous, and inspiring. Watson meanwhile is steady, stalwart, and wonderfully earthbound. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ariel and Caliban, fire and earth.” Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall are powerful and convincing in portraying these figures and their legendary, crime-solving teamwork.

Threatening to upstage this duo, however, are the three supporting players and the more than 40 characters that they play. Mr. Bahorek’s transformations, for example, are a delight to behold, from the business-like Mortimer to the ominous, misshapen Barrymore, gothic caretaker of the Baskerville estate, to the Castilian hotel clerk, then the shadowy figure of the Devonshire naturalist, butterfly-catcher Stapleton and others.

Michael Glenn as the Texan (one of Mr. Ludwig’s liberties with the original text) nephew and heir to the deceased Sir Charles Baskerville, injects a generous dose of humor — lots of Texas jokes for starters — and incongruity into the proceedings, as he and Watson probe the mysteries of the moors. Though Mr. Glenn, also playing the prickly, provocative rival Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, as well as a scullery maid and others, is no less busy than Mr. Bahorek, it is the amazing Jane Pfitsch who wins the chameleon prize for most characters, costumes, and wigs, not to mention the prize for most chaotic, fast-paced backstage costume changes. Her bewildering array of roles includes an eager London lad assisting Holmes and Watson, the frighteningly austere housekeeper Mrs. Barrymore, the lovely ingénue Miss Stapleton, mystery woman Laura Lyons, and, by her own count (I lost count early on!) as reported in an interview, 11 or 12 additional characters requiring seven wigs and three additional special hats with hair attached!

All of these transformations are great fun to watch, thanks to the extraordinarily proficient actors, who are able to present rapid-fire characterizations through voice, gesture, body language, and emotion and the brilliant, creative costume designs by Jess Goldstein, with the expert assistance of wig designer Leah J. Loukas and dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia.

Daniel Ostling’s set design, lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and sound design by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli provide ample opportunities for theater magic in action. The mostly bare stage with lighting instruments clearly visible on scaffolding and lighting poles, footlights, and a cyclorama on the back wall, along with bone-chilling sound and music effects, in keeping with the larger-than-life murder mystery tone here, help to create the numerous rapidly changing locales.

“My hope,” Mr. Ludwig writes in his program notes, “is that Baskerville is about the theater as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I want it to be seen not only as a tale of fellowship and courage, but also as an adventure in theater making itself.” This Arena Stage-McCarter production, with its infinitely creative design and production team and these high-energy, high-versatility, highly imaginative performers more than fulfill Mr. Ludwig’s hope. It’s an entertaining evening for Sherlockians, theater-lovers and audiences of all ages.

McCarter Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” will run through March 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Visit www. Mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787 for tickets and information.

February 25, 2015
SEX, LOVE AND SHOW BIZ: Hollywood star Mitchell Green (Nico Krell, on left) and Alex (Cody O’Neill), his rent boy, confront each other in Mitchell’s hotel room — Are they gay?  embarking on a relationship?  just curious? — in Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” (2006) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through February 28.

SEX, LOVE AND SHOW BIZ: Hollywood star Mitchell Green (Nico Krell, on left) and Alex (Cody O’Neill), his rent boy, confront each other in Mitchell’s hotel room — Are they gay? embarking on a relationship? just curious? — in Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” (2006) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through February 28.

The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2006 Tony-nominated hit comedy, is a play about Hollywood, about truths and illusions, unbridled ambition and control. It is also about relationships, working through gender confusions, making meaningful connections, and struggling to sustain those connections. Mr. Beane is a skilled craftsman, and his play is also about language and theatrics and how humans (including writers) use that language in the pursuit of power and love and the creation of worlds, both fictional and actual. Theatre Intime’s current revival, directed by Princeton University senior Jack Moore, capitalizes on creative, intelligent, tasteful staging and four dynamic, committed performances to deliver the sharp humor and depth of human relationships here.

The four characters in The Little Dog Laughed develop a sort of love rectangle. As Diane, a high-powered Hollywood agent, explains, “My rule of thumb is that in the first act you put your people in a tree, in the second act you throw stones at them while they’re in the tree, and in the third act take them down from the tree.” At the end of the second of only two acts in The Little Dog Laughed, Diane promises the audience that she will “sort this all out,” and she proceeds to do just that.

Diane’s principal client is the rising Hollywood star Mitchell Green, whose homosexuality, though hesitant and mostly closeted, is causing public relations problems for her. Ever the consummate pragmatist, problem-solver, epitome of the Hollywood businesswoman, she warns Mitchell about his budding gay relationship undermining the new movie they are planning: “We are investing money into a property that will fill the common woman with lust and fill the common man with envy. My problem is that if you start walking around with your “friend” over there. You will not inspire lust in common women and every common man will feel superior to you.”

Meanwhile Mitchell and his rent boy Alex are developing a serious relationship, despite confusion and questioning of sexual preferences on both sides. To further complicate matters, in residence back at Alex’s apartment, where he’s been missing for five days, is his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, Ellen.

Theatre Intime’s undergraduate ensemble is in top form here. The actors make the most of Mr. Beane’s polished dialogue and clever plotting. The play develops its characters and moves the plot forward with a captivating counterpoint between interior monologues spoken to the audience and dynamic exchanges among the characters.

Katie Frorer as Diane presides with authority and style over the evening’s misadventures. The age stretch here is challenging — Diane is a hardened veteran of the Hollywood wars, probably twice the age of Ms. Frorer. — but this witty, cynical, charismatic woman comes across in technicolor. Despicable? Perhaps, but she is devilishly charming, funny, and devastating in her skewering of the hypocrisies and delusions of Hollywood and its denizens. From her long opening monologue through frequent asides and extended commentary to the audience, Ms. Frorer’s Diane serves as narrator and the driving force in “problem-solving” and moving the plot forward. She frequently breaks the fourth wall to engage the audience, as she seems to be supervising the writing and directing of the action.

As the closeted Hollywood star Mitchell, at the center of the clash here, Nico Krell creates a convincingly conflicted character, often self-absorbed but trying hard to find meaning and love in his unusual life amidst the demands of Hollywood stardom. The comedic Hollywood exchanges with Diane are perhaps more convincing than the romantic scenes with Alex, but Mr. Krell, also stretching to portray a character twice his age, is on target and sympathetic throughout. There are many fine scenes during the evening, moments of poignant emotion, as well as high hilarity, but Mitchell and Diane’s ingratiating themselves with a pretentious playwright over a fashionable lunch is most memorable in its razor-sharp, humorous satiric commentary — impressive evidence of these two actors’ ability to create, out of thin air, the setting, the third (invisible) character, his (silent) comments, and the whole “Hollywood” scene for the audience’s enjoyment.

As the rent boy/prostitute, Cody O’Neill’s Alex is probably the most sympathetic of the four characters — and the most vulnerable to the brutalities of the Hollywood he encounters in the personas of Mitchell and Diane. Mr. O’Neill creates an intriguing three-dimensional young character, exploring his sexuality and his life with a certain toughness and independence that the other characters do not possess. In a range of challenging scenes, Mr. O’Neill, whether communicating directly to the audience, trying to cope with his distraught girlfriend, or charting his path in the awkward relationship with Mitchell, conveys convincingly the bravura and the vulnerability of the sensitive young hustler.

Abby Melick’s Ellen establishes the fourth side of the romantic rectangle with her lingering relationship — friend? girlfriend? ex? — with Alex and plays a crucial role in Diane’s ultimate scheme. Though in some ways more of a supporting character than a protagonist, Ms. Melick’s Abby also creates a three-dimensional persona for her 24-year-old character and delivers a credible, strong stage presence, established early on in a memorable monologue about returning home to visit “Screecher,” her mother, and witnessing the horror of what has happened to her old room.

David White’s set design here vividly and economically establishes the hotel room of Mitchell and Alex at center stage, a large desk stage left for Diane’s domain, and minimal furniture for Alex’s apartment and a home base for him and Ellen stage right. Diane as narrator and master problem-solver-manipulator-director of the action frequently wanders to center stage and downstage to address the audience or engage in the action. Lighting by Michael Kim enhances both mood and creation of these locales, as it also speeds the rapid shifts from scene to scene throughout more than 20 scenes over the course of the play. Costume designs by Emma Claire Jones are realistic, appropriate, and expressive of each of these four interesting individuals.

This world of big-money Hollywood power plays and publicity, of movie stars and their rent boys, may seem rather removed from the average Princeton audience’s frame of reference, but The Little Dog Laughed successfully draws its viewers into the intriguing lives of these four characters. Skillful playwriting, intelligent staging, and dedicated, talented acting grab the audience’s attention from the start and make us laugh and care about these four characters and their lives.

Theatre Intime’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” will run through February 28 at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and further information.

January 28, 2015
PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

“You have to understand,” Styles, in his photo studio in the black township of New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, tells us, “we have nothing except ourselves. We own nothing except ourselves. This government and its laws leaves us with nothing except ourselves. Even when we die, we leave nothing behind except the memories of ourselves. That is my job.”

As the culmination of his genial, chatty opening monologue, Styles’ comments about the role of the photographer strike central themes of identity, who we are as human beings, and appearance vs. reality in Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Created by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972 at the mid-point of South Africa’s four and a half decades of apartheid government, the play shifts back and forth in tone between low-key, light, humorous and intensely, painfully serious. It delivers a scathing indictment of the harsh system of racial discrimination and segregation imposed by the white South African government on its majority dark-skinned population.

Seeing this production of Sizwe Bansi, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, more than 20 years after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, is a different experience from seeing the original on Broadway, where Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona shared Tony Awards for best actor, after its 1972 opening in South Africa and subsequent run in London. I remember feeling the political tension at that time. There was the sense that this controversial play was doing something dangerous. Mr. Kani, who played the role of Styles in the original and has directed this production with his son Atandwa Kani as Styles here, and Mr. Ntshona had, surprisingly in 1974, been allowed to travel outside of South Africa, but only with the official designation as servants to Mr. Fugard. After a subsequent performance of the play in South Africa, Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona were jailed for 23 days.

Unsparing in its detail of the world of apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Bansi presents a vivid, memorable picture of three characters, played by the two actors. But, though this production may have lost its specific political immediacy after 43 years, it reveals the rich universality and timelessness of human beings struggling to assert their identity against the oppressive forces of a society that would deny them that right. Along with blacks in apartheid South Africa, think of blacks in the segregated U.S. South (The recently released movie “Selma” comes readily to mind.) or of recent demands that African-American lives in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere matter and must be recognized and treated with dignity, or of other oppressed peoples throughout the world.

In the spirit and style of South African township theater, sets and costumes (designed by John Kani), props and staging are minimal. The two seasoned, brilliantly captivating actors create the world of Sizwe Bansi with their actions and their words. John Kani’s direction is focused, intelligent and on-target. The pacing is swift and nuanced, and the 90-minute show holds its audience from start to finish.

Atandwa Kani’s Styles is a dynamically personable, appealing character. In his opening monologue he reflects shrewdly, pointedly on events of the world and he describes working for the Ford Motor Company in South Africa, preparing the plant for a visit from the big boss, telling his white employers what they want to hear. But Styles has since persevered to surmount some of the bureaucratic and financial obstacles that the apartheid society placed in his way, and he has acquired his own tiny photography studio. With his irrepressible affability, his sharp sense of humor and his broad smile, he readily wins over the audience, even welcomes two audience members on stage to see his photos.

People come to him for passbook photos, family photos—selfies of 20th century South Africa?—in the hopes of creating and asserting their identities and preserving those identities into the future. “This is a strong-room of dreams,” he boasts. “The dreamers, mightiful…These are the people that would have been forgotten with their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations if it wasn’t for me, Styles.”

Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) enters the photo studio, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and fedora, with both pipe and cigarette, seeking a single snapshot to send to his wife in King William’s Town to show her how he is doing. But, clearly, he is unsure of his own identity. His suit seems too large for him, and he is uncomfortable as he hesitates before telling Styles his name is “Robert Zwelinzima.” In the form of a letter to his wife, who had to stay in far-off King William’s Town with their four children while Sizwe went to find work in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe tells the audience the story of his transformation. “Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead.”

As he tells his story, illustrating so dramatically the destructive effects of the pass book laws, the scene changes in a flashback, and we observe Sizwe’s struggles with the repressive conditions of living as a black man under the South African apartheid government. Soon after Sizwe arrived in New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, where he stayed with a friend, the police raided his friend’s house and put a stamp in Sizwe’s pass book demanding that he leave Port Elizabeth immediately. He could have found work in Port Elizabeth, but would surely have been arrested and either jailed or forcibly returned to King William’s Town where he could not find work to support his family except in the dangerous, back-breaking job of mining gold and diamonds.

Sizwe moves into hiding with a man named Buntu (also played by Atandwa Kani), who explains to him the harsh pass book system, but is unable to help him until, late at night, after a drunken visit to the local bar (the shebeen), Buntu and Sizwe come upon the body of a dead man in an alley. The dead man’s pass book is in order. Sizwe can take the book, assume the identity of Robert Zwelinzima, then live and work in Port Elizabeth.

In a world that treats people as pass book numbers rather than human beings, the decision for Sizwe, Buntu argues, is a simple, practical one. But Sizwe, confronting the existential dilemma of what it means to be a human being, protests, “I don’t want to lose my name…How do I live as another man’s ghost?” Echoing Shylock’s angry declaration of his humanity as a Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Sizwe asserts his pride and dignity as a man: “Am I not a human being? I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears. I’ve got a head to think good things. Am I not a human being?”

The final scene of the play returns to Styles’ photo studio and the present, as Sizwe, now Robert Zwelinzima, smiles for the camera.

“Survival can involve betrayal of everything—beliefs, values, ideals—except Life itself,” Mr. Fugard wrote in his Notebooks 1960-1977. In Sizwe Bansi is Dead the title character lives in a world where, to survive, he must give up his very name and identity as a human being. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful, moving depiction of a racist society that inflicts such devastating, pernicious effects on individuals and families.

McCarter Theatre’s production of “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” co-produced with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and Syracuse Stage, will run through February 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and further information.