Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

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

An instant hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is now showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Director Sarah Walker Thornton's ensemble of actors is in top form, turning Shakespeare's Hamlet on its head in delivering Stoppard's witty dialogue with split-second comic timing; and the themes are as resonant today as they were more than 50 years after the play's debut..

Stoppard's conceit is to make two minor characters in Hamlet the focus of his inventive study of the universal existential considerations we all share: our purpose in this life as well as contemplations on our inevitable death.

While this might appear as pretty heady stuff, Stoppard employs many comic devices as Rosencrantz [Jacob Holmberg] and Guildenstern [Marcus Clement] question their condition: they've been summoned to the Danish court, but why? Awaiting answers, they pass the time playing games [much as Vladimir and Estragon do in Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot], and are distracted by the appearance of the Player [Mike Winkelman] and his troupe of itinerant actors.

Oh yes, Shakespeare isn't forgotten here. In fact, Stoppard includes a number of verbatim scenes from Hamlet in R&G to flesh out his story and further frustrate his protagonists, much to audience delight. It doesn't hurt to have some knowledge of Shakespeare's original [there is a brief synopsis in the program], but Stoppard's play stands on its own.

Playing on J. Scott Grinstead's evocative "backstage theatre" set, and dressed in Danny Davidson-Cline's fine-tuned comically interpreted "Elizabethan" costumes, Ms. Thornton's acting troupe at the Playhouse take audiences on a two-plus hour romp that makes them exercise both their intellectual and laugh muscles, and invest in the lives of the hapless duo at the center of the action.

Mr. Holmberg and Mr. Clement are on-stage virtually the entire running time. Adept at finding the nuances of Stoppard's linguistic genius, and demonstrating enviable comfort with the plot twists and turns the author throws at them, they are one of the best "double-acts" Montgomery is likely to witness. When Mr. Winkelman's expert portrayal of the bombastic Player threatens to steal the show [in a good way as Stoppard intended], they somehow manage to retrieve the audience's attention and support.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are insignificant pawns in the political intrigues in Hamlet, but here there stature -- Everyman figures out of their element trying to figure out their place in society and, indeed, in the universe -- becomes the stuff we can all recognize in ourselves. Though their deaths are inevitable [no spoilers here; the title of the play is straightforward], these two fellows make us invest in their predicaments, care about their welfare, and cheer them on till the end.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and so much enjoyment in the visual and linguistic delights on display, that we wish to stay in their company long after the final bows.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

WOBT: "Blithe Spirit"

A staple on stage for decades, English playwright Noel Coward's brilliant 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit has made the rounds at several local theatres, the latest being done at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

In it, novelist Charles Condomine [Brady Walker] and his second wife Ruth [Cathy Ranieri] invite eccentric psychic Madame Arcati [Michon Givens] to conduct a seance at a small dinner party. What she doesn't know is that the skeptical Condomines and their other guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman [Matthew Givens and Zyna Captain] merely want to find out from her some "tricks of the trade" for a new novel about the occult that Charles is writing.

When she accidentally conjures the ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira [Jillian Rabb], the comic situations abound, especially as Charles is the only one who can see or hear her. Despite their many attempts to exorcise her, and Mme. Arcati goes into a number of trances to effect the outcome, Elvira has no intention of leaving.

Without giving away the many plot complications, or Coward's clever way of resolving the dilemma, there are plenty of uncomfortable events and hilarious three-way conversations where the two wives vie for Charles's affection; and the inept maid Edith [Lindsay Sellers] plays an important role in the unravelling.

Coward's urbane wit is present on every page in the mouths of all his characters, and actors must speak his glittering fast-paced dialogue with the utmost confidence, making every bon mot seem easy and natural no matter how outrageous the situation.

Though there are some strong performances that elevate Coward's wit, there was a lot of hesitance delivering the lines and struggling to pick up cues; and some lines were spoken so softly that they could not have been heard distinctly beyond the first row of the audience. -- The result unfortunately muddled much of the plot, character relationships, and clever turns of phrase, so much of the comedy fell flat. Too bad, since this company appeared to be committed to their roles.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

ASF: "Every Brilliant Thing"

"If you've never been depressed, you weren't paying attention": so says the narrator/actor of Every Brilliant Thing currently playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. -- Devised by playwright Duncan MacMillan and actor Jonny Donahoe in 2013, it was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, made into an HBO special in 2016, and has had several successful stage productions in this country and abroad.

ASF's new Artistic Director Rick Dildine's first directing credit here brings MFA Class of 2002 alumnus David Lee Nelson to play the role of a young man who, remembering his childhood at seven years old, was told by his father that his mother had done "something stupid". The boy doesn't comprehend depression or suicidal tendencies; he just knows that his mother is in the hospital, so he sets out to compile a list of things to cheer her up for her to read: ice cream, water fights, Kung Fu movies, hammocks, staying up late... The list grows over the years, reaching countless thousands, becoming as much an antidote for him as for his mother; and for us.

The action takes place with the 150 audience members seated on the Festival stage where they become participants in his story, calling out pre-arranged "brilliant things" on the list, or being gently conscripted into playing characters in the young man's life and memory.

Mr. Nelson is an ideal narrator, making audiences instantly comfortable with his self-deprecating and genial manner that takes a difficult topic and subjects it to scrutiny with a seriousness edged with humor. He energetically moves around and through the audience, calling out numbers to which they respond with items on his list; or they become his father, teacher, and others who flesh out the story.

In just over an hour, we travel some 30 years through his and his mother's ups and downs, never forgetting his mission to give hope to her and to any one of us who suffers or knows someone who suffers as she does. The close proximity of actor and audience gives no escape from the issue at hand; we forget that we are at a performance and willingly get involved, becoming a kind of support group for him.

Though the topic is serious, there is a lot of laughter on the Festival stage, laughter that provides a cathartic psychological relief from all-too-familiar connections we all have with depression. -- And, as he says, there's always hope.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Female Voices"

A tradition at Theatre AUM is its annual showcase of theatre students' talents in the form of selected monologues and scenes. -- This year's theme is Female Voices featuring 21 student actors in almost 40 selections that highlight the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as well as the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and show that the concerns of women [and men] today have been unresolved for centuries.

Performed on an open stage with minimal furniture and props, each of the pieces is announced by the actors, all of whom are dressed mostly in black that varies from concert attire to cocktail party outfits and more casual dress to achieve neutrality or social commentary to punctuate the pieces' intentions and words.

Female playwrights range from 17th Century Englishwoman Aphra Behn to contemporaries that include among others Sarah Ruhl, Caryl Churchill, Lorraine Hansberry, Pearl Cleage, Wendy Wasserstein, and Paula Vogel, all of whom confront issues that need attention. -- The mistreatment of women based on gender, social position, race, and sexuality are brought to the fore with selections that address such topics as violence, guns in schools, the Holocaust, abortion, locker room talk, fear, and the consequences of past actions -- the still unresolved issues that are covered everyday in both mainstream and social media.

Whether in a serious or humorous mode, the performances in this 1 hour 40 minute program focus on the historical perception of women as submissive to men's demands, and to women's resistance to being ignored, underrated, and abused.

Often delivered as in-yer-face address to the audience, we are made to reflect on their rage, accept our own discomfort in their condition, and resolve to make things better.

The varied strengths of the AUM actors are given attention, and audience members might remember or connect with any one piece. -- The thing that ties it all together by the end is an affirmation of the value of women in a society that still relegates them too often to second-class status, and the hope that in future there will be greater equity.

Monday, September 24, 2018

ASF: "Sometimes...Patsy Cline"

Sometimes...Patsy Cline had an all-too-short three-performance run last weekend at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Showcasing the impressive vocal talents of Jacqueline Petroccia [seen previously at ASF in Because of Winn Dixie, A Christmas Carol, and Always...Patsy Cline], this intermissionless songfest entertained its appreciative audiences.

Ms. Petroccia traced her journey from New Jersey girl to Country Western star, abetted by a few photo projections and bits of narrative linking songs to her story.

Some 24 cover-songs by Patsy Cline and others who influenced her [Bette Midler, Rosemary Clooney, Karen Carpenter, Hank Williams, among them] highlighted both her vocal range from alto to operatic soprano, as well as her command of Country Western, Blues, Broadway, Gospel, and novelty numbers that accented her refusal to be pigeonholed into one style.

Ms. Petroccia's versions of songs from Broadway's Gypsy, Clooney's "Mambo Italiano", excursions into operatic heights, as well as renditions of Cline's "Crazy", "I Fall to Pieces", and "Sweet Dreams of You" highlighted the entertainment.

Backed by a fabulous five-member on-stage band led by her husband, Ms. Petroccia instantly connected with her audience and kept them engaged for the entire 75-minute program.

Her powerful and expressive voice didn't need the excessive amplification provided her, but her vocal precision, clear diction, and sensitive interpretation of lyrics made for a delightful afternoon in her presence.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"

When the 'Disciples of James Dean' meet in a small Texas emporium in 1975 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their film idol's tragic death, their reunion takes several unexpected turns. -- They reminisce about their teenage years, often romanticizing the past as people are wont to do, and along the way are confronted by truths they would prefer to be kept secret.

Ed Graczyk's 1976 play Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Thursday for a three-week run at the Wetumpka Depot. There are roles for both the "then" and "now" of some of the characters, with a number of scenes when they are on stage at the same time; not as confusing as it may seem. Director Tom Salter emphasizes its "you can't go home again" theme in a series of scenes set in 1955 and 1975, seamlessly suggesting the time changes with lighting shifts; Costume designer Carol Heier dresses them in complimentary costumes that suit their characters; and Kristy Meanor's detailed period set shows how time has not changed the Kressmont Five and Dime, much like the characters haven't changed much in the intervening years.

Juanita [Janie Allred] still runs the Five and Dime with an autocratic hand that doesn't tolerate crude language or alcohol; Sissy [Leslie Blackwell] still flaunts her bosoms; now wealthy Stella May [Cindy Smith] continues to ridicule the shy and ever-pregnant Edna Louise [Venna Everett], who it turns out is the most normal and happiest member of the bunch; and Mona [Chantel Oakley] continues her fantasy that James Dean fathered her illegitimate child during the film-shoot at "Reata", now just a shell-in-ruin of a film set for "Giant", Dean's last movie on which she was an "extra".

The "Jimmy Dean" of the title is Mona's son, named for his alleged father; though he never appears in stage, Mona is obsessed with protecting him at all costs -- from the instant celebrity status she foisted on him in his infancy, to the current time when she claims he is retarded and needs her to look after him.

When we meet these characters in the past, it becomes clear how the past informs their present natures, especially as Sissy "Then" [Lauren Norris] and Mona "Then" [Skylar Frye] exhibit so many of the mannerisms and attitudes of their "present" selves depicted by Ms. Blackwell and Ms. Oakley.

The plot hinges on an assault on Joe [Reese Lynch], the only boy admitted to the "Disciples" fan-club, whose sexual identity causes a crisis in all their lives. -- And the arrival of the enigmatic Joanne [Marcella Willis] only adds fuel to the fire that the women are facing. Each has at least one secret that time and faulty memory complicate, and which will be revealed by the end of the play.

Much of the success of Mr. Salter's production is in the fine ensemble work of his actors. Their combined efforts make the plot contrivances more palatable as they in habit their roles with such sensitivity that we feel comfortable with them on their individual and group journeys to discovery and acceptance.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Millbrook: "The Bad Seed"

Maxwell Anderson"s 1954 stage version of The Bad Seed, a novel by William March, is perhaps best famous for the 1956 screen version starring a young Patty McCormack as a murderous child named Rhoda Penmark.

On opening night at the Millbrook Community Players' production, Charlotte Brown took on the role of the seemingly perfect Rhoda, all polite manners and a sweetness that belies a sinister underside. [The role is being played alternately by Lucy Wilson].

The drowning of a classmate at a school picnic, a boy who had won a penmanship medal that Rhoda thought she deserved and for whose death she shows no emotion, makes the girl's mother Christine [Nicole Allen] suspect that her daughter knows more than she divulges. -- Beset by recurring nightmares, Christine wonders if her dreams might be something more: a repressed memory of her own childhood that might impact her daughter's behavior.

Very much a reflection of the 1950s obsession with Freudian psychology and the debate between "nature vs. nurture" as the determining factor of one's behavior, The Bad Seed feels dated in both dialogue and character development, but is redeemed [in part at least] by old-fashioned plotting that keeps audiences guessing from moment to moment.

Rhoda's outward demeanor that manipulates others to give in to her politeness has fooled almost everyone: her father [Corey Jackson], neighbor/landlady [Vicki Moses], school mistress [Karla McGhee], crime novelist [John Chain], all succumb to her manipulations. -- The only one who sees through Rhoda's guise is handyman Leroy [Michael Snead], who taunts her privately.

The drowned boy's parents [Craig Greer and Rae Ann Collier] show their grief in quiet demeanor and drunken outspokenness respectively. -- And Christine's father [John Collier] clears up some of his daughter's past regarding the truth behind her nightmares.

There are several plot twists and revelations about both Rhoda and Christine that drive The Bad Seed to its tragic and unexpected conclusion and keep the audience's attention in director Joe Nolin, Jr.'s production, but some hesitant dialogue, static staging, and over-long scene changes allow audiences to disengage from the important action and themes.