Farmington Valley Stage Company’s “Critic’s Choice”: The Review

Frankenstein’s monster paraded all over Critic’s Choice at the Farmington Valley Stage Company on Saturday in Collinsville.

That might be the sort of “black box” shredding review Broadway theater critic Parker Ballantine (Christopher Berrien) would give a play that he hates, but in this case his words about his wife’s debut play, though a minuscule moment in the show, are intended here to illustrate hints of literary symbolism about Critic’s Choice, written by Ira Levin, as opposed to casting judgement.

Here’s why. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starts off with a more distant perspective through a letter, the play opens with the seemingly cheerful, happy-go-lucky home of the Ballentines as they each read a newspaper sharing stories through the text they are consuming. They don’t seem to have any problems.

Then, Frankenstein steps into the story of the scientist and his creation. In Critic’s Choice, we also peel away more layers, starting with Angela (Terri D’Arcangelo), who we learn is Parker’s second wife, declaring out of the blue that she wants to write a play much to his dismay as a renowned critic. He and his son, John (Timothy Scalzo) make snide remarks about her venture, betting against her from the onset that she’ll never finish the script. Parker’s reaction to a wife writing a play could be viewed as reminiscent of how Shelley faced suppression of the female voice as a writer.

Angela becomes consumed by the play she is creating, much like Frankenstein mad at work trying to create life and Shelley writing a book. The monster in Shelly’s novel, the voice at the center of the book, can be viewed as symbolic of Shelley’s anxiety over writing the story, her own monstrous creation of sorts.  There are also references to Angela having a problem bearing children, which can also be double meaning for her figurative baby, her play. It is said that Shelley also had worries over being a mother, not knowing if the child born would wreak havoc and have monstrous qualities. In a way, Angela’s play becomes a beast and a monster that begins tearing the seemingly perfect family apart

Angela becomes somewhat of a monster herself, consumed with overprotectiveness over her baby, or play, valuing what she wants to hear over the truth. Honesty is something Parker views as his honor in his work, so he is faced with the moral dilemma when he wants to review her play. Should he be truthful or should or should he write a nice review so he won’t hurt her feelings? Should he even review her play at all? Eventually, the story comes full circle structurally after the review just as Frankenstein ends again with the letters.

There’s no doubt that each member of the cast has talent. Berrien’s Parker had range, from the jesting, devoted husband to the angry, stubborn ethical critic to the emotional alcoholic. Arcangelo seemed to play two different characters as Angela, turning a complete 180 from sweet and bubbly to bitter, defensive, entitled and angry. While both actors were talented individually, the chemistry and connection between them didn’t seem to really set in until their characters were at war with each other. That’s when the most passionate expression seemed to evolve. Betsy Bradley, who played Charlotte “Charlie” Orr, Angela’s mother, had the most genuine demeanor and mannerisms. Her reactions were honest and frank, making her believable.

Scalzo had the best one-liners as John, speaking more maturely than his age with some adult humor thrown in that sparked laughter because of the shock factor.

Dian Pomeranz played an understated maid, Essie with very funny lines and reactions as a character on the fringe of the story.

Virginia Freese, who played Parker’s ex-wife, actress Ivy London, who his marriage ended with because he gave her a bad review, was energetic and a force to be reckoned with in the play. She drew attention in her scenes in her scarlet-accented outfits and ruby red heels. That was partially thanks to the costuming done by Cindy Braunlich, who particularly gave the characters some glitz, glamour and sparkle as they get ready to go to the theater.

Rodney K. payed Dion Kapakos, the director who picks up Angela’s show, and showed strength in comedic timing, character voicing and you’ll never forget that laugh.

The set, designed by technical director Ken Jones, was incredibly detailed from the books and notes on the desk in Parker’s office to the decor in their living room. It looked like a real apartment and it helped that no set pieces needed to be moved. The production recycled some set pieces from 9 to 5 and My Favorite Year with Theatre Guild of Simsbury, the latter of which Berrien starred in.

Critic’s Choice is three acts, which seems to be rare on stage nowadays, with just a 15-minute intermission between Acts 1 and 2, so be prepared to be sitting for awhile for what is a lengthy, but interesting, dialogue-driven play.

This marked the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s first production under the new management of executive director Doreen Cohn, who also directed the production,Ron Faibusch, who is the president and business manager, and Jones, who is the vice president and theater manager.

Hopefully it is one of many great ones to come. And hey, that Frankenstein might be a monster of a book, but it’s a classic. No, the play is not about Frankenstein and maybe the author never intended it to be as symbolic as this reviewer has made it, but for some reason the line referencing the monster in Parker’s review made me think more and more about that book.  So, Angela, was Parker’s review really a “black box” or was it a “white box”? You’ll have to see it to find out what that means. In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective. The show runs through March 21 and is at the Canton Town Hall auditorium on Main Street in Collinsville. Grab a drink at Wilson’s, Francesca’s or Crown & Hammer first before heading to the quaint theater in a charming, artsy town.

Remaining shows are March 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. and March 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 online with a $1.50 processing fee and $22 at the door for adults and $18 for students and seniors online, plus the processing fee, or $20 at the door. More information on the show and tickets is available on the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s website, www.fvstage.org.

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