It may be widely known that I don’t like original shows. I feel they’re often underrehearsed, poorly cast, and underrealized. That includes a script for which the playwright needs a few more rewrites. However, I was blown away by the Boston Playwright Theatre’s production of “Burning” by Ginger Lazarus. I can’t quite understand why everything clicked so well for me. I can’t put the sole credit on the astute playwright, clever script, artful director, or brilliant cast; individually, they were superb, but, together, they were stunning. “Burning” reminds me that, sometimes, in theatre, the product is really greater than the sum of the parts.
Based on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, Lazarus starts with Rostand’s source and deviates with remarkable success. While the program states that she started the project as “queering the classics” as a lesbian love story, her final product, “Burning,” is so much more. For instance, Lazarus’s work focuses on an environment impacted by and influencing the Army life that surrounds it. One of her greatest strengths is her ability not to be restrained by Rostrand’s story. Instead, Lazarus lets Cy (played with perfect candor and heart by Mal Malme) tell her story. The charm is that “Burning” is not simply Cy’s story. Lazarus creates and encourages fully realized and driven characters. Each moment reads like a scene from an acting class because the characters are that motivated; they all want and need something. The conflict from these competing wants and needs creates incredibly impassioned moments, scenes, and stories. Lazarus also rarely lets her characters retreat from the difficult moments; this passion is heightened and accented by Steven Bogart’s direction.
Bogart is, in a word, artful. He knows good theatre and how to deliver it. He keeps his audience gripping their seats with excitement. He reminds us that theatre is meant to please and educate. He allows his production to walk the difficult line between pure enjoyment and insightful instruction. He never lets such instruction impede his need for his actors and characters to enjoy themselves and tell their stories. Likewise, he does not shrink from difficult material and moments. His ability not only to coach his actors to dramatic and artistic success, but also to create a holistic work that pleases the eyes and ears makes him a master of his craft. One of my biggest issues with new works is my inability to follow the dialogue and moments. I get caught up in a particular line or moment and I miss the next few exchanges. This fault is rarely an issue with older works because I know the material. Bogart’s production of “Burning” moves seamlessly and flawlessly from moment to moment, allowing the audience to follow the plot easily, even if the audience is unfamiliar with Cyrano.
Of course, Bogart would be nothing without his outstanding, assembled cast. Leading the troupe is Mal Malme as Cy. Malme makes her own Cyrano who is more lovable, less bombastic than Rostrand’s titular character. Significantly, Malme is not afraid to show her darkest and most “ugly” moments and traits. Her Cy is flawed and beautiful. Malme doesn’t shy away from the toughest moments, hardest conflicts, and most extreme emotions. Particularly, her encounters with Dulac (played with gusto and vigor by Alexander Cook) are breathtaking. Neither Malme nor Cook retreat from each other; they’re always ready to win and get what they want in each of their scenes together. That, ladies and gentlemen, is dynamic acting. Their brilliance onstage could be watched for hours because they are relentless as actors and characters.
Malme also establishes an incredibly nuanced relationship with Rose, her love interest (played with charm by Jessica Webb). I will see Webb in everything she does from now on; she’s that good. I use the word charming to describe Webb because she is that magnetic onstage. I couldn’t help from being absorbed in her story and character. Malme and Webb are friends, lovers, and even form a bond akin to sisters (I know that borders on incest, but, seriously, the selfless protection that Malme exhibits towards Webb is beautiful). Webb is sexy and smart onstage, significantly improving upon her source material (Cyrano’s Roxana is a bit of a drip at times). Sammy (played with excellent instincts by Zachary Clarence) works wonders in scenes with Malme. Clarence is wonderfully successful in his Sammy, a secondary role which he creates into a fully-realized and interesting character. He is funny, and touching, and deeply connected with Malme and Webb in each of their scenes. Clarence has a bright future as an actor, given his age and instincts. He knows both his character and his role in the production as a whole which guide him in his choices and scenes.
Honestly, the weakest part for me was Cole (played by the attractive but slightly boring Ian Michaels). I can’t tell if I don’t like the character, or the actor, or the actor playing the character, or a combination of all three. Cyrano’s Christian is equally “blah” but I hoped that Lazarus would improve all of the characters from the original in her loose adaptation. Unfortunately, Cole comes off as weak, deeply flawed, and just not a viable choice for anyone. Michaels has some good moments, but, overall, his performance is lacking in depth. He seems so focused on Cole’s inabilities and weaknesses that he never plays the character’s strength, which leaves the audience feeling his lack rather than his worth. In my opinion, especially whenever a love triangle immerges, a romantic lead (and any potential romantic alternatives) should be played as all viable options. The stronger (and more attractive, both physically and emotionally) the other options, the more attractive the chosen love interest. In this case, Malme sells herself beautifully, but she almost has it too easy when compared with Michaels’ Cole. In my head I wondered, “Why would any Rose pick a Cole over a Cy?” Perhaps Lazarus meant for us to be baffled by these questions, but I think Lazarus is too smart to leave us on the hook like that.
The Boston Playwright’s Theatre really out-did itself with this production. The set by David J. Miller is beautifully designed, constructed, and implemented. I was overwhelmed at the level of detail and precision in this set from the moment that I entered the theatre. The seamless transitions from scene to scene (orchestrated to brilliant effect by Bogart and executed by Stage Manager Masha Smith and Assistant Stage Manager Will Carter) allowed the play to continue its momentum despite transitions of time. Finally, I thought the costume design by Rachel Padula Shufelt was spot-on; they told each character’s story and personality in such delicate and simple tones. From the fit of Webb’s dresses to the starch in the uniforms, Shufelt’s work heightened each character’s sense of self and allowed the actors to tell their stories in richer ways.
Unfortunately, this production ran far too short. This production and play deserves to be told again and soon. Though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed since Lazarus first wrote the play, Lazarus is able to tell more than one story and theme in this neat work. Boston Playwright’s Theatre truly shined its beautiful colors and brilliance in “Burning” and they are back on my list of truly masterful artists in Boston.