Saturday, April 21, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is perhaps best known for the 1975 film version that made Jack Nicholson a household name for his portrayal of the rebellious central character, Randle P. McMurphy; but within a year of the book's publication, Dale Wasserman had penned a stage version, the one now playing on the Wetumpka Depot's stage.

The action takes place on Kristy Meanor's impressively antiseptic set -- the day-room of a hospital psychiatric ward -- and is peopled by patients with either acute or chronic illness, all of them under the strict control of Nurse Ratched [Julie Janson] and her coterie of aides and junior nurses.

Director Cory Lawson's guides his effective ensemble of actors who are convincing in showing various aspects of mental illness: Martini [Bill Nowell] is subject to hallucinations; Cheswick [Frank Salvatore Monte] is much talk but little action; Ruckley [Brad Sinclair] imagines himself crucified to any wall available and speaks only with a repetitive vulgarity; Billy Bibbit [Marcus Clement] is a shy virgin who  is dominated by his mother and is afraid of the world outside the hospital; Scanlon [Blake Robertson] fantasizes on blowing things up; Dale Harding [Lee Bridges] is a repressed homosexual and leader of the patients' Council; together, they react and respond to McMurphy's rebellious attempts to help them regain a sense of self. -- The hospital's Dr. Spivey [Will Webster] and assorted nurses and aides all either succumb to Nurse Ratched's influence or behave with sadistic glee when they taunt the inmates. -- And the two whores McMurphy imports for a nighttime party booze-up -- Sandra [Samantha Inman] and particularly Candy Starr [Elizabeth Bowles] who is conscripted to have Billy lose his virginity -- bring evidence of an outside world as corrupt as the world of the hospital.

The story is narrated by Chief Bromden [Emile Mattison in an impressive stage debut], a Native American long-term patient whom everyone believes to be deaf and dumb, a ruse he uses to disguise his feeling of inadequacy; yet, this giant-of-a-man's journey to regaining a sense of himself as a person not defined by the emasculating calculations of Nurse Ratched, and his ability to tell us about his own hallucinations, the inhumane conditions at the hospital, and the impact of McMurphy on everyone's lives, is central to the issues of the drama.

McMurphy's entrance [we hear him before we see him] announces an immediate challenge to Nurse Ratched's rigid control. Scott Page commands attention from the outset; having conned his way into the hospital by feigning insanity, thinking a six month stay in the hospital would be easier than serving that time at a prison work farm [he fights a lot, and gambles, and brags about his sexual conquests], he stands against everything Nurse Ratched designs to emasculate and destroy the self-esteem of the patients under her control; and despite warnings from the inmates not to cross her, McMurphy bets them that he will be able to "get to her" and make her drop her cool and calculating demeanor and show anger. In a series of scenes where Mr. Page dominates the action by gambling at card games, narrating a World Series game on a blank television set, or disrupting Nurse Ratched's control over patients' meetings, the last straw is when he attacks her and accuses her of causing Billy's suicide.

Mr. Page's charisma as the swaggering non-conformist McMurphy who represents the self-determination, freedom, and sexuality that the other inmates lack, creates a perfect foil to Ms. Janson's sterile mechanical Nurse; she has an icy and insinuating demeanor that gives her an air of an angel of mercy, but her patronizing and manipulative facade, and the knowledge that she controls both the inhumane "treatments" [electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy] and the duration of all her patients' time in the hospital, eventually takes its toll: ironically, as McMurphy's influence helps others to find their own voices and get stronger and bigger, his actual and figurative stature gets weaker and smaller.

The only way McMurphy can remain a hero to the inmates after Nurse Ratched orders him to be lobotomized is for Chief Bromden to smother him and escape from the hospital, having regained his sense of self and his ability to tell the story.

Mr. Lawson's sensitive and impactful direction, combined with the clarity of storytelling and the riveting characterizations of his actors, make for a provocative and challenging theatrical event.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

AUM: "Measure for Measure"

Long regarded as one of William Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure is officially classified as a comedy, but is ambiguous in combining raucous comic elements with a darker psychological assessment of morality, justice, and mercy.

Director Mike Winkelman's production at Theatre AUM gives the comic elements a boisterous clownish touch that contrasts with the more somber moments; Val Winkelman's costumes that combine modern clothes with suggestions of indeterminate period attire, along with contemporary musical selections, allow audiences to readily connect with subject matter that resonate some 415 years after Measure for Measure was first performed -- topics such as moral hypocrisy, sexual harassment, and the dichotomy between the letter of the law and clemency, that leap off the front pages of our media.

Recognizing he has been lenient in enforcing the law, Duke Vincentio [David Wilson] purports to leave Vienna on a diplomatic trip to Poland, commissioning the strict enforcement of the city's laws to Angelo [Neil David Seibel], a man of untarnished reputation, and second-in-command Escalus [Teri Sweeney]; but unbeknownst to all but one, the Duke will actually stay in Vienna disguised as a Friar to observe what happens in his absence.

In quick order as the townsfolk carouse noisily, Angelo arrests the drunken pimp Pompey [Sam Wallace], closes the brothels much to the dismay of Pompey and Mistress Overdone [Elizabeth Woodworth], and has Claudio [Chris Mascia] arrested for impregnating his espoused wife Juliet [Cathy Ranieri], a capital crime. -- Claudio enlists his friend Lucio [Kodi Robertson] to ask his sister Isabella [Sarah Walker Thornton] to plead to Angelo for mercy.

Isabella is set to become a nun, and is the most morally upright character; she is appalled at Claudio's sin, but she agrees to intervene with Angelo to save her brother's life. And the play turns rather abruptly in tone to a debate wherein both characters have solid arguments: Angelo responds to Isabella's passionate request for a merciful punishment with "It is the law that condemns your brother, not I", insisting on the letter of the law to be enforced...a topic Shakespeare addressed also in The Merchant of Venice, and which has classical connections to the arguments in Sophocles' Antigone.

Angelo knows he has power, and yet, Isabella seems to make him relent a bit. "A virtuous maid subdues me," he says, attracted also by her beauty, before offering leniency for Claudio in exchange for having sex with Isabella. -- When she threatens to tell the world what Angelo proposes, his "unspoiled reputation...austere life...and place in the state" give him the upper hand as he exclaims: "Who would believe thee?" knowing that "My false o'erweighs your truth."

On telling this to Claudio, he begs her to "let me live", but she will not give up her virtue and risk eternal damnation for both herself and Claudio by doing as Angelo wants.

Meanwhile, the Duke still disguised as a Friar has been observing everything, and comes up with a remedy: have Isabella agree to Angelo's demands, but insist their assignation be at night and with no talking; then switch places with Mariana [Brittany Vallely] who was once engaged to Angelo, though the engagement was broken off, and thereby placing Angelo in the same predicament as Claudio under the law against fornication.

All appears to go as planned until Angelo determines to have Claudio executed no matter what and there is a head-substitution plot to save him. -- And the Duke must return to reveal all.

The comic scenes are played with gusto that often interferes with clear communication of words audiences need to hear about plot and character; but they are entertaining. -- And while we might question the Duke's deceptive disguise, Mr. Wilson clears up much of the plotting.

Audience focus is solidly on Angelo and Isabella. As a credit to Mr. Seibel and Ms. Thornton [both Equity actors], neither of their characters can be seen here as completely evil or completely good. Mr. Seibel lends a truthfulness to his initial attraction to Isabella, and a stoical acceptance of his guilt at the end; we understand his letter of the law stance even as it encumbers him. Ms. Thornton's portrayal of Isabella grows in her convictions while she agonizes on the effects her steadfast beliefs; her deliberation on her choices involve audiences to do the same. -- They are the solid center of this production.

As happy endings are conventions of comedies, Measure for Measure satisfies up to a point. There are several marriages on hand, to be sure -- though it is questionable whether any of them will be particularly happy -- and there is some sense of justice tinged with mercy by the end. But so many issues [or "problems"] remain: how to justify the Duke's deceptive behavior and the pain it inflicts on innocent people; the contradictions within the character of Isabella [her steadfast morality countered by her willingness to deceive Angelo]; the imposition of marriage on unwilling partners; and Isabella's silence at the Duke's marriage proposal makes her decision unclear [though in this production's last moment, Isabella is alone on stage and removes her nun's veil].

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Faulkner: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"

Philip Sprayberry, Stephen Elrod, Sam Wallace, Jason Clark South, Angela Dickson.....Marilyn Swears, Randy Foster.....Matt Dickson, Jason Lee, Tony Davison.....Carolyn McCoy -- The 30-year success of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre is due in large part to the luminaries listed above; and yet, the department is shutting down with its final production: Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's multi-award winning musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A reliable source of family entertainment for a wealth of subscribers and occasional visitors, and a springboard for graduates seeking professional careers in theatre, the departure of Faulkner's theatre department will leave a significant gap in the Montgomery area arts and education communities.

But, they are going out in style in a version that retains the flavor of the 1960s-1970s youth culture. -- Director Angela Dickson guides a rag-tag group of entertainers who recount the Bible story of Joseph, Jacob's favorite of his twelve sons, his gift of a spectacular "coat of many colors", the brothers' jealousy and their getting rid of Joseph, his rescue in Egypt where he becomes Pharaoh's favorite, and the ultimate reunion of Joseph and his family...all of which is done through song [there's hardly a line of dialogue in the 90+ minute production with masterful accompaniment by Randy Foster].

The able cast is comprised of students, alumni, and community guests, who appear to be genuinely engaged in the action. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and the singing is accomplished in solo and group/production numbers [a continuance of quality that is expected in Faulkner musicals].

Narrative lyrics that contain important expository information are sometimes hard to hear because of sound balance issues or stage action that overpower individual voices, but when they are in sync the result is excellent. Strong singing voices and harmonic blends enliven the lyrics and clearly communicate the plot and themes.

Some highlights are "One More Angel in Heaven" featuring Hunter Smith, Matt Dickson's Elvis inspired Pharaoh, Chris Kelly's leadership in "Those Canaan Days",  and Tony Davison's amusing "Benjamin Calypso".

But, central to the production's success is the character of Joseph in the person of Brandtley McDonald.  The vocal clarity he brings to each number, and the credibility he brings to interpreting lyrics, are the bedrock of the play. He bookmarks the evening with "Any Dream Will Do", and shines especially well in "Close Every Door"...and virtually every moment he is on stage.

And by the end of the evening, patrons leave the theatre happy to have been in company with a group of actors who have shared their talents and their passion for theatre, and who celebrate the thirty year Faulkner program with genuine affection.

Friday, April 13, 2018

WOBT: "Crimes of the Heart"

Beth Henley's multi-award winning Crimes of the Heart is a perennial favorite, having had numerous showings across the River Region since its 1979 debut at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently playing at Prattville's "Way Of Broadway Theatre" under Brady Walker's gentle direction, Henley's Southern tragicomedy offers a glimpse into the lives of the Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi on eldest sibling Lenny's [Haeley DePace] 30th Birthday, when boozy middle sister Meg [Ashlee Lassiter] returns from Hollywood at Lenny's request to help out with youngest sister Babe's [Glory Bush] arrest for shooting her high-powered lawyer husband Zachary because she "didn't like his looks".

It seems that almost everyone is having a bad day: the sisters' Old Granddaddy is hospitalized after a stroke, Lenny's horse just died, the sisters are haunted by their mother's suicide years ago, Babe is closed-mouthed about shooting her husband because she is "protecting someone", social-climbing cousin Chick Boyle [Lolly White] is more humiliated than concerned about Babe's indiscretion, Meg's singing career has dried up and she tries to rekindle a one-time relationship with now happily married Doc Porter [Josh Reese]...and Lenny's only birthday present is an out-of-date box of chocolates from Chick.

Into Babe's defense steps eager neophyte lawyer Barnette Lloyd [Sam Elsky]. Smitten with Babe, Barnette also has a "personal vendetta" to settle against Zachary. But when Babe's secret is made known, and incriminating pictures could ruin any case she might have, decisions have to be made.

Mr. Walker keeps his actors moving at a steady pace, giving each character his or her moments to shine. They work as a tight ensemble, and while their interpretations are clear, they should develop greater variety and subtleties as the run of the play continues.

The set by Mike Proper and Brady Walker -- a kitchen in the sisters' grandfather's home -- is rendered with attention to detail, making it a livable and familiar place for the characters to inhabit, and adds to the overall naturalism in this quirky comedy.

We get caught up in the bizarre happenings in Hazlehurst, laughing and crying at the mishaps, confusions, sibling rivalries, romances, and legal twists and turns; but what holds Crimes of the Heart together is the bond of family that can assuage almost any hardship.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

ASF: "Bear Country"

When Michael Vigilant was writing Bear Country, he knew he had to get it right; after all, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant is idolized in Alabama, and there are a lot of people who knew and worked with him and had versions of virtually any episode in Bryant's life that might make it to the stage. And he had to capture the character of the man beyond the football field.

Brought back for a third run in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon Theatre [seen previously in 2009 and 2011], Bear Country again features Rodney Clark in the role, with Matt Clevy as a Young Bryant and a Young Coach Bryant, and Seth Andrew Bridges, and Clinton C. Lowe playing all the other characters.

It opens as Coach Bryant is packing up his office on his retirement from the University of Alabama, looking around and picking up an assortment of footballs, photographs, magazine articles, and other items that trigger memories that become the backbone of Vigilant's narrative. -- There are mixed feelings, of course: fond ones as he remembers coach-mentors who gave him sound advice, football triumphs, humorous episodes galore; and unpleasant recalls of interrogations regarding alleged game-fixing and betting, accusations of racism, and the deaths of parents and athletes who meant the world to him.

Time here is not chronological -- memory is like that; and Peter Hicks' set has strategically placed furniture and props [desks, the famous viewing/coaching tower, a chalkboard showing the famous "wishbone formation", Coca-Cola and Golden Flake, etc.] that allow for fluid staging of these memories.

But it is Vigilant's script and the talented ensemble that give it vigor. Mr. Clevy, Mr. Bridges, and Mr. Lowe create vivid depictions of their assigned characters, stamping each of them with individual traits that credibly impact Coach Bryant.

At the center is Mr. Clark, who has played "the Bear" off and on for almost a decade. He appears so comfortable in Bryant's skin, that one imagines the man himself on the ASF stage. -- Throughout the play, Mr. Clark philosophizes with the confidence of a man who has lived a full life. His reflections on his mentors' significance, the many life lessons he inspired in his athletes, the value of family, the differentiation between "losing" and "loss", and the fact that "It doesn't cost anything to be nice, to be honest, and to be a man of your word", are things that any audience member can take to heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

ASF: "The Miracle Worker"

It would be a disservice to William Gibson's The Miracle Worker to focus exclusively on the relationship between young Irish immigrant Annie Sullivan [Marina Shay] and Helen Keller [Brooklyn Norstedt], and the effort that went into an eventual breakthrough moment for the blind-deaf-mute Helen. It is that, of course, but a lot  more besides.

Set in post-Civil War Tuscumbia, Alabama, Gibson's episodic storytelling has a lot to say about family, patriarchy, behavioral psychology, gender roles, race, social class, bullying, 19th Century medical practices, and disabilities that resonate across time and have audiences reflecting on their own experiences.

At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, director James Bowen gives attention to each of these by placing the action on James Wolk's skeletal minimalist set; and his acting ensemble, dressed in Pamela Scofield's detailed period costumes, enhance the timeliness of these subjects through naturalistic rendering of relationships and dialogue.

From the outset, we learn of the disease that afflicted Helen in infancy, and then fast-forward eight years to a time when the family are resigned to catering to the young girl's tantrums, thereby enabling her to rule the roost. -- When Dr. Anagnos [Louis Butelli], the head of the "Perkins Institute for the Blind", sends the yet untested Annie to be Helen's teacher/governess, the stakes are high and expectations low. But Annie is no pushover, and with her own vision impairment, she uses unconventional tactics that challenge the patriarchy of Captain Keller [Timothy Carter], and the well-intentioned yet destructive enabling of Mrs. Keller [Jenny Strasburg] and Aunt Ev [Toni DiBuono]. -- The only family member who seems to approve of Annie's methods is Keller's son James [Sean Hudock], a youth who is trying desperately to speak up for himself and earn his father's respect. -- Household servant Viney [Ginneh Thomas] observes everything going on around her, and quietly demonstrates a dignity that needs no approval.

Gibson's 1959 script is based on Helen Keller's book The Story of My Life, and the 1962 film that followed it secured its popularity; several iconic scenes are indelibly marked in our collective consciousness: dining room sequences where Helen throws food and steals from others' plates; Annie teaching Helen sign-language words to associate with objects; and the climactic scene at the water pump that has Helen speak for the first time. -- Yet, there are a number of other instances that show the frustrations of the family and their relationships with one another as they deal with the impact of Helen's progress on them: Keller's reluctant capitulation to the wisdom of the women who want to give Annie a chance; James finding an unexpected ally and friend in Mrs. Keller; the powerful bonding between father and son. The actors give credible interpretations that target the most human responses to the challenges they face.

Through persistence and consistency, Annie teaches Helen discipline and earns the approval of the Kellers. The changes that Ms. Norstedt registers -- from the wild feral battles with Annie at the start to the thrill in understanding the meaning of words that will become her salvation -- are impressive; and Ms. Shay is unflinching in showing Annie's determination to do what is right regardless of objections to her methods. Her mantra of "discipline without breaking her spirit" and her determination to get authority for herself for fear that the family might undo Helen's progress ("She's testing you", she says when they return to placating Helen's outbursts by offering sweet-treats and affectionate hugs), center the action and have Annie emerge triumphant in Ms. Shay's capable interpretation of the role.

In the current season's plays, ASF is featuring "some of our native heroes whose triumphs and trials are woven into the fabric of Alabama's history": the Tuskegee Airmen, "Bear" Bryant, and Helen Keller. This iteration of The Miracle Worker is a fitting tribute.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Millbrook: "Sister Act" (musical)

The stalwart cast of Sister Act (the musical) bumped their way through the opening night performance by the Millbrook Community Players; beset with illnesses, and with long scene changes and sound imbalances, they managed to produce a charming and sometimes vigorous show. -- Things ought to settle down soon.

Based on the popular 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, the 2006 musical debuted in London before crossing the Atlantic to  mostly favorable reviews. -- It tells the unlikely story of lounge-singer Deloris Van Cartier [Desirae Lewis] who is put into witness protection custody by policeman Eddie Souther [Dre Massey] after she witnessed a gangland murder by her then boyfriend Curtis [Calvin Johnson]. Deloris is placed where nobody would think to find her -- in a convent, with the reluctant cooperation of the Mother Superior [Lavonne Hart], a rigid disciplinarian, and the well intentioned Monsignor O'Hara [Roger Humber].

Her secret safe for the time being, Deloris is introduced to the resident nuns as Sister Mary Clarence; but, after an assortment of renegade mishaps, Sister Mary Clarence's musical abilities are used to transform the nuns' choir into a solid ensemble.

Curtis has sworn to hunt her down and kill her, so when he gets wind of Deloris' whereabouts, he sends his goons to do her in; Joey [Lee Bridges], TJ [Matthew Mitchell] and Pablo [Michael Mims] are stumblebums of the first degree, and provide a good amount of the play's humor.

Director Angie Mitchell and her cast of 36 keep the focus on Deloris and Mother Superior, opposing forces who learn from one another that they can get along and actually respect one another despite their differences. Warnings are given to Deloris to "be inconspicuous", and hopeful refrains like "God has sent you here for a reason", often frustrate Mother Superior into exclamations for God to "give me a sign" that all will be well.

Subplots of a past relationship between Deloris and Eddie the cop that grows into romance, and of Sister Mary Robert's [Morgan Patrenos] doubts about her vocation and wanting to have some life experiences, are glossed over in this production that seem like an afterthought here.

The musical score runs the gamut of musical styles from disco to Motown to soul, and are given appropriate choreography to match. -- Haeley DePace on keyboard and Mark McGuire on drums accompany the cast and set the scenes, but they often drown out the solo voices and even some chorus numbers; they are more restrained in a few introspective songs, letting the actors and their voices do the work.

Ms. Hart does a fine job interpreting her solo songs, with a good amount of irony and questioning of her position in charge of the welfare of the convent. -- The aforementioned gangster trio have a terrifically upbeat time of it.

But, let's face it, the star of the show is Ms. Lewis. She is vivacious from start to finish, and takes command of the stage on every entrance. Plus, her ability to embody Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence, with all her contradictions, is admirable. And it doesn't hurt that she can belt out a song with the best of them. She is the "real deal" in this production. Hats off to her.