Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Theatre AUM: "Galileo"

Change is difficult. With thousands of years' acceptance of a belief that the earth was the center of the universe and that all the stars and planets revolved around it, and with the support of governments and the Church, anyone who dared to challenge this creed was sure to be in for a tough time.

Enter Galileo Galilei in Seventeenth Century Italy who concluded via scientific method that indeed the sun was the center of our cosmos with all other heavenly bodies circling it; this was in direct conflict with the "certainties" that kings and prelates had relied on to keep their jobs intact. -- Scientific evidence did not matter; after all, "people in power monopolize truth...and put down all objections" through sheer might and influence.

Sound familiar? -- Just check today's news reports on several subjects where an intractable egocentric majority voice often thwarts level-headed evidence-based proposals that might just improve the conditions of countless citizens. -- And what better reason for Theatre AUM to produce Bertolt Brecht's Galileo as part of their educational theatre mission.

Written in 1943 while Brecht was living in America, the impact of World War II was very strong. Brecht's was a theatre of ideas that intended to break from the Nineteenth Century's fashionable romantic-realism by emphasizing the theatricality of his plays in order to alienate the audience's emotional connection with his characters. This Verfremdungseffekt provided constant reminders that they were in the theatre rather than experiencing a slice of real life; Brecht's plays often incorporate song-commentaries, narration, characters directly addressing the audience, projections, and other conventions that disengage the audience from emotions and force a consideration of his ideas. [And Theatre AUM has wisely provided ample program notes and a glossary of "things to know" to help audiences understand the many scientific, religious, and historical references scattered throughout the script.]

Under Mike Winkelman's inventive direction, Brecht's "alienation" is brought into play with Michael Krek's open-plan set and vivid screen projections and Val Winkelman's modern dress black-and-white geometric patterned costumes that suggest both the certainties of place and character as well as the grey-areas in between. -- Relying on the ensemble playing of actors, most of whom play multiple (and often gender-switched) roles, overlapping and repetitive speech, and incorporation of Twenty-first Century songs and dances, this distancing of audience and actor is strong, though it is confusing when dialogue is at times delivered at such a rapid pace to be almost unintelligible.

The central idea of the first of the play's fourteen scenes positions Galileo's [Michael Krek] scientific doubt against the scientifically unsupported astronomical certainties mentioned above, and continues this throughout. -- As it covers many years in Galileo's life -- from the discovery of Jupiter's moons and the doubt of an earth-centered universe, through charges of heresy and a trial by the Inquisition that forced hum to recant his discovery, to imprisonment and blindness -- the one constant is Galileo's need for empirical evidence brought about by healthy doubt of anything that could not be proved with evidence. -- When challenged with the question "Where is God?" in his findings, Galileo counters with his "belief in the human race and its possibilities." --- A lot for audiences to consider.

The AUM company's performances [a large ensemble cast of experienced and neophyte actors] keep the audience on edge as they assume different roles and follow the script's demands to alienate their viewers. And we go in-and-out of connecting with them because of these theatrical conventions.

But it is equally challenging for us to disengage completely from Brecht's well-drawn characters when they are depicted truthfully. -- Tina Neese, as Galileo's daughter Virginia, ranges from a naive young girl to a much wiser woman convincingly. La'Brandon Tyre's portrayal of the Cardinal Inquisitor is confidently sinister in his approach, and unflinching in wielding his power through ironic interpretations of dialogue and an utterly unflappable manner. Sam Wallace plays Andrea Sarti, Galileo's protege, also from a credible idealist youth to a disappointed and enraged adult. -- And we engage with them.

As the central character, Michael Krek depicts Galileo's frustrations and passion for scientific and rational pursuits with comfort, and tracks Galileo's ageing with subtle shifts of posture and vocal nuances. -- Above all, however, he ably gets Brecht's points across so audiences leave the theatre ready to discuss these matters at more length. Good work.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Millbrook: "The Seven Little Foys"

The opening night's performance of The Seven Little Foys by the Millbrook Community Players was fraught with actors' illnesses, yet in the grand tradition of theatre everywhere, "the show went on".

Audiences of a certain age might remember the 1955 film starring Bob Hope, with an exuberant cameo by James Cagney reprising his role as George M. Cohan from "Yankee Doodle Dandy". -- Later turned into a play (2007) by Chip Deffaa, it tells the fictionalized account of Eddie Foy [Steve A. Shuemake], one of America's great vaudevillians, as he confronts his many inner demons after the death of his long-suffering wife, in bringing up their seven children and ultimately realizing the importance of family over career.

Set in the early days of the 20th Century, this family-friendly entertainment as directed by Pamela Trammell adds a bit of warmth to these chilly nights as it showcases numerous nostalgic songs of the period. -- Yet, at 2-hours and 45-minutes playing time (slow pace, over-long scene changes, lagging energy from sick actors, and tentative dancing in what ought to be show-stopping numbers), the production drags for much of the time.

Kudos to Mr. Shuemake for making it through what must have been a grueling evening for him due to his illness. He is in virtually every scene, and the struggle was evident; he was even "miked" in Act II to help with vocal projection. -- And he does share a lovely moment with Tracey Quates as Mrs. Foy in their sensitive rendition of "On Moonlight Bay."

As narrated by eldest daughter Mary [Kaitlin LeMaster is strong and confident], the ups and downs of Foy's career and family are interspersed with songs, many by the children who each has a showcase moment that highlights personality over talent [according to the script, the kids are a mixed bag of precocious mischief-makers with little performing ability who are reluctantly conscripted to go on the road with their father to help pay the bills and restore the family unit that Foy neglected while he pursued his various addictions]. Abetted by George M. Cohan [Brandon Gonzalez], Foy and his clan avoid the existing Child Labor Laws for a time before the law catches up with them.

The rest of the children -- Andre Bordlee, Seth Bordlee, Caleb Campbell, Gavin Campbell, Braden Fine, and M. Eizabeth Grace Shuemake -- hoof-it through the two acts with varying degrees of success. -- At 5-years-of-age, Gavin Campbell plays youngest son Irving with such stage presence for one so young, and could melt your heart by his genuine smile alone.

But it is Miss Shuemake's Madeline , a no-nonsense rebel who threatens to quit the family, and who belts out two memorable songs with the best of them: Sophie Tucker's signature 1910 "Some of These Days" and Fanny Brice's "Second Hand Rose" from the Zeigfeld Follies of 1921. -- Her credible performance, confident stage presence, and strong singing voice make her the standout in this production.

Katy Gerlach provided excellent piano accompaniment throughout, and Daniel Harms' choreography was kept simple and period specific.

Let's hope the actors' health improved for the very few performances in the run this weekend only.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Crimes of the Heart"

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

"...this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. See...no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."
                           -- Julia Sugarbaker: "Designing Women"

Score another hit for The Cloverdale Playhouse. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart got its start at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979 and has been on the boards ever since --  with good reason: this perceptive comedy-drama is set in Hazelhurst, MS five years after Hurricane Camille, and recounts the domestic saga of the three MaGrath sisters, members of a Southern family who don't hide their eccentricities and foibles -- they "bring 'em down to the [kitchen in this case] and show 'em off".

Director Maureen Costello has assembled a tight-knit ensemble of Playhouse veterans and newcomers whose complex characterizations, bizarre behavior, and utter commitment to the truthfulness of these somewhat disturbed souls shape Ms. Henley's script in ever surprising revelations that keep audiences alternately laughing and crying for a full two-and-a-half hours.

The play is set in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy's house where spinster eldest sister Lenny [Deborah Robertson] has been living as his caretaker; middle sister Meg [Jaymee Vowell] answers Lenny's summons to return from her failed Hollywood singing career in order to lend support to youngest sister Babe [Sarah Adkins] who has just shot her big-wig lawyer husband Zachery because she "didn't like his looks".

Their cousin Chick [Rhonda Crim] antagonizes them with her haughty condescension while the sisters hire Barnette Lloyd [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], a young and seemingly meek attorney who just happens to have a "personal vendetta" against Babe's husband. -- Meg's former boyfriend Doc [Bill-e Cobb] brings word that Lenny's horse has been struck by lightning on this, her 30th Birthday which only Chick remembered by bringing her a box of almost year-old chocolates.

Hanging over the action is the specter of their Mother's bizarre suicide, their Father's desertion of the family, Old Granddaddy's physical ailments and domineering ways, Zachery's history of abusing Babe, Lenny's inability to have children due to her "shrunken ovaries", an incident during Hurricane Camille that almost crippled Doc, and Babe's "secret" that could prejudice a jury against her.

Yes, that's a lot to "bring down and show off", but Ms. Costello's ensemble inhabit their characters with complete truthfulness, that no matter how fantastic their behavior or attitudes, they are completely credible. We recognize them (and might just have relatives like them). -- To a person, these actors handle even the most far-fetched incidents as commonplace with such grace and charm that their surface quirks have us liking them even with their faults, and in true Southern fashion, "we're proud of our crazy people" on the Cloverdale stage.

Mr. Dasinger's Barnette at first appears to be naively innocent and unsure of his surroundings, especially in the boisterous MaGrath household, but he quickly falls under the spell of the sisters, Babe in particular, and there is a hint of possible romance that Ms. Adkins can switch on with a shrug or a pout, all the while admitting her guilt and accepting Barnette's suggestions and interpretations of the law.

Mr. Cobb's physical and vocal comfort in the role of Doc is admirable, and a far cry from his star-turn as the flamboyant Emcee in 2012's Cabaret. Totally natural as the humble happily-married Doc who seems to genuinely like the MaGraths, and wants no more than an evening spent with Meg without recriminations for her deserting him during the hurricane five years ago. A rock-solid performance.

In a powerhouse portrayal as Chick, Ms. Crim claims attention every time she hits the stage. Here is a woman one can "love to hate" -- a superficially charming young matron whose studied manners and social position are given a sharp edge with virtually every line of dialogue that she spews with criticism and holier-than-thou assurance. Yet, she is the one realist in the group; she may be right most of the time, though her attitude works against her. -- Postures, facial expressions, and comic timing are delivered with no inhibitions; excellent.

Each of the three MaGrath sisters has issues, ones they avoid by resorting to mundane daily tasks that provide a sense of security. -- Ms. Robertson imbues the introverted Lenny with flustered and fastidious gestures; she won't risk loving a man because she doesn't want any man to know she can't have children; so she throws herself into helping others as the seeming rock of the family. -- Ms. Vowell's depiction of the headstrong worldly Meg who pretends that her career is in good shape rather than admit failure, nonetheless goes with Doc for a "ride in his truck to look at the moon" as an attempt to relive a romanticized past. -- And Ms. Adkins plays the self-contradictory (perhaps schizophrenic) Babe with elements of innocence and sophistication, seduction and childlike wonder; and she can turn on a dime with complete conviction.

Together, their denial can make light of Babe's criminal act and switch attention to Lenny's forgotten Birthday, making lemonade, or other diversions...anything but admit the reality of their situation by believing "it'll work out". Family trumps the rest of the world, and these Southern women rely on that more than anything.

Playwright Henley and the Playhouse actors handle serious big issues so candidly that we are very comfortable in their company, and we don't mind at all that their craziness is in full view for us to enjoy.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Man of LaMancha"

The multiple award-winning musical Man of La Mancha (1965) is being given a solid production at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre under Jason Clark South's direction.

Using Matt Dickson's flexible cave-like prison set's assorted playing levels, ramps, steps, openings, and drawbridge to good advantage, Mr. South's talented ensemble of 17 actors fill the stage portraying some 42 characters among them with simple costume adjustments and mannerisms to differentiate each role.

Add Marilyn Swears on piano and Mark Benson on percussion to expertly accompany the high quality singing voices of the ensemble, and the tale of Miguel de Cervantes' iconic "Don Quixote" comes to life for two-and-a-half hours on the Faulkner stage.

While Dale Wasserman's script, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, does not pretend to be utterly faithful to the complexities of Cervantes' 17th Century picaresque novel, it does capture its source's essential spirit, if not the full bite of its satire. -- Wasserman's conceit is to have Cervantes [Terry Brown] brought to prison facing charges of the Spanish Inquisition, where, as an entertainment to plead his case among the prisoners as a kind of warm-up to the actual trial, he conscripts the inmates to play the roles of his tale, while he himself inhabits the central character of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his quest as a knight errant to change the harshness of the real world and restore chivalry and goodness to it....an "Impossible Dream", perhaps.

Accompanied by his ever faithful servant Sancho Panza [Brandtley McDonald], and instantly besotted by a kitchen-wench/whore Aldonza [Jesse Alston] -- a woman he idealizes as Dulcinea, in his mind the fair lady to whom the knight offers service -- Quixote's vivid imagination that borders madness at times, transforms the banal and ugly world into a romanticized idealization of it. -- His confusion of truth and fiction is questioned by the Governor/Innkeeper [Blake Williams] among others, much to his consternation.

Man of La Mancha is enhanced by its musical score, with a number of now famous songs: the entire Ensemble shines in a few of them, but it is in individual voices that both the music and lyrics both punctuate or comment on the action and demonstrate the many talents in Faulkner's cast. Antonia [Emily Woodring], the Housekeeper [Rhonda Cattley], and the Padre [Morgan Baker] compliment one another in "I'm Only thinking of Him"; and Mr. Baker's solo "To Each His Dulcinea" showcases his supple voice. Mr. McDonald's strong voice and fully committed characterizations make him one to watch whenever he holds forth in such numbers as "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip".

Ms. Alston's Aldonza/Dulcinea is thoroughly convincing, as she reluctantly portrays the difficult transition from kitchen wench to heroine; we feel her frustrations in her attempts to understand Quixote's fixations that are so contrary to the reality: "It's All the Same", "What Does He Want of Me?", "Aldonza", and her eloquently simple acceptance of his esteem in "Dulcinea" carry the audience on her journey with complete credibility.

And, fittingly, Mr. Brown's engagement in the roles of Cervantes/Quixote are served up with aplomb. His powerful baritone is in good form in the taxing songs "Dulcinea" and "The Impossible Dream", but more importantly, his credibility as both the confident author and the naively idealistic knight and his generosity in sharing the stage with other actors, garners him well-deserved "bravos" from the audience.

There are some hard lessons to be learned here: Quixote's "impossible dream" affords some hope despite the incessant cruelty of the real world around him -- and us. If as Cervantes/Quixote claims that "good always triumphs", the path to goodness has a lot of obstacles along the way. Seeing and experiencing the world as it is -- the polar opposite of Quixote's fantasy -- can drive a person to madness, or perhaps to redemption.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Millbrook: "Harvey"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley, River Region theatre artist.

The Millbrook Community Players are currently staging Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a congenial, well-to-do gentleman who happens to have a six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch rabbit as a best friend. The play's excitement surrounds the fact that Harvey, the anthropomorphic rabbit friend, is invisible to all but Elwood P. Dowd (Roger Humber).

Elwood takes every opportunity to introduce Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing sister, Veta Louise, and niece Myrtle Mae (Lavonne Hart and Christina Harvell), who live in Elwood's house and rely on his generosity. In fact, the play opens on Veta Louise using Elwood's stately home to host a lavish society luncheon with the intent of introducing Myrtle Mae as an eligible bachelorette to local society's mothers of eligible sons. When Elwood unexpectedly shows up and begins to introduce Harvey to all Veta Louise's guests, it is the last straw: Veta Louise decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium.

When Elwood and Veta Louise (and, of course, Harvey) arrive at the sanitarium, a comedy of errors ensues. While the orderly Wilson (one of the more natural comedic performances from Greg Fanning) takes Elwood to a treatment room, Dr. Sanderson (Mark McGuire) interviews Veta Louise -- and determines that she is the one who needs help. Now freed, Elwood quickly befriends Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly (Heather Allen) and offers to come back later and take them out for drinks. Elwood departs, leaving his sister in the hands of the sanitarium staff, and Harvey somehow unaccounted for and loose in the hospital.

Fortunately for Veta Louise, the truth comes out and she is released. Meanwhile, Harvey -- who it turns out isn't entirely imaginary, but is an Irish ghost called a pooka -- befriends the hospital's elusive director, who is quite shaken by the encounter. When Elwood shows up to take his new friends out and to look for Harvey, Dr. Sanderson knows exactly how to treat him. He wants to give Elwood an injection that will rid him of the delusion everyone believes him to be under. Veta Louise's cab driver (Randy Burdick brings a delightful deadpan to the role) interrupts and, overhearing, assures Elwood's sister that the treatment will work -- he has driven lots of troubled people to the sanitarium, only to take them back home after treatment has made them a "perfectly normal human being, and you know how awful they are". It's up to Veta Louise to decide whether Elwood should get the treatment or if she'd rather have Elwood as-is, eccentricities and all.

This production features several budding comic character actors: misters Burdick and Fanning, as well as Emily Burdick and Mike DeLaura.

Also among the highlights of the production is the exceptionally well designed and dressed set. Its functional design is well situated within the space and allows the audience to transition quickly and easily between Elwood's home and the doctor's office at the hospital.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "A Higher Place in Heaven"

Georgia playwright Pamela Parker has a small cottage industry surrounding the fictional town of Second Samuel, GA -- Second Samuel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas, and now showing on the Wetumpka Depot stage: a prequel to the other two called A Higher Place in Heaven, showing the boyhood of characters Frisky and U.S., who feature prominently as adults in the other two plays.

Set in the Summer of 1925, it is a gentle coming-of-age story as well as a serious contemplation on race relations told through complex family relationships. Blacks and Whites who grew up together for generations have fixed social "places" that no one seems to question -- they appear to get along, and it is these assumptions that have kept Blacks back with little hope for advancement and allowed Whites to feel superior.

Teenagers: Frisky [Reese Lynch] and Ulysses (known as U.S.) [Matthew Mitchell] are best friends who spend their time fishing or otherwise lazing about, while their Mothers: Miss Madison [Hazel Jones] and her confidante-servant Miss Simpson [Anne-Marie Mitchell] gossip on the porch of "New Hope", the Madison family's old plantation mansion. Their two families have lived there for generations, and Miss Simpson helped bring up the Madison children.

Everything seems normal until Frisky's older lawyer brother, Son [Clint Evans], shows up to give a speech at the dedication of a monument to their grandfather who fought in the Civil War; Son wants to emphasize the "glory" of the war, and his wife Billie Augusta [Madyson Greenwood] tempers his enthusiasm with practical comments.

When Son discovers his Mother's new will which leaves the family home to Miss Simpson, he is outraged that the property will belong to a Black family at Miss Madison's death, and does everything he can to thwart her plan.

The boys -- inseparable playmates on the verge of growing up, and wanting to make something of themselves -- have some plans of their own to both attend Tuskegee Institute (since U.S. can't attend a White university); and when each is faced with decisions, their inner biases come to the fore, and the racial divide and all the assumptions that come along with it demonstrate how complicated an issue it is.

Confronted with Son's question: "Why does the will leave the house to Miss Simpson?", Miss Madison's clear response is that "It's the right thing to do." And her family aren't to be left out; they'll all be taken care of.

Director Kim Mason's excellent ensemble cast respect the script's comfortable style, imbuing their characters so naturally that they are completely credible. There is hardly a false note from any of them. (Though Son's capitulation happens a bit too quickly, by that time we are so ensconced in all their lives, that it hardly matters.)

The example of grandfather is the crux of the matter: he treated everyone the same, without regard to race or age or gender or wealth. -- As Billie Augusta says at one point: while good deeds alone will get people into heaven, "...people who take care of our ugly business just because it needs to be done, because its the right thing to do, they're going to get a higher place in heaven." -- And that is what Miss Madison is about, though it takes a long while for her secret motives to be explained.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WOBT: "Bargains"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently performing a 1992 comedy -- Bargains, by Jack Heifner -- that showcases the talents of local actors and is directed by Tina Abate. Best known for his 1976 play Vanities, and also the author of WOBT's 2012 production of Patio/Porch, Heifner gives audiences some clever dialogue and familiar situations, though here its predictable plot, just out-of-date cultural references, and indirect treatment of the topic of homosexuality, make it appear old fashioned. Nonetheless, some strong characterizations enliven Bargains' two acts.

Set somewhere in rural Texas, Bargains opens in a struggling bargain-basement department store on one of its several sidewalk sale days. Three sales clerks bemoan their condition and the store's depleted and out-of-style stock, but receive little sympathy from manager Michael Mead [Adam Hunt], whose brusque and authoritarian manner do little to endear him. -- Each clerk has her issues: Tish [Curtia Torbert] is due to give birth any day and has an out of work husband who may or may not be cheating on her; spinster Sally [Zyna Captain] still lives at home and caters to every whim of her elderly and demanding mother; outspoken and perennially late for work Mildred [Hollie Pursifull] shares a trailer with her gay brother Lothar [Adam Hunt again -- this character appears only in Act II], a color-blind hairdresser who has failed at every career attempt, and whose boyfriend Dennis [Kehinde Batife] is a florist who is allergic to flowers. -- A lot of contrivances that appear forced, and with the sole intent of garnering a few laughs.

Much of their private lives and secret vices are revealed as the store is about to be closed, putting the women out of work with the departure of Mr. Mead. -- Tish goes off to try to save her marriage, and does not appear in Act II; a shame that audiences are not given the pleasure of Ms. Torbert's talents, as she gives the most solid and truthful characterization in this production.

So, Act II picks up a month later outside Mildred's trailer, where Lothar has barricaded himself in after his sister has gone to another hair salon and not to him. -- It is here where Mildred and Sally comfort one another, challenge one another, and become close (if not very credible) allies as plot contrivances mount up to enable a convenient happy ending.

An overlong game of charades, and slow pacing throughout the two acts bring Bargains in at about two hours and twenty minutes. But there are moments that bring giggles and belly laughs. Ms. Pursifull particularly brings conviction to her character's droll pronouncements and sly looks, and has a fine sense of comic timing. And Ms. Captain gets well earned sympathy through honest depictions of her role.

WOBT continues to develop new talents, mixing them with veteran actors whose skills will hopefully rub off.