Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Theatre AUM: "The Seagull"

Theatre AUM has an established history of programming a wide variety of productions from World Theatre, so it is not surprising that director Mike Winkelman is staging Christopher Hampton's robust 2008 translation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 The Seagull, one of the seminal plays of modern theatre.

Set in a rural Russian country house in the late 19th Century, The Seagull is no nostalgic reminiscence of a romantic past; in fact -- as with most great literature -- its universal human subject matter showing family relationships, complications of unrequited love, career challenges, financial obligations, individuals who are so self-absorbed that they ignore the needs of others, suicide, idolizing celebrities, attempts at finding new methods of artistic expression, and avoidance of facing our demons, are as resonant today as Chekhov shows in his play.

With an ensemble of fifteen veteran and unseasoned actors, and played on an effectively minimalist set designed by Karen Licari, Mr. Winkelman addresses the many topics listed above, doing so through clear delineation of plot complications and characterizations. And so much of the action depends on things that are not directly stated, that the actors must depend on the "subtext" underlying the dialogue that determines their behavior and their fraught relationships.

The plot is complicated: a wealthy yet stingy famous actress Irina [Kate Saylor] returns to her brother's estate with her lover Trigorin [Tony George], a popular writer; the aging brother Sorin [David Wilson] suffers from ill health, and is looked after by Dr. Dorn [Jay Russell]. Irina's son Konstantin [Josh Williams] has written an avant-garde symbolist play for her to be performed by Nina [Savannah Brown], a young neighbor he adores and who idolizes Irina.

The performance turns disastrous when Irina laughs at its seeming pretentiousness; Konstantin is mortified, but Nina is infatuated with Trigorin and idol-worships Irina, confessing her desire to be an actress.

Additionally, Masha [Faith Roberts], dressed all in black and "mourning for her life", pines for Konstantin's affection despite romantic overtures from the poor teacher Medvedenko [Jared Jones]; Masha's mother Polina [Emily Aveldanez] is in love with Dr. Dorn, and her father Shamrayev [Sam Penn] tries to ignore his wife's behavior. -- No spoilers as to how it all turns out.

So, lots to unravel in the play's four acts [presented here with one intermission]; and keeping track of who's who is further encumbered by the facts that several characters' names are not spoken for a long time and that the convention that Russians use a variety of names for each individual [patronymics, diminutives/nicknames, surnames, first names that reveal formal or familiar relationships that Russians would instantly recognize -- thank goodness Mr. Winkelman has minimalized their uses in his production].

Audiences must still pay special attention, as the action and overlapping stories come at them rapid-fire; Mr. Winkelman's fine acting company are up the mark through their thorough commitment to as naturalistic behavior and speech they can muster in dialogue that regularly threatens melodrama. It affords us access to them; they are so much like us.

And it is an excellent ensemble performance. One might identify readily with most any character, but our attention shifts from one to the next with such regularity that we find ourselves shifting allegiance as well...laughing or crying by turns, wanting to shake them out of their self-indulgent behavior or come to their rescue.

The Seagull is another Theatre AUM example of a piece of classic theatre that is all too infrequent on local stages.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Helluva at The Sanctuary: "St. Nicholas"

Award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a masterful storyteller who started out writing monologue plays and later incorporated monologue-stories into his best known works like The Weir [1999] and The Seafarer [2006]. His folk tales and ghost stories always take unexpected turns and rely on both the audience's acceptance of their bizarre plots and of the actor's storytelling skills.

So, with an opportune programming of McPherson's St. Nicholas [1997] over the Halloween-All Saints-All Souls weekend staged at The Sanctuary by the "Helluva Theatre Company", his story of and by a disillusioned theatre critic's dark journey with vampires is a timely choice.

Directed by Alex Dmitriev, and featuring John Martello as the cynical unnamed critic, the two-act monologue -- his version of the truth about his profession, his marriage, his jealousies, his fears, and his willingness to journey with a coven of vampires -- lures the audience bit by bit until they are as trapped as he is in seeking a resolution.

He tells us at the beginning that when he was a boy he was afraid of the dark, and then invites us into his dark journey, his dissatisfaction with his job [even though he relishes the power it gives him over the actors he reviews], his battles with alcohol, his jealousy of playwrights whose words and characters he can't summon in his own attempts at writing plays, his fractured marriage and family, his infatuation with an actress performing in Oscar Wilde's Salome that causes him to stalk her from Dublin to London where he meets William [the leader of the vampires who conscripts him as a kind of pimp for the coven], and the cynicism that infects his every thought.

With a couple of tangential stories that keep audiences wondering where this might lead, it is nonetheless imperative that we understand the dark nature of his tale, the darkness he has feared since childhood, and the darkness that infects him still.

Though drinking is at the center of the character's life, and there are so many references to its effects throughout the play, it is curious that Mr. Martello never takes a drink in his performance. The staging is minimal, with no props and only a single chair and a small rug at center stage, and a few lighting modifications for atmospheric reference; so we rely exclusively on Mr. Martello's abilities as an interpreter of McPherson's words to engage with us for almost two hours; an intimacy he achieves with apparent comfort and a sometimes indiscernible Irish dialect.

In short, we are captivated by McPherson's chilling supernatural script and Martello's shaping of it into a seductive evening's entertainment.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

ASF: "Pipeline"

Friday night's nearly sold-out audience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre cheered at the conclusion of Dominique Morisseau's powerful Pipeline, a robust and muscular 90-minute exploration of the all too prophetic "school to prison pipeline" facing a disproportionate number of young African-American men.

Produced in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, it continues the important conversation about race that EJI's director Bryan Stevenson spurred with the opening a year and a half ago of Montgomery's "Legacy Museum" and "National Memorial for Peace and Justice".

Ms. Morisseau -- a 2018 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" Fellow -- has written a taut and sometimes gut-wrenching drama about public school teacher Nya [Eunice Woods] attempting to do what she thinks is best for her son Omari [Jay Wade] by sending him to a private school where she hopes the environment will shelter him from the violent high school where she teaches.

Good impulses that go horribly wrong when an incident at the new school brought on by a teacher provokes Omari during a class discussion of novelist Richard Wright's Native Son; as the teacher insists that Omari be the spokesman for all Blacks -- and using such trigger words as "tamed", "animal", and "unleashed" -- the young man pushed the teacher out of righteous rage, thereby initiating an investigation and potential jail time for assault.

Early on in the production, Ms. Morisseau introduces poet Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool", a fatalist jazz influenced rif on the macho chest-beating of African-American youth -- outsiders who are resigned to a dead-end existence beyond their control, but who nonetheless continue their posturing. She punctuates the action with repeated fragments of the poem, so we are never far from the dominant theme of her play. And she seems to be inviting her audiences to engage in the conversation that might lead to an understanding of Omari's plight and end the dehumanizing of Black youth. -- Yes, this is a conversation we should be having.

Director Ron OJ Parson keeps the focus clearly on Nya and Omari as each one tries to navigate their ways through to a satisfactory conclusion -- Nya by not giving in to panic in the search for her son and offer help to him and even asking him to teach her: to help her understand, and Omari by temporarily running away to settle himself before admitting responsibility for his actions. -- Ms. Woods and Mr. Wade develop the complexities of their roles so audiences invest in both their conditions. There may be hope for reconciliation.

They are abetted along the way by Omari's girlfriend Jasmine [Toree Alexandre], Nya's outspoken veteran colleague Laurie [Barbara Figgins], dutiful school security guard Dun [Brian Nelson], and Nya's patriarchal ex-husband Xavier [Ethan Henry], whose estrangement from his son plays a major tole in Omari's acting-out. -- Each one in this excellent ensemble is given at least one moment that both furthers the plot and shows the desperation and fear they bring to dealing with an educational system seemingly rigged against them.

There are no easy solutions to the topics Ms. Morisseau proposes in her well-crafted social commentary. But seeing the emotionally charged ASF production of Pipeline could prompt at least a local willingness to talk with one another and move toward fixing a problem that has been with us for far too long.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rumors"

Standing ovations are so routine that they have become meaningless gestures at almost every professional or amateur theatrical performance. -- How refreshing then to have a well-earned  rapturous "seated ovation" greet the company of actors at the curtain call of The Cloverdale Playhouse's hilarious rendition of Neil Simon's Rumors.

As its next to last production of the "2019 Ensemble Season", director Mike Winkelman and his near perfect 10-member acting ensemble deliver an impressively clear and outrageously funny concoction in sumptuous formal black-and-white costumes [Katie Pearson] on a "large, tastefully-appointed" multi-leveled interior set [J. Scott Grinstead], the home of the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife who are hosting their friends at a dinner party to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

The problem is that their first guests -- Ken [Nathan Jacobs] and Chris [Sarah Kay] -- discover that Charlie has shot himself (a flesh wound), his wife Myra is nowhere to be found, there are no servants to prepare and serve the food, and they are left to explain the situation to the other guests when they arrive.

Enter Lenny [Ari Hagler] and Claire [Sara MacNeil], and later Ernie [Marcus Clement] and Cookie [Emily Burke], and finally Glenn [Chris Paulk] and Cassie [Alex Rickerd], who variously hear and re-tell with variations the several versions of what happened -- too much for any of them to remember accurately as so much is invented on the spot.

Of course, every couple has "issues", and so many "rumors" are spread around until pandemonium rears its ugly head. -- No spoilers here, so let it suffice that with everyone arguing and agreeing or disagreeing on the proper course of action in telling the police as well as finding out why Charlie shot himself and where Myra has gone, the result is a well-tuned farce by a troupe of consummate comic actors, abetted at the end by two police officers [Chris Roquemore and Brittany Riki Sankey].

The two hour running time goes by so quickly because of the fully engaged and energetic antics of the ensemble, each one with specific quirks and sophisticated dialogue; their individual performances are specific and nuanced, and their generosity to one another while fully participating in every action demonstrates an across-the-board professionalism that is the hallmark of this production.

Audience laughter from the opening night's almost full house threatened to drown out some dialogue, yet the on-stage ensemble kept the action moving at sometimes galloping speed. Mr. Simon's masterful script has so many comical twists and turns, with plot surprises that stretch credibility, but are so good-natured that they are easily forgiven.

With the world around us causing so much division, what a relief it is to witness a masterfully written, directed, designed, and acted farce so deserving of its resounding "seated ovation.

Monday, September 30, 2019

AUM: "World Tour: scenes, songs, and monologues"

Theatre AUM traditionally opens its season with a showcase of "scenes, songs, and monologues". The latest installment is called World Tour that includes selections from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America that demonstrate the many similarities we humans share regardless of national or cultural distinctions.

Some 33 short pieces are performed in rapid succession by a 23-member ensemble of Theatre AUM veterans and neophytes, giving all the participants an opportunity to demonstrate their acting skills without the burden of an entire play on their shoulders.

Played on an open-space set with minimal props, furniture, and costume, and directed variously by Neil David Seibel, Kyle Shook, Sam Wallace, and Val Winkelman, the company meet most of the challenges inherent in a showcase. -- Selections are presented out of the context of the plays they're in; each piece ought to have a complete "arc"; actors have no time to develop a role, so they must be fully committed the entire time; diction and vocal support are essential for the duration of each piece. -- And, for the most part, the AUM actors succeed.

Some of the selections suffered from either too rapid or unsupported speech, so important words and ideas were not clearly heard; and vocal and physical energy need to be sustained through the last moment of each selection. -- Highlighting a few examples of achievement in this matter are: David Wilson's piece from Amadeus, Josh Williams's presentation from Skylight, Kate Saylor's Saint Joan, and Tony George in both Death and the King's Horseman [with Kate Saylor] and Dialogue of the Gods.

How we communicate the social and political issues of the past and the present rely heavily on the powerful words provided in each script, any yet there are non-verbal expressions that do the job just as well; for example: Karen Licari's expert ballet interpretation of Kate Saylor's recitation from Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman was riveting; and Ms. Saylor's sign language telling of Josh Williams's sensitive presentation of Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore was equally focussed. -- In addition, two selections were presented in their original languages, and showed that good actors overcome language barriers by their understanding and commitment to the texts: note Nodoka Hasegawa's interpretation of No. 0 in Japanese, and Emily Aveldanez's passionate rendition of Blood Wedding in Spanish.

In a little longer than an hour, audiences were engaged in important matters of the heart and mind from around the world, by a talented group of actors. -- This next Theatre AUM season should be one to watch.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

WOBT: "Clue, the Musical"

Clue, the Musical has been seen before in the River Region. Based on the Parker Brothers board game, audiences are challenged to figure out whether it was "Mr. Green, in the Conservatory, with the knife" or any other possible solution to the murder of Mr. Boddy. -- At the start, selected audience members draw cards determining the night's solution; they are placed secretly in an envelope to be opened at the conclusion, and guaranteeing a different result at each performance.

Eleventh-hour casting changes impacted opening night at first-time director Michael Proper's production of Clue, the Musical at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre, necessitating several actors performing "on book" and receiving support and assistance from their fellow actors. Though this slowed down the pace and impacted their energy, the maxim "the show must go on" was reflected in the stalwart company's commitment to adapting to circumstances and providing entertainment to their audiences. -- Expectations are high that the company will get more secure during the run of the show.

With music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci, lyrics by Tom Chiodo, and book by Peter DePietro, Clue, the Musical gives us a narrator in the person of Mr. Boddy [Edward Arrington] who provides "clues" to his murder throughout the two acts. There's an ensemble of six suspects, each of whom has a past relationship and motive to kill him: Mrs. Peacock [Karla McGhee], Professor Plum [Lee Bridges], Miss Scarlett [Desirae Lewis], Col. Mustard [Jordan Berry], Mrs. White [Xandria Hataway], and Mr. Green [David Shelnutt] show us around the rooms in Mr. Boddy's mansion, while handling an array of weapons so there is no mistake about who, where, and with what the murder might happen.

Unfortunately, this exposition takes a very long time, with only a few energetic moments or clever dialogue within its unremarkable musical score. When the murder happens at the end of Act I, we are left with figuring out the solution as the action picks up in Act II with the addition of a female detective to sort things out despite the suspects ganging together for mutual protection.

There are a number of running jokes to enliven the dialogue -- Mr. Bridges is adept at linguistic perfection and shows Professor Plum's growing frustration with other characters' misuse of the English language, and his Act II debate with the Detective [last minute substitute Tammy Lee] as they trade literary references is a delight. -- And Ms. Lewis is a brightly unabashed Miss Scarlett, selling every moment in song and dialogue with such aplomb and vivacity that she is the measure of professionalism exhibited in this show.

Performed on a "crayola" set that replicates the board game, and with vibrant costumes depicting each character, this version of Clue, the Musical ought to find its feet and continue to entertain the WOBT audiences.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Millbrook: "Cheaper by the Dozen"

Amidst all the socio-political goings-on around us, it might be time for an old-fashioned family-friendly comedy. -- Based on an autobiographical 1948 book and the 1950 film following it, Christopher Sergel's 1992 stage adaptation of Cheaper by the Dozen just closed its run at the Millbrook Community Players, Inc.

With sixteen actors and a dog at his disposal, director Joe Nolin, Jr. mounted a pleasant production that, despite 21st Century worldliness, manages to touch the necessary buttons that endear it to many.

Mr. Gilbreth [Steve Phillips] is an efficiency expert at work who insists on running his home and family with the same dictatorial style. [Much like Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Gilbreth summons his expansive family by blowing a whistle, and assigning them tasks with little understanding of the effects on morale.] -- Told via narrative flashbacks to the 1920s by children Frank [Hudson Lee] and Ernestine [Ginny Gunn], their reminiscences piece together an understanding of their father's complicated relationship with them as he deals with financial responsibilities and the imminent impact of his mortality from a heart condition he has kept secret from all but his wife.

Though he calls for a "democratic family counsel", and regularly refers to his wife [Nicole Allen] as the "boss", Gilbreth dismisses any and all of their suggestions or objections as irrelevant or out-of-order, making it abundantly clear that his word is law. -- And there is some rebellion afoot. Eldest daughter Anne's [Shannon Dukes] adolescent desires to go out on dates, and wear silk stockings, are thwarted by her father's uncomprehending restrictions. Yet, there is love in the household, and all the squeaky-clean members support one another without question.

Potential boyfriends [Nate Greenawalt and Connor Carraway] come and go, ever-patient cook [Vicki Moses] tries to keep the peace, disbelieving teacher [Misty Bone] re-tests Anne's high exam scores, and the Doctor [Ken Cochran] warns Gilbreth that his heart condition needs attention -- and there are baby-steps of Gilbreth's capitulation to the family's needs that signal they may be moving into the modern world.

Unfortunately, some of this important information almost goes unheard. Actors need to support their voices, emphasize the operative words in their dialogue, and push vocal energy to the completion of ideas and sentences so audiences are privy to details of plot and character.

But what holds this production together is the strength of its protagonist. Mr. Phillips straddles the edge between an unfeeling dictatorial patriarch and a man  who loves his family but has difficulty expressing it: well done.