Sunday, May 7, 2017

Millbrook" "The Odd Couple"

Ten years ago, The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened its inaugural season with Neil Simon's The Odd Couple at the Robinson Springs United Methodist Church. Now housed at the nearby old Robinson Springs Elementary School, their current production of The Odd Couple boasts a cast of veteran actors, several of them reprising roles they played in 2007.

It seems that Simon's works never go out of style: The Odd Couple [1965] is the fourth Simon production to hit the River Region since February -- Fools at Faulkner University, Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Wetumpka Depot. His popularity stems in part from his likable and decent characters [imperfect as they are], as well as his witty dialogue replete with zingers and snappy one-liners.

The Odd Couple is most familiar from the successful 1970-1975 television sitcom of the same name, so there are built in expectations of seeing conflicts between good friends -- the easygoing and sloppy Oscar Madison [John Chain] and his unexpected housemate, the uptight neat-freak Felix Unger [Roger Humber].

When Felix arrives late to the weekly poker game at Oscar's 8-room Manhattan apartment [at $240 a month, a probably rent-controlled bargain even in 1965, when cigarettes went for .38-cents a pack and newspapers cost a dime], the motley crew of poker buddies are all concerned for their friend. Felix reluctantly tells them about his upcoming divorce, and Oscar generously offers to take him in as a temporary housemate. Longtime friendships are put to the test, and disaster is predictably on its way.

Of course, Felix wants to be helpful, and at first everyone is happy that his cooking outshines Oscar's and his tidying-up is a blessing; but things get out of hand as Felix's obsessions with cleanliness and deadlines destroy their camaraderie.  Roy [Wes Meyer], Speed [Bill Rauch], Murray [Mark McGuire], and Vinnie [John Collier] have numerous fallings-out, but Oscar eventually reaches a breaking point when his plans for him and Felix to double-date the Pigeon sisters -- Gwendolyn [Karla McGhee] and Cecily [Rae Ann Collier] -- ends catastrophically.

The play is really about friendship more than anything else: male-bonding over poker, cigars, booze, and bad food; friends who tolerate each others' extreme idiosyncrasies, even friendships between divorced husbands and wives. -- Both Oscar and Felix are devoted to their families [Oscar's sincere phone conversations with his ex-wife show a genter side of his otherwise brusque demeanor, and Felix's declarations of still loving his soon-to-be ex-wife can soften even the hardest hearts].

Directors Susan Chain and Stephanie McGuire have an acting ensemble who appear comfortable in their respective roles and with one another. But some static movement and unclear articulation get in the way of Simon's witty script. [Perhaps the unfortunately small audience had an effect on their performances; greater numbers responses would add to a lively interaction between actors and audience.]

Nonetheless, this production of The Odd Couple delivers on the playwright's intentions, garners some laugh-out-loud moments, and sends a gentle reminder that friendship is important to everyone.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"

Rose: "Why would a man need more than one woman?"
Johnny: "I don 't know. Maybe because he fears death."
--Moonstruck [1987]

Johnny's response in the film Moonstruck is also the crux of the matter in Neil Simon's comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers [1969], now being shown at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre, where the central character Barney Cashman [Will Webster] engages in hilarious encounters with three distinctly different women.

A bit of a nebbish, and essentially a "gentle, loving, and decent" fellow, Barney is appealingly naive when, after 27 years of marriage, he decides to have an affair, and uses his mother's apartment while she is away for a few hours in the afternoon. Completely ill-equipped for such a dalliance, always aware of his mother's fastidious housekeeping, and naive to any protocols, his attempts at romancing the three women are bound to fail from the very first moment, precisely because he is "gentle, loving, and decent."

Mr. Webster is on stage for the entire two hours and twenty minutes, a tour de force performance that shows this actor's versatility: comic timing, physical dexterity, clear and complex characterization, and a generosity in sharing the stage with three excellent actresses. -- And though Neil Simon was considered a lightweight comic writer in these early days, only being recognized for greater depth as his career developed, there are several serious notes in Last of the Red Hot Lovers that ought to receive attention.

In Barney's first encounter with sexpot Elaine [Leslie Blackwell], he first admits that this is "the first time in my life I think about dying". -- Elaine is loud, direct, and businesslike, and he is obviously nervous; and while he wants conversation "to get to know one another", she wants a drink and a cigarette. Ms. Blackwell is best at delivering one-liners with a deadpan seriousness that take Mr. Webster off-guard. And his blue-suit uptight demeanor dooms the relationship from the start. Our hearts go out to him, and also approve of her matter-of-fact non-judgmental exit.

Barney's second encounter with the hippie Bobbi Michelle [Leanna Wallace] is by far the most outrageously comical of the three. Ms. Wallace inhabits her character with all its contradictions and paranoid behavior with such unassuming grace and naivete that each squeal or aggression or petulance is welcomed by collective audience laughter. Goofy and charming throughout, this pot smoking scatterbrained chatterbox who has a Nazi-lesbian roommate, never misses a beat; and the pot smoking sequence loosens Barney up to the delight of the audience, especially as it has a near maudlin realization of Barney's age and mortality.

In the third encounter with Jeannette [Chantel Oakley] the icing is put on Simon's cake. Jeannette is a friend who clutches her pocketbook and has what amounts to an extraordinary emotional breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably and ruining any chance of an affair. -- She too is searching for the happiness that Barney seeks, and Ms. Oakley's melodramatic demands for him to name three people who are "gentle, loving, and decent" lead them both to realize that they and their spouses are the only ones that matter. Growing old together with the recognition that other people experience the same doubts and fears is a comforting note on which to end Barney's escapades.

Director Tom Salter stages Last of the Red Hot Lovers on a period specific 1960s set, and defines each scene distinctly, always aware of Barney's attempts to improve by adjusting to what came before, yet failing gloriously each time. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that stem from Simon's witty dialogue and adroit characterizations from the acting ensemble, making this an enjoyable and thought provoking production.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Crucible"

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

First-time director Sarah Adkins brings a lot to the table in her audacious post-apocalyptic production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the playwright's 1953 response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist "witch hunts" that Miller set during the actual 17th Century Salem, MA witch trials.

Replete with haunting music and sound effects by Stephen Dubberley, Mike Winkelman's "in-yer-face" theatre-in-the-round staging [multi-level platforms and harsh lighting create a harrowing mis-en-scene to support the story], a team's -- led by Matthew Oliver and Mariah Reilly, with Danny Davidson and Michael Reilly -- suitably "distressed" and well-chosen costumes, and a 20-strong age-appropriate acting ensemble who create indelible characters and articulate Miller's words and ideas with enviable clarity and conviction, Ms. Adkins' directorial debut resonates long after the performance ends.

Audiences at The Crucible seem eager to continue the conversation between the Acts and after the curtain call. -- How does what happened in 1692, or in the 1950s, or [in the case of this production] in a bleakly envisioned future, impact us in 2017? -- When we see in The Crucible how religious fanaticism trumps any cogent argument, how accusations and alternative facts are proclaimed without any regard for evidential support, how entitlement comes from money or social class, how mere suspicion equates with guilt, how fear-mongering becomes intimidating through persistence in shouting down or ignoring opposing views, the correlations with the current state of affairs at home and abroad leap off the Playhouse stage and into our collective consciousness.

It is important to know that witches and witchcraft were widely believed in 1692 Salem; yet, there are some strange happenings there and across the Massachusetts Bay Colony that Miller confronts in The Crucible. -- Puritan minister Reverend Parris [Jason Morgan in a transforming characterization that is arguably a career-defining role] has seen several young girls dancing in the woods with his Barbadian slave Tituba [Meghan Ducote] and suspects their mischief may have included conjuring the devil, especially since his own daughter Betty [Frances Brown] was one of them and is now lying in bed "afflicted" and comatose. Fearing his reputation more than anything else, he has called for witchcraft expert Reverend Hale [Marcus Clement shows a complex range as his character changes allegiances] to come from nearby Beverly to detect witchcraft, and if so to destroy witches in the name of God, and prevent an outbreak of panic and hysteria.

Parris' niece Abigail Williams [Amber Baldwin, cold-hearted and despicable in the role] is the ring-leader of the girls, who is determined to maintain their innocence at all costs; she had had a brief affair with local farmer John Proctor [Kalonji Gilchrist] when she worked for him; when Proctor's wife Elizabeth [Mariah Reilly] discovered their affair, she kicked Abigail out of the house, but the younger woman refuses to be put off when Proctor says their relationship is over. -- She then takes advantage of Proctor's weakness to shift attention from the girls' conjuring in the woods by charging witchcraft on Elizabeth in order to kill her off and take her place with Proctor. -- Abigail's chief cohort, Mary Warren [Alex Rikerd is riveting in the role as her testimony will determine the results], provides a glimmer of hope when she agrees to testify on Elizabeth's behalf; but her shifting allegiances get the better of her as she succumbs to Abigail's authority.

How easy and familiarly contemporary it seems, and how quickly the fear and hysteria snowball. --  Parris is more concerned with retaining his position than with the well-being of the community he is meant to serve from the pulpit; wealthy Thomas Putnam [George Jacobsen] and his wife Ann [Elizabeth Bowles] are ready to accuse others of witchcraft as they suspect the infant-deaths of several of their children can only be explained that way. In haughty and determined characterizations, their history of winning lawsuits by dint of their wealth and social position is also a matter of contention from Giles Corey [Tom Lawson] and Francis Nurse [Bill Llewellyn]. So, whenever the truth about the girls' exploits are in danger of being revealed, Abigail leads them in "spontaneous fits" and outrageous accusations of witchcraft against Rebecca Nurse [Teri Sweeney] and several of the most respected members of the community. And our sympathies go out to them.

Yet things get even more frightening on the arrival of Judge Hathorne [Lee Bridges] and the imposing Deputy Governor Danforth [Roy Goldfinger];  a stern and practical man, Danforth is a calculating presence in Mr. Goldfinger's portrayal. Sticking to the letter if the law during the trials, he seems to favor the stature of the court and his position over justice, and refuses to examine evidence or stop the executions; he clearly is Miller's villain, since he wields life or death authority over the falsely accused but acts unfairly and unreasonably. And yet, he cannot fathom the people's fear of him and his court. Even Reverend Hale's frustrated declaration -- "I quit this court!" -- when he determines the fraudulence of the accusations and testimonies, does not deter Danforth; when Hale returns to "minister" to the condemned, Danforth is temporarily caught off guard, but tries to use Hale to his pre-determined judgments.

When Proctor tries to defend his wife against invented and circumstantial evidence, and Abigail's vengeful tantrums threaten to disrupt the proceedings, he calls her a whore, thus condemning himself as a lecher and sealing Elizabeth's fate when she lies in his defense saying she knew nothing of the affair. -- The focus of Miller's play is on the Proctors, and Mr. Gilchrist and Ms. Reilly imbue their characters' complexity and contradictions faithfully. With subtle vocal and physical changes, clarity of intentions, and impressive dignity of character, these two actors create a palpable tension in every scene they are in, and an empathy with the audience.

There are a few times when staging blocks important action from parts of the audience, and when lines are muddled or hard to hear because of intense emotions or busy stage action, but The Crucible [its three hours seem to fly by] certainly ranks high in The Cloverdale Playhouse's seasonal offerings : fine ensemble performances of a challenging and provocative script that has been given new life by Ms. Adkins -- a promising emerging director.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

ASF: "The Tempest"

Part One:
Geoffrey Sherman is stepping down this Summer at the end of his 12-year stint as Producing Artistic Director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; so it is fitting that his last Shakespeare production is The Tempest, acknowledged as the Bard's last play written alone [without collaborators], and one that many scholars believe is his farewell to the stage through the figure of the play's protagonist Prospero, played here by Esau Pritchett, seen recently at ASF in Dauphin Island.

The version of The Tempest that Sherman is presenting is "a transcription for contemporary voices" by Kenneth Cavander, one of many playwrights commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Play on!" series -- more about that project follows below -- and whose Timon of Athens played at ASF a couple of seasons ago. A curious choice.

The story opens with a storm at sea and a shipwreck with the King of Naples and his retinue on board, the "tempest" caused by Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan who, with his 4-year-old daughter Miranda, was set adrift years ago and landed on an uncharted island. Here, Prospero discovered magic, enslaved the monster Caliban and the sprite Ariel who do his bidding with varying degrees of resistance. -- As the now teenaged Miranda worries about the shipwrecked passengers, Prospero assures her they are not harmed and decides it is time for her to know her origins and learn later of his intentions of revenge and ultimate forgiveness.

The lengthy exposition establishes secondary stories of the aristocrats' inner fighting and murder plots, the clowns' drunkenness and attachment to Caliban in a plot to take over the island by killing Prospero, and the deliberate separation of the King's son Ferdinand from the others in order to manage a contrived meeting with Miranda and their instant romance. -- Keeping these disparate groups apart till the penultimate scene affords audiences some suspense leading up to the inevitable gathering of all the characters and the discovery of Prospero's intentions.

Part Two:
Sherman's production has a lot of things going for it to delight the eye and ear: romantic costumes [Pamela Scofield], evocative musical composition [James Conely] and sound score [William H.Burns], complimentary scenery [James Wolk] and lighting [Kendall Smith], several magical special effects, stunning video projections [Brad Peterson] that establish locations and atmosphere, and talented and committed ensemble actors.

James Bowen's and Rodney Clark's buffoonery as the clownish Trinculo and Stephano eke out some sympathy for their predicament and drunken behavior; and their lording it over Caliban offers the pretensions of lower class men attempting to act like aristocrats.

Paul Hebron's sympathetic portrayal of Gonzalo, the old councillor who aided Prospero in his escape and who here adds a needed dignity to the aristocracy; especially as King Alonzo [Larry Tobias], his brother Sebastian [Jason Martin], and Prospero's brother Antonio [John Manfredi] who had usurped the Dukedom from Prospero years ago, are by and large a mean-spirited group.

As the love-at-first-sight couple, Ferdinand [Seth Andrew Bridges] and Miranda [Christina King] demonstrate an adolescent innocence along with appropriate excessive emotions. We, along with Prospero who had set this all up, approve of their union from the start; and their relationships with Prospero [father/daughter; father-in-law/son-in-law] are instantly recognizable.

Relationships are strained between Prospero and Caliban [Brik Berkes]. Mr. Berkes imbues the role with credible resentment [he once had the island to himself]; and though Prospero had treated him nicely at first, he turned on him when Caliban attempted to violate Miranda. As he says: "You taught me language; and my profit on 't/Is, I know how to curse."

As the sprite Ariel, Erin Chupinsky does Prospero's bidding willingly, but is eager for the freedom from bondage that Prospero had promised. Ms. Chupinksy is an adept dancer and singer, and seems to delight in the various tricks and magic that Prospero commands of Ariel. -- There is a bond between them that is expressed gently in their final moments together.

A commanding presence, Mr. Pritchett's Prospero is, by turns, paternal, authoritative, compassionate, vengeful, driven, and contemplative -- a many-dimensioned character who can turn on a dime and have audiences engaged throughout. Well done.

Part Three:
Elizabethan audiences went to "hear" a play, much like we go to "see" a play. So, it is not unusual for the production values in modern staging to receive much of the audiences' attention, sometimes distracting us from the sound of the words and the words themselves. -- For a long time, productions of Shakespeare have been edited, adapted, set in exotic locales and time periods, had all female casts, and been subjected to post-apocalyptic interpretations. So, it is common enough to attend a non-traditional rendering. And directors have regularly updated occasional antiquated words.

The "Play on!" project has been debated since its inception, questioning whether there is a need for updating scripts so contemporary audiences will find them more accessible. One camp believes that such "translations" will make them clearer, can attract new audiences, and stand side by side with the original scripts. Another camp believes that changing Shakespeare's vocabulary and versification dumbs-down the originals and condescends to today's audiences who, given productions by classically trained actors who make the words effortlessly comprehensible, will most certainly understand them; and that the richness of Shakespeare's words and the robustness of his verse must be preserved.

"Do no harm" is the charge given to all 36 "Play on!" writers: "don't add personal politics, don't fix Shakespeare's structure, observe the rigors of language [meter, rhythm, metaphor, imagery, rhyme, rhetoric, and structural content]; but go line-by-line, updating antiquated language, but retaining as much of the original as didn't need change".

While Cavander's script does retain much of Shakespeare's original [Prospero's major monologues, for example, and some familiar lines: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on..." and "O brave new world...", for example], many of the changes have rendered a less than vibrant dialogue and a flatness to the verse that the actors must rise above.

The beauty of Shakespeare's language is in part the sound of it. I missed luxuriating in that in listening to Cavander's version, despite the visual delight of this production.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Theatre AUM: "The Flick"

Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick is playing at Theatre AUM, in keeping with that program's educational theatre charge to showcase new plays along with standard fare. Montgomery audiences and the AUM students have a chance to see plays that will be unlikely at other local venues.

At its debut, the critical responses to The Flick were mixed, largely because very little happened during its 3+ hours playing time [AUM's production comes in at less than 2-hours]; yet, the characters and their personal stories resonate truthfully, no matter how mundane the situations and the dialogue.

Set in a one-screen movie theatre in Worcester, MA called "The Flick", it is one of a few remaining movie houses still showing 35mm celluloid projections while others have embraced the new digital format; and AUM director Val Winkelman locates her audiences on what is usually their stage playing area facing the rows of seats they ordinarily sit in, and what would be the location of the "screen" for the characters in The Flick.

For most of the play's two acts, two of the play's three central characters go about their dreary jobs cleaning up the movie house of the debris left by patrons at the end of the working day. Sam [David Moore] has worked there a while in a dead-end job, and is instructing Avery [Tony George] on the routine job requirements while establishing his seniority over the newcomer who is only there in a stop-gap position taking a break from college. Both are movie nerds, and engage in countless games of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon".

Sam is also enamored of the projectionist Rose [Cathy Raneiri], a take-charge open-minded woman; but she does not return his interest and seems to be intrigued by Avery.

In a series of short episodic scenes stretching over the course of several days, these minimum wage earners reveal many layers of their personalities and individual histories that realistically replicate the ways in which we often hold conversations: half sentences, overlapping thoughts, filler words, and sounds. -- We learn of the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frustrating things that each has experienced, along with some consuming obsessions about work, race, class, family, social privilege, and the need for solidarity among them in face of imminent closure of their workplace by the never seen manager and owner of "The Flick".

The major challenges of Ms. Baker's play -- delivering her ultra-naturalistic dialogue believably, and sustaining her deliberately slow pace with its numerous lengthy pauses -- make it imperative for the characters' complicated lives to resonate with audiences. And Ms. Winkelman's cast [also with Chris Mascia as an eager-to-please new hire named Skylar], render the words with conviction, though sometimes with such naturalistic understated delivery as to be hard to hear.

These are lonely people reaching out to one another in ways that they find difficult to express. -- And we feel for them without being able to help.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Faulkner: "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown"

In 1967, Charles M. Schultz's Peanuts comic-strip characters came to life in a small Off-Broadway theatre in a sweetly innocent musical comedy, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Small on dialogue, yet big on songs that re-create many of the Peanuts characters' familiar situations, it ran for over a thousand performances and was uniformly praised for its ability to capture the innocence of childhood through a simple low-key style. The music and lyrics by Clark Gesner evoked a nostalgia shared over the years by audiences all over the globe.

In 1999, a "revised" version with additional dialogue by Michael Mayer, and Andrew Lippa's insertion of some new songs and "enhancements" of the original score, became the version available for performances today; and this is the one currently showing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Though it retains much of the original's winsomeness [and Faulkner's ensemble actors are up to the task], some of the solo songs become small-scale production numbers, and the new songs work against the intentionally childlike qualities of the original source material.

Director Angela Dickson, along with Marilyn Swears [piano] and Mark Benson [percussion], keep the action going at a solid pace on Matt Dickson's cartoon-colorful set. And the cast -- Hunter Lee Smith (Charlie Brown), Catherine Allbritton (Sally Brown), Emily Woodring (Lucy Van Pelt), Morgan Baker (Linus Van Pelt), Colby Smith (Schroeder), John Pate (Snoopy) -- are instantly recognizable in their respective roles, and delight their audiences with strong singing Faulkner is noted for and with engaging performances.

While Charlie Brown's journey as a lovable failure who never succeeds at baseball or flying kites is the center of the story, each of the others has a moment in song that highlights a personality trait or renders a specific story line that are featured in Schultz's comic strip.

Production numbers -- "The Book Report" on Peter Rabbit shows each character's mind-set with hilarious results, and the "Glee Club Rehearsal" of "Home on the Range" deteriorates into mayhem -- show a fine sense of collaborative ensemble work.

Ms. Woodring's Lucy is bossy and arrogant and wants to be a Queen, but is also hopelessly in love with Schroeder as he plays the "Moonlight Sonata", and softens her amateur psychiatrist's pronouncements towards Charlie Brown in "The Doctor is In".

Mr. Smith's Schroeder is continuously frustrated by others who don't share his taste for classical music, but celebrates a raucous "Beethoven Day" with the company.

Ms. Allbritton has a ball with Sally's uncooperative jump rope and shines [along with Mr. Smith's Schroeder] in "New Philosophy".

Mr. Baker's most sensitive moment comes in "My Blanket and Me" as Linus serenades, almost loses, and ultimately rescues what we all recognize as a childhood security blanket...one of the finer moments in this production.

Mr. Pate has several big moments as Snoopy: a dog's idyll that "They Like Me" is understated as "not bad at all"; his iconic aerial pursuit of "The Red Baron" as a "flying ace" from atop his doghouse; and an out-of-control delight in "Suppertime".

And Mr. Smith's disastrous "The Kite" that won't fly, his inevitable failure at "The Baseball Game", his constant distraction with the Little Red-haired Girl, culminate in "Happiness" with the whole company and Lucy in particular admitting at last: "You're a good man, Charlie Brown".

Thursday, March 30, 2017

WOBT: "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Director Blair Dyson's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre has one of that theatre's strongest acting ensembles gracing the stage in Neil Simon's 1983 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy. Set in the title's Brooklyn neighborhood in 1937, it tracks a Jewish family's lives as World War II is about to erupt in Europe where many of their family and friends still live.

The War is occasionally referenced in the two acts, reminding us that even during the Depression, the hard times in America pale in comparison to the horrors of the holocaust to come.

But war is the last thing in the mind of Simon's alter-ego, the precocious 15-year-old Eugene Jerome [Sam Elsky] who is more interested in sports and a fixation on women's breasts. -- Eugene is also the narrator of the piece who regularly comments on his frustrations with other family members: his mother Kate's [Zyna Captain] constant nagging and unremarkable cooking; his Aunt Blanche's [Melissa Strickland] fragile health; his admiration of elder brother Stanley [Christian Chapman] who "instructs" him on "the ways of the world"; his older cousin Nora's [Grace Moore] breasts and dreams of becoming a Broadway star; his younger cousin Laurie's [Tori Sigler] retreat into bookishness because of a perceived illness; and the solidity of his father Jack [Gary Essary] whose wise advice is sought on every important issue or decision.

While several characters' choices need Jack's sage advice, and with two families living under one roof due to financial straits in hard times predictably cause some friction, the resulting anger and misunderstandings [some recent and some long-held resentments] are eventually forgiven because of the bond of love and family they share.

What holds this production together is the sincere portrayals of all the characters. The playwright's witty dialogue is delivered truthfully, demonstrating these actors' ability to humanize their sometimes outrageous pronouncements. And for all their complaints about others behaviors, the love that is rarely expressed in words is demonstrated by their actions.

They invite us into their home and their lives for a couple of hours, and we can't help but love them back.