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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Arms on Fire
Chester Theatre Company

Also see Fred's review of On the Town


Guiesseppe Jones and Natalie Mendoza
Arms on Fire, an eclectic, unusual, stylistically different world premiere play with music, opens the summer season for Chester Theatre Company in Chester, Massachusetts, through July 7th. Written by Steven Sater and featuring music by Duncan Sheik, the team which brought the world Tony Award winning Spring Awakening, this is a work which is still evolving. It is contemporary, striking, and also heartfelt.

Ulysses (Guiesseppe Jones) used to live in Honduras but now has a one-room basement place in Hell's Kitchen (that would be in the Midtown West section of Manhattan). The apartment, as designed by Travis A. George, is ramshackle: unmade bed, a chair, a table with a few chairs ... . Smith (James Barry) bursts upon the scene. He is hip, fast-talking, frenetic and searching. His entrance recalls the energized jolts of Kramer's character on many a television episode of "Seinfeld."

Down on himself, subdued, and mumbling an occasional "Si," Ulysses' past includes his lost love for the Hispanic Josephina (Natalie Mendoza), a sultry nightclub singer with a fetching and lovely voice. She, mostly behind a scrim-like curtain, performs with passion and fire. Just before intermission, the magnetic Josephina arrives downstage. She is physically alluring, stunning.

By now, Smith, toting his odd aquarium, has moved into Ulysses' pad even if there isn't any space to hold him. Smith is asthmatic and his cough, upon occasion, levels him; he also seems to have hopes of becoming a singer. Ulysses, a disc jockey during another era of his life, is now a factory worker. He wears the uniform, at least, provided by costumer Charles Schoonmaker. For much of the first act, Smith seems to have 20 or 30 or 50 words to, say, 5-10 for Ulysses. Every so often, however, that proportion switches and the reserved Ulysses has something important to say as, for a change, Smith listens.

During the second act Josephina (now wearing a low-cut black dress with, perhaps, sequins) alternates between her position behind the linen curtain (where she sings into a microphone) and time in the actual apartment. At one point, Ulysses confesses that "She was a woman with her arms on fire. I loved her ..."

This is a play about three people, a narrative with pervasive, soulful music and vocals. Four unseen musicians, toward the rear of the stage, accompany Josephina. Arms on Fire is also existential: individuals attempt to find purpose to life, meaning, and, in the case of Smith and Ulysses, friendship.

The production, facilitated with understanding by director Byam Stevens, is not for everyone. Arms on Fire is atypical theater in form and genre. It takes some getting used to and some will acquire a keen taste for this during one sitting. In some ways, it is a remembrance play (with Josephina), yet the men are coping with the present as it yields to an unknown future. Ulysses has written a song with lyric lines "on a boat, on the sea" and it becomes seminal to the theme of the play. The music and Mendoza's ardent performance as Josephina enrich the show and provide needed depth and dimension.

Arms on Fire has a future life in the theater. The collaborators first began thinking and working on this one 14 years ago. It must have assumed many forms and probably is still developing. The Chester Theatre presentation, though, is professional and does not feel incomplete in any way. It boasts a number of plusses and these include disciplined performances. Here is an affirmative toward Byam Stevens (Artistic Director) for bringing this play to the western Massachusetts Hill Towns.

Arms on Fire continues its run at The Chester Theatre in Chester, Massachusetts through July 7th. For tickets, call 1-800-595-4TIX or visit www.chestertheatre.org.


Photo by Rick Teller


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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