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Amazing diversity of local theater shines through

This past weekend offered more theatrical choices than I could attend. And even with the avid assistance of my friend Bette and her husband, we saw five different productions between us and could easily have taken in one or two more if there were such things as Saturday matinees or Sunday evening performances.

As it was, Bette, with her insatiable quest for American musicals (Bette is British) opted for one of the final performances of “From Broadway to Bellerose” at St. Gregory the Great in Bellerose — at my suggestion, I must admit. Having seen some of St. Gregory’s annual summer musicals and winter productions, I could only have anticipated that a musical revue would be a winner — and Bette was certainly singing its praises to me over Sunday brunch. Some really great voices and songs filled an evening out far more happily than she could have imagined.

Unfortunately, this notice is too late for any further performances. But all is not lost. Let it suffice to say that all lovers of musicals in this borough should take note that St. Gregory the Great does a Broadway-style musical every August and should take care to watch local periodicals religiously as August approaches for notices. Of course, as soon as I know what the production will be, I’ll shout the word. Performances are in the spacious St. Gregory the Great Auditorium, 88th Avenue and Cross Island Parkway.

Bette and her husband also took in “Pippin” at the Chapel Players of St. John’s University. This is admittedly a difficult piece to bring off — rather in the style of “Godspell,” with ragamuffin-style actors in overalls and clown-like makeup, telling the “Life and Times of Charlemagne the Great.”

If the musical itself was not exactly to her taste, she certainly enjoyed the enthusiasm and spunk of the student cast, with their own “Little Theatre” at their disposal and, for travel weary theater go-ers, the luxury of a parking lot. The Chapel Players, located in the main part of the St. John’s campus on Union Turnpike, off Utopia Parkway, are a local favorite for residents of Fresh Meadows and Hillcrest. I shall certainly add them to my list of groups to take in next year.

My wife is of Venezuelan heritage and is a great fan of the Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside. After all our years together, I must admit, that I have not extended my petty knowledge of French, German, and Italian to include more than just a few expressions in Spanish, But all the same, the thought of taking the Thalia’s current offering — a play by Pablo Picasso, “The Four Little Girls” — made it easily to persuade me to sink into a Spanish-language production.

The Thalia is a cornerstone of Hispanic culture in Queens, embracing the vast range of Spanish heritage from South America, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and, of course, Spain itself — with productions ranging from straight plays and comedies to zarguelas (vibrant musicals) and, of course, their tango productions.

Watching a play by Picasso was rather like watching characters jumping off one of his canvasses — in this case, from his murals — focusing on good and evil through the actions of children, inspired by Picasso’s own children.

The “little girls” are indeed not little, but adults taking on the task of creating the personas of children. And, I must admit, Barbara Martinez, Maria Benjumeda, Olympia Estrella, and Karim Noack had me convinced that I was watching children at play — or rather, at war. Each had her own distinct style and personality, and never once did they turn on a cloying whine or frumpy grin in the style of some many adults playing children.

Congratulations and thanks to the entire cast and artistic director Angel Gil Orrios for bringing this unique piece of art to life on a Queens stage. With the exception of only occasional stagings of “works of art” such as Douglaston Community Theatre’s recent “Death Takes a Holiday” (a play written by a contemporary of Pirandello) and, several years back, Priestly’s “An Inspector Calls” at Theatre à la Carte, which made me a true-blue TALC admirer, most groups shy away from such difficult pieces in lieu of more surefire audience grabbers.

All serious devotees of Spanish culture should take in this unique opportunity to see Picasso’s work staged right here in our own borough. The Thalia Spanish Theatre is located at 41-17 Greenpoint Avenue in Sunnyside, right off the famed No. 7 line’s 40th Street stop, just a short walk from Queens Boulevard at 41st Street. Performances are continuing through May 11, with Sunday matinees at 4 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 ($25 for seniors). Call 718-729-3880.

Of course, the Thalia is just a brisk walk from MoMA Queens (45-20 33rd Street in Long Island City), where, on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.. you can also take in the famed Matisse Picasso exhibit — to thoroughly indulge yourself in modern art for $20.

On Saturday night, we found our way to Brooklyn Heights to The Heights Players current offering of “Heaven Can Wait,” the fantasy that became the famed 1940s hit “Here Comes Mt. Jordan,” which immortalized its star, Robert Montgomery. This delightful piece concerning a prize fighter who passes on “too early” but is given a chance to return to Earth in another man’s body, with the inspired assistance of an angel, comes off well in the intimate space of the Heights players’ stage. The cast, if not flawless, was generally engaging — although I really did miss the sentimental “punch” at the end, so powerful in the film — when the prize fighter realizes he is no longer alive and must go back to heaven.

Much to my surprise the cast included Bernard Bosio, a Queens community theater veteran, who just this past year acquitted himself admirably in Theatre à la Carte’s “Rebecca” and turned in a sterling performance as the Duke in Douglaston Community Theatre’s “Death Takes a Holiday.” Bosio is to be admired in “Heaven Can Wait” as well — in a stretch as quite a different character from his two earlier portrayals.

There is one weekend left of this quaint production, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Heights Players are located off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, just four blocks from the Atlantic Avenue exit, at 26 Willow Place, just off Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights. With their final offering of the year, “My Fair Lady” — my absolute favorite musical — coming up the first three weekends of May, this group will certainly be one to beat this year.

On Sunday afternoon — just after a scrumptious Irish brunch at Donovan’s in Woodside — we opted for a performance of “The Passion Play” based on the gospel of St. Luke, performed by St. Mary’s Drama Guild — rather renamed for this occasion, St. Mary’s Passion Players — in Woodside. St. Mary’s was the group that offered particularly well done productions of “Cinderella,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Sound of Music” over the past few years.

However, I must admit we were anticipating something along the lines of a staged reading of the gospel, with local readers taking the parts of Jesus, Pilate, and all the other people represented in that gospel.

May I say that we were quite taken aback to see that this “Passion Play” was fully staged, with costumes, startlingly vivid portrayals, and, an awesome lifting up of the dying Christ on a cross. The production was focused on the reverence of the event, put forth with great respect, almost like a ritualistic event itself — the very essence of that mystical fusion of ritual and drama that was the birth of theatre as we it in the West from its ancient Greek origins.

Under the artistic direction of Lindo Meli, who participated quite movingly as the narrator, the cast brought to life the mission of John the Baptist, Christ’s call of his apostles, and — with a sudden edit — to his Last Supper, trial, and death. Again, with respect for the event, the program simply listed the cast as an ensemble, so it would be impossible for me to congratulate the individual players by name. These were, generally, very local actors, perhaps parishioners — who indulged in broad gestures and a grand declamatory style with pauses after each sentence. But somehow, I could not help being moved deeply as each scene moved harrowingly toward the crucifixion.

The actor playing Christ chose a gentle, internal style (rather like reading the lines from an open Bible), but with feeling. Never once did he raise his voice or venture into a human view of the savior — in fact, I did miss a great deal of what must have been physical and emotional “agony” in the garden. And I did not hear, as St Luke states, the loud cry with which Christ gave up his spirit. But I was still quite moved and sat at the edge of my seat as he passed through the audience, carrying the cross en route to the stage — and frankly, could not believe my eyes as he was “nailed” to the cross and was hoisted up on stage. It was unforgettable!

The actor portraying Caiaphas the High Priest was the very image of self-righteous malice, flinging the 30 gold coins disdainfully at Judas and later, furiously ripping off his cloak at the “blasphemy” of Jesus’s admission. His anger exploded into rage as he confronted Pilate demanding Jesus’ death.

Pilate, too, was enormously well-spoken, with real sense of remorse at what he had to do, and a well-depicted contempt for the crowd. Judas was rather halting in his manner, a style that worked well, however, in his scene with Caiaphas, much like a mouse being lured into the jaws of a snake. The cast included a number of women, portraying Mary as well as the daughters of Jerusalem who accompanied Jesus on his walk to his death. The moment when Jesus leaves his image on the veil of one of the women was quite gripping.

Speaking with some of the members of the audience, a couple who had driven in from Nassau county for “the event,” we learned that Lindo Meli’s production is an annual event, more than 10 years in performance. Thank you, Mr. Meli, for an enormously moving hour and a half of great “ritualistic” theatre. I most certainly will be back next year for this unique Queens event. And of course, I’ll be back for your annual fall production in November.

St. Mary’s Drama Guild performs at the auditorium of St. Mary’s School, 72nd Street and 47th Avenue, Woodside.

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