Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ASF: "Sherlock Holmes"

It's not often that stage scenery gets applause these days, but James Wolk's stunning sets for the Alabama Shakepeare Festival's production of Sherlock Holmes did just that on opening night virtually every time the massive revolving Festival stage revealed yet another superbly detailed location. These, and Paula Scofield's gorgeous period costumes, transported the audience back to late-Victorian England for 2 3/4 hours that ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes -- an uber-sleuth whose powers of deduction set the standard for other fictional detectives -- put lesser humans to shame from his 1887 appearance in "A Study in Scarlet" through a series of novels and short stories till 1927. But, how does he do it? His mantra, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", was first expressed in "The Sign of Four" (1890); and his mastery of deductive reasoning has been variously portrayed by stage and film actors from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch.

And now at ASF, Brik Berkes takes on the role in director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of American actor-manager-playwright William Gillette's version of Conan Doyle's character. Gillette called his play Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner (1899), and introduced theatre-goers to Holmes's deerstalker hat and calabash pipe; and he wanted to bring in a romantic element to a character hitherto a confirmed bachelor.

Gillette and Sherman keep Holmes off-stage for a long time, preparing the audience for his arrival with numerous references to his abilities; so from Mr. Berkes's first entrance on, we are treated to the familiar as well as some new facets of his character. Always assured to the point of arrogance, it is no surprise that Mr. Berkes's Holmes emerges victorious in thwarting arch-enemy Professor Moriarty [Rodney Clark plays the title character's nemesis to crusty perfection] and his underworld organization of criminals. But, his growing interest in Alice Faulkner [Alice Sherman], who is planning to avenge her sister's murder by withholding incriminating letters, adds another level to a man unused to romantic feelings.

Miss Faulkner is being held under duress by James and Madge Larrabee [John Manfredi and Jennifer Barnhart are both duplicitous to the core], who are also in cahoots with con-man safe-cracker Sidney Prince [Seth Andrew Bridges plays him with an irresistibly charming East End swagger that provides much of this production's comic relief].

As the plots intertwine, and with delightfully understated performances by Paul Hebron as Holmes's invaluable assistant, Dr. Watson, and James Bowen as a "sometime servant" John Forman, Holmes second-guesses everyone except Miss Faulkner who ultimately in Ms. Sherman's gentle yet firm depiction enables Holmes to admit his feelings towards her.

Supporting roles are handled by an assortment of returning and local actors: former ASF acting-intern Jason Martin returns to play three roles here; and Liam South, a fifth-grader veteran of A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan at ASF, plays errand boy Billy with confidence and maturity.

Making their ASF main stage debuts: Adrian Lee Borden gives French maid Therese a vigorous persona; Scott Bowman plays a tough hoodlum Jim Craigin and returns in an almost unrecognizable disguise as an officious Count Von Stalburg; and Sam Wootten appears first as Bassick, one of Moriarty's nasty henchmen, returning in a delightfully contrasting role as Parsons, a nebbishy butler.

There were a few technical problems on opening night, and the play itself creaks here and there with turn of the century plot devices, but the performances and the production values mentioned above engage us from beginning to end, resulting in a fine evening's entertainment.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Coupler"

Put together a young emerging playwright's award-winning script, a design team who help bring her clever story to life, a tight seven-member acting ensemble, and a director whose vision brings inventive interpretations that engage a contemporary audience in a fast-paced intermissionless 75-minutes, and you have Theatre AUM's latest foray into exhilarating theatre. -- Meredith Dayna Levy's Coupler has ended its two-weekend run, but for those fortunate enough to have gone on her magical fantasy ride, the memory should last a while.

Mike Winkelman's forced perspective cartoon-like set is made to replicate a London Underground train carriage that confines the actors into a small area that is located close to the first row of the audience and thereby invites them into its intimate space. Familiar popular music selections regularly punctuate and comment on the action. Val Winkelman's character-specific costumes help define the actors' roles and, with a few concessions to idiosyncrasies of the script, look like they could have come from anyone's closet.

For the first few minutes of director Neil David Seibel's production, there is no dialogue...only music, announcements of the names of station stops on "the tube's" Northern Line with reminders to "Mind the Gap" or be careful of the "closing doors", and actors getting on and off the train where they take various positions sitting or standing, each one in his or her own isolated world, until...the fatal brief eye-contact followed by an amazing kiss that erupts into a fantastical saga of hyper-connected people dropping their electronic devices and trying to communicate on a personal level. -- Can't we all identify with that?

Then things get even more interesting and bizarre as the Northern Line Train [Amy May], intent on being a kind of fairy godmother, sprinkles pixie dust on several unsuspecting characters, especially two "lost boys" who have reached adulthood but have not yet grown up or found true love. The "Neverland" metaphor takes over.

Christopher [Kodi Robinson] is an aspiring writer [he calls himself a 'logophile'] in need of inspiration for his new book. After he kisses Sadie [Brittany Vallely] and she disappears as she leaves her copy of Peter Pan on the train, his obsession with finding her is sidetracked when he meets Samantha [Olivia Crutchfield]. -- And Glenn [Jay Russell] is grieving over his mother's suicide and can't sustain any lasting relationship, especially with Emily [Kelli Abernathy] who also happens to be Christopher's publisher. -- Emily's assistant Cole [Antonio George] helps navigate the worlds of business between Christopher and Emily while attempting to ease a relationship between Christopher and Samantha.

The accomplishment of mixing fantasy with reality is managed with sound effects and sudden changes of lighting, so audiences are always aware how closely the real world resembles "Neverland" and how effortlessly the script allows both to exist simultaneously. -- It is a credit to the acting ensemble that they communicate this dichotomy so well and invite us to share their experiences.

To be fair, there are times when lines are hard to hear because of overlapping dialogue with a lot of physical action going on that garners spontaneous audience reactions; and the British dialects need to be more consistent.

The text takes great care in having the Train announce the various station stops along the Northern Line in correct order so there is never a doubt that all the real world action is confined to one carriage on an Underground train; yet, the surreal coexistence of "Neverland" intrudes into their lives, giving them a childlike freedom to help realize their potentials.

The characters may not grow up entirely, but by the end they are well on their way, and audiences who have delighted in their fantasies and felt the attraction of giving in to their own imaginations for a while, leave Theatre AUM with smiles on their faces.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

WOBT: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Several stage versions of Harper Lee's beloved Pulitzer Prize novel To Kill a Mockingbird [1960] have appeared over the years. One adaptation that is most often performed is by Christopher Sergel, and each one puts its individual stamp on Lee's masterpiece.

Director Sam Wallace is at the helm at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre which is ending its sold-out run of Sergel's version this weekend. In a stripped-down production, he relies on actors and text to focus on Lee's messages, and though the plot is familiar to just about everyone, the presence of racism in America resonates forcefully in 2017, and reminds all of us that Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" should be given more than lip-service.

Partly the "coming of age story" of tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch [Rebecca Joy Schannep], her older brother Jeremy "Jem" [Braden Fine] and their sometime neighbor Charles Baker "Dill" Harris [Levi Bone], who are fascinated and afraid of the reclusive neighbor they have never seen -- Arthur "Boo" Radley [Patrick Tatum] -- the story is set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935, where Scout's and Jem's lawyer-father Atticus [Roy Goldfinger] agrees to defend Tom Robinson [Spencer Vaughn], a Black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell [Hannah Moore] the daughter of Bob Ewell [Eric Arvidson], a drunkenly aggressive and racist White man.

Facing the derision of many townspeople, Atticus believes Tom to be innocent; yet he realizes that he can't win the case because a White-only jury would never return a verdict of "not guilty" for a Black man so accused. The trial matches Atticus against defense attorney Mr. Gilmer [Douglas Mitchell], whose smooth twisting of evidence is a big challenge. Even though Atticus shows in court that Tom is innocent and humiliates the Ewells in public, the children believe Tom must be turned free; but the verdict comes down as expected, and Bob Ewell promises revenge.

When Ewell attacks the children one night, Atticus believes a wounded "Jem" had defended "Scout", killing Ewell in the fight. Sheriff Heck Tate [Michael B. Snead] knows that "Boo" Radley had protected the children, creating a dilemma for Atticus: a public trial of the simple recluse would do more damage (like killing a harmless mockingbird) than to accept the sheriff's pronouncement that "Bob Ewell fell on his own knife."

"Scout" has learned best that it is important to put yourself into another person's shoes in order to understand the complexities of the world; not always a happy realization, but certainly a big part in growing up, that both Atticus and the family's housemaid Calpurnia [Tunisia Thomas] reinforce daily by both word and example.

Some of the key moments in the play go by very quickly, lessening the impact as a result; specific moments need more stage time to allow audiences to absorb them -- the showdown between Atticus and the mob at the jail who want to hang Tom; the attack on the children and death of Ewell, for example. And the large group scenes and singing get a bit too raucous for important dialogue to be heard clearly.

But the focus is on the featured roles: each of the children give credible characterizations; both Mr. Arvidson and Ms. Moore are hateful Ewells in their deliberate lying under oath; Mr. Snead's sheriff is conflicted in his duty yet a representative of clear thinking; Mr. Vaughn is stoical and sympathetic as Tom; Ms. Thomas is a no-nonsense Calpurnia; Mr. Mitchell is a strong presence as Gilmer.

In smaller but important roles, Janie Allred shines as the fussy demanding neighbor Mrs. DuBose, and Lolly White is a clear and focused narrator, Miss Maudie.

Holding attention from start to finish is the nuanced performance given by Mr. Goldfinger as Atticus; he can be a commanding and persuasive lawyer, a sympathetic disciplinarian father, a compassionate neighbor, a cool-headed man when confronted by dangerous threats, and above all a moral arbiter whose integrity is intact throughout. His impassioned defense of Tom ought to be seen and heard by more people than the WOBT can hold. -- When Rev. Sykes [Calvin Johnson] intones the memorable line "stand up, your father is passing" to a disappointed "Scout" after the guilty verdict is read, we wholeheartedly agree that he deserves respect from everyone.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Millbrook: "Leading Ladies"

Ken Ludwig's farces have skewered actors [Moon Over Buffalo] and opera singers [Lend Me a Tenor], and he comes up trumps again with Leading Ladies as directed by A. John Collier this season for the Millbrook Community Players.

Here are two out-of-work English Shakespearean actors out of place in York, Pennsylvania; when they read a newspaper account of Florence [Michon R. Givens], a wealthy and sick old woman who is searching for her long-lost relatives to leave her fortune to; they plan to impersonate them and reap the rewards when the old lady dies. When Leo [Matthew Givens] and Jack [Alan Kouns] learn that the old woman's nephews Max and Steve are actually Maxine and Stephanie, they resolve to continue with their plan...in drag.

Things get complicated when Leo/Maxine falls for Florence's niece Margaret [Rae Ann Collier], and Jack/Stephanie falls for Florence's part-time aide Audrey [Meghan Yapana Ducote]. Of course, they can't reveal their true feelings. But Margaret loves Shakespeare, so Leo/Maxine intervenes with a plan to perform Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by getting Leo to act opposite Margaret in order to get closer to her. It hardly matters to him that Margaret is engaged to Rev. Duncan Wooley [Steve Phillips] who happens to be after Florence's millions as well. -- Needless to say, there are a lot of quick costume changes as the two actors must switch characters in the blink of an eye in order to continue their pretense. -- And the family doctor, Doc Meyers [Tim Griggs] attempts to foist his son Butch [Tanner Parrish] on Margaret in order to get some of Florence's inheritance for himself.

The set up has so many possibilities that Collier's ensemble cast deliver on very well. The energy they bring keeps the action moving while the jokes come hard and fast. It is hard to keep up with the almost constant barrage of familiar quotes from Shakespeare, both in and out of the context of Ludwig's farce. Additionally, the plot devices are taken straight from the Bard [and the long history of theatre]: cross dressing, disguise, deception, manipulative characters, witty dialogue, clowns, etc.

Ms. Givens portrays Florence with an archness and commanding voice that belies her character's age and illness, and stops the show with a presence that demands to be obeyed. Mr. Griggs and Mr. Parrish are excellent foils to the main characters. Mr. Phillips is significantly oily as the greedy minister who obsesses on controlling Margaret [and getting Florence's money]; sometimes, it is good to play the bad guy: the role is a juicy one.

Ms. Ducote is absolutely charming and vivacious as the air-headed Audrey. She lights up the stage every time she appears, and is generous in sharing the stage with her fellow actors. Well done.

Ms. Collier has the double charge of being constant to her fiance Rev. Wooley while simultaneously falling for Leo/Maxine; her confusion and ultimate choice to do the right thing and follow her heart and dreams gets deserved applause.

But the honors in this production go to Mr. Givens and Mr. Kouns. They are a terrific double-act reminiscent of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. -- While they sometimes go over-the-top in "campy" postures and voices, they work so well together, it makes for a delightful episode every time they are alone together on stage.

The scant opening night audience were treated to a raucous farce that could be even better with a packed house's laughter.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Red Door: "Tokens of Affection"

Topher Payne won the Osborn Award for a promising new playwright a few years back and has since become one of the most popular and prolific Atlanta-based writers. His affectionate romantic comedy Tokens of Affection [2011] has just finished its sold out all-too-short-one-weekend run at The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

Directed by Kathryn Adams Wood, a uniformly strong ensemble of six actors get more comfortable with Payne's snappy dialogue and contagiously rib-tickling situations as the performance progresses.

Most of the action takes place in and around the bohemian [i.e. "messy"] Manhattan apartment of Charlie Garrett [Alex Eberhart] who is struggling under a deadline to animate sea-turtles for a computer game he is constructing. His continually interrupted by phone calls from his sister Claire [Charity Smith], complaining that their neat-freak mother Jackie [Ms. Wood] has come to stay with her, having walked out on their father Frank [David Allen] and wants a divorce because he doesn't bring her flowers. -- "Mr. Fix-it" Frank meanwhile has arrived at Charlie's, suitcase in hand, with a far-fetched reason for his visit.

The adult children feel ambushed, and not comprehending why Jackie would suddenly ask for a divorce after 37 years of marriage, they want nothing more than to have their parents reconcile, leaving them to resume their normal lives.

Charlie's needy but supportive neighbor Rita [Elizabeth Roughton], a former actress and possibly romantic interest for Charlie, becomes a not-too-welcome distraction to Frank, and Claire's husband Bruce Burnham [Timothy Hereford] always identifies himself on the phone to Charlie by stating his full name (a running joke that audiences anticipate with glee) wants his mother-in-law out of his house because she has taken it over completely.

Playwright Payne deliberately keeps Jackie off-stage for a long time, while her assorted attributes are delineated by other characters in great detail; when she does finally appear, Ms. Wood displays all the passive-aggressive behaviors and martyred posturing that audiences expect.

For all of the melodramatic exaggerations he invents, the author has crafted characters and situations everyone can recognize, and the Red Door company take on his heightened insightfully witty dialogue with a remarkable vigor. -- As each character recognizes the building absurdity of their situations and admits a need for attention and a wish for happiness, they also discover that love is expressed in a variety of ways, and that they are best expressed in the "little things" that matter a lot more than major events.

Faulkner: "Fools"

Neil Simon is one of the most prolific living American playwrights whose witty comedies regularly appear on Broadway and in theatres around the world. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Brighton Beach Memoirs are among the best known pieces; yet there are a number of lesser known works that also contain his signature verbal dexterity and clever situations -- Fools [1981] is one of these that is currently on offer at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Directed by Jason Clark South on Matt Dickson's flexibly moveable stage, the 10-member ensemble acting company make the most of Simon's one joke script: everyone in a remote Ukranian village except their new schoolmaster Leon Tolchinsky [Hunter Lee Smith] have been cursed with "stupidity" for the last 200 years; and once it is established that they take everything literally, can't add or subtract or even sit down without difficulty, don't know their own names, and have to be reminded that something happened just seconds ago, the conceit wears thin and the jokes are anticipated before they are spoken.

Once Leon meets his pupil Sophia Zubritsky [Emily McAliley] and falls instantly in love with her, he determined to break the curse by educating her and marrying her  within 24-hours or have to leave the town or become "stupid" like the rest of them. -- Sophia's parents, Dr. Zubritsky [Morgan Baker] and his wife Lenya [Catherine Allbritton], are all in favor of the match, but, like all the townspeople, are too "stupid" to help in any meaningful way; and marriage to Count Gregor [Ian Bruce looking like Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula and who comes twice a day to propose to Sophia] could also break the curse.

Much of the fun in this production comes from the commitment the actors give to their "stupid" characters; though they are not formally educated, they do show a remarkable ability to make a lot of sense. And the close family relationships and concern for the improvement of the town by removing the curse show them to be smart in other ways.

There is a lot of silliness at hand, but behind it are some important lessons in human behavior. "Love" is an unknown to the town, but Leon shows them the way; family and a citizenry concerned for the well-being of the town say a lot about the basic needs of everyone. -- And when the townspeople are told that they have been brainwashed into believing they all inherited their "stupidity" and that "you are only 'stupid' if you believe it", the curse is broken: basic Psychology 101.

This is Neil Simon in a minor key; but even in a minor key, there is a lot to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ASF Interns: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"

Greta Lambert [The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Director of Education and Outreach, and highly respected actor whose every appearance there is an event in itself] has done it again: for the seventh year in a row, she and the "ASF Bringing the Bard to Life" touring company enliven a Shakespeare play in an abbreviated text to introduce the Bard to high school students around the South and dispel the myth that Shakespeare is hard to understand. -- This year's offering is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, considered by many scholars to be his earliest play, a comedy that germinates many themes, characters, and plot elements that are developed in his later writing.

The current Acting Interns [last seen on their own in September in Charlotte's Web] are an energetic and inventive ensemble who engage their audiences with clear storytelling, precise articulation of Shakespeare's verse, occasional audience involvement, and expert comic timing.

All this is made possible by Ms. Lambert's adept and masterful editing of Shakespeare's script that retains all its essential  elements while tweaking its themes and characters into a 1960s setting, along with many anachronistic references and songs that fit the play's intentions and encourage contemporary audiences to connect with the on-stage action. -- Robert F. Wolin's clever set [moveable parts with gloriously rendered painted scenes], and Elizabeth Novak's inventive period costumes, create a stunning visual impact.

The performance lasts less than 90-minutes, and half of the eight member acting company play multiple roles apiece [their quick costume changes disguise the actors so well that one would think there are many more actors filling the roles]; with full commitment to each impersonation and technical skills to match, we simply enjoy the ride.

When Valentine [Andre Revels] heads to Milan, he asks his best friend Proteus [Justy Kosek] to go along; but Proteus is reluctant because he is in love with Julia [Kate Owens]. This young couple exchange rings and profess their undying love when Proteus' father insists he should be with his best friend in Milan. -- Meanwhile, Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia [Ann Flanigan], the daughter of the Duke of Milan [Joe O'Malley] who wants her to marry Thurio [Joshua Sottile], a rich fop, and locks her away in a tower to keep Valentine at bay. -- When Proteus arrives, he immediately falls for Sylvia and plans to win her away from Proteus...so much for the undying love he professed for Julia and the friendship he held for Valentine.

Back in Verona, Julia plans to go to Milan disguised as a boy, to surprise Proteus; but when she gets there, she discovers Proteus serenading Sylvia [who, by the way, rejects him], and offers to be his servant. -- There is a convoluted plot where the rings they had exchanged are forced upon Proteus, Valentine's capture by outlaws, and a reunion where everyone is reunited. -- Oh, yes, there's a wacky clown called Launce [Javon Q. Minter] and his dog Crab [Tirosh Schneider] who threaten to steal the show on their every appearance.

So many comic conventions are shown in their infancy in Two Gents: a woman disguised as a man who serves him while in disguise, the excessively melodramatic adolescent behavior of romantic teenagers, lovers' inconstancy, an exchange of letters into unintended hands, and a conflict between love and friendship...all of which are resolved by not always credible means.

But, the youthful vivacity of the ASF Intern troupe goes a long way into making these conventions palatable. -- Their complete conviction in telling Shakespeare's story makes for a delightful and sometimes thoughtful entertainment.