Sunday, December 16, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "A Tuna Christmas"

Bookending their 2018 Season that started with Greater Tuna, the Wetumpka Depot is ending it with A Tuna Christmas with the same director and actors. Penned by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, audiences are taken to the tiny town of Tuna, TX (population 24), and introduced to most if not all of its eccentric citizens, all of whom are played by two actors: David and Brooke Brown. Under Kristy Meanor's direction, they are able to display their ample talents.

It most certainly helps to have some exposure to the first play of a series, as character backgrounds and events of Greater Tuna are given short attention if any at all, and some of the character traits of these social misfits have been softened without explanation.

Arles and Thurston, the hosts at "Radio O.K.A.Y.", start things off by telling that the annual Christmas yard display contest winner will be announced shortly, and the fierce competition is threatened by a mysterious phantom; that and the annual community theatre performance of A Christmas Carol is also under threat of having the power turned off for non-payment of bills. -- How these two things impact the town is the play's central concern.

So, we see the townsfolk in all their bizarre behavior trying to out-do one another. Mr. and Mrs. Brown are to be commended for creating clever and specific characters through the manipulation of a series of quick costume changes, along with wigs, false teeth, prosthetics, props, vocal and physical dexterity that clearly distinguish each one. Hats off too to the team of backstage "dressers" who make the smooth transitions happen, and to a sweet dachshund disguised as an iguana who almost steals the show.

This is a gentler version of the town of Tuna, perhaps because it is a Christmas show that purports to having a kinder message, delivered sincerely by Petey Fisk [Mr. Brown] in his version of the first Christmas story, but the play overall has lost a lot of its satiric bite. Though we are entertained by these rogues and their familiar homespun philosophies, it takes over two hours to get to the point, and some scenes are belabored beyond their sell by date.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Millbrook: "It's a Wonderful Life"

The film It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra in 1946, and starring James Stewart, has become a beloved staple of the Christmas Season and is listed as one of the top films ever made. There are several musical and non-musical adaptations available. The non-musical stage version now playing in Millbrook is a two-act fantasy drama by James W. Rodgers.

Faithful to the film's plot while narrating some episodes rather than staging them, and sensitively directed by A. John Collier, the cast of twenty-seven actors moves the story efficiently to come in at under two hours.

On a neutral open stage that becomes the numerous locations in and around the fictional town of  Bedford Falls with simple adjustments of scenery and minimal props, the familiar story of George Bailey [Brady Walker] unfolds. -- From the opening moment when Angel Second-Class Clarence Odbody [Wes Meyer] intervenes in George's attempted suicide we are treated to a nostalgic feel-good celebration of his truly "wonderful life".

Brought to despair by debt, and believing himself to be worth more dead than alive, George is shown the many good deeds he did throughout his life, and horrifyingly sees what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born; he is willing to face the consequences and is saved by the townspeople whose lives he impacted.

From his childhood, George dreamed of seeing the world and making a financial success for himself. Brought up to respect others and help them whenever he could, the rapid-fire episodes tell how he saved his brother from drowning, intervened in a mistaken medical prescription, puts his dreams on hold to take over the family's "Savings and Loan" business, marries his sweetheart Mary [Sarah Olguin], stands up to the nasty richest man in town  Mr. Potter [John Chain] during the Depression's financial crash, and pretty much has a positive impact on the entire populace.

Though George is not an astute businessman, he is a man of principle and though he doesn't realize it, a role model par excellence. It is only when he reaches the depths of despair that he is shown his own worth.

The Millbrook company make the story and characters their own, without any attempt at mimicking the film, and without any unnecessary saccharined overlaying.  This adds a freshness to the experience, allowing audiences to get caught up in the suspense and twists of plot.

And yes, there are lessons to be learned here, appropriate to Christmas or any other season: material wealth is not the complete measure of success, kindness to one another and sacrificing oneself for their betterment delivers a truly "wonderful life".

Saturday, December 8, 2018

ASF: "The Gospel of Luke"

For a limited engagement in the Octagon theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, actor Bruce Kuhn is presenting an evocative telling of The Gospel of Luke: King James Version, a recounting aimed at the Gentiles that emphasizes prayer and action.

Dressed in casual boots and jeans on an almost bare stage -- a chair and a lectern only -- and equipped with a versatile imagination and vocal dexterity in lieu of props, Mr. Kuhn performs Luke's Gospel that continues the "oral tradition" common before the Gospels were written down to recount the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Audiences don't have to be Biblical scholars, though it was clear during the talk-back that followed the opening night performance that many who were present had more than a passing acquaintance with Scripture, and that there were references in The Gospel of Luke to the Book of Genesis, Acts, and the other three Gospel accounts.

Indeed, the complete Gospel isn't spoken here; Mr. Kuhn, who has been performing this for over twenty years, selects from the lengthy narrative per performance, guaranteeing that each audience receives a unique telling, though he insists that the ending of the narrative never changes.

On opening night, the content remained chronologically faithful, recounting a litany of moments in the life of Jesus, his behavior, several miracles, and a lot of his teaching through parables; included in Mr. Kuhn's narrative were familiar stories of the woman at the well, the curing of cripples, the loaves and fishes, the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the mustard seed, the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son, the adulterous woman, and the road to Emmaus.

And all with the same purpose, to emphasize two things: (1) "Fear not" [a frequent refrain to assure listeners that they are in good hands], and (2) to not simply to hear the Word, but to act upon it. "Love your enemies," "Do good," "Treat others as you would be treated," "Don't expect anything in return for your good deeds," "Be merciful," "Don't judge."

Mr. Kuhn has no intention of converting anyone, and the success of his performance wherein he narrates and portrays the numerous characters and their stories with sincerity and humor, is that the lessons in it resonate today in a world driven by tribal divisions and intolerance as in the time they were written.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Private Lives"

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

With a trusting director at the helm of a witty script from an internationally renowned playwright, a gifted ensemble acting company who inhabit their characters and interpret the dialogue brilliantly, impressive period and character-driven costumes, and a stunning art deco inspired set [be sure to watch it transform during the intermission], the result is a high caliber collaborative production of Noel Coward's comedy of manners, Private Lives, at the Cloverdale Playhouse.

There's a lot to get right for Coward aficionados: the mis-en-scene that scenic designer J. Scott Grinstead delivers in restrained period detail; costumes by Danny Davidson-Cline that define characters in both their sophisticated social moments and their more pedestrian everyday lives; and age-appropriate actors who appear comfortable in the physical trappings while delivering witty epigrammatic badinage that helps create characters whose narcissism and surface charm disguises their emptiness and insecurities yet manages somehow to endear them to us.

Act I provides a clever set-up for what is to come. Unbeknownst to one another, divorced couple Elyot and Amanda are honeymooning with their new spouses Sibyl and Victor at the same hotel in adjoining rooms, and each of the new spouses is fixated on the uncomplimentary behavior of the former spouses of their new partners; there's a lot of truth in Elyot's and Amanda's reputations, as will be discovered later. -- Inevitably, Elyot and Amanda meet on their adjacent balconies and rekindle the passion that both attracted them and caused their breakup; so they leave their new spouses in the lurch for an assignation in Amanda's Paris apartment.

Written in 1930 as a vehicle for himself and frequent co-star Gertrude Lawrence [and with a young Lawrence Olivier in the cast], Coward professed to have written his "intimate comedy" in only four days. -- Having already penned Fallen Angels, The Vortex, Hay Fever, and Easy Virtue, Coward was no stranger to threats of censorship; and Coward was able to soothe the censor's reservations about a still married couple's adulterous relationship by showing them how it could all be managed "in good taste".

Mr. Winkelman's able cast are up to the task. From the 17th Century onwards, comedy of manners assumes that one can get away with almost anything as long as it is done with style; so here in Private Lives the style and wit -- and the assuredness of the Playhouse actors -- allows audiences to root for them despite disapproval of their actions and motives.

There is no denying the chemistry between Nathan Jacobs [Elyot] and Alison Beach [Amanda], both making debut appearances at the Playhouse. Their repartee is infectious; their commitment to conflict and resolution is convincing; their manipulation of each other and their new spouses is confident; they seem so comfortable in one another's company that carries audiences along for the ride. -- When they agree to have safe words in order to diffuse predictable fault-finding and aggressive arguments, audiences are prepared for some wildness to come in the final two acts.

Sarah Housley [Sibyl] and Chris Paulk [Victor] are admirable foils to Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Beach. Both are back on the stage after a long hiatus, but have not lost the stage-cred of the past. Sibyl and Victor both attempt to control or "manage" Elyot and Amanda, a scheme that is bound to fail. Each is convinced of their position to impose restrictions on people who resist any attempt to be harnessed, but when push comes to shove a triumph is unsure, and one can't help but believe that they are a better match with each other than with their legal partners.

We delight in the various maneuverings and try to second-guess the end result. And we are carried along by the actors' collective abilities to engage and surprise us. -- Even the secondary servant roles [Bailey Johnson's French maid Louise, and Greg Loggins as the concierge Francois] make indelible marks in this production.

All is not resolved at the end; we may never know how these two mismatched couples wind up; but we have been charmed by their company and leave the theatre with smiles on our faces.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

ASF: "The Sound of Music"

Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved The Sound of Music -- their last collaboration in 1959 -- is currently on the boards at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Artistic Director Rick Dildine's inventively stunning production.

Eschewing elaborate stage scenery and a grand orchestral score -- Mr. Dildine's production substitutes strikingly minimalist set pieces and a pair of baby grand pianos placed strategically at center stage -- the story of the Von Trapp family on the brink of the Nazi takeover of Austria, is both a heartwarming family musical drama that celebrates the courage of individuals who stand up for their principles, and a prescient warning against the dangers of complacent people among us who even today compromise principle for the empty promises of dictators.

The multi-award winning musical has been revived several times, and of course is well known from the 1965 film. It has given us so many familiar songs: "Do-Re-Mi", "My Favorite Things", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "Climb Every Mountain", and Edelweiss" among them. And the story of Maria (a young woman preparing to be a nun who is sent to be a governess to the seven children of a wealthy widower) as she navigates between her world of devotion to God and the calling of the secular roles of marriage and family, has become a part of musical theatre's indelible legacy.

Maria [Courtney Bassett] struggles with her vocation and is given common-sense advice from the Mother Abbess [Ann Arvia] to experience the world before making her final vows. And when she meets Captain Von Trapp [Gil Brady] it quickly becomes evident that they are a good match, garnering the approval of his children. -- She is the tonic the family needs to soothe them from the loss of their wife and mother, and they are transformed before our eyes.

But things are complicated by the intrusion of the Nazis whose sense of German nationalism led them to annex Austria in what is known as the Anschluss. The insidious presence of Nazi uniforms and insignia grows by degrees as the play progresses [one unexpected image toward the end drew audible gasps from the audience], and several characters in The Sound of Music walk the thin line between acceptance and rejection of a regime that appears benign but turns malignant. -- Friend and concert organizer Max Detweiller [Kevin Ligon] tries to ingratiate himself with the powers in Berlin and argues that Nazi rule is inevitable; and Captain Von Trapp's elegant fiancee Elsa Schraeder [Sandra DeNise] is afraid of the consequences of going against the Nazis, so she gives up on their marriage. Even Von Trapp's eldest daughter Liesl [AnnEliza Canning-Skinner] gets a rude awakening when her boyfriend Rolf [Cameron Edris] joins the ranks of the Nazi guard.

Make no mistake, it is the music that is the center of this production. In the hands of pianists Michael Rice and Joel Jones, the score of The Sound of Music is precise, colorful, and dramatic; there is no need for a full orchestra here.

Mr. Dildine brings many new faces to the Festival stage, whose professional credits are impressive; their combined talents carry us through the two acts, balancing credible characterizations and storytelling with impressive singing voices. Ms. Arvia's rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" brings Act I to a powerful conclusion; Ms. Canning-Skinner and Mr. Edris are pleasantly adolescent in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", Joy Lynn Jacobs as Sister Margaretta produces the most striking voice in the Chorus of nuns, and Mr. Brady's "Edelweiss" is delivered as a heartfelt anthem to his Austrian patriotism.

Yet, much of the play's focus is on Maria and her impact on the family. Ms. Bassett is so likable as a young novice nun who is still attracted to the world around her, and she stands up to the regimented life that Mr. Brady's Captain imposes on his household, played here by two separate casts of local children. What all of them need is love, and Ms. Bassett is the perfect means to that end. The children respond to her gentle manner that changes them all. -- "My Favorite Things" breaks the ice, and is followed by rousing versions of "Do-Re-Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd", and the children's own singing of "So Long, Farewell". -- Ms. Bassett's charming demeanor and fine lyric soprano captivate the audience at every turn.

Jeffrey Toddhunter's period and character driven costumes (and there are several quick costume changes) enhance John Coyne's inventive set pieces: a series of huge French doors and a "rolling floor", along with judicious use of items that fly in to depict specific locations, and allow the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.

Two and a half hours go be quickly as Mr. Dildine's production is kept at a pace that keeps us engaged in every moment, in admiration of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, the ample talents of the acting ensemble, and the provocative book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse that draws attention to mankind's ability to courageously hold on to principles in the face of losing everything.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Child's Play"

In Kevin D. Ferguson's powerful and provocative Child's Play at Theatre AUM, young Cindy Stillman [Piper Mann alternates with Sophia Kessler] has stopped talking. The reason is a mystery, but as in real life any drastic change of behavior is often the result of some traumatic event, Cindy is sent to therapist Vera Heigl [Amy May] to discover the cause and help her to "find her voice". Suspicions of abuse [a topic that is too often reported in the news] arise quickly; and as the perpetrators are likely to be authority figures or family members the victim trusts, Vera must secure Cindy's confidence in her in order to accomplish her goal. -- As a kind of TED Talk narrator of the drama, Vera too needs to find her own voice, as she is suffering from burn-out, and is helped along the way by her colleague Roger [Tony George], whose romantic inclinations she resists at first.

Director Neil David Seibel continues Theatre AUM's relationship with the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia that incubates new plays via its MFA program and where award winning playwright Ferguson is the resident dramaturg.

Mr. Seibel guides his mostly veteran ensemble actors through the contrasting naturalistic and fantasy episodes of this two-act drama; and with an inventive student design team [set and props: Olivia Tippett, costumes: Kate Saylor, lighting: Emily Aveldanez, sound: Marcus Godbee, make-up: Olivia Crutchfield] keeps audiences engaged in Cindy's suspenseful journey.

Ms. May plays Vera as a compassionate therapist whose refrain "In this part of our time together, you can do almost anything" gently secures Cindy's trust, and Ms. Mann engages in "play therapy" -- drawings that audiences see as projections, and sandbox toys that come to life -- showing her nightmares that give progressive clues to the events that triggered her silence.

These dreams particularly shed light on Cindy and her family's dynamics: when a Dragon [Sam Penn] threatens and almost shatters the idyllic fairy-tale life of the Princess [Faith Roberts], the King [Ryan Gerrells], and the Queen [Olivia Crutchfield], and a Ninja Girl [Kate Saylor] attempts to rescue the Princess, we can't help but notice the correlation as Cindy is projecting her own family in her nightmares.

Her compassionate and loving stepfather Peter [Kodi Robertson in a sensitive and understated performance] and her perfection-driven mother Julia [Brittany Vallely] both want things to go back to normal, but their own relationship is fraught with divergent versions of the truth.

Fear, secrecy, and safety with the loved ones who ought to be trusted are gradually revealed to be the crux of Cindy's affliction that bring the play to its shattering climax. -- Mr. Seibel and his company address the subject of child abuse with a sensitivity and honesty that are to be commended. And Theatre AUM sheds light on a topic that encourages audiences to address uncomfortable matters that are unfortunately too much in evidence in our own community.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

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

An instant hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is now showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Director Sarah Walker Thornton's ensemble of actors is in top form, turning Shakespeare's Hamlet on its head in delivering Stoppard's witty dialogue with split-second comic timing; and the themes are as resonant today as they were more than 50 years after the play's debut..

Stoppard's conceit is to make two minor characters in Hamlet the focus of his inventive study of the universal existential considerations we all share: our purpose in this life as well as contemplations on our inevitable death.

While this might appear as pretty heady stuff, Stoppard employs many comic devices as Rosencrantz [Jacob Holmberg] and Guildenstern [Marcus Clement] question their condition: they've been summoned to the Danish court, but why? Awaiting answers, they pass the time playing games [much as Vladimir and Estragon do in Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot], and are distracted by the appearance of the Player [Mike Winkelman] and his troupe of itinerant actors.

Oh yes, Shakespeare isn't forgotten here. In fact, Stoppard includes a number of verbatim scenes from Hamlet in R&G to flesh out his story and further frustrate his protagonists, much to audience delight. It doesn't hurt to have some knowledge of Shakespeare's original [there is a brief synopsis in the program], but Stoppard's play stands on its own.

Playing on J. Scott Grinstead's evocative "backstage theatre" set, and dressed in Danny Davidson-Cline's fine-tuned comically interpreted "Elizabethan" costumes, Ms. Thornton's acting troupe at the Playhouse take audiences on a two-plus hour romp that makes them exercise both their intellectual and laugh muscles, and invest in the lives of the hapless duo at the center of the action.

Mr. Holmberg and Mr. Clement are on-stage virtually the entire running time. Adept at finding the nuances of Stoppard's linguistic genius, and demonstrating enviable comfort with the plot twists and turns the author throws at them, they are one of the best "double-acts" Montgomery is likely to witness. When Mr. Winkelman's expert portrayal of the bombastic Player threatens to steal the show [in a good way as Stoppard intended], they somehow manage to retrieve the audience's attention and support.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are insignificant pawns in the political intrigues in Hamlet, but here there stature -- Everyman figures out of their element trying to figure out their place in society and, indeed, in the universe -- becomes the stuff we can all recognize in ourselves. Though their deaths are inevitable [no spoilers here; the title of the play is straightforward], these two fellows make us invest in their predicaments, care about their welfare, and cheer them on till the end.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and so much enjoyment in the visual and linguistic delights on display, that we wish to stay in their company long after the final bows.