Thursday, December 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South"

First seen in GRITS: the Musical a while back, Adrian Lee Borden, Desirae Lewis, Kim Mason, and Cindy Veasey are reprising their roles at the Wetumpka Depot in Erica McGree's Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South. "Girls Raised In The South" explains the acronym of the title, and director Kristy Meanor takes audiences on a two-hour jaunt into the sometimes outrageous Christmas reminiscences of these four redoubtable women.

Staged on several holiday-decorated area platforms and an open space, the GRITS narrate several humorous situations that are familiar to us all, interspersed with traditional songs and carols, some of them given updated or inventively comic lyrics.

We know these women and their stories, and you don't have to be from the South to appreciate many of them...the predicament or challenge of "Re-gifting" is given an outrageous twist or two; "The Crazy Aunt Blues" capitalized on the women's abilities to impersonate all the cliche-ridden characteristics of eccentric relatives decked out in garish costumes; and "The Twelve Yummy Days of Christmas", featuring "five bourbon balls"  to a predictable drunken end, is a show-stopper.

There are touching sentimental reminiscences as well with such numbers as "I Never Knew Life Without You" and a few readings from Scripture, along with a medley of traditional carols to signal the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble actors have individual shining moments, but the key to this show is the feeling that they are good friends having a good time to celebrate their friendships. It's contagious. There is such a warmth coming from the stage, that audiences can't help but respond in kind....a fine way to usher-in the Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Each time director Geoffrey Sherman stages his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, he tweaks the script a bit, adding or removing portions of the plot, elaborating characters and their relationships, while remaining true to the spirit of the original source. So, while the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's reclamation from miserly and mean-spirited to generous and gregarious holds no real surprises, there is always something in Sherman's bag of tricks to  grab the attention of repeat audience members.

There is still magic in the air -- both actual magic tricks and terrific special effects,  and the magic of ghosts who teach Scrooge the value of charity and the true meaning of Christmas -- on Paul Wonsek's idyllic Victorian set and with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes; and Sherman moves the action quickly to punctuate the key moments in Scrooge's magical night with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come.

Paul Hebron assumes the role of Dickens, an amateur magician and narrator of this rendition of Christmas Carol, who also takes on the roles of good-hearted Fezziwig, Scrooge's one-time employer, and Old Joe, a dealer in stolen or ill-gotten goods and properties. -- Mr. Hebron makes each one a distinct and memorable creation, and when he shares a scene with Rodney Clark's Scrooge, there's a bit more magic in watching two artists at their best.

Attention is focussed on Scrooge for virtually the whole two-plus hours playing time. From the moment we first see him -- so dismissive of Christmas and so rude to everyone (street urchins and businessmen, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit [Billy Sharpe] and his nephew Fred [Jackson Thompson], are all treated alike) -- Mr. Clark commands the stage. Until, that is, he meets the first Ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes] who astounds him and sends him on a journey that restores him to the brotherhood of humankind. Mr. Berkes is a frightening specter whose pain in his condition of bridging the worlds between life and death has never been better realized.

A luminous Ghost of Christmas Past [Ann Flanigan] takes the reluctant Scrooge into his own past where he is shown his former self as a boy and youth, his delight in Fezziwig's generosity [Mr. Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as Mrs. Fezziwig are a delight in their dancing at Christmas], his first love Belle [Alice Sherman] and the break-up of their relationship as Scrooge becomes more enamored with money than with her -- though it does seem a strange choice to have Mr. Clark actually participate in the various goings-on, when the novel and this production's second act take great pains to state that Scrooge is an invisible spectator to all the events of the past, present, and future.

James Bowen's version of the Ghost of Christmas Present has never been so jovial as in this year's show. A scene at Fred's Christmas party, with Mr.Berkes as a flustered Topper and Alice Sherman sharing a comical "meow-duet" with Megan Woodley, keeps a light tone. Yet, he shows Scrooge the impact of his miserliness on the Cratchit family, a group of optimists in a world that does them no favors. Mr. Sharp and Greta Lambert as Mrs. Cratchit are the ideal couple who raise their children to live good lives even in miserable financial straits in some of the most touching scenes in this production as they anticipate the end for their crippled child, Tiny Tim [Gavin Campbell].

As the final act's Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come [Joe O'Malley] frightens Scrooge (and us) with its silent gestures, Scrooge comes face to face with the reality of his life choices, especially in a scene where Old Joe and Mrs. Dlilber [Diana Van Fossen] haggle over the goods she has pilfered from Scrooge.

And when he awakens on Christmas morning, the magic of the previous night comes full circle. He is a changed man who keeps Christmas as it ought to be. The delight we see in Mr. Clark's transformation is infectious, and the audience cheers the outcome along with Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us...Everyone".

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "My Three Angels"

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

In an anniversary tribute to a production 40 years ago at the Montgomery Little Theatre, Eleanor K. Davis is directing a charming family-friendly staging of Samuel and Bella Spewack's 1953 My Three Angels at The Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Her ensemble of ten actors includes four who are new to the Playhouse, though they are no strangers to the stage; they represent an ever expanding number of River Region artists who ensure a healthy theatre community.

With Ed Fieder's detailed set and Danny Davidson's exquisite period costumes, audiences are transported to Christmas 1910 on a tropical island where the temperature is 105 degrees, and where shop owner Felix Ducotel's [Scot Purkeypile] generosity is exploited by just about everyone as he extends credit to the pretentious Mrs. Parole [Rachael Dotson], and rarely even checks his books. His wife Emilie [Mariah Reilly] tolerates his good nature, and daughter Marie Louise [Cathy Ranieri] is more intent on seeing her fiance who is set to return to the island.

When they discover that Felix's cousin Henri Trochard [Adam Shephard] and nephew, Marie Louise's intended, Paul [Bo Jinright] intend to bilk Felix of home and property, no one knows what to do.

Enter the "three angels" of the title -- convicts from the local Devil's Island penal colony who are on work-release repairing Felix's roof -- who, having overheard their predicament, descend from above and determine to help set things aright. After all, these modern Magi might  have committed crimes, but have a sense of justice and altruism.

Joseph [Mark Hunter] is an adept forger and adroit con-man, while Jules [Scott Page] and Alfred [Tate Pollock] are both murderers; yet, their good-humored sense of honor and compassion for good people who might be hurt by the nefarious dealings of greedy relatives get audiences on their side immediately. They make no bones about the crimes that put them in prison, but as Jules says at one point: "Our world is just like yours, except we got caught" -- a refrain that could be applied to much of what is going on in the world today.

The play's fairly long exposition is handled well by Mr. Purkepyle, his lack of business acumen is matched by a distracted air that one can't help but to feel sorry for Felix and his predicament; and the clear affection he shows for his wife and daughter makes us wish him to succeed. -- In contrast, Mr. Shephard's Henri is so arrogant and ruthless from the start, getting us to root against him and even more for Felix.

As it becomes clear that Paul is no longer interested in Marie Louise [and convict Alfred is], the convicts become even more dedicated to helping the Ducotel family. -- This wily threesome are a delight to watch as they cleverly insinuate themselves into Felix's shop and family affairs, all the while taking no credit for anything. Mr. Page and Mr. Pollock are understated in their performances, and there are some sweetly innocent romantic scenes between Alfred and Marie Louise and between Jules and Emilie. The wholesomeness of these scenes is touching.

Mr. Hunter's depiction of Joseph's many skills in "salesmanship", presented with a self-assured posture and off-the-cuff delivery of his character's witticisms, take focus for much of the plot contrivances and humor. One of them many highlights of this delightful production.

Of course, the bad guys get their comeuppances [with the help of the three angels and a pet snake named Adolph]; and Mr. Jinright almost steals the show with his lengthy and physically impressive death-scene. -- With Henri and Paul out of the way, and Felix's business seeming to gain a foothold under Joseph's guidance, all that is left is to find a suitable mate for Marie Louise. Though this is not assured, the unexpected deus ex machina entrance of a handsome Lieutenant [Michael Buchanan] wearing a dress white uniform signals an instant spark of interest from Marie Louise.

Ms. Davis directs this determinedly heart-felt script with an affection that is contagious. Whether we believe that the ends justify the means, the unabashed good nature of the story and of the actors who perform in it under her guidance have audiences laughing and cheering the results.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Red Door: "In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot)"

Director Tom Salter has a mix of Union Springs newcomers and veteran actors in the Red Door Theatre's production of Steve Franco's comedy In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot). And this is good for the development of an already vibrant company as it encourages new talent on stage.

Franco's large cast of characters calls for a wide range of ages for both men and women, and while most of them are on stage a lot, there are several minor roles to provide experience and exposure as they contribute to the whole picture.

The play is set on a snowy Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, NY [Southern accents abound in this production] where a dysfunctional family gather for dinner, only to be held hostage by a pair of inept criminals whose frustrations build as the assorted family air long-held complaints and engage in verbal barbs with one another and with nosy neighbors.

Though much of the script stretches credibility to the extreme [everyone seems to accept the hostage taking with barely a flinch while they continue their idiosyncratic behavior as if nothing had happened; and there are several opportunities for individuals to either escape or to call the police while they are not being watched], Salter's actors achieve notable characterizations and keep audiences engaged for the play's short two acts.

While the ensemble display each of their characters' specific quirks clearly, there are some standouts: as Beth, Caroline Gables captures the sullen sarcasm of a young teenager who barely tolerates adults, but whose common sense clears the air several times;; Charlotte Phillips plays neighbor Mrs. Draper with absolute confidence, her matter-of-fact pronouncements are refreshing reminders that some people don't need to disguise their feelings to be politically correct.

What carries the day in this production are the combined efforts of the two criminals -- Tony [Alonzo Russell] and Vinny [Eric Arvidson] -- as they take over the household and are increasingly frustrated by the antics of the family. Mr. Russell is the one in charge [he has the gun, after all], and Mr. Arvidson is the "second banana" who follows orders and takes things literally, and whose vegetarianism ingratiates himself to similarly inclined Beth.

In the spirit of the Christmas season, the family come to the aid of their captors when the police arrive, as they have learned that Tony had lost his job and had stolen the money to provide Christmas for his family. -- Forgiveness, after all, is an important message at any time of year, and helping those in need is generally more pronounced at Christmas.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

AUM: "Tartuffe"

When Moliere's [Jean-Baptiste Poquelin] comic masterpiece -- Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite -- made its debut in 1664, it met with immediate censorship for its unfeigned criticism of a corrupt government and legal system, dubious morality in the Church, and the credulity of some members of the upper class.  But, it takes a sophisticated society to laugh at satire, and the play soon became immensely popular, establishing itself as a staple of world drama.

Much of what goes on in Moliere's robust comedy -- its catalogue of characters and situations might just as well be reported in 21st Century media: rebellious children and their autocratic parents meet up with the 17th Century versions of social media gossip where telling falsehoods often enough and loud enough pass for the truth when a quick fact-check on Snopes.com could settle the matter for those who value verifiable evidence -- sounds all-too-familiar.

Theatre AUM's 90-minute production, using Richard Wilbur's gold-standard verse translation [with significant editing and a few linguistic modifications] is staged on April Taylor's simple and finely rendered set that focuses audience attention on plot and character.

Director Mike Winkelman urges his twelve ensemble actors to speak the verse as rapidly as possible and retain as much as possible of the playwright's intent. There is a good variety of pace in the scenes, so we are engaged in their antics from beginning to end, and though we might miss an occasional word or two because of rapid-fire dialogue or raucous audience laughter at the predicaments the characters find themselves in, the story, characters, and social commentary do not go unnoticed.

Everyone but Orgon [Cushing Phillips] and his mother Madame Pernelle [Amy May] are convinced that Tartuffe, a guest in Orgon's house, has feigned a virtuous moral stance in order to inveigle his way into Orgon's fortune and family; underneath this guise, he appears to have exercised control over everything in his grasp.

And they are all frustrated that their pleas for common sense fall on Orgon's deaf ears. Neither his wife Elmire [Haeley DePace] nor his brother Cleante [David Wilson], his son Damis [Chris Mascia] nor his daughter Mariane [Kate Saylor] and her fiance Valere [Kodi Robertson], not even the outspoken maid Dorine [Amber Baldwin], can penetrate Orgon's stubborn defense of his favorite Tartuffe,

Moliere cleverly keeps Tartuffe off-stage for an extended period of time, leaving his duplicitous reputation to Orgon's family and servants. By the time Tartuffe [La'Brandon Tyre] shows up, Orgon has alienated everyone else, determined that Mariane will marry Tartuffe instead of Valere, and told them that Tartuffe will be favored with just about any privilege he desires, we are well prepared for the smoothest operator imaginable, and Mr. Tyre does not disappoint. He oozes duplicity with obvious pretense, leering faces, sensuous posturing, and melodramatic declarations of guilt when caught in the act. -- [So, how could anyone be duped so easily? Look around you. Empty promises to those who are desperate ring truthfully today.]

The acting company paint their characters with bold strokes verging on caricature at times; yet there are stand-out performances and memorable scenes. -- Ms. Baldwin's artful depiction of Dorine and her unabashedly direct truth-telling, no matter how out of place for a servant, makes the most of Moliere's masterful roles, one that has a long history from Roman comedies to today. She is a force of will and irony that allows her to speak without a filter, and always to audience delight. -- Mr. Phillips imbues Orgon with an authority that will not allow a challenge mixed with such ignorance of the truth that it takes first-hand observation to convince him. The famous scene where Orgon hides under a table to witness Tartuffe seduce Elmire is an outrageous stretch of credibility that all three participants handle well.

Mr. Mascia goes over-the-top in a son's frenzied frustration in not being believed by his father, resulting in Orgon disowning Damis. And Mr. Wilson's Cleante displays so many ticks and giggles that obscure the character's role in the play as the serious voice of reason.

Ms. Saylor and Mr. Robertson are nicely matched as the young lovers: she has a fine sense of comic possibilities in portraying an adolescent petulance and the romanticized notions of love that teenagers revel in, and he bounces in with such energy and commitment to please, only to be tested when he is told the marriage contract is off and he is to be replaced by Tartuffe as husband to Mariane. They bring a youthful vibrancy to their roles that enliven each scene they are in.

Lest anyone should be disappointed, the bad are punished and the good rewarded by the end. Moliere introduces Monsieur Loyal [Jonathan Meinsler] to arrest Orgon at Tartuffe's revenge for kicking him out of the house, but a Police Officer [Brady Walker] rescues him al the last moment and arrests Tartuffe instead.

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.