Monday, February 19, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Weightless"

Theatre AUM and the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia have established an on-going working relationship. AUM's Neil David Seibel has mentored students at Hollins for a few Summers, where he and colleagues from around the country nurture emerging talents.

Last year at AUM, Mr. Seibel mounted an imaginative production of  a Hollins product called Coupler, and is following up with another this season. Weightless by Meghan Reimers is a 70-minute fantasy from a playwright who shows much promise, and Mr. Seibel's inventive choreography and clever staging enhance this production's treatment of a young woman who "has no gravity" -- in fact, she "falls up" instead of down -- an interesting premise that goes on to explore real world environmental issues as well as various human relationships to demonstrate the power of compassion, understanding, and love.

It seems that Lucie [Kaylee Baker] has been cursed to live without gravity, and spends all her time in a lake; her mother Marie [Amy May] protects her at all costs, from both Lucie's untrustworthy free-spirited aunt Julie [Faith Roberts] and Caleb [Tony George], a young man who attempts to rescue the young woman from drowning and help reverse the curse so she can fall "down". Searching for a cure, Marie takes Lucie to Tarek [David Moore], a kind of hippie/New Wave "healer" who nonchalantly orders a variety of dangerous treatments.

Mike Winkelman's abstracted set [a large circle on the floor with pie shaped painted elements: fire, air, earth, water], and Val Winkelman's evocatively complimentary costumes, plus active use of fabric to represent the lake, give Mr. Seibel's actors a fluidity of motion to assist in telling the story; and his addition of actors playing the "Elements" uses inventive ways of showing how Lucie "falls".

Ms. Reimers's script keeps audiences guessing about relationships and responsibilities, but demonstrates clearly that people can connect on simple levels of friendship and more complex ones of parental protections for their children. Though we might question Marie's methods in caring for Lucie, and even more the sibling rivalries between Marie and Julie that are complicated by their use of magic, there s no doubt about the sincerity and innocence of the friendship between Lucie and Caleb that grows into love.

This production of Weightless has audiences engaged, though they miss several important lines of dialogue from Mr. Moore and Ms. Roberts, who either speak too softly or mumble words though they seem to be committed to the emotional aspects of their roles.

New voices in theatre are important, and Theatre AUM is again giving an opportunity to an emerging talent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

WOBT: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy is playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre to sold-out audiences. The play has been a popular offering at River Region theatres; it and the 1989 film it inspired make box office success almost guaranteed.

Set in Atlanta, and covering some 25 years from 1948-1973, Driving Miss Daisy is both an affectionate story about companionship and aging, and a study of civil rights and segregation in a changing world that even today has got a long way to go.

As the play opens, wealthy 72-year-old Daisy Wertham [Michon Givens] has just wrecked yet another car, prompting her son Boolie [Eric Arvidson] to hire a "colored" chauffeur in the person of Hoke Coleburn [Tommy King]. -- Daisy is a fiercely independent former teacher who guards her independence, and though she claims she is not prejudiced, she refers to all African Americans as "them" and is suspicious of Hoke's behavior.

In a series of vignettes, Daisy grows from her initial mistrust of Hoke, to reluctant acceptance, and in her old age to an eventual admission to him that "you are my best friend"; this is largely due to Hoke's ability to remain dignified in spite of her whims and insults, and his ability to forge a trust through his honesty and perseverance.

Though an exasperated Boolie often excuses his mother's behavior with an affectionately placating "You're a doodle, Mama", and his excuse for not attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner is that doing so might jeopardize his business with white Atlantans, he understands and accepts both Daisy and Hoke better than either of them expect.

The three-person ensemble give strong and believable performances and are generous to one another on stage. They also age convincingly from scene to scene, with subtle adjustments to movement and voice, supported by gradual age make-up. -- Solid work from all.

Usually performed without a break in order to sustain the story's arc and audience involvement with the characters' developing relationships, here director Sam Wallace has chosen to break the tradition with an intermission; this choice, and the lengthy scene changes during blackouts, challenge audiences to remain engaged, and challenge actors to sustain energy from scene to scene.

This notwithstanding, the WOBT production of Driving Miss Daisy clearly received audience approval and identification with its characters.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Doll's House"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse opened its 7th Season -- "A Season of Game Changers" -- with a provocative production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's classic A Doll's House. Though Ibsen insisted his play was not a feminist tract (rather it was about "humanity") from its 1879 Copenhagen production to today much of the critical focus and stage performances around the world have been on the central character Nora's breaking with tradition in her quest to be regarded on an equal footing with men both in marriage and in the greater society.

The risk Nora takes at the end of the play -- a watershed moment on how women were portrayed on stage -- shocked a patriarchal society who expected the stage to reinforce their standards. Fast forward to 2018 and the power of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and Nora's heartbreakingly courageous decision reflects an understanding that sexual harassment comes in various guises and that there is still a lot to be done to galvanize gender equality.

Director Caroline Reddick Lawson's passion for the play recognizes "that 2018 is the perfect time for as revival of A Doll's House"; and though there have been several memorable productions over time, and contemporary playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Rebecca Gilman have given Ibsen's play a contemporary spin and Lucas Hnath's masterful A Doll's House, Part II continues Ibsen's story some 15-years later, Ms. Lawson has chosen to stage a new version by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, a translation whose language is accessible to contemporary audiences.

Staged on J. Scott Grinstead's detailed "dollhouse" set, and with Danny Davidson-Cline's character driven period costumes, audiences are transported to 19th Century Norway at Christmastime in the seemingly idyllic home of Torvald [John Selden] and Nora Helmer [Sarah Adkins]. -- They are an attractive and loving couple with three children. Torvald is about to get a promotion at the bank and is focused on his reputation, insisting on complete honesty at all times; she is a charming and vivacious spendthrift with a deep secret that ultimately comes to light and pushes their relationship to its catastrophic end.

Complications intrude this dollhouse world, and Nora is not the only one with a secret: Torvald's friend Dr. Rank [Christopher Crockett] secretly loves Nora and is suffering from a disease that will end his life soon; Nils Krogstad [Michael Buchanan] keeps Nora's secret through bribery, and attempts to clear his name of past actions; Nora reveals her secret to her long absent friend Kristine's [Mariah Reilly] and secures her friend's confidence. -- But all these secrets are destined to be exposed.

The ensemble acting is strong and credible. Mr. Crockett is sympathetic in the role of a man misunderstood by both Torvald and Nora, and whose pride keeps him from revealing anything personal. -- Mr. Buchanan's sinister demeanor initially reviles us; yet, his concerns for his family and reputation are more passionately human than Torvald's robotic ones, and his change of heart, brought about by re-invigorating a past relationship with Kristine, saves him from complete villainy. -- The understated complexity that Ms. Reilly brings to Kristine is admirable: she assuredly assumes the role of confidante to Nora, while quietly cajoling her to be honest with Torvald; and her ability to deal with real-world problems as a go-between for Nora and Krogstad is convincingly conflicted.

Ibsen puts Nora at the center of almost every scene, placing great demands on the actress playing this now iconic figure. All the action revolves around her, and Ms. Adkins imbues her portrayal with an honesty and grounding that impresses throughout. She can be flirtatious and coquettish, and yet switch to disarming introspection. Her frustration with the cards dealt to her is matched by her determination to become her own person. Her selfless devotion to husband and children is countered by a selfish need of attention and compliments. We witness Nora's gradual understanding of her position over the play's three acts [with one intermission], as Ms. Adkins subtly adjusts her physical demeanor and vocal range to support the changes in Nora's life: one scene in which she frantically rehearses a tarantella to distract Torvald from finding out her secret contrasts with a later one in which she removes her gypsy costume's corset, symbolically unbinding herself from the lies and deception of the past.

It is important that audiences believe that Torvald loves his wife, no matter how passive-aggressive he is in frequent references to her in diminutive terms ["little songbird", "dove", "doll", "child"], and no matter how condescending Mr. Selden seems with instructing her behavior, his male privilege blinds him to Nora's needs. But she, too late, admits her complicity in bending to his will and subjugating her own desires to his. When Nora demands that they finally have a serious conversation, their first one in an eight-year marriage, the realizations on both of them are devastating. -- Both Ms. Adkins and Mr. Selden achieve the necessary responses to their new-found honesty with one another: his in assessing his responsibility for the break-up of their marriage, hers in the knowledge that her independence, though necessary, comes at a cost.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "Greater Tuna"

Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams began what was to become a cottage industry in 1981 with their creation of Greater Tuna [A Tuna Christmas, Red, White, and Tuna, and Tuna Does Vegas followed in quick succession]. -- Their popularity relies on an affectionate humor, some biting satire, and the fact that the 20+ characters are to be played by two actors.

Director Kristy Meanor opens the Wetumpka Depot Players' 38th Season with an assured production of Greater Tuna by casting a man and a woman in the roles, losing none of the play's bite, and allowing David and Brooke Brown numerous opportunities to display their ample talents impersonating the broadly eccentric men and women who populate the fictitious town of Tuna, Texas, the State's 3rd smallest town with a population of twenty-four.

Though there are some dated references in the script, its strengths are that it skewers many stereotypical characters and situations that are not confined by time, and that the actors continuously keep audiences entertained by their quick-as-lightning costume changes. Most of the characters are broadly drawn rubes who seem content with being insulated from the greater world, and most of these social misfits are instantly recognizable: over-zealous religious fanatics, families with a lot of skeletons in their closets that are actually known by everyone else in this tiny community, dialogue that spouts a lot of homespun philosophy, naive and not-so-innocent individuals who beg for audience understanding and compassion. Just like real life.

A plot device that holds everything together is a radio program hosted by Arles and Thurston, whose sole purpose seems to be informing the locals about the goings-on in town, engaging with various residents in call-ins to the station, and commenting on their odd behavior. -- We see among others: the "Smut Snatchers of the New Order" attempt to censor offensive textbooks and words while remaining oblivious to their hypocrisy; a man who sees UFOs shaped like a giant chalupa; an overweight teenaged girl desperately attempting to become a cheerleader; a woman who poisons dogs; a reform school bully who unrepentantly takes the law into his own hands against the judge who sentenced him; and a sincere young man who leads the "Greater Tuna Humane Society" against the odds stacked against him.

Hats off to the hard working backstage dressers who assist the actors with their many costume changes; but mostly to the actors who create distinct characters that make us laugh and cry, applaud and cringe, and leave the theatre with a bit more understanding of our fellows.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ASF: "Fly"

The heroic World War II African American P-51 Mustang pilots known as the "Tuskegee Airmen" are legendary. Their story Fly is having its Alabama debut at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where a packed opening night audience rose to their feet and cheered at the conclusion of the 90-minute production.

The script by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan [Mr. Khan is also the play's director] celebrates their victorious combat record; yet, there is an equal focus on their tenacity in overcoming racial prejudice in a white America that believed that African Americans were both their genetic and social inferiors. 

This is a story that needs to be told in 2018 [much like the recent film Hidden Figures] as we too often see the very fabric of America fractured by xenophobic tirades against immigrants, minorities, and anyone perceived as "other". -- Had it not been for Eleanor Roosevelt's highly publicized 1941 flight with one of the Airmen, and her subsequent encouraging of her husband FDR to do something for them, it is likely that the "Tuskegee Airmen's" abilities might have gone unrecognized and their participation in the war might never have happened.

The play opens on Beowulf Borrit's minimalist set flanked by screens that almost continually project archival film and still photographs that support the narrative. In a powerfully theatrical opening moment, the Tap Griot [Omar Edwards] embodies the pain and anger of African Americans through tap dancing. Reaching back into the heritage of West Africa where griots were regarded as the keepers of history, the authors have created this character to tell their past, show their sublimated fury, and support their empowerment. Mr. Edwards rarely speaks, but he is always present to observe and comment on the action, communicating so much in an electrifying tour de force performance.

Bookended with scenes at President Obama's inauguration where the Tuskegee Airmen were honored, and narrated by Chet Simpkins [Clinton Roane], we are introduced to a rag-tag set of recruits from various backgrounds, each with a personal agenda that at first interferes with their becoming a combat-ready unit, but who ultimately learn to work together as a team.

With a lot of macho posturing, these men all compete in attempting to be number one: Oscar [James Holloway] has a wife and baby on the way; J. Allen [Edwin Brown III] is of West Indian heritage and doesn't completely understand the others' motives; W. W. [Robert Karma Robinson] is a zoot-suit wearing Chicagoan who feels superior to the others; and the aforementioned Simpkins, the youngest [indeed underaged] recruit from New York with a lot to prove -- to himself above all.

They are pitted against Captain O'Hurley [Christopher Kann], a no-nonsense officer charged with their training, a task he hates at least in part because he considers all his recruits to be incapable of learning how to be combat pilots simply because they are Black. When they do succeed, he reluctantly awards their commissions, and is abetted by Bomber Pilot Reynolds [Casey Predovic] and Bomber Co-Pilot Shaw [Drew Ledbetter], who discover in a cleverly drawn out and humorous scene, that the Black men they denigrated turn out to be both their military equals who save their lives as well as their best comrades.

These is not a single weak link in this tight ensemble of actors, whose efforts combine to not only tell a compelling historical story, but whose truthful characterizations help audiences invest in them as real people.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

ASF Interns: "Snow Queen"

Winter has come to Montgomery -- outside there's snow and ice and frigid temperatures, while inside the Octagon Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, snowflakes hang from the ceiling, a fairy tale castle's walls surround the audience and a birch tree forest dwarfs a gingerbread house: Robert F. Wolin's charming and magical setting for the ASF Intern Acting Company's production of Snow Queen.

Director Nancy Rominger's adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic fairy tale judiciously selects the details of Andersen's lengthy story to fit the engaging tale of magic and the enduring value of love, friendship and self-sacrifice into a one-hour and twenty-minute running time suitable for children who are her target audience.

Snow Queen [1844] has been adapted numerous times for stage, screen, opera, and dance, and has influenced C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and films ranging from "The Huntsman: Winter's War" to Disney's "Frozen". -- A tale about good and evil, and with several lessons to teach, it never grows old.

With an inventive ensemble of eight intern actors, most of whom play multiple roles, the plot recounts Gerda's [Lara Treacy] journey to rescue her best friend Kai [Colin Wulff] from turning into ice brought on by a shard from the Snow Queen's [Katie Fanning] broken mirror getting lodged into his eye. The Snow Queen's mischievous lackey Hemming [Woodrow Proctor] attempts an assortment of ruses to keep Gerda from her task. -- Other cast members [Josh Cahn, Ithamar Francois, Brian Ott, Collin Purcell] play an assortment of roles (grandfather, roses, crow, reindeer, et al.) who either help or hinder her in her journey.

The actors' energy and comfortable ensemble playing keep the action moving, with only a few slower moments; their individualized behaviors and impressive physicality help to bewitch the audience and get the younger ones participating without inhibition.

Children and adults alike are drawn into the action, and delight in the antics of the characters. Pamela Scofield's lush costumes complete the fairy tale picture.

But the lessons come to the fore by the end: never underestimate the smallest of things; do not have "fun" at others' expense; love and the devotion of true friends can resolve almost anything; to forgive those who harm us, whether intentional or not, is an important character trait.

Hans Christian Anderson's beloved Snow Queen warms the heart and soul on a cold winter's day.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Millbrook: "A Country Christmas Carol"

Director Sam Wallace and the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened A Country Christmas Carol last weekend with a cast of fifteen actors, most of them playing multiple roles, and including some fledgling talents who show promise for the future.

This musical version of the Charles Dickens classic -- book by Ron Kaehler, music by Albert Evans, lyrics by Evans and Kaehler -- tells the story of Eb Scrooge's [Matthew Givens] overnight change from mean-spirited miser to a benevolent and generous friend to all, with the intervention on his behalf of former business partner Jacob Marley who has enlisted the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Ashlee Lassiter], Present [Roger Humber], and Yet to Come [Timothy Rotkiewicz] to turn Scrooge around.

Setting this version in the 1950s in Marley County, USA, allows for some homespun local color and recognizable stereotypes; but in a number of twists from the original, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchitt is now a single mother named Bobbie Jo Cratchitt [Chloe Prentice], who gets fired on Christmas Eve yet manages to keep the spirit of Christmas for the sake of her two children: Jane [Natalie Lantz] and Tim [Jack Walker]; Scrooge's kindly nephew Fred is now called Dwight [Steven Deloney], the beloved town drunk; and "Tiny Tim" doesn't get to proclaim "God bless us, every one".

The score is unremarkable, though there are a few moments to highlight action, theme, and character: "Angel Beside Me", "I Gave Myself a Bottle for Christmas", "Golden Idol", "Goodbye Old Dog", "Less is More", and "Life Goes to Show You" fit the bill. -- Megan Lofgren's excellent keyboard accompaniment sometimes overpowers the voices on stage.

The script is long on exposition that firmly establishes Scrooge's negative impact on the community, making much of the later hauntings feel somewhat rushed.

The production was beset with several problems during the rehearsal period, and a few last minute cast replacements made for some tentative performances. -- That notwithstanding, there are a few actors whose performances stood out: Ms. Lassiter [Lavinia and Christmas Past] and Ms. Prentice [Bobbie Jo and Belle] give solid interpretations of strong women whose time has come for recognition; and young Mr. Walker as Tim and Boy Eb gave each character distinct behaviors: if as the adage goes "half of acting is in reacting", Mr. Walker's demeanor was credible, and his in-the-moment reactions to his stage partners so natural that one could believe he was experiencing them for the first time. Bravo!

Scrooge, of course, gets most of our attention. Mr. Givens comes across as an utterly despicable tyrant at the start; he is heartless toward everyone, so his transformation is huge. And he allows the audience to track the changes at signal moments in his journey with the ghosts, even though we all know what's coming. Hats off to Mr. Givens for finding the humanity in the old miser that carries the audience to his ultimate giddy celebration of the true spirit of Christmas.