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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S BLOCK PARTY @TRTC

Brandon J DirdenReturning star Brandon J. Dirden (above) is among the cast members expected to attend — while J.W. Lawson and Dean Shot (below) bring the live blues tunes — as Two River Theater keynotes the season opening-production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ with a Friday evening “block party.”

JW Lawson Dean ShotWhile we’re still a few Saturdays away from the start of the new 2016-2017 schedule at Two River Theater, the Red Bank performing arts space is keeping it outside for the moment — with a special event that harnesses the magic-hour mojo of the late-summertime season and sounds an early keynote for a blues-infused season opener.

That inaugural production is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the August Wilson ensemble piece that opens September 16 as the latest in Two River’s ongoing exploration of the late African American playwright’s “century cycle” of dramas. The special event is a Taste of the Blues Block Party that rocks the theater’s open-air patio with a Friday evening fricassee of live music, dancing, locally sourced cuisine, and “a chance to meet and mingle with the cast.”

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RED BANK: WEEK TO REMEMBER MAMA @TRT

I Remember Mama TRT 6-2-16 018 I Remember Mama, directed by Jack Cummings III at Two River Theater Company 6/3/16 Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.netBarbara Andres (‘Mama’) sits at the head of the table, surrounded left to right by Heather MacRae, Dale Soules, Rita Gardner, Louise Sorel (back to camera) and Mia Katigbak in “I Remember Mama,” entering its final week at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson) 

trt exterior 050211A cast of 10 veteran actresses — each over the age of 60 — playing the parts of some two dozen women, men and children. One big extended family that encompasses mama, papa, big/ little kids, a caring curmudgeon of an uncle, a trio of contrary aunts, a local undertaker, a dying cat, plus a broke boarder with a storyteller’s gift. And in place of the play’s all-important kitchen table, this version’s got 10.

Putting up eight more matinee and evening performances between June 22 and 26, the John Van Druten ensemble drama “I Remember Mama” closes out the 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater with a staging that lends a bit of cutting-edge cool to the warmly sentimental story of a Norwegian-American community, a dreamer of a daughter, and the Mama who could reputedly fix anything (and maybe even work the odd miracle).

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RED BANK: HERE’S THE BALDWIN- KLINE THING

Alec-Baldwin-Kevin-Kline-333x250The first time Alec Baldwin took to the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater, it was for a 2009 fundraiser, during which the leading man of silver screen (“The Hunt for Red October”) and Broadway stage (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) participated in a Q&A for the benefit of the local Junior League.

By the time Baldwin returned to the Bridge Avenue space two years later, he had netted two Emmys, a couple of Golden Globes and a SAG Award for his work on the sitcom “30 Rock.” That appearance found the actor taking part in an entertaining panel discussion with the Tony-nominated frequent Two River artist Michael Cumpsty — a chat moderated by TRTC artistic director John Dias, who made no secret of his desire to secure Baldwin’s services for a future mainstage production in Red Bank.

When Baldwin makes his scheduled appearance at Two River this coming Monday, he’ll have added to his list of conquered media (movies, TV, live drama, commercials, voice mails) a new one: podcasting. And, he’ll be bringing along a fellow multi-platform performer with a formidable set of skills.

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RED BANK: THE ‘WILD THINGS’ ARE US

Where Wild Things AreMaurice Sendak’s Max embarks upon an epic adventure…and the audience is along for the ride…as Vancouver’s Presentation House company brings its interactive adaptation of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to Two River Theater for six performances this weekend.

First published back in 1963, “Where the Wild Things Are” quickly took its place as a boomer-generation touchstone; the picture-book tale (of rebellious young Max, and his supperless-bedtime voyage to an island of king-sized fantastical creatures) winning its author-illustrator Maurice Sendak a coveted Caldecott Medal, before going on to be adapted into an animated short, a live-action feature, and even an opera.

Somewhere along the way, Scotland-based TAG Theatre was inspired to turn this classic story of imagination, family ties — and an angry little boy’s exploration of his wild side — into an interactive “guided play experience” that successfully crossed the pond to become a staple touring production of Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre. Beginning with two days of school-show matinees today and Friday, and continuing for six public performances on June 11 and 12, Two River Theater hosts the Canadian company’s touring troupe in an engagement pitched at kids ages 3 to 7, and their (big and hairy and snaggletoothed?) adult companions.

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RED BANK: REINVENTING MAMA, AT TWO RIVER

IRememberMama0783Barbara Andres (right) returns in the role she performed in the acclaimed Off Broadway production of I REMEMBER MAMA, when the play goes up this Saturday as the season’s closer at Two River Theater. (Photo by Transport Group).

It’s about family, of course — specifically the Hanson family, Norwegian immigrants struggling to carve out a new life for themselves in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. To the extended Hanson brood — Mama, Papa, their four kids, plus three aunts, an uncle and a boarder named Mr. Hyde — the rock-ribbed principles of hard work, education, sacrifice, love, loyalty and thrift sometimes chafe up against a yearning for something else in this new-world setting. But in John Van Druten’s play I Remember Mama, it’s the title character who ultimately keeps the universe in balance for this collection of dreamers, schemers, no-nonsense traditionalists and sensitive souls.

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes — and subsequently transformed into a hit film, a TV series, and Richard Rodgers’ last musical — the 1944 ensemble piece goes up in previews this Friday, June 3 as the final mainstage offering of the 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater. As re-imagined by NYC’s Transport Group and director Jack Cummings III, the comedy-drama is given a compelling twist, with all of the play’s 20-plus roles — men, women, children and teens — performed by a company of actresses aged 60 and over.

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RED BANK: FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO TRTC

johndiasTwo River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, above, directs a musical that he co-wrote, and Madeleine George, below, the theater’s first Playwright in Residence, will see her comedy — which is set in Red Bank mounted next season.

madeleine georgeThere are encore appearances by favorite actors. Re-visits to the words and works of Shakespeare and August Wilson. No less than three shows making their world premieres — including one set within “a larger-than-life version of Red Bank.”

When Two River Theater Company unveiled its 2016-2017 schedule of productions Monday night, it did so in a fashion that’s become a real rite of spring on Bridge Avenue: with the company’s celebrated artistic director John Dias joined on stage by creative people representing the comedies, dramas, musicals and multi-media experiences that will illuminate Two River’s stages beginning in September.

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A ‘FUNNY THING’ ON THE WAY TO RED BANK

Director Jessica Stone joins actors Michael Urie and Christopher Fitzgerald in a promotional video for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ the musical comedy opening at the Two River Theater this weekend. 

By TOM CHESEK

It was an early feather in the cap for modern master Stephen Sondheim, representing his first project as both composer and lyricist. Its book, based as it is upon some nearly 1,800-year old works by the Roman dramatist Plautus, was co-authored by TV writer Larry Gelbart on the way to his 1970s series success M*A*S*H. And, as befits a show whose breakout number is called “Comedy Tonight” (“something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone…”), it is one raucously irreverent musical toga party.

First seen by Broadway audiences in 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum proved custom-fit to the larger-than-a-rhinoceros talents of the late great Zero Mostel — with the comic heavyweight starring as Pseudolus, a savvy slave in ancient Rome whose schemes to win his freedom (by helping his master win the fair maiden next door) take a classically farcical turn. The role also proved to be an express ticket to a Tony nomination for whoever filled that toga — from Mostel and old-school wiseguy Phil Silvers to (in its most recent revival) Nathan Lane, and even a well-received turn by Whoopi Goldberg that demonstrated the triumph of the Funny over etched-in-stone casting conventions.

With that in mind, when Red Bank’s  Two River Theater turned to director Jessica Stone (last season’s Absurd Person Singular) for some fresh ideas on this 55-year-old favorite — going up in previews this Saturday on the Bridge Avenue stage — the determination was made that “when in Rome,” do as the Romans did: by casting each and every part with a male performer.

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RED BANK: DIRDEN ROLLS A LUCKY ‘SEVEN’

BrandonJDirdenA familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend. 

Last time the Drama Desk at redbankgreen looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.

When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director.

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RED BANK: ‘SQUIPS’ STAY AFTER SCHOOL

A preview of BE MORE CHILL, now in an extended furn at the Two River Theater.

By TOM CHESEK

The academic year may be ending right about nowfor most high schools, but for the cast of the school-set musical Be More Chill, graduation day has been delayed another week.

By popular demand, the amped-up, sci-fi infused, satirical tunefest – a production originally scheduled to ring down the curtain after June 21 – has been ordered to “stay after school” at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company, with a round of five additional performances between June 25 and 28.

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RED BANK: TRTC TAKES A ‘CHILL’ PILL

Joe Iconis and Will Connolly offered a taste of ‘Be More Chill’ at TEDx Navesink in April. The musical opens at the Two River Theater next week.

While tickets have just started going on sale for the next (2015-2016) season of mainstage entertainments from Two River Theater Company, the creative team under the artistic direction of John Dias has one more ace up its sleeve here in spring 2015 – the world premiere of an all new musical by the name of Be More Chill.

With previews beginning Saturday (and opening officially on June 5), the show represents the third consecutive world premiere in what’s truly been a TRTC season to remember. It also represents a play for a more youthful breed of theatergoer, based as it is upon a popular young-adult novel by the late wunderkind author Ned Vizzini – and packed as it is with a dynamic cast of twentysomething Broadway veterans.

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RED BANK: TWO RIVER INTROS NEW SEASON

DirdenStoneRechnitzReturning Broadway veterans Brandon J. Dirden and Jessica Stone — plus rookie playwright Robert Rechnitz, pictured with wife and fellow Two River Theater Company founder Joan — are among the creative forces powering a just-announced 2015-2016 season of shows on Two River stages.

It’s a highly anticipated rite of spring in Red Bank — one that John Dias jokingly referred to as “this totally kooky annual event” — but when the artistic director of Two River Theater Company played host for the 2015-2016 Season Announcement on Monday night, he was entirely serious in first thanking the “loyal, passionate” audience members who “want to be the first to hear what we’re doing each year.”

Kicking off in mid-September, and comprising eight productions on two stages of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, it’s a schedule that boasts fresh takes on familiar classics, and first looks at a couple of world premiere works. There’s some engagingly quirky casting; the return of several fondly regarded members of the extended Two River family — and a debut original work by a forever-young upstart who holds a special resonance with the Red Bank audience.

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ ONE MORE TIME, AT TRTC

BLUES_Press_4Charles Weldon (left) counsels Brandon J. Dirden in YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, entering the final weekend of its world premiere run at Two River Theater. (Photos by Michal Daniel)

By TOM CHESEK

“I’m through with the interracial dating thing,” says the black homeless advocate Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) to the white well-to-do writer Judith (Merritt Janson), in Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine. “OJ stupid-ass messed it up for the rest of us.”

Confrontational by nature (but not so consumed with anger that he can’t win an audience over with some pithy observations and well-placed laugh lines); at odds with American social attitudes (but not so beaten down by the system that he can’t sport a peacock-proud wardrobe), Zeke is an intriguingly inscrutable original — a fact not lost on Judith, whose interest in the educated former professional extends beyond a simple donation of clothing to the local shelter.

Their uneasy transaction sounds the keynote for Blues, the play written and directed by Tony-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson that wraps up its world premiere run this week at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ WITH SOMETHING EXTRA

McGreeveyMayorEdRubenFormer New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson and actor-director-playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson take part in an April 26 panel discussion on Creating Social Change, an event keyed to Two River Theater’s world premiere of Santiago-Hudson’s YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE.

From materials furnished by Two River Theater Company

With its world premiere engagement at Two River Theater, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine marks the Red Bank return of Tony winning actor, director and August Wilson authority Ruben Santiago-Hudson — this time at the helm of his own original script; one that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.”

The second of three shows to make their world premiere at Two River this spring, the production also comes loaded with “extras” that range from downloadable playlists of vintage blues and jazz music mentioned in the script — to a series of on-site offerings that begin on Thursday, April 23 with a special exhibit of items from the Gene Alexander Peters Collection of Rare and Historic African American Artifacts.

On display in the theater lobby between 6 and 8 pm, the exhibit chronicles five critical periods for African Americans within the history of America: slavery; segregation and “Jim Crow;” the Civil Rights Era; the Black Power/Black Student Movement; and the Black Panther Party. Peters, a cultural history consultant and noted collector of rare African American artifacts, will speak about the collection from 7:15 to 7:45 pm, and will be available to answer questions. Take it here for additional information on the exhibit.

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RED BANK: A BARD OF EDUCATION, AT TRTC

LilShakes1A cast and crew of teens from local schools rehearse A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, the annual “Little Shakespeare” production  that presents four public performances this weekend. (Photos courtesy of Two River Theater Company)

They hail from Red Bank Regional, Markham Place Middle School and Rumson Country Day School — and they meet by moonlight in the enchanted woods outside Athens, as conjured by William Shakespeare in his most kinetic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Actually, the forest faeries, passionate young lovers and amateur actors of the Bard’s most magical mystery tour will assemble inside the “black box” performance space at Two River Theater this week. And when the imaginary curtain goes up on this Midsummer Night for 10 performances between April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday) and May 1, it will mark the latest in a new series of annual productions presented   under a program entitled “A Little Shakespeare.”

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RED BANK: ‘BLUES’ WITH SOMETHING EXTRA

McGreeveyMayorEdRubenFormer New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson, and actor-director-playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson take part in an April 26 panel discussion on Creating Social Change, an event keyed to Two River Theater’s world premiere of Santiago-Hudson’s YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE.

From materials furnished by Two River Theater Company

Opening its world premiere engagement tonight, April 17 at Two River Theater, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine marks the Red Bank return of Tony winning actor, director and August Wilson authority Ruben Santiago-Hudson — this time at the helm of his own original script; one that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.”

The second of three shows to make their world premiere at Two River this spring, the production also comes loaded with “extras” that range from downloadable playlists of vintage blues and jazz music mentioned in the script — to a series of on-site offerings that begin on Thursday, April 23 with a special exhibit of items from the Gene Alexander Peters Collection of Rare and Historic African American Artifacts.

On display in the theater lobby between 6 and 8 pm, the exhibit chronicles five critical periods for African Americans within the history of America: slavery; segregation and “Jim Crow;” the Civil Rights Era; the Black Power/Black Student Movement; and the Black Panther Party. Peters, a cultural history consultant and noted collector of rare African American artifacts, will speak about the collection from 7:15 to 7:45 pm, and will be available to answer questions. Take it here for additional information on the exhibit — and take it ’round the corner for more.

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