Friday, October 30, 2009

Montgomery Ballet "An Evening of Romance"

On Friday evening at the Davis Theatre, the Montgomery Ballet demonstrated once again its committment to performing both standard ballet fare and modern approaches to the art of dance, incorporating jazz, flamenco, and popular movement -- all in some stunning selections.

"An Evening of Romance" showcased the talents of this young professional resident company in two ballets choreographed by Artistic Director Elie Lazar ["Niche" and "Surrender 2 Love"] that began and ended the program, with three more traditional Pas de Deux in between. Combined with costumes and lighting that reinforce mood and character, the romantic musical accompaniment created atmospheres appropriate to each selection.

"Niche" begins with a solo dancer in a pool of light, soon joined by others in separate similar pools, gradually opening up the entire stage -- a conceit that Lazar used in a recent performance of his "Gloria". Mostly lighthearted, it investigates a number of relationships ranging from family to innocent flirtations to competitive love triangles, and introduces us to the company's assorted strengths of leaps, turns, and quick footwork.

The Pas de Deux selections showed three of the company's strongest pairings, each using traditional choreographed movements -- predictable in form [pair, male solo, female solo, pair] -- which both tell stories and highlight demanding footwork, extraordinary leaps & turns, and afford each dancer opportunities to dazzle us with their virtuosity.

The selection from "Diana and Acteon" depicts the goddess and the hunter in love. Paul Gilliam makes a dramatic entrance, startling the demure Laura Villalobos, after which each dancer exhibits impressive skill. Their pairing establishes a good rapport and trust necessary for the lifts and support each needs.

The "Pas de Slav from Le Corsaire" features Molly Wagner and Joey Villalobos, she as a veiled "slave" who is rescued by the hero. Their exotic costumes reinforced her clean lines and his elegant postures that kept us engaged in their relationship.

"Flames of Paris" was the last of the "pas de deux" that required incredible leaps from Dana Lanz-Ross and difficult bouncing en pointe by Nicole Padilla, all the while maintaining a romantic relationship. -- Impressive though he might be, Mr. Lanz-Ross needs to sustain his character at all times, in order to maintain the fictional role he plays.

"Surrender 2 Love" completes the evening. Set in a cabaret, and with music that evokes flamenco and jazz, Lazar tells a story of complex relationships and courtship rituals that might have been taken from today's headlines. Various pairings that explore partnerships -- acceptance & rejection -- are told with humor and passion by the entire corps. The dizzying effect is palpable to the audience, as the dancers twirl, leap, lift, and maneuver for dominance, keeping in character and showing their skills.

This is a company to watch. Their stamina and grace disguise the athleticism and strength required to dance with apparent ease; their skills are already impressive for such a young company, and make audiences anticipate their growth; their dramatic abilities are being honed and their confidence is growing. -- Look forward to greater things in the future.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

November Openings

November is a busy month, with a lot of productions opening.
Check websites at the left for details:
Nov. 5 -- Theatre AUM "Lysistrata"
Nov. 5 -- Millbrook "Cotton Patch Gospel"
Nov. 7 -- ASF "Ferdinand the Bull"
Nov. 7 -- Wetumpka Depot at ASF "The Wedding from Hell"
Nov. 13 -- Auburn "Brighton Beach Memoirs"
Nov. 18 -- ASU "Black Nativity"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Troy "Page to Stage"

Subtitled 'Searching for the Creative Habit', Troy University's Page to Stage performance showcased the talents of some 37 actors, singers, and dancers under the tutelage of the department's creative team of faculty & staff.

The hour-and-a-half production played to an enthusiastic full house who witnessed scenes ranging from Classical Greek theatre to Shakespeare to Modern & Contemporary drama, and featured Troy's new concentration in Musical Theatre as well as its 40-year resident Children's Theatre troupe, the "Pied Pipers".

Actor and Artist in Residence, Quinton Cockrell, served as narrator to the numerous scenes, provided historical background to each, and confidently took the roles of the Stage Manager in "Our Town" and Oberon in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", thereby affording students the opportunity of learning their craft by sharing the stage with an experienced professional.

Continuing in the spirit of educational theatre, the audience -- largely comprised of other students enrolled in Theatre Appreciation classes -- witnessed the cast in an assortment of vocal and physical warm-up exercises, and even a quick rehearsal of a monologue. With the insightful narrative comments from Mr. Cockrell, perhaps they can now understand better the kinds of preparation that go into creating a polished performance, the hard work and discipline that make it look easy.

A key component to the educational intentions of the production is its entertainment value; after all, from the Greeks through till today, live theatre's purpose is to simultaneously instruct and entertain. Whether it is through the somber tones of masterfully controlled monologues -- Sarah Looney's Linda Loman from "Death of a Salesman", and Sarah Gill's impassioned Rose from "Fences", and Maurice McCoo's "Othello", and Caroline Franklin's depiction of Nora from "A Doll's House" riveted the audience's attention -- or the dazzlingly energetic choreography and singing of the "Musical Theatre Ensemble", or the clever antics of the "Pied Pipers" as they told the story of "The Three Little Pigs" [and the Big Bad Wolf], the audience experienced the wide range of theatrical possibilities.

The 'search for the creative habit' continued throughout the evening. Regularly shifting simple set pieces -- blocks, steps, ramps, frames -- showed the flexibility of an otherwise bare stage in creating both creative designs and movement possibilities. Lighting enhanced mood and location, and focused attention onto the important actor in a scene. And, since no naturalistically detailed sets or costumes distracted attention, the audience's focus had to be on the actor and the words.

Clear and articulate speech was also evident in the performances, and we saw them 'in training' before they performed. It is difficult at times to control volume, pace, energy, inflection, and projection when an actor is also emotionally engaged in the scene or physically active. And they must communicate the script's meanings while telling an interesting story, an exercise that this company showed well in control.

Yes, there are a lot of demands on the acting company and the design and technical staff of any production. The creative habits that take years of training and committment pay off in the end. -- Troy's theatre department gave a master class in theatre, a theatre that respects the text's words & ideas as well as the elements of staging that teach & entertain, which benefits us all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kudos to Wetumpka Depot

The Wetumpka Depot Players returned from the Alabama Conference of Theatre's Community Theatre Festival held in Pell City this past weekend with many top awards for their production of "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten":
Best Production [to represent Alabama at the Southeastern Theatre Conference annual convention in March 2010 in Lexington, KY],
Best Ensemble [the cast],
Best Direction [Sarah Looney Eckermann],
and Best Actor [Bill Nowell].

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ASU "Antigone"

Guest Reviewer:
Fiona Macleod is a professional actor who is currently the Artistic Director of the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, AL. She is the former Head of Theatre at Huntingdon College, and holds an MFA in acting from the University of Alabama/Alabama Shakespeare Festival Graduate Acting Program.

Raising one of the several laughs last night at the Leila Barlow Theatre, with his comment, "We're not a particularly affectionate family, are we?" King Creon [Jerrel O'Neal] to his neice Antigone [Parnesha Ingram] reflects on why she should be executed, and ponders how it can be avoided.

We know Antigone comes from a renowned dysfunctional family and has seen her share of tribulations. When her father discovered that he'd killed his father before marrying his mother and begetting his own sibling children, Dad, King Oedipus, gouged out his eyes, and Mum committed suicide. Antigone's two greedy brothers began a civil war that ended with their corpses locked in battle. That particular image climaxed the striking opening of ASU's one and a half hour short, one act production of that Greek tragedy, originally written around 441 BC.

Not exactly Sophocles' "Antigone", Dr. Tommie Stewart chose to use an interesting modern adaptation by Lewis Galantiere of the French playwright Jean Anouilh's version. Then with the help of faculty newcomer to ASU, Shaneesa Sweeney, and student actors, they edited that notoriously long play down to the energetic production that is on the boards until October 17.

Galantiere's version isn't about Antigone's choice between human and divine law, as Sophocles' was, but about the conflict between integrity and compromise, touching on issues such as family loyalties, religious beliefs, civil disobedience and gender inequity.

So, choosing this modern script, the production team could have placed this play in any time frame. Instead, they decided to remain within the classic Greek era. This allowed the ideals to remain and the exciting costumes by Ramona Ward to lend flair to the physicalization and choreography by the students of the Theatre Department who consistently brought a good deal of intensity and great charm to the drama.

In the beginning, the performance is driven by exciting music, accompanied by the keening of the chorus dancers. They pull us into the action by entering through the audience to mourn over the empty thrones and grieve as the brothers fight to the death on a platform that overshadows the classic Theban set by Alton England. Shadows of the fight flung on the cyclorama, the image of the remaining dead body picked over by vultures, and then the heroic broken-hearted Antigone trying to honor her dead, despite her knowledge that the punishment for shoveling even a thin layer of earth over the carcass is death, remains with us as the play's characters and action is skillfully taken over by Chorus.

Flanking an interesting picture of Creon's court, Stephanie Adams and ElPaso Williams confidently playing Chorus, present the characters and situations we will confront. Like the sonnet at the beginning of "Romeo and Juliet", Chorus gives us all the facts. Allusions to Shakespeare subtly appear through this script and resulting action.

That the dead body remains above the action on stage to be revisited at various points in the play, is an ever-present reminder of where our choices can lead us.

Guided by James Knight's lighting design and the impassioned performances of Antigone [Parnesha Ingram] and Creon [Jerrel O'Neal], presented as a rational, complex man, the play quickly grabs our attention. Every actor on stage takes his or her moments in stride. Articulate and strong performances by Haemon [Andrew Preston], Guard 1 [Quincy Rucker in a humorous takeoff of Dogberry from "Much Ado"] involve us throughout the evening. In this production, Guards 1, 2, and 3 echo the comedy of Shakespeare with a liberal dousing of the Keystone Cops.

Ismene, sweetly portrayed by freshman Janaye Rogers gives the "too little too late" support to Antigone as she continues her struggle to have their brother successfully laid to rest. I found Eurydice [CharaieCelia Hamilton], Creon's wife, constantly "knitting", to be a regal presence making the most of her few lines, and observing with the intellect of a wise thoughtful woman. Her image reflected Mme. Defarge in "A Tale of Two Cities" again reminding us of revenge and death. The Nurse [Monece Starling] gives a sterling performance as an aging and fond servant.

Several of the actors frequently directed speech to the audience, giving a stilted presentational quality to the work which reminiscent of Greek theatre is understandable, but with the use of modern jargoned language, a more realistic approach could perhaps also have been enjoyable.

All in all, this was a night at the theatre to be enjoyed and mulled over. It is one that deserves to be discussed for its content: politics, civil responsibility, and principles. Last night, I witnessed a production that Dr. Tommie Stewart staged with abundant creative dexterity. She, her faculty and students should be proud, and as an audience member you probably would more than enjoy the experience. Last night's plentiful audience seemed to agree with me. Take the time to enjoy that passage through time to reflect on old themes which sadly remain with us today.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Faulkner "Wait Until Dark"

"Wait Until Dark", English playwright Frederick Knott's 1966 spine-tingling suspense drama, is currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Best known for the 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn as a recently blind woman being terrorized by a trio of thugs who are after some heroin hidden in a doll that was brought home from a business trip by her unsuspecting husband, its jump-out-of-your-seat ending is a classic moment in film history. Knott had written "Dial M for Murder" in the 1950s, and combined with the impact of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), had set the standard for the genre; Americans delighted in being scared then, and the momentum of such entertainment fare has not slowed down.

The major challenges of this and similar plays are to avoid melodramatic interpretation, which director Angela Dickson's cast does very well, and to sustain the cat-and-mouse tension throughout its two acts, which is not so successful. Complicated plot contrivances notwithstanding, the action needs to move purposefully from point to point with careful attention to the slow and fast rhythms inherent in such maneuverings. As it is, the slow steady pace of both the dialogue and the actors' movement had little variety, and there were a number of silent moments that drew attention to themselves, resulting in an over-long almost two-and-a-half-hour production that could not frighten us as intended.

Jason Clark South's 1960s period Greenwich Village basement apartment setting provides many authentic details, from a formica dining table to a rotary phone to a photographic darkroom with an enlarger, red-light, and other materials that would be totally unfamiliar to many people today. It's too bad that the Faulkner stage is so wide; filling its breadth with a set lessens the claustrophobic feeling that Knott's script suggests. And with a script that relies on lighting -- and pitch-darkness -- it is too bad that there were a number of glitches here that illuminated too much of the stage at moments when darkness should have prevailed.

As the two small-time con men, Michael Morrow and Tony Davidson bring significant sinister aspects to their roles, occasionally breaking the tension with off-hand remarks that draw smiles if not laughs. Morrow is particularly adept at appearing concerned for his victim's well-being, though this ruse is eventually seen through by Jaynie Casserly as the blind Suzy Hendricks. And Davidson's portrayal is effectively sly and a bit bumbling. They are a good pair who just need to bring up the energy to keep us engaged in their pretenses.

Rebekah Goldman plays the teenaged neighbor Gloria, whose petulance and whining give way to concerned helpfullness.

Jason Peregoy plays Suzy's husband Sam with conviction. The couple's scenes together provide some domestic stability and appear natural enough to warrant our concern.

Chris Kelly, wearing an arm sling just one night after an injury during a performance of the play, does yeoman's work in taking the stage at all; and he creates an evil character whose duplicity and paranoia are very real threats. Occasionally overusing an almost comic-book laugh verges on the ridiculous, but Kelly rescues his character from it by his persistence in the performance.

Casserly is utterly convincing as a blind woman. The set of her eyes, the stiffness of her walk, the tentative searching with her hands, and the subtle adjustments of her head and face reflect a blind person's compensating for the loss of sight. A vivacious actor, Casserly imbues her role with a mixture of innocence and strength; as she figures out her dangerous predicament and takes matters into her own hands, she subtly demonstrates the character's independence and assurance.

The big question is: Do we care? -- Though there is sufficient text to achieve this, and the actors appear to know their characters, the deliberate slow pace and lengthy pauses can't sustain our emotional engagement in Suzy's predicament.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Depot at ASF

The Wetumpka Depot Players will present "The Wedding from Hell" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for two performances -- Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 2:00 p.m.
For information and tickets call (334) 868-1440 or go to the Wetumpka Depot website available at the left of this page.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Count Dracula" -- Wetumpka Depot

The cool autumn air marks a new season, the night comes on a bit earlier, there's an almost full moon, Halloween is just around the corner, an organ blasts Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D-Minor" signalling the start of the Wetumpka Depot Players' "Count Dracula", a 1977 witty spoof by Ted Tiller.

Forget about "Twilight" and "True Blood", Dracula remains -- from Bram Stoker's original through its many incarnations -- the ultimate vampire. Everyone knows the story in some guise or another, so they come prepared for any version they see.

Tiller's play takes a lot of liberties with the original novel, omitting and adding some characters, changing their names, and writing overtly melodramatic dialogue that is meant to garner laughs at a once serious subject that has become so much a part of popular culture that it passes for sheer entertainment. -- And, it succeeds in not taking itself too seriously, so purists ought not be dismayed.

Director John Collier creates a two-act production out of Tiller's three-act format, a wise move to sustain audience interest, though much of his first act is Tiller's rather belabored exposition setting up the circumstances and the characters. -- Dr. Seward [Tom Carmony] and his eccentric sherry-tippling sister Sybil [Hazel Jones] are concerned that Seward's ward Mina [Rae Ann Collier] is suffering from an unexplained disease, coincidentally soon after a visit to their home by the mysterious Count Dracula [Phil Tankersley]. Mina's fiancee Jonathan Harker [Brad Moon] and the eminent Doctor Van Helsing [Paul Travitsky] are on hand to soothe Mina's distress and determine the cause of her ailment.

Since Van Helsing is an expert on such matters, he concludes that Mina's anemic condition and strange mood-swings are the result of her victimization by a vampire none other than Dracula, who has conscripted a mad man named Renfield [Michael Snead], a patient under Dr. Seward's care, as his assistant.

On a set that evokes an Edwardian feel with its deep red walls and plush furniture and a lot of clutter, and a series of eerie sounding wolf howls and a classical musical score reminiscent of silent movie melodrama, we are -- despite no real attempt at executing the English accents dictated by the script -- taken into the world of the vampire story.

Collier's actors try mightily to deliver the goods of melodrama, but only partially succeed. All too often, hesitation and slow responses to cues slowed down the necessary intensity of the genre; perhaps this was brought on by opening night jitters, something that needs attention in order to not only keep our interest, but also to get more of the laughs that are inherent in the sophisticated script and bring the show to an end well under its 2 hour and 20 minute running time.

Even though the characters are all too familiar to us, and though caricature is certainly an option in their presentation, what came across frequently was broad brush-strokes without sufficient character development -- or possibly a tentative approach to the melodramatic style that allows and indeed encourages larger than life portrayals, broad gestures, passionate delivery of dialogue, energetic movement, and a significant amount of tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Whatever the reason, much of the production remained flat; however, there were some performances that got it right. -- Newcomer Brad Moon's Harker came across as a convincingly romantic hero whose concern for Mina was very real. His naturalistic voice and movement lend credibility to his portrayal. And veteran actor Tankersley's comical tribute to Bela Lugosi as Dracula was debonair as all get out, complete with several self-indulgent glances and winks at the audience.

Once the actors settle into their roles and gain more confidence, this production ought to become a laugh riot. The germs are there. Let them grow.