Thursday, November 16, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Woyzeck"

Each performance of German playwright Georg Buchner's Woyzeck at Theatre AUM was unique. -- Left unfinished at his death in 1837 at age 24, Buchner's episodic fragments have since then been arranged and re-arranged and "finished" by a long catalogue of admirers.

In an adaptation by Nicholas Rudall, who encourages directors to arrange the scenes in any way so as "to make their own dramatic coherence", director Val Winkelman has her audiences draw numbers out of a hat to determine that performance's randomly arranged sequence of scenes. -- This arbitrary choice removes any director's guiding principle and with mixed results; so actors must signal the essential plot and thematic issues on the fly, and audiences are left to their own devices to piece together the story as best they can. -- Combining this with Elise Sottile's first-rate circus-themed set, costumes, and make-up designs reminiscent of German expressionism and Fellini-esque baroque manipulation of the political and social worlds, there's a lot to suss out in this version of Woyzeck. -- Everyone has to pay strict attention. There are rewards for doing so.

More concerned with social conditions, the financial and moral divide between the rich and poor, exploitation of the less fortunate members of society that leads to suffering and madness, than with character development and human relationships, Ms. Winkelman's twelve ensemble actors serve Buchner's ideas well.

Led by Kodi Robertson in the title role of a poor young soldier who lives with Marie [Brittany Vallely]  and their illegitimate child, who earns extra cash doing menial jobs for the exploitative Captain [Michael Breen], and is a guinea pig participant in medical/psychological experiments run by the Doctor [Kate Saylor] who puts him on a diet solely of peas that causes him much dismay, the cards are stacked against him. -- When Marie has an affair with the Drum Major [Tony George], and Woyzeck is on the brink of a mental breakdown after experiencing several apocalyptic visions, he stabs Marie to death near a pond and tries to clean the blood from his hands.

Woyzeck has been thoroughly dehumanized by his social superiors; but Buchner never finished the play, so there is no satisfying resolution. Despite this, Woyzeck has never been out of fashion, allowing virtually any culture to view it as a reflection of the world they live in. The play has been lauded for close to 200 years and has influenced many playwrights since its composition.

Theatre AUM's production is challenging, frustrating, entertaining, and provocative, all in the best traditions of educational theatre that exposes AUM students and their audiences alike to some of the most important plays in world theatre.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Whales and Souls"

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

Chris Roe -- an alumnus of the UofA/ASF Graduate Acting Company -- returned to Montgomery last week for an all-too-short run of Whales and Souls as part of The Cloverdale Playhouse's new "underground experience".

A hit in the New York Fringe Festival, Andrew Kramer's one-hour one-man play is subtitled "An adult fable" that fits into the Playhouse's stated aim here of showcasing "new and exciting explore off-beat avant-garde" works that reach "our community hungry for new edgier works".

Performed on the outdoor Courtyard Stage on two successive chilly nights that enhanced the atmosphere of Whales and Souls [a collaboration with "Sexy Dirt Productions" in New York], the minimal props and evocative screen projections highlighted Mr. Roe's expressive interpretations of seven distinct characters; starting as its narrator [a Parks and Rec guide], he weaves a mesmerizing tale of a family and community caught up in the impact of corporate greed that pollutes both the local lake and the lifeblood of its residents. He plays all the parts with subtle changes of voice and posture so effortlessly that we never doubt who is speaking.

With literary nods to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy and to Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and with several Gothic elements that include a "forbidden love", a "medicine woman/witch", and  a "creature" that emerges from the lake to issue warnings of death and destruction to the neighborhood if they don't curb the corporate takeover, Mr. Roe's manner conscripts his audiences to take heed to the seriousness of the play's themes of greed and vanity and passion that often interfere with ecological and moral ideals.

Director Matt Renskers [another UofA/ASF alum] has Mr. Roe embody each of the characters so completely that we understand their motives and relationships as they develop. The performance is impressive, fluid, expressive, and chilling, as we get more and more involved with the fate of the lakeside community as well as with our own.

Monday, October 16, 2017

ASF: "The Glass Menagerie"

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is attributed to Aristotle, and the synergy reflected on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon stage in The Glass Menagerie (1944), its first offering of the 2017-2918 season, provides ample proof of the adage. -- Tennessee Williams' masterful script is sensitively interpreted by director David Ellenstein whose generous ensemble actors are dressed in Brenda Van Der Weil's character driven period costumes on an evocative set by Peter Hicks, with Phil Monat's atmospheric lighting and a haunting sound design by William Burns. -- The result of this collaboration is a hallmark of many ASF productions: a satisfying theatre event that has audiences reflecting on their own participation, one that completes the conversation with the ASF company after the performance ends and the applause has died down.

The Glass Menagerie was Williams' first successful play, acknowledged to have several autobiographical elements in it. With its old fashioned poetic language, heartbreaking situations, a fine mix of humor and pathos, and achingly recognizable characters that transcend the Depression Era during which most of the play is set, the harsh reality is of a family bonded in their love for one another that is thwarted time and again by circumstances beyond their control or by their inability to face them.

Tom Wingfield [John Lloyd Young] manipulates time as the narrator of and character in the story of his family; the play is his "memory", and as such "it is sentimental, it is not realistic", a one-sided haunted view of a past that he can not quit. -- Building up to the climactic moment when co-worker Jim O'Connor [Kevin Earley] accepts Tom's invitation to dinner in the cramped St. Louis apartment Tom shares with his manipulative yet protective mother Amanda [Greta Lambert] and his physically and psychologically fragile sister Laura [Christina King], the disastrous end to this meeting between his sister and the "gentleman caller" his mother so determinedly wants for her daughter affords Tom a release from the constrictions of a mundane job and a co-dependent family to follow in his long-absent father's footsteps -- "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances".

In his first appearance at ASF, Mr. Young [Tony Award winning Best Actor for "Frankie" in Jersey Boys], comfortably shifts between a brooding narrator in the present desperately seeking release from his memories and the petulant post-adolescent son and brother in his own haunted past, who would rather write poetry or go to the movies to escape the claustrophobic confines of home. His interactions   with the other ensemble members are fine tuned. We connect with his frustrations with Amanda, his attempts to be a friend to Jim, and his protective impulses for Laura.

Ms. King ["Miranda" in last season's The Tempest] creates a Laura with extreme social anxiety brought on by a bout of pleurisy when she was in high school; this resulted in a limp and a paralyzing dread of any kind of interaction with the outside world that has her retreat into the privacy of listening to old phonograph records and playing with her collection of figurines -- the "glass menagerie" of the title, and a symbol of her own fragile beauty. For most of Act I, Ms. King's persistent single-note voice becomes an aggravation that grates on even the most forgiving instincts of Tom and Amanda. It is only when she is left alone with Jim that this Laura's guard is down and the tension in her voice and body all but disappears.

Tom describes Jim as "the most realistic character in the play", and ASF newcomer Mr. Earley exudes the studied self-confidence of a man who is trying to better his lot in life by taking night courses, and can hold his side of polite conversation with Amanda's coquettish charm. He is comfortable in his own skin, and when Jim realizes that he and Laura had a passing acquaintance in high school, he shows her such regard that she is able to hold a conversation and even dance with him and kiss him, momentarily oblivious of her fixation on her disability. Mr. Earley's subtle and gentle assessment of Laura's lack of confidence and Ms. King's transformation is rendered with unaffected directness. The sincerity he brings to confessing his love for his girlfriend Betty, saying that "love changes your whole world", dashes any hope for a relationship with Laura.  And though Tom knew nothing of Betty, Amanda holds him accountable for the family's impending ruin.

Ms. Lambert's triumphant ASF career is legendary, and in The Glass Menagerie, she adds one more iconic role to her resume in a performance so unassumingly truthful in its delivery and so generous in sharing the stage with her fellows, that she inhabits Amanda Wingfield completely. Amanda centers the action of the play that Tom's memory replicates. Wanting only the best for her children, her "plans and provisions" are dependent on their cooperation; first and foremost is finding a suitable "gentleman caller" for Laura, but Amanda's Southern belle requires a gentility that is out of vogue in 1934, and neither Laura nor Tom is equipped to live up to her expectations.

In fact, Amanda's behavior is in part responsible for driving them away -- Laura retreats to her glass menagerie, and Tom escapes to the merchant marines. Ms. Lambert continuously fusses over both her children, fixates on proper etiquette that she sees through the lens of a genteel past in Mississippi when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in one day, and cajoles them with a determined will.

Though Amanda is not subtle about her intentions, Ms. Lambert makes her behavior completely credible. Devoted to her children, and determined for their welfare often at her own expense, the nuances she brings to the various masks she wears are remarkable: the overly charming magazine subscription sales ploys she uses on the telephone, her coquettish attempts to make Jim feel at home, her denial of her daughter's disability and her son's similarity to his father, her unflappably persistent optimism; but all falls apart when she realizes both Laura and Tom have lied so as not to hurt her -- her defenses come down with a devastating and shattering acceptance of reality.

There is no doubt that all three Wingfields love each other. Complicated and frustrated by their inability to express it, Tom's memory attempts to come to terms with his ghosts and set them all free. And the ASF audiences are the beneficiaries of a masterful production of The Glass Menagerie.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "And Then There Were None"

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

A sold-out opening night at The Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Agatha Christie's superbly crafted murder-mystery And Then There Were None was greeted with a series of well-earned gasps of shock at the several murders, peals of spontaneous laughter at the character driven outrageous behavior and sophisticated bon mots of the actors, and a rapturous standing ovation.

Staged on the Playhouse's newly hired Technical Director Scott Grinstead's finely detailed set -- the living room of an upscale island home off the coast of Devon, England -- director Mike Winkelman's exceptional ensemble seemed to relish every eccentricity in their roles while remaining true to the melodramatic conventions of the genre...a slippery slope that deftly avoids excesses that might otherwise have reduced it to mere camp. This is a group whose comic timing, abounding energy, physical and verbal dexterity kept the audience enthralled for two hours and twenty minutes of non-stop enjoyment. Take your pick: Marcus Clement, Christopher Crockett, Rachael Dotson, Jacob Holmberg, Julie Janson, Bo Jinright, Tom Lawson, Bill Nowell, Tate Pollock, Alex Rikerd, or Adam Shephard will capture your attention, or be a prime suspect, and leave a lasting impression.

With book sales second only to the Bible and Shakespeare, according to several sources, Dame Agatha Christie's novels, short stories, and plays have become legendary -- famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple come from her pen, and her play The Mousetrap has been running in London since 1952; her novel And Then There Were None (1939) is accounted as the world's best-selling mystery novel of all time.

She wrote the stage version in 1943. The production at the Cloverdale Playhouse is an updated 2005 adaptation by Kevin Elyot based mostly on the novel. It is a familiar who dunnit: ten strangers have been invited to Soldier's Island by the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Owen; at their first gathering, a recorded voice accuses each of them of murder, promising punishment; though each guest denies or excuses their past actions, they are bumped off one-by-one, with a nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" (aka "Ten Little Indians") giving clues to the manner of their demises as the ten soldiers lined up on the mantelpiece mysteriously disappear with each death. They are deliberately cut off from the mainland, there is no telephone, and -- oh yes -- there is a storm.

Much of the enjoyment of an enterprise such as And Then There Were None is in trying to figure out which one of the guests is the murderer; but with every turn of events, and sufficient red herrings to distract our attention, unexpected results and lots of surprises are in store. Not everything is what it seems. -- There are also two alternative endings in this production, played on even and odd dates, so the ending you see might be different from someone else's.

Under Mr. Winkelman's strong directorial hand, the mix of humor and suspense, guilt and suspicion of others' guilt [we learn of each character's past in Christie's judiciously piecemeal exposition], and of some serious attention to the very human impulse of self-preservation, all feels natural. Danny Davidson-Cline's character driven costumes, and James Treadway's evocative lighting and soundscape, add dimension to the mis-en-scene.

The Cloverdale Playhouse company have breathed new life into a well-established classic. It is worth a visit.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Faulkner: "Romeo and Juliet"

Playing to an enthusiastically supportive audience with only three performances of an abbreviated version Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, director Angela Dickson introduces her ensemble of student, alumni, and community actors to the challenges of producing the Bard.

In a script that edits the five act original to a 90-minute intermissionless production that preserves Shakespeare's essential plot and character elements [and adds a couple of characters and incorporates a few contemporary songs], this show keeps the audience engaged throughout one of Shakespeare's most familiar and most produced plays. -- Whether we are captivated by the tragically romantic story of the "star crossed lovers", or the divide between parents and children, or the extremes of adolescent emotions and their rash behavior, we are assured here that love trumps hate even though there are dire consequences in going against the status quo.

On a borrowed multi-leveled set from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival that revolves to become a number of locations, the action moves quickly and determinedly to its inevitable end.

The biggest success of Ms. Dickson's production is in delivering a clear plot line through her well defined ensemble characters. Brandtley McDonald and Lindsey Justice portray the title characters with all the contradictions and single-mindedness of teenagers in love; there is a fine chemistry between them, and their interpretations of dialogue is the most accomplished in the cast. We immediately are on their side, and remain with them to their unfortunate end.

Geoffrey Morris and George Scrushy play the hot-headed Mercutio and Tybalt; their fight sequences as staged by Assistant Director Tony Davison contain significant danger, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

Mattie Earls plays Juliet's Nurse with a comic energy mixed with maternal instincts, and Michael DiLaura portrays Friar Lawrence with a combination of well-intentioned help for the young lovers with a certain amount of bumbling that causes much of the trouble.

Though some of the actors haven't yet mastered Shakespeare's verse, and the antics of secondary actors upstage some of the significant action or cover important dialogue, Ms. Dickson has wisely used this abridged version of Romeo and Juliet to introduce her actors to performing in one of the most admired masterpieces of World Drama...something essential to their complete education in theatre.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Liberty and Justice"

In its first production of their 2017-2018 season, Theatre AUM is offering a compilation of scenes, songs, and monologues entitled Liberty and Justice. The assorted pieces are performed by a talented  25-member student ensemble directed by a coterie of five: Marcus Godbee, Neil David Seibel, Cushing Phillips, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman.

Played on Mike Winkelman's open stage reminiscent of a patriotic rally to which we've grown accustomed (red, white, and blue drapes and a white star painted on the floor), and using minimal furniture, nearly forty vignettes hit their respective marks to remind us of both the ideals of America's founding fathers and the challenges to democracy that continue almost 250 years later.

Quotes from the Declaration of Independence ["all men are created equal"], the Statue of Liberty engraving ["Give me your tired, your poor"] and interpretive renderings of the "Star Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", and "We Shall Overcome" among others are given ironic twists on today's legislative bodies when the First Continental Congress is referred to as a bunch of "knaves and fools".

There is a decidedly political agenda in Liberty and Justice. Audiences are taken backwards and forwards in time, showing how 21st Century concerns with immigration, women's rights, racial inequality, LGBT inequities, and the death penalty, had their roots in the past yet continue to be unresolved.

The voices of marginalized people are brought to the fore by the acting ensemble, all dressed in various iterations of red, white, and blue; the short vignettes are given sometimes sensitively humane and sometimes confrontational in-yer-face interpretations. -- And the gender-fluid assignment of roles help focus attention on the messages on offer.

Selections from plays such as The Laramie Project, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frost/Nixon, Angels in America, All the Way, Stuff Happens, School House Rock, and Hamilton, as well as many others, drive the messages unrelentingly; and while one can not question the commitment of the actors to the seriousness of the issues at hand, the collection of scenes cries out for some comic relief to make the points even more impactful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Millbrook: "The Diary of Anne Frank"

The Diary of a Young Girl was published in 1947, just two years after its author, the teenaged Anne Frank, died in a concentration camp. Her father Otto was the only member of his Jewish family to survive the Nazi Holocaust; when he returned to the Annex above his former office in Amsterdam where his family and others had spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis with the assistance of Meip Gies and Mr. Kraler, he discovered his daughter's diary and determined to have it published both as a tribute to her and a reminder to the world of the horrors of war and the resilience of its victims.

In 1955, The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened on Broadway, receiving a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for "Best Play", as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. -- It is now being presented on stage by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. under the direction of Daniel Harms; and with the current international concern with Neo-Naziism, with aggression against those persons perceived as "other", and with daily newspaper and social media accounts of violent intolerance, its messages are uncomfortably resonant.

The action takes place in the Annex, a claustrophobic space with several levels, all cramped with furniture and made more confining by the eight inhabitants who must step over and around one another and share sleeping quarters that restrict any sense of privacy. They  must be absolutely quiet during the work-day hours, since there are people in the office below them, and any hint of a noise could bring the dreaded soldiers to arrest them and herd them off to a concentration camp. -- They can't cook or use the toilet, must take off their shoes and walk about as little as possible, and talk very little if at all.

So we see them only at night when the all-clear signals have been heard and they can relax a bit and speak and act out their repressed feelings toward the world around them and toward one another. Petty arguments mushroom into full-fledged animosity; territorialism and accusations of perceived preferential treatment are voiced; and the fear of being caught is always at the forefront. -- Yet there is hope, written in Anne's diary, that "in spite of everything, people are truly good at heart". And it is her voice that centers the play: a youthful voice of optimism, a coming of age voice dealing with all the contradictions of adolescence and the discovery of a first-time romance, a kind-hearted voice that can find the means to resolve the issues that confront them in their darkest hours.

Mr. Harms has gathered an ensemble of actors who clearly define their characters and keep audiences concerned for them, though we know from the outset that almost all of them will die. -- Though there are a number of technical items that could be addressed [lighting that casts unfortunate shadows in key locations, late sound and light cues, inconsistency in when everyone should not be wearing shoes, the loud volume of Anne's voice-over readings from her diary that connect the scenes], by and large the production focuses our attention on the characters and themes.

While the ensemble work well together and individually, and Brady Walker as Otto Frank gives a strong and sensitive performance, special notice should be given to Lucy Wilson's credible portrayal of Anne; she nails the character's contradictions and never fails to remain in the moment. Anne's frustrations with her relationship with her mother, her hurt feelings of being compared to her sister, her clear reliance on her father's wisdom and solidity, her refusal to accept the status quo -- all contribute to a fully realized character.

It is through Anne that we learn the horrors of war and Naziism, and through whom we make the connections to our own day.