Friday, September 20, 2019

ASF--Bedlam Theatre Company: "Hamlet" and "Saint Joan"

"Words, words, words" -- Hamlet
Words matter. In the theatre they tell the plot, characters, conflict, and ideas; and from the pens of preeminent playwrights like William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, the words they write come to full life through skilled actors.

In an astute programming stratagem, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director Rick Dildine scheduled New York City's "Bedlam Theatre Company" to perform Shakespeare's Hamlet and Shaw's Saint Joan in repertory opposite Susan Ferrara's Buzz [closed last weekend, and reviewed earlier on this site] staged in the ASF Scene Shop and recounting the efforts of Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody to stage an unconventional Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "The Other Place" (a tin shed used for experimental stripped-down versions of Shakespeare beginning in the 1970s).

"Bedlam" director Eric Tucker stages the two productions unconventionally, with the same four actors [Dria Brown, Mike Labbadia, Edmund Lewis, Andy Rindlisbach] playing about two-dozen characters in each play, using minimal set and props, and contemporary costumes, thereby allowing audiences to focus on the words that demonstrate the strengths of the texts.

During each show's two intermissions, as well as at the conclusions of Hamlet and Saint Joan, audience members engaged in animated conversations about their experiences with the productions. Overheard comments praising the energetic acting and the contemporary resonances of the plays' themes are clear indications that Montgomery audiences want to engage with more classical productions and their heightened language, emotional intensity, and persuasive arguments.

The productions are not without their challenges: each one runs a little over three-hours [though the time seems to go by quickly], lengthy expository information is not always clear, adjustments to the quick character changes may be confusing [sometimes an actor will play more than one character in a scene with a mere shift of posture or vocal inflection, or a minor costume modification], and the rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally delivered in stage darkness, is hard to follow at times.

Hamlet is likely the more familiar play to local audiences, though there is a bit of a struggle to understand important expository words by playing the first act in darkness or low lighting; the ghost sequences use flashlights to good effect, though. Yet the suggestion of Hamlet's [Mr. Rindlisbach] "feigned madness", so important to the plot, gets lost in stage business. -- Mr. Tucker breaks much of the play's stress with comic elements that are inherent in Shakespeare's script; and while there is a lot of emotional content in it and in the performances, this production comes off more as an intellectual exercise.

Saint Joan succeeds better. With a powerhouse performance by Ms. Brown at the center of the story of Joan's trajectory from farm girl to soldier to conquerer to martyr, Shaw's arguments on opposite sides -- church/state, nationalism of France/England, variant philosophies -- are articulated in words with such sensible assurance that the speaker is correct, that audiences find themselves agreeing at times with each side. The language is precise and persuasive. And that is its strength, especially as we can see the correspondence to our own social and political issues of nationalism, separation of Church and State, political nearsightedness...and perhaps learn from the past.

Monday, September 9, 2019


Montgomery and River Region audiences have only a few opportunities to witness the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's excellent "World Premier" of playwright-actor Susan Ferrara's Buzz, a creative ensemble production staged in the ASF Scene Shop by award-winning director-actor Carrie Preston. -- "Remember me" is a challenge to Hamlet by his father's ghost, and acts as a reminder to us all to re-discover and celebrate the people who have been underserved by history.

In the 1970s, young theatre innovator Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody was the first female director at the Royal Shakespeare Company who transformed a tin-roofed costume storage building into an experimental studio theatre called "The Other Place" where she directed a young Ben Kingsley in an acclaimed ground-breaking production of Hamlet in 1975, and committed suicide at the age of 28 only a few days after it opened. -- And yet, she is not universally known.

Opinionated, troubled, candidly outspoken, ambitious, and passionate to bring theatre to ordinary people, Buzz's ability to help actors discover the emotional truth in Shakespeare's dialogue energized the Stratford company who enthusiastically delved into many Shakespeare texts with a new-found vigor within the Spartan confines of "The Other Place". -- And so at ASF, the Scene Shop mimics it's Stratford origin and rewards local audiences with a stunning production that makes us re-think how we might experience theatre.

Not a traditional biography, Ms. Ferrara's Buzz takes an impressionistic approach that skews time and place to tell Buzz's trajectory from recent university graduate to shattering the glass ceiling of the patriarchal RSC. Her characters play both their roles at the RSC and the roles they play in the Hamlet that Buzz directs. And she imbues Hamlet's gravediggers [Zack Calhoon and Sam McMurray] with archival history of the long-forgotten while they simultaneously dig Buzz's grave and narrate her story.

Ms. Preston has a gifted ensemble of actors and an all-female production team -- lighting: Cat Tate Starmer; scenic and costume: Leslie Taylor; sound: Melanie Chen Cole; stage manager: Victoria Broyles -- as her collaborators. Using the breadth of the Scene Shop using "found" items and with current materials intact, evocative lighting choices, some chilling sound effects that reflect Buzz's state of mind at strategic places in the narrative, and everyday costumes with subtle demonstrations of character, equip her acting ensemble to credibly tell their story in as unaffected a way as has been seen recently at ASF.

While the focus is arguably on Buzz herself [Elizabeth A. Davis] and her unwavering stance to assert her own worth as a director and as a person, she is challenged both by the hierarchy of the RSC [Robert Emmet Lunney, Christopher Gerson, and Spencer Davis Milford particularly] and the resistance of "Hamlet"/Ben Kingsley [Zuhdi Boueri] -- a short, darker skinned actor so completely opposite the tall blonde Hamlets of stage tradition heretofore. So, she has to prove herself to them as well as to herself. -- And while the costumer Ms. Cut [Greta Lambert] transitions from a practical traditionalist to a reluctant friend and advocate, and we witness Ms. Soft [Tarah Flanagan] respond to Buzz's unorthodox approach to directing, ASF audiences begin to see Buzz's startling impact that garners the respect she yearns for.

In 90-minutes mixing humor with seriousness, Ms. Preston's inventive staging and interpretation of Ms. Ferrara's script can't help but make us all think about the many unrecognized people in our own lives, especially women who in Ms. Preston's words: are "striving to be seen, to be heard, and to be remembered".

Friday, August 2, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "'Master Harold'...and the Boys"

"Master Harold"...and the Boys catapulted South African playwright Athol Fugard to international fame in 1982. The semi-autobiographical three-hander received instant acclaim and numerous awards; it has been made into a film and a television special as well.

Set in a white family's tea room in apartheid-era South Africa, Fugard's 90-minute mini-masterpiece is being brought to River Region attention at the Wetumpka Depot under the sensitive direction of Tony Davison.  Its study of "institutionalized racism and bigotry" needs to be seen today, much as "The Legacy Museum" and "The National Memorial to Peace and Justice" encourage us to face issues of the past and present that we would rather not, especially since we see such behavior repeated in daily news reports and social media.

Opening night drew a sparse audience, unfortunately [perhaps word-of-mouth will encourage ticket sales]; nonetheless, the play's themes seemed to resonate as evidenced by their rapt attention.

On a rainy afternoon, two middle-aged Black servants take time off from their work in the tea room to practice ballroom dancing in preparation for an upcoming contest. Sam [Deion Mallard] and Willie [La'Brandon Tyre] welcome 17-year-old Hally [Michael Armstrong] home from school, and it soon becomes clear that the two of them [especially Sam] have mentored Hally most of his life, and that they share a comfortable and respectful relationship. -- They engage in some banter about the dance competition, reminisce with differing perspectives about some events in Hally's childhood, and share ideas to help Hally with a homework assignment: to choose a "man of magnitude" whose greatness "benefited all mankind" as the subject of his essay.

Hally is precocious and entitled, offering condescending comments to Sam and Willie, and occasionally signals his white privilege that the two older men receive with long-practiced patience. But when phone calls from Hally's Mother let the boy know that his tyrannical alcoholic Father is being released from the hospital after treatment for a leg injury, Hally resentfully knows that he will have to care for his Father, and reveals a latent anger against him. Taking out his rage on Sam and Willie, he resorts to vicious adolescent racist attacks against them, causing a rift that will be hard to reconcile. -- What we say in anger often reveals the unpleasant truths that have been smoldering beneath the surface.

Mr. Davison's acting trio, a bit tentative at times on opening night, individually and collectively create memorable characters and conflicts: Mr. Tyre's simple loyalty to "Master Harold" from childhood on, Mr. Mallard's attempts to help Hally mature and to better himself by studying Hally's school curriculum make him a surrogate Father, and Mr. Armstrong's conflicted and changeable emotions, all tell a compelling story that ought to provoke thoughtful discussions among the audiences fortunate enough to be in their company.

Fugard tells his story in real time, making a powerful statement about racism and relationships, and questioning "are we ever going to get it right?" Even if the romanticized ballroom metaphor is a place "without collisions", in the real world "we all bump into each other all the time".

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

WOBT: "Oklahoma

Rodgers and Hammerstein's first hit musical Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944, has had countless productions worldwide since then, recently won a 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and is currently being directed by Sam Wallace at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville...75 years, and it has lost none of its charm and vigor.

Set in the Indian Territory a few years after the turn of the 20th Century, the farmers and cowmen of the soon-to-be State of Oklahoma have their disputes, but eventually set aside their biases and come together in unity [an example we could follow today].

While we are gently and humorously reminded of their feud during the two-hour stage time, the play's focus is on two love-triangles: farm-girl Laurey [Sarah Olguin] is being wooed by cowboy Curly [Gage Leifreid] and his lonely obsessive rival Jud [Josh Williams], who works on Laurey's Aunt Eller's [Ashlee Lassiter] farm; a comic counterpart romance pits cowboy Will [Hunter Lee Smith] against Persian peddler Ali Hakim [Braden Fine] for the attention of Will's flirtatious fiancee Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd].

With its catalogue of now classic songs that are early examples of how lyrics became integral to the storytelling and character development, Mr. Wallace's energetic cast deliver each one with clear understanding. -- Mr. Leifreid opens the show with "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'" that sets the tone for an optimistic future of Statehood, and woos Laurey with "Surrey with the fringe on top"; Mr. Smith's dynamic presentation of "Kansas City" [with the assistance of the ensemble] is a paean to 20th Century progress and his duet with Ms. Rikerd in "All er nothin'" balances her earlier "I cain't say no" -- one of the best renditions in this show.

As everyone prepares for the annual box social, the romantic denials in "People will say we're in love" are beautifully rendered by Mr. Leifreid and Ms. Olguin, whose stage chemistry is palpable. -- As Curly tries to dissuade Jud from dating Laurey in "Pore Jud is daid", their rivalry comes to a head and almost ends in disaster.

Threats of a shotgun wedding for Ali Hakim and Ado Annie, a sympathetic telling of "Lonely Room" by Mr. Williams that provides some complexity to Jud's obsession with Laurey, a knife fight, a wedding, and final wrapping up of the love stories, end with a celebration of Statehood in the rousing title song, "Oklahoma!" and reprise of "Oh, what a beautiful  mornin'".

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The True Adventures of Pinocchio"

J. Scott Grinstead, Technical Director at The Cloverdale Playhouse, continues to impress local audiences with his detailed inventive scenic designs, and his abilities as a director. Now at the helm of The True Adventures of Pinocchio, the supporting evidence of his skills is once again on display. -- The show is about to end its two-weekend run, but its effect will surely last.

Not a Disney-animated version of Carlo Collodi's story of the irrepressible title character, this translation/adaptation by Louis Lippa, stays closer to Collodi's series of stories, adds some contemporary references, includes touches of ironic humor, and clearly targets several life lessons that must be learned by the puppet who wants to be a real boy that could benefit all of us.

Played by an ensemble of youth and adult actors, most of whom play numerous roles throughout the two-hour running time, director/scenic designer Grinstead and his remarkable team have created a stunning and surprisingly complex Puppet Theatre stage, scenic artistry [Sarah Kay and crew], a series of delightful puppets [Summerlinn Clark], evocative and character driven costumes [Beth Shephard and her able team], and minutely detailed props [Rita Pearson Daly] that afford the acting ensemble the best of possible worlds in which to bring the story to life.

At the outset, a group of actors escaping conflict at home one Winter, stumble into an abandoned puppet theatre where they meet the Old Man [George Jacobsen]who tells the children the story of Pinocchio [Jason Grinstead], a story "...more than true; it's real...when I tell it, it happens". The adventures both delight and bewilder young Elena [Hannah Worley] and Silvia [Olive Henninger], who question and comment at every turn; much like a Greek Chorus, they serve as the audience's mouthpiece.

The Pinocchio story has been retold so many times, that today's audiences are familiar with many of its facets: the mischievous wooden puppet who comes to life through the carving of a piece of wood by Geppetto [Mr. Jacobsen], and who wants more than anything to become human. But his lies make his nose grow longer, and he gets into so many scrapes on his journey with flim-flam artists, con-men, and  assorted animal creatures, that one wonders if he will ever succeed.

But we are on his side and we too listen to the sage advice of the Talking Cricket [John Sluis]: be honest and generous, obey your parents, reap the benefits of schooling, don't be greedy or fall for get-rich-quick schemes, don't be afraid to be a fool, and most of all care about others.

In an ideal pairing, George Jacobsen and Jason Grinstead carry the play on their capable shoulders. Mr. Jacobsen is an adept storyteller for both the on-stage and off-stage audiences, taking on other roles to complete the Old Man's story; and young Mr. Grinstead's powerful presence as Pinocchio delivers the character's contradictions and genuine ambitions with clear intentions and a strong voice [he is one to watch for future stage work].

There are a number of surprises in store by the end [but no spoilers here]; you'll have to catch the last performance to find out. -- There is a lot of magic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Wetumpka Depot & High School: "Big Fish"

In a largely successful collaboration between the Wetumpka Depot Players and the Wetumpka High Theatre Guild, the musical version of the fantasy-drama Big Fish has been playing to enthusiastic full houses at Wetumpka High School.

Based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel, it had a short Broadway run in 2013 starring Norbert Leo Butz in the role of Edward Bloom [Chris Kelly here], a man nearing the end of his life whose incredible biographical stories have bewildered his son Will [Michael Armstrong] who needs to resolve an estranged relationship with his father before it is too late.

Best known to local audiences from Tim Burton's 2003 film that was made almost entirely at locations around the River Region, this production of the John August and Andrew Lippa musical does not replicate the movie, though it retains the essences of the novel, and tells the story by switching between the present day and the young-Will's [Shep Grier] childhood.

This is an ambitious undertaking that is a bit uneven at times, though it succeeds on many levels: confident and inventive directing [Kristy Meanor], assured musical direction [Randy Foster], clever choreography [Daniel Grant Harms] that includes a rousing show-stopping tap dance number at the top of Act II, stunning production values (costumes, sets, props) overseen by Technical Director Jeff Glass, and a large cast of veterans and neophytes who tell a clear story and create memorable characters in a family-friendly excursion that celebrates life.

There are several songs that punctuate and comment on the action; among the memorable are the "Witch Sequence" with Desirae Lewis invigorating the eponymous role of the Witch, "Red, White and True" [that tap-dance number], "Stranger" sung by Mr. Armstrong, "Two Men in My Life" and "I Don't Need a Roof" performed with passionate commitment and effortless singing by Patty Holly as Edward's wife Sandra, and Mr. Kelly's omnipresent central character whenever he takes and commands the scene.

And, while the actors in the focus family are on point throughout, among the supporting roles of Karl the Giant [James Rigby], Ringmaster and sometime werewolf Amos [Cushing Phillips], Edward's nemesis Don Price [Damian Bowden], almost-girlfriend Jenny [Kari Kelly], and Will's intelligently patient and pregnant wife Josephine [Lizzy Woodall], there is a consistent and credible foundation to the story. -- And they are backed up by an energetic ensemble.

What holds this production together is the conflicted Father/Son relationship. Mr. Kelly's Edward is genuinely authentic in his commitment to family and love of storytelling [no matter how confusing his bending the truth can be to others], and Mr. Armstrong's passionate longing as Will to understand his Father leads eventually to an acceptance of one another and a celebration of the enduring love of family.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

ASF Fellows: "Winnie-the-Pooh"

On their penultimate day on Saturday, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Fellows Company presented a delightful production of the A. A. Milne classic Winnie-the-Pooh in a musical adaptation (first seen at ASF about a decade ago) by Le Clanche du Rand, with music by Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by Milne, Kristin Sergel, and Ms. du Rand.

Milne's original 1926 stories are telegraphed into a 60-minute entertainment that is a treat for both the intended children's audiences and the adults who accompany them. -- With its coloring-book set by Charles Eddie Moncrief III and inventive costumes by Jeffrey Todhunter, it pleases the eye as it tells the tale of Christopher Robin [Dane McMichael] and his treasured companion Pooh [Tyshon Boone] as they engage in a number of adventures and misadventures with Rabbit [Katrina Clark], Eeyore [Chris Marth], Piglet [Sigrid Wise], Owl [Tony Pellegrino], Kanga [Eduardo Ruiz] and Roo [Toree Alexandre]. Take your pick on a favorite character; there's enough in each one to beguile anyone.

AUM faculty member Neil David Seibel directs this ensemble with keen attention to character, movement, inventive staging, and the thematic lessons that people of all ages can agree on. -- The action moves swiftly from moment to moment interspersed with songs mostly from the original text; accompanied by Mr. McMichael on the guitar, and occasionally half-spoken/half-sung, the simple tunes are in keeping with Milne's simple messages.

Never out of fashion, Milne's overriding theme of getting along with one another couldn't be more important than today. We watch in childlike wonder how the characters learn to accept strangers who are different from themselves, how to rely on friends in times of need, how to admit when we are wrong or fearful and to apologize (and to move forward when apologies are accepted), and how the least among us ought to be respected.

Though some of the intimate connection between actor and audience was challenged by the play's being staged in the large Festival theatre, this Winnie-the-Pooh preserved the author's intentions and charmed the enthusiastically responsive audience.