Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dead Man's Cell Phone"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

To the bemusement of some and the frustration of many, the constant interruptions made by cell phone ring-tones has become a part of everyday life; in the words of Mrs. Gottlieb in Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, "there are only three sacred places where cell phones are not tolerated: the theatre, church, and the toilet", but even these are no longer sacrosanct, much to the ire of many people both in the play and in our own experiences.

To say society is obsessed with technology is an understatement at best; people burying their heads over cell phone screens to constantly connect with others while ignoring people sitting with them can be witnessed every day: the more we seem to connect, the more we actually disconnect.

Sarah Ruhl is a multi-award-winning playwright, whose quirky and provocative plays have secured her name among the most highly regarded contemporary writers. The Clean House ran at the Cloverdale Playhouse a few seasons ago, and now Dead Man's Cell Phone takes the boards in director Maureen Costello's solid production.

With a mix of comic moments and serious social insights, the episodic structure of Ms. Ruhl's play, and her forays into magical-realism [the eponymous dead man speaks to us from the dead, and are some of the scenes meant to be dreams or not?], keep audiences simultaneously entertained and puzzled at how she combines the ordinary and familiar with the extraordinary and unexpected.

The plot revolves around eternal optimist Jean [Danielle Phillips], who answers a persistently ringing cell phone of a stranger at the next table in a diner, only to discover that he is dead, and heading her on a journey that connects her with his mother Mrs. Gottlieb [Fiona Macleod], his widow Hermia [Sarah Worley], his brother Dwight [Michael Buchanan], 'the other woman' [Tara Fenn], and inevitably Gordon [Paul Neace], the dead man himself.

A bit of a loner herself, Jean knows nothing about Gordon, but in her attempts to assuage an expected grief from his family, she invents loving relationships and Gordon's last words and his attempts to connect with them just before he died. -- These are so out of kilter with the reality of Gordon's life and relationships, but Jean persists and the complications grow as she tries to extricate herself from the scenarios she created. In fact, her inventions seem to have positive effects on them. And when Gordon speaks at the top of Act II, and we learn the extent of his real life occupation, we understand his family's initial hesitation at accepting Jean's version of his wishes for them.

Ms. Costello's ensemble actors deliver the sometimes bizarre dialogue with conviction in the increasingly strange scenarios. She directs them at a steady pace that sometimes allows indulgent pauses in lengthy monologues, though there is a variety of pacing that sustains interest. -- Her choice to add a Narrator [Rachael Dotson] to punctuate scenes with quotes from Charles Dickens and John Donne, and references to painter Edward Hopper that Ms. Ruhl places at the front of her script, adds another layer to the script's complexity.

How Jean responds to situations that test her assumptions, and how she changes through the education she receives from Gordon and those he left behind, are credibly managed by Ms. Phillips: her vivacity in the role allows us to share her frustrations so we are on her side. And her interactions with the eccentricities of the other characters is so matter-of-fact that we never doubt her sincerity.

Ms. Fenn's seductress 'other woman' and her second role as one of Gordon's  'business associates' are delivered with an archness and acumen that keep us in suspense about her real motives. -- Ms. Worley's estranged wife who loosens up with cocktails, provides insights into an unhappy marriage. -- Mr. Buchanan underplays Dwight's position of second-fiddle to his brother, but emerges as a confident lover for Jean.

Ms. Macleod seems to relish the role of Mrs. Gottlieb, a fiercely independent and in-charge woman who tolerates no fools; her outlandish and shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements will bear no opposition. In Ms. Macleod's capable portrayal, Ms. Ruhl's comic dialogue is at its best, and she emerges as perhaps the most memorable character in this fine ensemble.

In the complex role of the dead man, Mr. Neace shines as he slowly and methodically tells the truth from beyond the grave: he has nothing to lose in admitting his flaws; and while his attitudes may not be of the highest moral order, we see how he is moulded by the society we all live in. "There are no errors in the afterlife", he tells us, though we all tell lies to help one another.

The collaborative set design uses simple furniture and large signs to effectively signify the play's various locations, but the opening night scene changes needed to be faster and more efficient in order to sustain audience attention to Ms. Ruhl's quirky plotting. This, and lighting that sometimes left actors in shadow, will likely be remedied for future performances.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Faulkner: "Black Coffee"

When she penned her first play Black Coffee in 1930, Agatha Christie thought of it as "a conventional spy thriller...full of cliches, it was, I think, not at all bad". It set the tone for such later stage masterpieces as The Mousetrap, Ten Little Indians, and Witness for the Prosecution, and contains many of Christie's signature conventions of the murder-mystery 'whodunnit' genre: a mysterious death, suspicious characters, misleading clues, and a skillful detective who sorts things out at the end.

In Black Coffee, now playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, the detective is the famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot, whose 'little grey cells' work overtime to unravel the machinations of Christie's plot.

Eminent physicist Sir Claud Amory [Morgan Baker] has summoned Poirot to his country estate to unmask the person in his household who stole a valuable formula for a powerful explosive that could kill countless thousands at a time. -- Having locked all the doors to prevent escape, Sir Claud dies before Poirot [Ben Cardiff] and his companion Hastings [Hunter Smith] arrive, setting in motion a complicated series of events that cast suspicion on virtually everyone there.

Someone in the house must have put the poison in his coffee, and each one has at least some reason to be suspected: his son Richard [Blake Williams] needs money; his daughter-in-law Lucia [Amber Rigby] is clearly distraught and probably hiding some secret; his sister Caroline [Emily Woodring] is in denial about a lot of things; his niece Barbara [Alex Rikerd] seems indifferent to his death; his confidential secretary Edwina Raynor [ Mattie Earls] drinks heavily and skulks around a lot; and Dr. Carelli [Ian Bruce] is a foreigner from Italy who showed up out of nowhere and obviously frightens Lucia.

With housemaid Tredwell [Catherine Allbritton] running errands and filling in a few gaps for Poirot's benefit, Dr. Graham [Hannah Darrough] to verify a murder by poisoning, and Scotland Yard's Inspector Japp [Colby Smith] and Constable Johnson [Emily McAliley] to arrest the culprit at the end, Christie fans will have a field day with director Jason Clark South's production.

There is a lot of exposition in the play that the acting ensemble do their best to make dramatically interesting, and once that is accomplished, attention is firmly on Poirot's ability to furrow out and bring the guilty party to justice. [No revelations here; half the fun for the audience is to try to figure out the identity of the murderer by sifting through the numerous 'red herrings' Christie puts in their way.]

Mr. Cardiff, with several nods to mannerisms of actor David Suchet in Masterpiece Theatre's Poirot, holds things in reserve till appropriate revelatory moments, furthering the suspense for audience enjoyment; and Mr. Smith's sidekick Hastings is a good foil to Mr. Cardiff's prissy neatness.

The rest of the cast turn in credible characterizations with acceptable English accents, and manage to bring suspicion on themselves. Of special note: Ms. Rigby's nervous anxiety is always truthful, and Mr. Williams' contradictory behavior is spot-on. Mr. Bruce's arrogance as Dr. Carelli reeks of self-assurance. And Ms. Rikerd's depiction of Barbara is perhaps the most comfortable and nuanced performance in this production.

Staged on a finely detailed set by Mr. South and Matt Dickson [one that would benefit from higher walls to accentuate the stateliness of Sir Claud's mansion], and with Tatyana Thompson's character-driven period-looking costumes, Black Coffee will keep audiences guessing till almost the last minute, so the two-hour and fifteen-minute running time passes very quickly.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Young Frankenstein" [musical]

Ending its successful three weekend run at the Wetumpka Depot, Mel Brooks' outrageous musical adaptation of his iconic film masterpiece Young Frankenstein is a laugh riot that has audiences anticipating its key moments and memorable lines...and cheering at the end.

As a parody of the Frankenstein horror films of the 1930s, this musical's book, done in collaboration with Thomas Meehan, who also collaborated with Brooks on The Producers, emphasizes the comedic elements with numerous double entendres, sexual innuendo, and groan-worthy jokes, all in good fun and delivered by director Kristy Meanor's energetic and enthusiastic ensemble actors. Musical Director Marilyn Swears and Choreographer Darren Eastwold provide the necessary gusto to punctuate the musical numbers so that the actors' energy is always high.

The story of Frederick Frankenstein [a sincere and ebullient Tate Pollock] -- he insists for a long time that the pronunciation is "Fronkensteen" so he won't be associated with his grandfather Victor who infamously created the monster that wreaked  havoc on Transylvania many years ago -- a notable brain surgeon who travels to Transylvania to collect the inheritance left by his grandfather and his inevitable seduction into following his ancestor's footsteps, is well known to film buffs. But even those uninitiated into Brooks' movie version will find it easy to follow the machinations of the plot and its hilarious comic characters.

As Frederick's fiancee Elizabeth, an alluring but reluctant bombshell, Kim Mason teases Frederick with a vibrant rendition of "Please Don't Touch Me", leaving him wanting her even more. -- So when he arrives in Transylvania and meets Inga [Jenny Whisenhunt's naivete is delightful], a vacuous laboratory assistant who invites him to an innocent "Roll in the Hay" that turns into a sexually charged romp, Frederick is hooked.

Also on hand is Igor [David Rowland in the most accomplished performance here] -- pronounced "Eyegore" -- a hunchback who tells Frederick that "my grandfather worked for your grandfather" and therefore I will work for you, celebrates this union in "Together Again for the First Time".

But the townspeople are not at all pleased with Frederick's arrival, anticipating a return to his grandfather's past disasters. With Kemp [a Teutonic Joe Collins] as their leader, an official with one wooden arm and one wooden leg, these folks are eager to get rid of the newcomer. [As an ensemble, they also play an assortment of ghosts, hangers-on, and other chorus members as needed in the bigger production numbers. Special notice for Reese Lynch as Ziggy, the village idiot.]

When Frederick determines to "Join the Family Business" with the help of Victor [Brad Moon] his grandfather's ghost, he discovers the hidden laboratory as he follows the sound of violin music provided by Frau Blucher [Chantel Oakley in a remarkably controlled characterization], the sinister-looking housekeeper and lover of Victor as she explains in "He Vas My Boyfriend".

After grave-robbing a seven-foot corpse, Igor substitutes a brain from a jar labeled, as he puts it, "Abby Normal", in place of the brain from a genius that he dropped, the Monster [Scott Page lives up to all the hype associated with the Monster, and seems to relish this role] then created by this team of misfits is more than a handful to control [he is huge and afraid of fire, and not at all a pleasant sort]; so when the Monster escapes, much must be done to set things aright. Things get complicated when Elizabeth shows up unexpectedly. -- In a show-stealing scene, an old blind Hermit [Bill Nowell], bereft of human company for a long time, sings "Please Send Me Someone", only to have the Monster appear with hilarious results in communication and physical missteps.

Victor convinces the Monster that he is "good" and shows him off to the public as a trained monkey in the outrageous "Puttin' On the Ritz"; but he is off again when fire intervenes...oh, and the Monster is attracted to Elizabeth.

With the townspeople and Victor & Company on the hunt, the Monster is captured and a brain transfer operation changes the Monster from a grunting violent creature to a brilliant articulate sophisticate, all will turn out for the best.

With just a couple of performances left, the Depot's production of Young Frankenstein is a fine way to end their 36th Season.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

ASF: "The Mousetrap"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley is a local actress.

Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap", the longest running play in London's West End from one of the world's most beloved mystery writers, combines suspense and humor; either one alone is a winner for audiences, but together they make for an easy evening of entertainment.

Young marrieds Giles and Mollie Ralston (a well-matched Jackson Thompson and Jenny Strassburg) have recently purchased Monkswell Manor and turned it into a guesthouse. While preparing for their first guests to arrive, Mollie listens to a radio report about a vicious murder in London, related to a crime years ago at a farm near the Manor, the chief suspect a man in a dark coat, light scarf, and felt hat.

As their guests arrive, Giles is most concerned that these strangers will abscond with the valuables. Mollie, much more trusting, is looking forward to an adventure, but worries that the house isn't ready and the snowstorm outside will keep the guests away. But they do come.

The first to arrive is Christopher Wren (an exuberant Loren Dunn), an excitable young man who adores architecture and fine things. He instantly falls for Mollie, and she for him; their intensity initiates a bristling between Giles and Christopher.

Soon, Mrs. Boyle (very nicely played by Diana Van Fossen), the quintessential tough customer, arrives, having begrudgingly shared one of the last cabs before the storm hits with Major Metcalf (the ways committed and enjoyable Rodney Clark), jaunty and likable to all but Mrs. Boyle, a veteran who appears game for anything.

The last of the guests on the register, Miss Casewell, arrives chilled from the storm. Her queer  appearance and aloofness make her instantly mysterious. Alice Sherman's physicality and attitude transform a character described as "mannish" into an intriguing figure that might have rivaled even Vesta Tilley (a famous English music hall entertainer known as a male impersonator).

But another guest arrives, one who is not on the Ralston's register: Mr. Paravacini (Brik Berkes), an altogether u known quantity, a man of indeterminate accent and origin. Stranded when his Rolls Royce plowed into a snow bank (the drifts are getting high), he seeks shelter at Monkswell Manor, and Berkes shifts smoothly from fumbling foreigner to sage and back.

Everyone soon hears or reads about the murder. What they don't know, until a phone call from a Siuperintendent Hogben, is that the London murderer is expected to strike again, this time at Monkswell Manor. 

Meanwhile, the storm has closed all roads. Mollie, Giles and their guests -- one of them possibly the intended victim...or a murderer -- are trapped together for the night.

Enter Detective Sergeant Trotter (the very athletic Lowell Byers), who fights his way to the Manor on skis and announces that he's been sent by Hogben to provide protection

Murder and intrigue ensue, and we ask ourselves, as everyone on stage asks: What do we really know about each other? Does likability equate to trustworthiness? Can you really measure a person's integrity by the size and weight of their luggage?

Director James Bowen, in addition to a heavy emphasis on the laughs, puts his actors in an expansive playing space, and the blocking to fill it requires actors to often play at great distances from one another, resulting in a lack of intimacy that otherwise might allow audiences to pick up on some characters' suspicious body language or deliver the archness of tone and behavior a script like this one loves. 

In that expans, however, scenic designer Peter Hicks' set is a perfect mash-up of cold and inviting, accented perfectly by Travis McHale's lighting design. The actors are mostly in tweed and will, designed by Jeffrey Todhunter It is worth the price of admission just to get your hands on the program notes by ASF's resident dramaturg, Susan Willis: "The Joy of Being Toyed With". She perfectly describes just what buttons Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap", and murder mysteries in general,push in audiences to make an entertaining outing. She even offers notes about the origin and history of this play that will almost certainly send some audience members on a post-show Googling spree. There is no doubt that audiences are committed to the journey on the Shakespeare Festival stage by a stellar cast.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

ASF Interns: "Charlotte's Web"

Take it from the children in the audience: the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Acting Intern Company's delightful production of Charlotte's Web is a hit. From the questions the children asked at the talk-back session following the 1-hour and 15-minute play, they clearly demonstrated their enthusiastic engagement with story, character, and theme, and might just become the next generation of appreciative supporters of live theatre in Montgomery.

Dramatized by Joseph Robinette from E. B. White's classic 1952 novel, Charlotte's Web is deftly directed by Nancy Rominger in this encore production first presented at ASF in 2008, and comes complete with re-purposed storybook set and costume designs by Peter Hicks and Jennifer Ables respectively.

The story of a little pig, a runt named Wilbur, who is rescued from the slaughterhouse by a young girl named Fern, and taken to a farm where he is befriended by other animals who look after him -- especially spider Charlotte who weaves words onto her web to highlight Wilbur's good qualities and leads him to celebrity, and whose sacrifice for him is the strongest demonstration of selfless friendship.

Ms. Rominger and her eight ensemble actors retain White's charm while gently emphasizing his themes of the power of friendship, the need for loving relationships in all of us, and the significance of simple words and actions that have a power of their own. All this told with a light sense of humor through anthropomorphized characters...Wilbur the pig [Tirosh Schneider], Templeton the rat [Andre Revels], Goose [Kate Owens], Gander [Javon Q. Minter], Sheep [Justy Kosek], and the title character spider Charlotte [Ann Flanigan]...most of whom play other characters; they are abetted by actors portraying several of the humans of the story [Joshua Sottile and Joe O'Malley].

All but Mr. Revels and Mr. Schneider play multiple roles, both human and animal, with so many quick costume changes that one would think there is a much larger acting company on stage. There is no mention of "dressers" in the program, but they deserve a congratulatory note for a job well done. [When one child asked where one character was in the talk-back, the actor playing the role was in another disguise; part of the magic of theatre for the young audience member who believed completely in the actor's taking on the role so believably.]

The characters are so very likable through the actors' combined energies, their human characteristics recognizable to even the smallest child in the audience; and the genuine sincerity of the script is given full attention so that the play's messages are unmistakable: true friendship is a gift we can all both give and receive, and truly "a good life [may be] more important than a long one".

Monday, August 29, 2016

WOBT: "Barefoot in the Park"

Third time's a charm for director Blair Dyson at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre. With two previous productions under his belt, this one has a strong and capable 5-actor ensemble who bring Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park to charm local audiences during its three-weekend run.

One of contemporary American theatre's most prolific playwrights, Simon's urban romantic comedy features his signature witty dialogue and screwball situations that somehow seem familiar and ordinary, allowing audiences to quickly relate to his characters.

In Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds -- free-spirited Corie [Lolly White] and her conservative up-and-coming-lawyer husband Paul Bratter [Brady Walker] -- are moving into their five-storey walk-up first apartment [six flights if you count the front stoop] in a building that houses several odd neighbors; not the least of them is Victor Velasco [Adam Shephard], a worldly middle-aged bon vivant whose sophisticated manner enthralls Corie's mother Ethel [Janie Allred].

The apartment is tiny, a kind of extended studio that accentuates the physical and emotional closeness that might be ideal for the lovebirds, but which challenges everyone's ability to cope with the changes coming into their lives. -- Corie wants her mother's approval on most things, and sees an opportunity for a friendship in introducing her to Velasco; Paul has his first court case to prepare for overnight, but is coerced into going out to an Albanian restaurant that Velasco recommends; and Ethel reluctantly agrees to go where both she and Paul tentatively sample exotic foods while Corie relishes the new experience that Velasco offers.

Corie and Paul are the proverbial meant-for-each-other opposites-attract couple: she enthusiastically tries new things without a thought to consequences, and he is "always proper and dignified" to the extent of being labeled a "stuffed shirt". So, even when a crisis threatens to wreck their marriage, there is never any doubt that they will patch things up. And Ms. White and Mr. Walker  are so sincere in their characterizations that even her petulance and demand for a divorce after a seemingly trivial disagreement, and his sometimes over-the-top  drunkenness after walking barefoot in the park in the dead of winter to prove to her that he can take risks, come across as credible in their excesses.

Ms. Allred's passive-aggressive Ethel knows how to get what she wants, but her guard is down under Velasco; and Ms. Allred's transformation from taking prescription drugs and sleeping with a bed-board to a much healthier and live-in-the-moment woman under Velasco's tutelage is expertly drawn.

Mr. Shephard's Victor -- "the Bluebeard of 48th Street" -- is disarming from the start: oozing a confidence that disguises his con-man tactics that get others to pay for food and drink, he relies on his reputation as a connoisseur that gives him a dangerous appeal, especially to the women. Deep down, though, he is a good sort whose intentions with Ethel are always above board. Mr. Shephard makes him a character we admire.

With a running gag about the long flights of stairs that exhaust Paul and Ethel but seem to have no effect on either Corie or Velasco, and with two appearances by Mike Proper as a phone company worker who serves to add a reasonable tone to an otherwise madcap plot, Mr. Dyson keeps the action moving briskly; and his ensemble are in top form, providing a pleasant entertainment for the River Region.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Red Door: "Last Train to Nibroc"

Arguably one of its most polished productions, Arlene Hutton's charming Last Train to Nibroc is ending its all too short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a cast of two excellent actors, the simplest of set designs (a series of benches that suggest the play's three locations), an evocative musical and sound underscoring, and sensitive direction by Fiona Macleod, Last Train to Nibroc is one part of a trilogy exploring the relationship between May [Eve Harmon] and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] -- this one recounting their first chance meeting on a cross-country train and its aftermath against a backdrop of World War II and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans at home.

May, an aspiring missionary, is on her way home to Corbin, KY after breaking up with her fiance in Los Angeles. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book with significant Christian themes. Raleigh, a soldier honorably discharged after being diagnosed with epilepsy, is an aspiring writer on his way to New York to fulfill his dreams, though filled with self-doubt and guilt for "deserting" his fellow soldiers. When Raleigh takes the only seat available next to her, he tells her that the bodies of two recently deceased writers he admires [F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West -- of rather different leanings than Douglas], are traveling in the baggage car on their train. Quick to judge others on perceived moral lapses, May is uncomfortable with Raleigh's progressive ideas.

Two unlikely souls, one might think, but as their conversations gradually reveal a lot more than the biographical details of their lives [he is also a Kentuckian who lives in a nearby town to hers], each one's defenses drop and the awkward beginning peels away layers of beliefs, doubts, and fears that most people can identify with, creating an intimacy between them and with the audience.

In their three meetings over a three-year period, we witness the growing comfort that May and Raleigh experience. In performance, Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford, guided by Ms. Macleod's assured direction, depict May's and Raleigh's journey, demonstrate confidence, show subtle and natural vocal shifts and inflections, deliver well-crafted overlapping dialogue, exhibit physical comfort and varied pacing without sentimentalizing a simple boy-meets-girl scenario. They simply let the audience into their lives.

It helps that Ms. Hutton's script doesn't pander to eccentric Southern stereotypes, but shows two real characters as they discover the joys, frustrations, humor, and compromise of being in love with the right person.

Two quibbles with an otherwise flawless production: 1) having an intermission in a tightly crafted 90-minute play breaks the audience's connection with the characters whose lives they have invested in, and 2) though there are a few times in the play when May and Raleigh almost kiss, at the end it doesn't happen and though they anticipate a kiss at the end, the audience justifiably feels cheated.

Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford have played these characters in See Rock City at the Red Door; if they choose to produce the third in the trilogy -- Gulf View Drive -- it would be a feather in their cap to get these two fine actors to reprise the roles once again.