Monday, December 6, 2010

Millbrook: "Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical"

The holiday spirit has come to Millbrook in a charming production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical. Taking its cue from the 1955 film, but with several additional songs by Berlin interspersed throughout its two-and-a-half hour length, director A. John Collier's production is delighting its sold out audiences.

In part a backstage musical, in part a traditional love story, in part a patriotic statement so necessary in times of war, and in part just plain old nostalgic sentiment for the hoildays -- this version warms the heart from beginning to end.

Despite the limitations of a small stage [though Millbrook's stage has been permanently enlarged for this production], Collier & Company have created a workable space to house several scenic locations and a large number of actors -- 31 to be precise. Quite an accomplishment.

In addition, Collier has mixed some of the area's most experienced actors with a number of newcomers to his stage, built some stunning costumes, and delivered a solid show that could transform any Grinch or Scrooge in the audience.

In 1954, veteran song & dance team Bob Wallace [David Brown] and Phil Davis [Jason Morgan] are about to rehearse a new nightclub act in Miami, and are impressed by a new act by sisters Betty [Brooke Brown] and Judy Haynes [Lauren Morgan].

Attempting a love-match between Bob & Betty, Phil switches their train tickets for ones to Vermont where the girls have been booked for the Christmas holidays at an inn owned coincidentally by retired General Waverly [Roger Humber], who the men had served under in World War II.

The inn is on the verge of bankruptcy, and balmy weather threatens its holiday bookings. To help the General, Wallace & Davis conscript their entire cast & crew to rehearse in Vermont and add the Haynes Sisters as headliners.

As is to be expected, this chestnut of a play has assorted romantic misfirings, but all will turn out for the best...the show must go on, the inn saved, and the pairs of sweethearts united.

Solid performances and strong vocals hold this White Christmas together. Mr. Morgan is an excellent comic foil to Mr. Brown's more serious character. Their romances are innocently depicted and aided by the ingenuous style of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Morgan. All four are effervescent in their roles.

Mr. Humber delivers one of the most convincingly truthfull and understated characterizations of his long community theatre career as the General. -- The General's granddaughter Susan is played by Maddie Hughes; she performs the role credibly and is featured in a rousing version of "I'm Happy".

The role of the housekeeper has been enlarged in this stage version to an Ethel Merman type known as Martha "the megaphone" Watson [Eleanor Davis], who also wants to be in the Wallace & Davis show. And deliver she does. Ms. Davis gives a standout performance as a feisty realist with a motherly concern for Susan and a loving attitude for the General. She can belt out her songs with the best of them, and her bright smile literally lights up the stage.

Irving Berlin's songs create a holiday atmosphere. Those who recall the film are irresistably drawn to novelty numbers like "Sisters" and sentimental favorites like "Count Your Blessings", but it is the signature "White Christmas" that has everyone in the audience singing along and exiting the theatre with the holiday spirit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Faulkner: "Guys and Dolls"

Based on Damon Runyon's popular stories set in New York's world of gamblers and their women, the ever-popular 1950 Tony Award winning Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows musical Guys and Dolls is currrently captivating sold out audiences at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

From its first appearance on Broadway, Guys and Dolls has rarely been absent from professional and amateur stages -- and with good reason. It contains some of musical theatre's most memorable songs ["Luck Be A Lady", "I've Never Been in Love Before", "Bushel and a Peck", "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", and "Adelaide's Lament" among them]; and some of its most memorable characters in Sky Masterson & Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit & Miss Adelaide, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and Big Jule. Put these together with two untraditional love stories, Runyon's masterful mixture of street slang with formal speech patterns, and a tremendously sophisticated wit, and what emerges is a challenging show that reaches through time to remain as topical as when it was first written.

The combined efforts of director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears have challenged their large ensemble cast to tell the story clearly and sing & dance their way through its complex moments with seeming ease. -- Favored with strong singing voices and some significant stage experience, the featured roles come across convincingly, especially as they have to manage the intentionally stilted Runyonesque dialogue.

Nathan Detroit [Chris Kelly] has his hands full: he is the organizer of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York", but needs $1000 to keep it going; at the same time, he has promised the featured entertainer at the "Hot Box" nightclub, Miss Adelaide [Bethany Telehany], that he is giving up gambling and intends to marry her after a 14-year relationship. She has been more than patient, and he consistently finds excuses for staying away from the altar.

While Sarah Brown [Kari Gatlin], a soldier in the "Save a Soul Mission", tries valiantly to recruit & save the local sinners, Nathan sees in her a quick fix to his money problem: he gets the high-rolling Sky Masterson [Michael Morrow] to agree to a bet -- that Sky can get Sarah to accompany him to Cuba for a fling. Sky is such a slick operator, that he convinces some at the mission that he is a repentant sinner, and promises Sarah that he will fill her evening salvation session with at least a dozen sinners. Once in Cuba, Sarah falls for Sky, and he falls for her as well, having second thoughts about cheating her and the mission.

Runyon's characters, despite their shortcomings [drink, gambling, etc.], are really pretty decent sorts, and though he accordingly presents his men and women with different sets of priorities -- men want their freedom, and women want the security of marriage and a home -- they come across as likeable even with their faults, and especially when each realizes that no one side is perfect.

The action comes at a quick pace, though scene changes need to be managed more quickly & efficiently, and many of the characterizations are absolutely delightful. As we watch the romantic relationships develop, we get thoroughly engaged in their lives, and root for them to resolve their differences.

Mr. Morrow and Ms. Gatlin convince us of their affection in "I've Never Been in Love Before", appearing to have real feelings for each other. Mr. Kelly's bumbling efforts at avoiding marriage are quite funny. He is matched with Ms. Telehany's sensitive [and hilariously funny] "Adelaide's Lament"; and in "Marry the Man Today" with Ms. Gatlin, Ms. Telehany demonstrates a real talent for the comedic musical stage: a standout.

Tony Davidson's rousing rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" nearly brings down the house; and Paul Blount's grandfatherly advice to Sarah in "More I Cannot Wish You" is the singular most touching moment in this production.

In a brilliant casting choice, Bill Nowell plays Big Jule -- the toughest, meanest, and biggest gangster of them all. Mr. Nowell's slight frame and diminutive stature are no hindrance to his depiction of Big Jule; he gets away with it brilliantly and dominates the stage as if he physically filled it up.

With the entire company of 34 actors performing together only a few times, the stage does get a bit crowded, but all in all the staging remains fluid, the action moves along, and we are swept away by the energy of the actors and the brilliance of the script and the music.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Door: "Wise Women"

It is getting close to Christmas in 1944. World War II is raging in Europe. And in Knoxville, TN, over-protective single mom Florence [Susie Priori Turner] keeps a close eye on her teenaged daughter Rose [Haley Greathouse] who is a dreamy-eyed fan of Frank Sinatra and wants to go to a local concert featuring her idol.

To make ends meet, and as part of the War Effort (and unknown to Rose and much to her disdain), Florence agrees to have two boarders come to live with them temporarily: the outspokenly enthusiastic Jiggs [Anna Perry] and the shy Sarah Ruth [Eve Harmon] who is dominated by her preacher father, and who will share Rose's room.

The 2003 "Southern Playwrights Competition" winner that debuted at Virginia's Barter Theatre in 2004, Ron Osborne's Wise Women is now in the capable hands of Artistic Director Fiona Macleod at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

On a detailed "homey" set placed at an angle to provide interest and space on the Red Door's small stage, Ms. Macleod sensitively guides her ensemble cast through what could become mere sentimentality into a touchingly recognizable story of the various women's journeys as they accept one another and themselves, emerging more aware and trustful. Each has at least one secret; each somehow mistrusts either herself or others. And each one's story makes us think and care about them.

As each of these women opens up to others, telling stories of their backgrounds and experiences, we learn that talking through our problems helps. -- Florence has created an ideal picture of Rose's father, one that we learn is untrue but which remains a secret from Rose. Rose herself learns that an innocent relationship with a Marine named Howard [Travin Wilkerson] does not have to be hidden from her mother, and Florence understands that she must allow her daughter to experience things for herself.

Sarah Ruth, though embarrassed in competing for the "Miss Bombshell" title, understands that doing so enabled her to step out on her own and relax the control of her father. And Jiggs is relieved to know that the false bravado she exhibits, charming though it might be, is unnecessary, and even the callous Donnie [Joseph Crawford] can't provide the love she so wants.

The plot unfolds in a series of short scenes, some serious and some humorous, keeping us involved in the lives of the characters. -- So many recognizable traits are treated with conviction by the actors appearing in the roles that they emerge as credible individuals, even though the language & references to the time-period might render some of it nostalgic.

Chief among the characterizations is Anna Perry's portrayal of Jiggs. Exhibiting confidence and providing subtle understanding of the dialogue's shifts from pathos to humor, detailed movement and gesture, and full committment to character relationships, Ms. Perry is a model of a truthful portrayal of a person we come to care about.

Wise Women -- set as it is during the Christmas season -- encourages all of us to find the true meaning of Christmas in our hearts.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ASF: "Peter Pan"

Just in time for the holiday season, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is bringing back a lively musical production of Peter Pan, the beloved story by James M. Barrie in the Jerome Robbins adaptation with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, and music by Mark Charlap & Jules Styne.

Played on John Iacovelli's evocative fairytale set with its bright colors and exaggerated comic-book inspired shapes & sizes, and aided by Patrick Holt's delightful costumes that distinguish between the real world and Neverland, the script and its familiar musical numbers ["I Won't Grow Up", "I Gotta Crow", "Tender Shepherd", and "I'm Flying" among them] moves along at a steady pace that sustains interest & engagement of the audience.

The 1904 story of the boy who lives in Neverland where he never has to grow up and take on adult responsibilities, and who spends his time in adventures with the Lost Boys fighting Pirates and Indians, appeals to children of all ages -- young ones who can actually play all day and older ones who would like to relive their carefree youth.

Peter Pan, played here with impish charm by Sarah Litzinger, visits the nursery of the Darling family where he has been enthralled by various bedtime stories he overhears Mrs. Darling [Lynna Schmidt] tell her children. The kids are soon in bed with Mr. Darling's [Rodney Clark] admonition to have "a little less noise". Peter soon arrives searching for his shadow that got left behind, and meets Wendy [Emily Kinney] and her younger brothers John & Michael [played alternately by Greyson Hammock/Tyler Lewin & Joseph Sims/Crispin South], who are so infatuated with his life that he teaches them to fly and they go with him to Neverland where Wendy will be "mother" to the boys and tell them stories. They are accompanied by the fairy Tinker Bell, who is jealous of the attention Peter gives to Wendy.

Once in Neverland, adventures come fast & furious. The Indians, led by Tiger Lily [Eleni Kanalos] and the Lost Boys await Peter's return and are interrupted by the arrival of the dastardly pirates. Rodney Clark, now transformed from Mr. Darling into the effete Captain Hook, is Peter's arch-enemy, his devious plans against Peter accompanied each time in the play by music -- a march, a tatantella, and a waltz -- that inspire him in assorted and increasingly comic ways as he poses and prances his way through them.

Wendy takes her new role as "mother" very seriously, and conscripts Peter into the role of "father" -- one which he reluctantly plays with the proviso that is is only in play, and not for real. After all, he "won't grow up".

When the pirates capture the Lost Boys and the Darling children, it is up to Peter to come to their rescue, abetted by Tinker Bell and the Indians...and though the pretense has been fun, John & Michael & Wendy all want to return to their home, to their loving parents, to the real world -- to grow up. Pretending has been enjoyable, but it is time to leave Neverland.

Peter promises to come back once a year to bring Wendy back for Spring cleaning, but "time" in Neverland passes ever so swiftly that when he does return, Wendy is grown up and has a child of her own who takes her place with the eternal child: Peter Pan.

For audiences, the journey too is fun. For a while, we revel in the pretense and adventure of childhood, vicariously duel with pirates, and transport ourselves to Neverland with the assistance of Tom Griffin's adept musical direction and Karen Azenberg's energetic choreography.

Director Geoffrey Sherman has put together a production that, while a bit tentative and rough around its technical demands at the opening performance, should settle into a solid show for the holidays.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

AUM: "A Delicate Balance"

Theatre AUM's challenging season continues with a student directed and designed production of Edward Albee's 1967 Pulitzer Prize winning "A Delicate Balance", once again bringing to the local stage a play that no other theatres in the area are willing to mount, and the large opening night audience welcomed it enthusiastically, leaving the theatre eagerly talking about its often puzzling themes and situations.

With an ensemble of faculty, staff, and student actors, director Sarah Worley deftly guides them through their paces, recognizing both the serious and comical elements Albee is noted for -- absurd situations and contradictory facets within individual characters, unexplained conflicts, and recognizable human emotions and behavior.

Welcome to a dysfunctional family: Agnes [Katie Pearson] and Tobias [Mike Winkelman] are a well-to-do couple who have become so accustomed to each other's foibles that they tolerate oddities at any time. Agnes fears she is going mad, and Tobias pays scant attention. Agnes's sister Claire [Laura Bramblette's superb comic timing and in-your-face interpretation of the role is a standout] an alcoholic harridan, upsets the equilibrium of the household, as does the return of their grown up and spoiled daughter Julia [Tina Neese], on the brink of her fourth divorce.

That not being enough for Albee, Tobias and Agnes's "best friends" Harry [David P. Wilson] and Edna [Janice Wood] show up on the doorstep seeking refuge; they are afraid of something unnamed, and depend on their friends for help. -- These interlopers set family issues on fire as they move in, apparently to stay, and begin to exercise their new "rights" by ordering people around and assuming theey have a new home.

Of course, avioding the real issues is a talent most of these characters have developed over time. What is not said is just as important as direct statements, and the presence of "outsiders" prompts the more direct discourse, with Agnes as the "fulcrum" that holds the family together, maintaining a delicate balance between reality and appearance, truth and fantasy, honesty and hypocrisy, inaction and determined action. -- Mix with this a lot of drinking, and defenses are down, making for both an entertaining and provocative production.

Ms. Pearson & Mr. Winkelman are a good match for one another; her determination is balanced by his tacit acceptance. Mr. Wilson's wimpish excuses are balanced by Ms. Wood's deadly persistence. Ms. Neese's screeching tirades and pouting are balanced by Ms. Bramblette's no nonsense unapologetic directness.

Maddie Bogacz and Sarah Fish have provided costumes that suit each character well; Mickey Lonsdale's lighting provides ample illumination but little variety; Frank Thomas's sound elements are integrated into the production to punctuate the action; and Jason Huffman's scenic design of an upper-class home has appropriate architectural elements but few decorative touches that would establish ownership by a person or family, and looks unfinished.

This is a challenging script that is managed pretty well by the student team who show promise of future endeavors. Theatre AUM has placed a lot of trust in these individuals; the payoff is a solid production.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Faulkner: "All My Sons"

Arthur Miller's Tony Award winning 1947 play "All My Sons" is currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, reminding us that concerns of family and business in war time are as resonant today as they were when the play was written.

Directed by Jason Clark South, this production features some of Faulkner's veteran actors whose acting abilities are challenged by Miller's naturalistic treatment; and they are mostly up to the task.

Joe and Kate Keller [Chris Kelly and Kari Gatlin] have been keeping mum for some years about Joe's responsibility of manufacturing faulty airplane parts that were installed and caused the deaths of numerous pilots during World War II. Joe had also let his partner suffer the consequences of a long jail sentence, while he returned to work and made a very successful business for himself and his family. -- The townspeople have been suspicious of Joe ever since he got out of jail.

Their son Larry was "lost" on a flight mission, and Kate is resolute in believing that he is still alive, while others know that he is dead.

Younger son Chris [Chase McMichen] also served in the war, returning home safely, and idolizing his father; he invites former neighbor and Larry's sweetheart Ann Deever [Jaynie Casserly] to their home in hopes of igniting a romance between them, a sensitive issue, since Kate insists that she is "Larry's girl"...and it becomes difficult for the young people to break their news to Joe & Kate.

When Ann's brother George [Tony Davidson] arrives after visiting his father in jail, he knows that Joe had allowed his father to rot in jail, and will do most anything to announce it to the world and rescue Ann from the corruption of the Keller family.

Neighbors Dr. Jim & Sue Bayliss [Michael Morrow & Abby Roberts] have moved into the Deever's house next door to the Kellers, and neighbors Frank & Lydia Lubey [Daniel Fausz & Hailey Beene] who have known the Kellers all their lives, serve as reminders of the past, and Frank writes a horoscope for Larry, insisting that he is not dead and thereby giving hope to Kate, while Lydia -- pregnant with her fourth child -- is an ideal wife & mother.

Young Bert [Trish Wampol] is a protege of Joe's in serving as a policeman for the community -- upholding the strongest moral principles instilled in him by ironic comment on Joe's secrecy.

As secrets are revealed, and the truth about Larry's demise becomes clear, Joe is left in a desperate condition: he has lost the love and trust of his remaining son; and Kate's belief that Larry is alive is shattered.

There are some fine moments of impassioned conflict between father and son, and of budding romance & trust between Ann and Chris, but much of the dialogue -- and therefore our understanding of the themes and conflicts -- is inaudible. There are two reasons for this which can be fixed: first, naturalistic dialogue still needs to be projected, and many of the actors in this production speak so softly that they can not be heard; second, the set has a wide expanse of white stones filling the back-yard of the Keller's house that make loud gravelling sounds with every step on them by an actor, and while the set-design looks good, when dialogue is covered, it must be changed...especially since much of the acting is good and ought to be heard.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wetumpka Depot: "The Dixie Swim Club"

Take five Southern women who were members of their college's swim team; meet them some 22 years after graduation at an annual reunion at a beach cottage in North Carolina; watch their relationships shift and grow over the next 33 years -- and you have "The Dixie Swim Club" on stage as part of the Wetumpka Depot Players' 30th Anniversary Season.

The script by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jasmine Hooten gives each character a distinct and familiar personality that matures with them over the years and gives each of the cast members plenty of opportunities to develop nuances that make them more than mere caricatures.

That's not to say that they lose these traits: Sheree [Terri Thompson], a fitness & health-food addict, is always the group's organizer; often-married Lexie [Kim Mason] never ceases to stay glamorous and flirt with men; Dinah [Ashley Moon] employs her career drive in the law to everyone's benefit; Jeri Neal [Bridgette Harper], a former nun, remains optimistic throughout; and Vernadette's [Jan Hancock] annual broken-bone and tales of a dysfunctional family life keep the others entertained. In fact, all of them provide entertaining diversions for the rest and for us.

Other than the yearly ritual reunion, there is little plot in this play; instead, these women's enduring friendship is what holds interest. In essence, they are all good people -- somewhat flawed -- who are instantly recognizable in their ordinariness, making it easy for us to identify with their individual quirks and off-stage lives. They divulge a lot about families and events that have happened during the year, though they swear that their weekend get-togethers are for them alone, away from other friends, family, social obligations, jobs...a time and place to enjoy one another's company.

Though their histories come alive, and they occasionally wax nostalgic in revisiting the past, these women live in the present. They argue a lot and vie for attention, but realize that the fights are not as important as the bonds of friendship.

As they face so many common issues -- marriages and divorces, health, age, alcoholism, career choices, the economy, birth & death, and hurricanes -- all with a sense of humor, we watch their friendships grow and solidify as they continually discuss and share new aspects of their lives and characters.

We learn that Lexie "may be vain and frivolous, but not shallow", and that Dinah did a lot more for all of them that no one ever knew, that Vernadette's life "is one big country song" and that Jeri Neal's grandmother's homespun advice settles many arguements, and that Sheree's hors d'oeuvres that taste like "regurgitated ferret-food" create bonds of affection.

"The Dixie Swim Club" gives a fine example of ensemble acting under Hazel Jones's intuitively sensitive direction. We enjoy their company and may learn much from them.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

AUM: "The Misanthrope"

Theatre AUM's current season-opening production under Mike Winkelman's direction locates 17th Century French playwright Moliere's darkly funny "The Misanthrope" in 19th Century New Orleans during Mardi Gras, a choice that somehow works through the antic behavior of its actors, while it de-emphasizes the serious side of the play.

Moliere's concern among others was to criticize the attitudes and behavior of his contemporaries -- when fashion and glamorous appearance passed for substance, when flattery trumped honesty, and when one's reputation could be elevated or ruined by gossip...Sound familiar?! Here we are in a narcissistic celebrity-obsessed culture where more people recognize Paris Hilton than Elena Kagan, where frivolous lawsuits are brought and achieve an ill-gotten 15-minutes of fame, and where vulgar self-absorbed behavior dominates much of prime time and cyber bullying has driven some people to suicide.

Val Winkelman again triumphs in creating inventive and elegant costumes that depict the period and enhance characterizations; turning her hand to scenic design for the first time, she creates a minimalist setting comprising marble trompe-l'oeil columns, gold drapes, and glittering chandeliers -- and a set of "dancing chairs" -- that define the space and support the fluidly choreographed movement of the actors.

Alceste [Michael Krek] loves the beautiful Celimene [Laura Selmon], yet is facing a dilemma: he demands forthright honesty in everything, and she is a coquette who evades decisions and flatters others with apparent sincerity while slandering them behind their backs. But Alceste can not help himself, he is so much in love.

Alceste's friend Philinte [Josh Diboll] recommends more prudent speech, but when the foppish Oronte [LaBrandon Tyre] demands an honest assessment of an awful sonnet he penned -- and Alceste reluctantly complies -- the absurd result is a lawsuit against the honest man.

Most of the characters spend a great deal of time and effort to disguise their true selves in the name of fashion and politeness, and Alceste's tolerance is tested at every turn, much to the delight of the audience.

Philinte says he agrees that honesty is admirable, but he flatters with the best of them to avoid conflict. Arsinoe's [Brittany Carden] expression of high moral standards belies her amorous duplicity and implied critical judgements. Oronte's excessive response to Alceste's honesty pits them as rivals for Celimene's affection. Acaste [Mickey Lonsdale] and Clitandre [Wes Milton] are such fawning fops that Alceste can barely stand to be in the same room with them. Celimene's every action is a disguise so habitual that it is impossible for her to break. Ms. Selmon's archness, posturing, and false frozen smile reminiscent of beauty pageant contestants, make her appear brittle and unattractive -- but Alceste can not deny his affection for her, as unreasonable as it is.

Only Eliante [Alicia Fry] is down-to-earth and, in a way, a deserving match for Alceste's honesty.

The director has his ensemble push the envelope in both action and speech, employing broad gestures and mincing gates, melodramatic poses, and frenetic pacing along with rapid speech, all of which prompt earned laughs and applause throughout.

Using Richard Wilbur's masterful rhymed couplet verse translation, recognized by many scholars as the best available in English, the AUM actors are challenged to speak the words intelligibly, articulately, and meaningfully -- and they do a good job, some more successfully than others. Mr. Krek is chief among them, with Mr. Diboll running a close second; however, the choice of high-pitched voices for most of the women and of the fops Acaste and Clitandre often render the words almost unintelligible when coupled with raucous laughs and physical hi-jinks -- all suitable to the characters, no doubt, and drawing responsive appreciation from the audience which also covers up many of the words. -- Perhaps some calming down after opening night will temper the performances so their energy and committment get the reactions they deserve.

By the end of the play, we are exhausted from laughter, and have been connected to the lives of these characters. Alceste's ultimatum to Celimene -- give up the fashionable life and go away with him to a distant, calmer, and honest place away from the noisy delights of the city -- is an impossible demand; and we are left to decide whether it is for the best.

ASF: "The Nacirema Society..."

The world premier of Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's "The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of your Presence at a Celebration of their First One Hundred Years" is taking the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's main stage by storm, garnering well-earned laughs and spontaneous standing ovations in a limited run before moving to its co-producing company, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

And what a perfect way to begin ASF's "25th Anniversary Season" -- in Montgomery, that is, after its move from Anniston.

Set in Montgomery in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Cleage's insightful comedy surprises with its many complications of plot and character, and its sensitive depiction of family relationships & secrets, exposing a side of the African-American culture of the period that is generally ignored by the history books: a side that needs to be told. -- Not everyone, after all, was as obsessed with the Movement as some chronicles suggest; though Civil Rights could not be ignored and is not ignored in Ms. Cleage's play, people continued to go to school, worked, and socialized. Life went on.

Depicted in "Nacirema..." are the affluent African-American Montgomerians whose social stature is securely unquestioned within their own ranks, but whose assurance translates to perceived arrogance and exclusivity by less fortunate Blacks.

Preparing for the Nacirema Society's debutante cotillion, young & romantic Gracie Dunbar [Naima Carter Russell] is subjected to her implacable widowed grandmother's constant reminders of the propriety expected of her as a representative of the group. In the person of Trezana Beverley, grandmother Grace Dubose Dunbar is a force to be reckoned with, the doyenne of the Nacirema who reveres and upholds its traditions, and whose word is law. She has all the marks of worldly success: family money and social position, an opulent mansion, servants, fine clothing, impeccable manners & precise speech, and a social set who rarely if ever emerge from their insular world.

Gracie's life has been planned for her, from following family traditions by attending Fisk University to marrying Bobby Green [Kevin Alan Daniels], the son of Grace's best friend, Catherine Adams Green [Andrea Frye]. But Gracie is a talented and serious writer who has been accepted at Barnard College in New York, and though she has grown up with Bobby, for her he is merely a friend; and while her mother Marie Dunbar [Chinai J. Hardy] is sympathetic, she is caught in the middle.

And there are other complications, first in the person of Alpha Campbell Jackson [Tonia Jackson], the daughter of a former maid in the Dunbar household who invents a scheme to extort money from the Dunbars to pay for her own daughter Lillie's [Karan Kendrick] education by threatening to reveal a family secret, and whose presence in the Dunbar's house pits divergent social classes against one another.

Secondly, the arrival of New York Times journalist Janet Logan [Jasmine Guy] has been planned to promote a positive image of the Nacirema, and to "correct" a "false" image published about them in a previous article. Well-intentioned though she may be, and though everyone treats her with excessive politeness, Janet's search for concrete details she can report are thwarted by Grace's and Catherine's obsessive attention to the upcoming cotillion, and their protection of the family's reputation.

Played out on Peter Hicks's staggeringly lavish and spacious set, and complimented by Susan Mickey's fabulous period-detailed costumes that enhance every character, "Nacirema" engages audiences for its full two and a half hours. Director Susan Booth guides her ensemble cast through the assorted plot contrivances and complications with apparent ease, making each moment believable by respecting Ms. Cleage's brilliant dialogue and intricate plotting of events. So many details of each character's lives and personalities are contained in the script, that each emerges as a complete and recognizable individual. Even the maid Jessie Roberts [Neda Spears], a role of opening doors, taking and giving back coats, and carrying props, is a fully developed person who intuits every move of other characters, and whose devotion to the family's honor is slyly manouvered at the end.

The laughs come a mile a minute in "Nacirema", mostly due to Ms. Cleage's character driven lines and the ensemble actors' timing and credibility, though occasional over-the-top interpretations and melodramatic gestures threaten to de-rail the text.

These are people we know, and their concern for doing what is right and good in spite of obstacles is worth celebrating. The love of family and the ability to forgive the sins of the past are lessons from which we can all benefit...So, welcome back to writing for the stage, Pearl Cleage! You have made us laugh, you have made us think, you have made us feel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ASF Interns: "the House at Pooh Corner"

Nancy Rominger's production of The House at Pooh Corner is a sweet, gentle, and utterly charming showcase of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's new Acting Intern Company.

Adapted by Bettye Knapp from the A. A. Milne classic, scenic designer Brave Williams transforms the Octagon Theatre into a cut-out picture book reminiscent of the original's illustrations, and Aaron Turner's clever and colorful costumes make for instant character recognition.

Running at about an hour -- not too long for young children's attention, and long enough for the parents who accompany them -- the action only occasionally lags while the story unravels.

Christopher Robin has called an emergency meeting of all his favorite companions, the stuffed animals surrounding him in his childhood, each with its own personality that makes them more alive in his imagination than any real-life character.

But, what is the emergency? Is it to build a house for Eeyore to stay warm in, or to escape the "roaring yellow animal" that is rampaging through the woods? -- No...Christopher Robin's emergency is that he is about to be sent "away to education", something he resists with all his might in order to remain with his playmates and not grow up [stay tuned to on this theme for Peter Pan that opens at ASF in November].

En route to Christopher Robin's inevitable departure -- one which he ultimately accepts -- the characters demonstrate how teamwork succeeds when adjustments are made to others' contributions, that change is a necessary element of growing up, and that lasting friendships are based on unquestioning love and accepting others for what they are.

This group of young actor-interns show evidence of becoming an ensemble, much like the characters they portray with simplicity and directness. They become the characters.

Corey Triplett's Winnie-the-Pooh, the "bear of very little brain", is gentle and unassuming, while Brett Warnke's take-charge Rabbit serves as a strong counterpoint. Tara Herweg [outstanding as Kanga] is a no-nonsense motherly figure, the "adult" voice of reason in the group who firmly but lovingly controlls her enthusiastic son Roo [Kevin Callaghan]; and Caitlin McGee is genuinely innocent as Piglet.

From his first moment on-stage, Seth Rabinowitz's portrayal of Eeyore, slow of movement, downcast of eye, and philosophically resonant of voice, captures the audience's heart.

Erik Gullberg plays three roles -- Early and Late Rabbits nicely contrasted in behavior and costume, and the pogo-sticking energetically loud Tigger, this last that could steal the show were it not for Gullberg & Company's generosity to one another that allows each to take focus appropriately.

Christopher Robin and Owl are played by Tyler Jakes, a clever choice of doubling, as Christopher Robin is reluctantly facing adulthood and Owl represents wisdom. Jakes shows each character distinctly -- the youthful internal conflict of the real boy is sensitively drawn, while the birdlike mannerisms and authoritative demeanor of Owl are clear opposites.

Children respond to the animated actors and are drawn into the action so much that responses from them to an on-stage question are delivered without hesitation. -- Adults can enjoy this too, though the dialogue frequently appeals on a grown-up level [Question: "What does 'organize' mean?"; Answer: "Delay!"], and songs that mimic Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" elicit an older generation's recognition and approval.

Watch for these actors in the upcoming ASF season. If this production of The House on Pooh Corner is any indication, their contributions should be eagerly anticipated.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cloverdale Playhouse: UPDATE

On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, some 250-300 invited guests, Mayor Todd Strange, Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby, the theatre's Board of Directors, Board Chairman Dorman Walker, Morris Dees [the mastermind behind the project], and several dignitaries filled the soon-to-be-refitted Cloverdale Playhouse in Montgomery, and were treated to a concert by award-winning soloist, Bruce Hornsby.

Introduced by WSFA television newscaster Mark Bullock, the emcee for the evening, Hornsby's two-part concert received standing ovations for his versions of many hits in assorted musical styles, and he regaled the crowd with stories about his collaborations with the likes of Don Henley, Willie Nelson, and others.

The event served to celebrate the naming of the theatre: "In recognition of her lifetime dedication to community theatre, [largely over some 40 years at the helm of the Montgomery Little Theatre] the Board of Directors voted unanimously to name the Cloverdale Playhouse's stage the Elizabeth Crump Theatre."

Additionally, the lobby of the theatre is named the Sara Hardt Mencken Lobby, for native Montgomerian and wife of H. L. Menken, a celebrated writer herself, and an aunt of local artist Anton Hardt.

Both Elizabeth Crump and Anton Hardt were in attendance to receive deserved applause and recognition for their several contributions to theatre, the arts, and the Cloverdale Playhouse.

It was also announced that the Cloverdale Playhouse is consulting with creative director Peter Brosius of the award-winning Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis to help develop a children's theatre component of the Playhouse.

Designs for the planned renovation of the theatre by Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, Inc. were on display at the reception following, designed by Bob Vardaman.

Thanks were extended to the many individuals who have contributed to the renovation fund, spearheaded by Mike Jenkins IV, which is anticipated to be complete within a short time so the renovations can begin.

-- Funding is still needed, as are volunteers.
Contact Emily Flowers at (334) 294-4390 or at for information.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Millbrook: "Play On!"

The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. have announced an ambitious 7-play 2011 Season while producing this year's penultimate production of Rick Abbot's "Play On!".

Directed by Chris Perry, this three-act comedy rings a lot of familiar chords for anyone involved in amateur dramatics. Tracking a second-rate theatre company's doomed production of a cliche-ridden murder mystery penned with daily re-writes by the playwright, the plot goes from a rehearsal to a dress rehearsal to opening night as personalities clash and frustrations mount.

It doesn't paint a pretty picture of community theatre, though much of its content accurately depicts its foibles: actors who can not separate their stage roles from their off-stage lives, some who show up without learning their lines, unfinished props and sets, a mishmash of sound cues, a director more concerned with taking coffee breaks than directing, and tempers flaring at the slightest provocation...certainly the fuel for a lot of laughs, especially of the self-reflective type.

Here are local veteran and neophyte Millbrook actors playing actors who perform roles in a play, challenging them to distinguish one from the other, a task managed pretty well by the company in an ensemble performance. -- The trick here is to play each stereotype with conviction: for example, the ditzy teenaged actress concerned with late-night curfews and looming high school exams plays a maid whose role in Murder Most Foul serves to do little more than set the scene and introduce characters. In the role, Kristi Taylor shows those elements as high school gradually overtakes the other, resulting in ever-increasing volume and pace in the actual performance.

There are additional challenges in this production. First, the accoustics in the Millbrook theatre render speech almost unintelligible during rapid-fire and impassioned exchanges, of which there are a lot in "Play On!".

Second, Abbot has written clear characters and clever stereotypes, and though this company does show them individually, they are played with the same intensity throughout, with everyone at the same loud volume and same fast pace, that much of the play's humor is lost and characterizations get a bit muddled.

Millbrook newcomer Derrick Lovett [playing Saul Watson who plays Doctor Rex Forbes in the play-within-a-play] turns in the most distinct performance. Gifted with a clear voice, supple body, and animated face, Mr. Lovett's mannerisms in both roles are finely tuned to each, and his ability to switch personalities mid-sentence shows an admirably disciplined actor. He is engaged in every moment, and is therefore eminently watchable. Even his riotously funny "extended death sequence in rehearsal" transforms to a more simple one in the "performance".

The Millbrook Community Players keep finding new talent which should come in handy for their December production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and for next year's season.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

WOBT: "The Letter Box"

The Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is currently showcasing a debut performance of The Letter Box, a "dramedy" by Tina G. Fonte and Lisa Martin. It is WOBT's 24th production since 2003.

Designed to refer to businesses and individuals in any community where it is performed, the script engages local audiences who recognize them; even J.T. and Leeann's voices are heard on the radio in this show.

Directed by Ms. Martin, who also has an on-stage role, and designed by Ms. Fonte, the plot of The Letter Box centers on Elmo Finkelstein [Matthew Givens], a Jewish holocaust survivor living in Prattville, Alabama, and known to everyone both as a hypochondriac and a "local character" whose eccentricities endear him to some and test the patience of others.

Elmo has been searching for his long-lost son, and makes contact by writing letters to the distant Knott family children; and he keeps a box of letters with him at all times, letters that are discovered later to contain links to his past.

When Elmo is hospitalized and in a coma after a hit-and-run incident, the locals come to his rescue by reading his letters and attempt to re-unite him with his family.

Act I provides a long exposition that introduces an assortment of characters who intersect Elmo's life: hospital Nurse Nellie [Teri Sweeney], business-like Dr. Kenton [Whitney Lehmann], Bus Driver Bill and Poppy Jenkins [both roles played by West Marcus], polite & stuffy Englishwoman Velma Dinsmoor [Misty Corrales], brash & outspoken Haddie Gipson [Michon Givens], and flirtatious socialite Widow Hildebrand [Ms. Martin]. -- The dysfunctional Knott family are played by David Felber, Dana Morrison as his upward-moving politician wife who sacrifices family for career, and Rachel Brackins & Hannah Germann as their two daughters.

The two families come together in Act II when Thea Knott travels to Prattville to confront the stranger who has been writing to her daughters, only to find him hospitalized, and where she learns to be more tolerant of others and to value her own family.

The script has a lot going for it -- some clever dialogue and important themes -- though some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand could tighten the 2-hour and 20-minute performance. Played as it is on a small stage, some of the numerous locations require lengthy scene changes, thus slowing down the plot movement and disengaging audiences from its themes and situations. And the sets use a curious mixture of pictorial detail and clumsy unfinished renderings.

Most of the performances, saddled as they are with stereotypes and sentimentality, are convincingly credible. Chief among them is Teri Sweeney's completely natural sound and behavior that are committed to each moment, providing an excellent model for the rest of the company.

The believable adolescent whining and bluntness of the Knott sisters is fine; the well-defined gestures and comic vocal inflections of Ms. Givens make her character both truthful and funny; and Mr. Marcus' distinctions between the pathetic illness of Poppy and the in-your-face tauntings of Bus Driver Bill are insightful and convincing.

The range that Mr. Givens' interpretation of Elmo provides is character driven, making audiences laugh or cry as dictated by the script, and though his dialect could be more nuanced, he does make us care about his plight and the plot's resolution.

Monday, August 16, 2010

ASF: Scot Bruce -- "Elvis: The Early Years"

Thirty-three years to the day of Elvis Presley's untimely death, Scot Bruce brought to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival a very special concert -- "Elvis: The Early Years". There will be another concert tomorrow night at 7:30.

Looking so much like "the King" in his prime, and dressed in a gold lame jacket for the first act and skin-tight black leather for the second, Mr. Bruce's efforts were not so much a slavish impersonation [though there were plenty of mannerisms, poses, and gyrations in his performance], but rather a sincere tribute to a man who still brings so much joy to millions of people around the world through his music.

Performing almost non-stop for two hours including a brief intermission, he and his able instrumental quartet gave us thirty songs out of the over-700 Elvis recorded; and the sold-out audience cheered, sang along, and danced in the aisles throughout. Every song was familiar, and every one received grateful and hearty applause.

Mr. Bruce's interpretations were spot-on conjurings of Elvis in his heyday; starting with "Blue Suede Shoes" and "All Shook Up", he had the audience on his side immediately, and kept the upbeat quality and the volume up for most of the evening, often drowning out the lyrics, and only slowing down occasionally with "Love Me Tender", "Peace in the Valley" and "Cryin' in the Chapel".

And he "played" the audience by moving down to the footlights to make eye contact with the many admirers [mostly female] in the first few rows, accepting Teddy Bears and "articles of clothing" from them with good grace, and calling out his thanks to Montgomery and to ASF.

So many audience favorites came in quick succession: "Heartbreak Hotel", "Don't Be Cruel", "Devil in Disguise", "Hunk of Burnin' Love", "Suspicious Minds", "King Creole", "Tutti Frutti", and "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" [from the film Blue Hawaii], and ending with "Hound Dog" cheers after cheers.

Mr. Bruce's energy is amazing. The musicianship of the entire group is first rate,and each was featured on a couple of numbers to showcase their significant talents.

Of course, the concert could not end without an encore, a medley of patriotic songs and "All My Trials", concluding with a resounding version of "Jailhouse Rock", with people on their feet by the end.

For an all-too-brief time, Elvis lived again.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Depot: "Big River"

Here's what the best of community theatre is all about: a sold-out run of a classic story, an award-winning musical score, a simple well-made set & costumes, strong direction, and the near perfect casting of an able ensemble drawn from the surrounding community. The Wetumpka Depot Players hit every mark in their current production of "Big River" by Roger Miller and William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

The Depot's Artistic Director Kristy Meanor is at the helm of this endeavor, and captures the essence of Twain's themes and characters, inventively stages the numerous scenes, balances rollicking humor with moments of pathos, collaborates with Mary Katherine Moore's clever choreography, and establishes excellent rapport with Marilyn Swears' orchestra and the onstage guitar & harmonica.

In a little over two hours, we are transported "down the Mississippi" on a raft with Huck [Jonathan Conner] and runaway slave Jim [Depot newcomer Darryl Hall] and their adventures interspersed with considerations on the morality of slavery and the degrees of adulthood Huck is forced to confront and conquer in his meetings with some thirty other characters.

Chief among them are Pap Finn, played with inebriated gusto by Tom Salter; Miss Watson [Kim Mason] and the Widow Douglas [Cheryl Jones] whose haughty attempts to both civilize and Christianize Huck prompt him to run away; the good-hearted Mrs. Phelps [Layne Holley] and her husband Silas [Lee Windham] who can't resist making money in the slave-trade; and the con-artists The King [Sam Wallace] and The Duke [Jeff Langham] whose wonderfully comic escapades contribute to the complexity of the plot and whose schemes offer some highlights of entertainment. And Tom Sawyer [David Brown] complicates matters with his insistence on ever-expanding devices in romanticizing their adventures. Even Mark Twain himself takes the stage in Patrick Hale's fine impersonation.

And a lot of the story is told through song: "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?" , "The Boys", and "Waitin for the Light to Shine" set the tone of adventure; while "Muddy Water" and "The Crossing" target the serious side of matters. Even Pap's drunken tirade "Guvment" connects with many people's critiques of government "interference" in their lives.

The theme of "freedom" is given at least two meanings: Huck wants freedom to go on adventures and not be tied down by the civilizing forces of polite society, a youthful innocent desire; yet when he meets up with the runaway slave Jim, whose freedom is determined by the many people hunting him down, Huck is forced to choose between what he has been schooled to believe -- that slavery is right and that he has an obligation to turn in a runaway -- and what he knows is right -- that every person, regardless of race, is entitled both to freedom and dignity.

All this is told through the individual portrayals. Mr. Conner has made an impression at the Depot in both "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Second Samuel" in which his detailed characterizations and vivacious demeanor connected with audiences; and he continues here as Huck with a character conflicted with important decisions and portrayed with subtle distinctions between self-aware humor and deeply felt morality. -- Mr. Hall's portrayal of Jim is so natural and heart-felt, that he is instantly and consistently believable in the role. -- And the connection between these two actors we watch grow from tentative to complete trust, deeply felt compassion, and an earnest desire to make the world a better place. -- Plus, they can both knock out a rousing song or rivet the audience with a touching version of "Worlds Apart".

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" is an important piece of American literature; "Big River" provides a modern day interpretation of his masterpiece; the Wetumpka Depot Players are gifting the local community with this excellent production.

Faulkner: "The Fantasticks"

What can you say about "The Fantasticks" -- in the 50th Anniversary of its initial production, now in an updated version by its originators, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt? It has an assured place in the annals of American Musical Theatre history, having touched generations of theatre patrons with its signature opening song: "Try to Remember". Currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre to sold out audiences, this deceptively gentle and innocent musical keeps its viewers engaged throughout its two-plus hour running time through its delightful characterizations and intelligent musical score.

The story of young love between the romantic Luisa [Anna Sailors] and the equaly naively heroic Matt [Chase McMichen] is put to the test by their Fathers -- Hucklebee [Chris Kelly] and Bellomy [Tony Davidson] who have feigned a neighbors feud in order to pair up the couple; after all, as one of the songs they sing states, children will do the opposite of what they're told by their parents.

To make this happen, they enlist the aid of El Gallo [Matthew Dickson] and his cohorts Henry [Sam Evans] and Mortimer [Braxton McDonald] to stage an "abduction" of Luisa which Matt will thwart, emerge the hero, and settle the family feud...all a farcical trick played out by moonlight.

Come the dawn, and the stark bright light of day, the romanticized relationship is put to the test as reality shows all the little flaws and foibles the night had disguised; result -- disappointment and disillusion. -- Yet, all will be resolved with a happy ending, with life experience as the teacher.

Under Angela Dickson's assured direction and Randy Foster's masterly piano accompaniment, the cast of Faulkner regulars and community actors provide a thoroughly entertaining and touching performance. -- Unlike most of the Faulkner musicals with large ensembles of actors, this one has a mere nine performers, two of whom are "Mutes" [Kari Gatlin & Michael Williams] who supply props, change drapes, and mirror the behavior of the young couple. -- The focus is therefore on the individual actors all the time.

And, they are up to it. The score is demanding, requiring mature voices, subtle dynamics and phrasing, and keen ears for melody lines and harmonics; and the range of song types goes from hauntingly romantic duets, to novelty numbers, to comic narratives, to complex quartets -- all fitting the characters and furthering the plot.

Ms. Sailors' clear voice and effervescent depiction are matched by Mr. McMichen's rich tones and youthful bravado, but it is in the chemistry they make that the love match is best communicated; their commitment ot each other -- though intimately portrayed on stage -- reaches out to the entire audience.

Mr. Davidson and Mr. Kelly are an excellent double-act as the fathers: a lot of good-hearted bluster and comfort with each other is grand. Each actor is developing a naturalness and stage comfort that makes them easy to watch.

Mr. Evans' "coarse-actor" who can't remember Shakespeare's lines but insists on continuing by improvising, is a hoot; and Mr. McDonald's cockney second-banana who stages "death-scenes" can steal the show.

Mr. Dickson's El Gallo has much to praise: he is narrator and participant, simultaneously suave and awkward, a masterful man in charge who can be thwarted in the cause of true love. He sets the tone of the play, plays the villain with elan, and disappears into the background when necessary -- a consumately generous actor.

Jason Peregoy's fight choreography fits the style of the play, and has numerous clever touches of combat mixed with romance. -- Yet it is the songs that dominate: "Soon It's Gonna Rain", "Love, You Are Love", "It Depends On What You Pay", and "Plant A Radish" among them keep the plot moving and keep us involved in the lives of these delightful characters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ASF Grads in New York

If anyone from the Montgomery area plans to be in New York City in the next two weeks, they'll have opportunities to see some Alabama Shakespeare Festival graduates on stage:

Afton Williamson has taken over the lead-female role in David Mamet's Race, a role she had understudied...and she is more than up to the task. In June, I saw the production which is now in its last two weeks. The New York Times gave Afton a glowing review, claiming that she surpassed the original.

The BAMA Theatre Company will perform Shakespeare's As You Like It as part of this year's NY Fringe Festival, under the direction of Greg Thornton who graced the ASF stage for many years. Last year's production received strong reviews from the NY critics, and this year should do the same. -- I was privileged to attend a rehearsal last week, and was impressed by the energy, inventiveness, and sophistication of the, it was a pleasure to have a bit of social time talking with this fine youthful company. --- The company comprises ASF grads: David Matthew Douglas, Greg Foro, Alison Frederick, Nathan T. Lange, Nick Lawson, Matt Renskers, Chris Roe, and Sarah Walker Thornton. -- Performances will be on August 15, 17, 19, 20, and 28. For further information, check out their website

Red Door: "The Widow's Best Friend"

Guest Reviewer: Gregg Swem

Everything is topsy-turvy in Randy Hall's The Widow's Best Friend, a play about Southern small-town duplicity which played recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- One of the town's leading citizens has died of a massive coronary, but before the body is cold, word of his demise has traveled so fast -- as is often the case in small towns -- that the widow's friends descend on her house like scavengers at a roadside kill.

Ostensibly, these five women are there to provide comfort with casseroles and a shoulder to cry on. They're old friends who've come to answer the phone, go to the door as more friends bring more food, and to be by the side of the grieving Cornelia Dupree. But this widow is so disconsolate, she's holed up under a sheet in her bed with a pet cat in her arms and doesn't want to see anyone.

While she's in the bedroom (the widow is never seen on stage), her inner circle of friends is in the living room and kitchen, where it soon becomes apparent that all is not copacetic in the fictional town of Persepolis, Alabama. One by one, the women arrive and find they can't get into the bedroom (at least, not for long) to be by their friend's side. Their conversations begin to reveal that not only was Cornelia's husband engaged in hanky-panky at the time of his passing, but that the lives of all these close friends are not what they appear to be. Indeed, this is no Mayberry. There are cheating spouses, children on drugs, alcoholism, and mental abberations.

What appears to be a gathering of a sympathetic support group turns into a true confessions confabulation. In the middle of the hullabaloo, a young reporter from the local paper arrives at the Dupree home to get information for an obituary. Serving as a sounding board, the wide-eyed cub reporter, believably played by Travin Wilkerson, finds himself becoming Father Confessor to the whole gaggle. The well-intentioned but worrisome friends are Leigh Moorer's meddlesome Inez Medders, Summer Pickett Rice's controlling Penny Smothers, Johanna Hubbard's quirky nonconformist Geneva Quimby, Janet Wilkerson's puckish Martha Dick Triplett, and Jamie Allen's self-absorbed Janet Price Savage. Playwright Hall has given each character a name mirroring the traits of that person, including the inexperienced journalist who's called Tommy Blankenship.

Although the characters are integral to the story, one stands out as pivotal. Geneva Quimby, who at first seems senile and not to be taken seriously, is a model of adjustment -- someone who's learned to cope with life in her own way, and she shares this philosophy with the others, including young Blankenship who by play's end has acquired a great deal of knowledge about the world, easliy aging in practical wisdom from 23 to 63.

Director Fiona Macleod has assembled a skilled, lively cast whose comic timing is on the mark. And except for an occasional misstep in the more serious parts of the play, this is a smooth production. On the tech side, Mark Parsley's set design is inviting and functional, reminiscent of home interiors of the 1980s, the time of the play.

A two-act play, Hall's script is sometimes hard to follow as the story moves on. After the first act, there are so many Peyton Place-like developments to keep track of that the turns and twists become confusing. Still, The Widow's Best Friend is a clever comedy with serious statements about life, love, and friendship.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Millbrook: "Belles on Their Toes" -- Guest Reviewer: Todd Jeffries

For anyone needing a respite from the blazing summer heat and bleak headlines of the day, I strongly recommend a trip to see the Millbrook Community Players' production of "Belles on Their Toes".

Based on the 1950 follow-up to Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's 1948 book "Cheaper by the Dozen", William Roos' dramatization is brought to delightful life by a wonderfully talented ensemble of young and veteran actors under the vibrantly paced direction of Joe Nolin, Jr.

The Golden Age of Radio provides pre-show musical fare, setting the time and tone of the play as the curtain rises on a well-appointed parlour set, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell "Saturday Evening Post" cover. John Collier and John Chain, with an assist from the cast, have created a richly detailed and impressive set to be proud of.

At the top of Act I, Mrs. Gilbreth [Nichole Quinn] gives last-minute instructions and a warm farewell to her larger than average brood before departing for Europe on a lecture tour. It will be up to the three eldest daughters -- Anne [Katie Moore], Ernestine [Hannah Quates], and Martha [Ashley Joye] -- to hold down the fort and live up to their famous "efficiency expert" parents' reputations. Their father having passed away, the young women have a formidable challenge to keep things running smoothly while Mother is away. They have a bit of extra help in the person of Tom, a handy-man turned cook and home-remedy specialist with his castor oil and quinine concoctions, played with winsome verve by John Chain, current president of the Millbrook Community Players, Inc.

In addition to implementing austere budget policies that include wearing hilariously outdated swimsuits and a six-week moratorium on dating for Ann, Ernestine, and Martha, Martha decides to rent-out Mother's bedroom for extra cash. Mr. Hathaway [Michael Snead] is the kindly and quiet boarder who will play a pivotal role in the resolution of the plot.

Helping and hindering the sisters along the way are their younger siblings: Frank [Chase Adair], Bill [Austin Speigner], Lillian [Kristen Adair], Fred [Nolan Lamar], Dan [Brian Jones], Jack [Max Williams], and Bob [Noah Jones]. This is one talented and focussed group of young performers, running their paces and blocking so well that not once are we pulled away from the story. Well done and impressive work, with successful backstage coordination by Assistant Director, Gail Lombard.

Keeping the belles on their toes is a visit from their busybody Aunt Leora [Emily Barton] and an outbreak of chicken pox, prompting a house call by Dr. Bob [Jason Morgan]. Ernestine fudges a bit on her pledge to not date when she pays increasingly frustrated hostess to her beau, Corey Jackson's scene-stealing Al Lynch, an oily young braggart arriving decked out in a full-length fur coat and armed with ukulele-driven love songs and side-splitting Charleston dance moves.

While the second Act was sluggish at first, the pace quickly recovered with the arrival of David Loring [Daniel Harms], a potential student for the new school venture Mother has planned in order to solve the family's financial worries. Mistakenly believing the young man to be Martha's date, the younger siblings proceed to interrupt the interview with hilarious results.

With money going missing and Tom "ratcheting up" the stakes with a comically out-of-character swat that leads Aunt Leora to bring police officer Mr. Crawford [John Collier] to the house, we barely have time to stop laughing between humorous misunderstandings and gut-busting revelations.

Like homemade ice cream and pink lemonade, The Millbrook Players' production of "Belles on Their Toes" is a summertime treat that takes us to a simpler time, and refreshes us with the soul-soothing balm of laughter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Theatre AUM: "The Daughters of Abraham" -- Guest Reviewer: Todd Jeffries

In partnership with ALAT, etc. (A Laboratory for Actor Training, experimental theatre company), Theatre AUM's Neil David Seibel has created an enchanting and provocative evening of theatre. Although billed as playwright, director, and choreographer of "The Daughters of Abraham", Seibel points in his Director's Note to the collaborative efforts of an ensemble of men and women who successfully brought this story to life.

The story is at once timely and timeless, intimately exploring the relationships among a group of women from the three major religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. They are an ensemble of mothers, daughters, and sisters, all living in a shared household. As the women struggle to live with each other's differences while finding a common ground, it is this theme of sharing that runs like a golden thread through the narrative of three daughters preparing for their imminent nuptials.

The absence of any pre-show music allows focus on Mike Winkelman's minimalist scenic design. Created from three massive panels of muslin suspended against a black background, the effect is ethereal and makes a truly contemplative place. Chris Rich's warm and magical lighting design lends to the stage a dreamlike quality.

As the show opens, a fiercely talented ensemble of radiant women slowly enters singing a gentle round of "Hallelujah", ushering us into a rich world of reverence and ancient traditions. With their arrival, the stage comes to fiery life. Randal Blades' exquisite costume design provides bold and vivid strokes of color against the black and white canvas of the set design. The set comes alive as the muslin panels become integral to the action of the story we are about to see. Using a fluid choreography, the panels variously morph into wash cloths, laundry, wedding dresses, and walls.

Singing plays a vital role in the storytelling. Memorable instances when dialogue subtly shifts from the pedestrian concerns of daily life into lyrical observations that ultimately blossom into actual songs include "Flowers" and "Food".

Perhaps one of the most beautiful symbolic moments in the play occurs when the three daughters discover they have each received love letters from the same man, Shem. Their initial devastation is potentially compounded by the fact that their father has decided the three of them will marry Shem on the same day. (This is easy enough to go with given the context of an ancient setting.) Their father has given each daughter a gift: a ribbon, frankincense oil, and an empty book. The young women choose to take a situation that might further divide them and instead bring their individual gifts together to create a more perfect whole. They place each of their love letters into the empty book, bind it with the ribbon, and add to it the fragrance of the frankincense which reminds them of their common bridegroom. This act underscores an important lesson we might all benefit from summed up by the response to their common question of whether they can share a husband and a household: "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy."

We are prepared to witness the arrival of the wedding day and the daughters departing to meet their bridegroom; but first comes a moment in which a panel of muslin is stretched slab-like to form a dividing wall behind which the entire ensemble is backlit. They begin to speak about the modern day tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While informative and poignant, the comments have the feel of CNN soundbites, pulling us abruptly out of the narrative that has been playing out for the better part of an hour and twenty minutes. Although this moment serves to tie the ancient, almost dreamilke story to contemporary events, it would have better served as an epilogue and bookend to the play, especially since the commentary culminates with a jubilant reprise of "Hallelujah", the cast backlit in golden light and dancing in a round with the celebratory exhuberance of whirling dervishes.

Of special note: proceeds from each performance of "The Daughters of Abraham" benefit non-profit service organizations in Montgomery, reinforcing a central idea of the play as a whole: Can we share and individually make a difference in our world? -- "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy".

Friday, June 11, 2010

ASF: "Cowgirls"

Talent abounds in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of "Cowgirls", directed by Karen Azenberg, who also directed & choreographed ASF's production of "West Side Story", and choreographed "A Christmas Carol: the Musical" and "Beehive".

Not only do the six actresses act and sing their roles, they are also called on to play an assortment of musical instruments ranging from cello to mandolin and from piano to washtub in the two hour performance; and they demonstrate a variety of musical styles from classical to country. Impressive.

The plot is simple: Jo Carlson, the daughter of a celebrity country-singer mother, owns "Hiram Hall", a bar/entertainment venue that is about to be foreclosed on by the local bank unless she can come up with a substantial amount of money almost overnight. Her mother has been away for many years, and her father squandered the money and refused to hire women to play at the Hall for now 39 years.

To raise the necessary funds, Jo has contracted what she believes is the "Cowgirl Trio"; in fact, the three women who show up are called the "Coghill Trio", a classical group of graduates of Coghill College who are also down on their luck, near the end of an extended B-circuit tour. Lots of comic potential here.

None of the trio has any experience with country music, but Jo's two waitresses are eager to perform and want to help her out. What ensues is fairly predictable: the classical trio determine to assist Jo by learning how to play country music, and their journey -- and everyone's journey of compassion and humor and understanding and coming to terms with their individual hang-ups -- sustains the plot.

Most of the play is an extended exposition, and it isn't till the final moments that they actually perform as the "Cowgirl Trio". But when they do, the event is a foot-stompin' delight -- partly because they have transformed into a really good country act, and partly because we have become invested in their lives.

When Act I opens on Peter Hicks's two-level interior of Hiram Hall in Rexford, Kansas, one can almost smell the years of smoke and spilled beer, the brown wood aged just enough and the numerous photographs of country stars and old advertisements reach out to include the audience, so the external world that is never seen through its windows hardly matters. This is the world for the present.

Rita [Pearl Rhein], Lee [Tamra Hayden] and Mary Lou [Jessica Tyler Wright] rehearse Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique" and audition with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Three Little Maids", much to the consternation of Jo [Angela C. Howell] and her two employees, Mo [Chelsea Costa] and Mickey [Carrie Cimma], but soon convince Jo to give them a chance at learning to "sing country".

Under Jo's tutelage, either as a group or individually, each learns from the other, and even the waitresses are given their chance at performing. The "Trio" learns in fits and starts, stumbling over interpretations of "feelings" rather than accurate notes, till they are all seduced by the music and the lyrics.

But other lessons are learned as well: "Don't Look Down" offers advice that fear can be conquered if we don't succumb to it and if we trust in help offered by those who are close to us, and a mother's love that sustains us throughout our lives is clearly told in "Songs My Mama Sang".

Individual personalities emerge as we watch the relationships grow, and by the end, most audience members will have chosen a favorite and will cheer the spunk and achievements of this excellent ensemble.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Faulkner: "The Light in the Piazza"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre opened its 23rd season this week with Craig Lucas' and Adam Guettel's adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella, "The Light in the Piazza", a musical that garnered numerous accolades on its 2005 Broadway run.

Set in Florence and Rome in the Summer of 1953, it tells the tale of a young couple in love -- Clara, an American tourist who falls in love with a young Florentine named Fabrizio -- a romance made innocently difficult at first by the language barrier and more seriously later by a well-kept secret from the past by Clara's mother Margaret.

Under Jason Clark South's capable direction, the ensemble of mostly veteran actors drawn from Faulkner's students & faculty and the local community are most impressive in their managing the challenges of the musical score that verges on the operatic -- a few songs and some dialogue are in Italian, and the score contains equivalencies of opera's arias, duets, a quintet, and ensemble pieces.

From the very start, however, Music Director Art Williams's excellent three-man orchestra's and the actors' body microphones were amped so high that vocal clarity was often impaired, the words disappearing into the resulting noise. Such unnecessary amplification has become so commonplace, even in professional theatres, that audiences can no longer anticipate hearing acoustical instruments or the natural singing voice -- a shame, really, and especially so in such a small venue as Faulkner's with its unquestionably gifted singer/actors.

Plot elements and characterizations are of increased importance in this take on an otherwise traditionally romantic boy-meets-girl scenario. The appeal of Italy's cultural history has drawn American tourists Margaret [Angela Dickson] and her daughter Clara [Beth Pirtle] to take it all in. Margaret, guidebook ever in hand, tries to deflect a budding love-at-first-sight romance between her daughter and a charming local necktie salesman, Fabrizio [Matt Roberson], characters who are destined to be together.

Margaret, who also serves as an occasional narrator, provides some suspense by divulging that Clara is "not what she seems"; she is slow and innocent as a result of a childhood accident, and Margaret's duty is to protect her. -- Ms. Dickson's performance is the standout in this production. She is engaged in every on-stage moment, and her journey becomes ours. Completely credible in her protective concern for her daughter's well-being, or when realizing that she needs to loosen her hold on Clara's life, and conscious always of maintaining propriety, the balance Ms. Dickson achieves between her private suffering and her public "face" is a lesson in acting, whether in scenic conversations, or long-distance phone calls to her increasingly estranged husband, or riveting our attention with her sincere and impassioned [and musically sophisticated] solo songs. The role is a challenging one, and Ms. Dickson hits every mark; a memorable performance.

As the young lovers, Ms. Pirtle and Mr. Roberson -- each also with gifted singing voices -- are engaging in their respective naivete. Their awkward first conversations, complicated by language barriers, are gently humorous and immediately put us on their side. Ms. Pirtle's ability to insert quirky mannersims into an inquisitive openness to experiencing everything, makes her genuinely attractive to Mr. Roberson's Fabrizio, while giving clear reason for her mother's concern.

The supporting principle and ensemble roles are given solid interpratations, and though the stage occasionally feels crowded, Mr. South's detailed and flexible street scene design creates an authentic Italianate feel.

Gina South's costumes evoke a 1950s style, with attention to such details as women tourists wearing dresses, hats, and gloves -- very different from today. So, what can possibly explain a disregard for the details of clerical robes for the priests and nuns, especially the fashion-conscious shoes of the nuns seen clearly below their above the ankle skirts?

"The Light in the Piazza" runs just over two hours, and the combined plot, characterizations, and strong singing make for a pleasant theatrical evening's entertainment.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

ASF: "Southern Writers' Project"

Coming up next weekend -- May 14-16, 2010 -- an opportunity of being among the first to hear four new plays and participate in post-reading discussions at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Southern Writers' Project:

"Look Away" by Robert Ford
"The Flagmaker of Market Street" by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
"Blood Divided" by Jeffry L. Chastang
"In the Book Of" by John Walch

Other events are available:
--Backstage Tour of ASF
--Civil War Tour of Downtown Montgomery
--Music Jam
--Breakfast with the Playwrights
--Reception & Meals

Tickets are available -- call (334) 271-5334 or visit
weekend package, extreme weekend package [includes tickets to "All's Well That Ends Well", "Hamlet", and "Lettice & Lovage"], day packages, and single tickets to readings are available.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

ASF: "Lettice and Lovage"

When in 1984 Prince Charles referred to the plans for a new wing of the National Gallery in London as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend", those blueprints were scrapped and a controversy arose about whether modern architecture's rectangular, sharp-edged, and utilitarian forms had a place amidst the elegant spires that had dominated the cityscape for so long.

A few years later, but with Prince Charles's words still ringing, Peter Shaffer penned "Lettice and Lovage" (1987), wherein two very stubborn "ladies of a certain age" and from separate social and political camps join forces against the concrete, steel, and glass monstrosities that litter the landscape. Even the three act structure of his play suggests an admiration for old-fashioned storytelling that is deftly directed by John Going.

Currently in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's repertory, Act I begins with a rather tedious and formulaic monologue by a tour guide at "the dullest house in England", a Tudor edifice aptly called Fustian House. Lettice Douffet [Diana VanFossen], a free-spirited Bohemian, embellishes the "official script" so well in successive renditions that the tourists are enthralled and the bowl containing their "tokens of admiration" overflows. Her mantra -- "enlarge, enlighten, enliven" -- makes her descriptions exciting and entertaining, though the veracity of her "details" ( or "gross departures from the truth") is challenged by one visitor and then by Lotte Schoen [Carole Monferdini], a stiffly officious representative of the "Preservation Trust" that manages historic properties.

Lettice has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and an understanding that "language frees one" from the ordinary -- what she calls the "mere". She bemoans what the country has come to -- that people have no spunk and settle for the "mere" in every aspect of their lives -- and her compulsion for storytelling, influenced by her mother's theatrical tutelage, "turns history into legend", captivates any listening audience, and is the key to her characterization. -- The actress playing the role must be an exceptional storyteller, and Ms. VanFossen, blessed with Shaffer's brilliant script, not only presents a larger-than-life portrait of Lettice with all the melodramatic justifications of her behavior, but rises to an inspired portrayal.

ASF intern Melanie Wilson plays Miss Schoen's secretary, Miss Farmer, as a bubbly yet somewhat dim-witted young woman totally out of place in her job, but eager to please. Her vivacious presence serves well to counterbalance Miss Schoen's propriety.

And, Lettice's on-stage audience is primarily Miss Schoen. In this role, Ms. Monferdini's severely cropped hair, plain grey suit, and sensible shoes are matched by a rigid insistence on following protocol; to watch her gradually falling under Lettice's irresistable spell is a delight. Her facial and posture changes in Act II are so subtle -- outrage changes to indignance and then to frustration and compassion to capitulation -- until, prompted by over-imbibing Lettice's "quaff" (an "adapted" ancient recipe of mead, vodka, sugar, and lovage [parsley]), she divulges a secret explosive past life with a revolutionary group called "E.N.D." (the "Eyesore Negation Detatchment"), and becomes an ally. The transformation is complete.

There is more to come, however, in Act III. The women have been re-enacting some major violent historical events in Lettice's flat, the deaths of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I among them, with theatrical costumes and props and Lettice's enlarged vocabulary and passionate performances. An accident threatens a lawsuit for attempted murder. As Lettice's defense lawyer, Mr. Bardolph, Anthony Cochrane is also caught in her spell, and his transformation replicates Miss Schoen's in a wonderfully comic turn that is infectious.

Shaffer re-wrote the ending to his play that had the central characters embarking on a plot to blow up the offending buildings to a less incendiary though still malicious plan -- a prudent choice in light of world terrorism, and perhaps a wise choice in that the issue of modern architecture's intrusion against the grand designs of the past has little relevance here today.

But a happy ending is de rigueur: the lawsuit is dropped and as we have been transported by their performances, we join these two exceptional women in their triumph.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Millbrook: "Saving Grace"

With a new sound system in place, the Millbrook Community Players are presenting Jack Sharkey's comedy, "Saving Grace", directed by Fred Neighbors, and with a small ensemble cast of veteran actors and a newcomer to the local theatre scene. The small, but appreciative, audience often punctuated the performance with loud laughs stemming from the clever script and the timing of the actors.

The comedy of this script stems from its witty dialogue and characterizations, as well as from conventional mistaken identities brought about by virtually everyone pretending to be what they are not.

Grace Larkin [Ashley Allman] invites her boss Walter Chepple [John Collier] back to her apartment for a late night drink...and she is a nervous wreck; it is her first attempt at romance, and she spouts many cliche-ridden quotations from B-films to which she is addicted. -- He, on the other hand, appears to be an experienced Lothario and invites her to accompany him to a business convention in Hawaii, complete with a special sexy outfit he bought her and which she models for him as a birthday present.

Awkward moments for each of them are interrupted by the arrival of a telephone repairman named Alex [Paul Travitsky] and Grace's sister Harriet [Rae Ann Collier] who is being pursued by her suitor Gregor [Dave Kelsen] a Russian evangelical preacher.

The script contrives to have characters leave the stage at critical moments, only to return to overhear partial conversations that cause them to draw the wrong conclusions, or to find other characters in an assortment of compromising positions...all standard conventions of farcical comedies.

There is a good deal of success in the performances. Most of the clever dialogue is presented by this ensemble with a naturalistic understanding -- a lot of double-entendre -- and spot-on timing, and in Ms. Allman's case, some wonderful facial mugging that clearly indicate her predicaments.

But, plays of this type also require a variety of pace -- some fast and furious, some slowed down in exhaustion -- to highlight the emotional and physical intensity of the script. Some attention to this would benefit the two-hour production.

And there appears to have been some reticence in both physical intimacy and in costuming. Every kiss is either a perfunctory peck or a chaste one when it should be smouldering and lingering, and everyone remains dressed in very demure clothing, especially when wearing underwear and caught in the aforesaid compromising positions. Though a red Union suit may draw a laugh in and of itself, it hardly compromises the characters in question of the assumed dalliance or being caught in the act.

Nonetheless, this production of Saving Grace is a funny entertainment that provides audiences with an old-fashioned laugh-out-loud night at the theatre.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ASF: "All's Well That Ends Well"

Why aren't there more high caliber productions of one of Shakespeare's most modern-feeling "problem plays" like the one now playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival? The all-too-small audience at Sunday's opening performance of "All's Well That Ends Well" was treated to a funny and thoughtful examination of love, sex, and marriage set amidst the class consciousness and intrigues of Renaissance England that, after 400+ years, reflect many of today's social concerns.

Much of the "problem" [some might say a "strength" that makes it modern and intriguing] is that it is hard to pin it down. Is the play a comedy, a romance, a fantasy, a serious drama...?...Well, yes...and no. There are clowns and young lovers, a bit of mystery and seeming magic, generation gaps, a war, sexual frankness, some reprehensible behavior that beggars forgiveness, trickery, class & cultural snobbery, and an "end justifies the means" philosophy by both old and young that can be found on many prime-time & reality television shows, and which is reported on the daily news. In short, the play mirors life's contradictions.

Geoffrey Sherman's able ensemble deftly manipulates the audience's shifting allegiances because we understand and identify with their contradictory natures, their familiar behavior, and the intrigues that follow. The duplicity found in many characters, the notion that privilege makes for different rules, and a suggestion that youth should be readily forgiven for acting rashly are played out for us in the two and a half hour performance...and we take sides -- and change sides -- frequently.

Act I serves as an elaborate exposition, delineating plots and subplots to unravel later on. The Countess of Roussillion [Carole Monferdini] has taken the orphaned Helena [Kelley Curran] under her protection, and treats her with motherly affection. Helena secretly loves the Countess's son Bertram [Jordan Coughtry], though he is of superior rank and class. When Helena cures the King of France [Rodney Clark] from a life-threatening malady, he grants her the pick of the French lords as a husband. When she chooses Bertram and he vehemently and contemptuously objects to her social rank, the King demands an immediate wedding ceremony, after which Bertram sneaks away to the war with his cowardly and two-faced friend Parolles [Matt D'Amico] before consummating the marriage, and sets down impossible terms that must be met before he will accept Helena as his true wife: she must get him to willingly give up a precious family ring to her, and she must be pregnant by him -- two things he swears he will never do.

Into this mix come three characters familiar to generations of theatregoers. Lavatch [Anthony Cochrane] is the court fool in the retinue of the Countess. Complete with fools-cap and patchwork costume, he has the license to speak freely, even to his betters -- and his commentaries on other characters' behavior demonstrates his penetrating wit. Mr. Cochrane plays him with Scottish gusto -- sometimes impish, and always insightful. Through him, we learn a lot. -- A counterpart is Lafew [Paul Hopper], who is played as a more genteel and graceful version of the fool who delights in aggravating others to distraction.

And then there's Parolles. Mr. D'Amico's pretentious windbag miles gloriosus, a liar and a coward, is instantly someone we love to hate, and whose unmasking is gleefully anticipated both by other characters and the audience.

But these characters are no mere distraction; they are integral to the plot and to understanding the play's themes. Mr. D'Amico's debate with Ms. Curran's Helena on the subject of virginity & marriage helps to paint her as an intelligent and independent woman, and an equal match for any man regardless of social rank. The fact that Parolles and Bertram have been friends and companions for some time suggests that their parallel behavior -- especially when attempting to save face by inventing elaborate lies to avoid responsibility and explain away their bad behavior -- might be something each learned from the other.

Yet, we are made to puzzle out the implication that punishment is right for some but not for others, that rank and privilege allows the upper class to get away with most anything, while their social inferiors are abused for the same offenses...just like today.

What follows in Act II somehow resolves many of the problems, but leaves some unanswered. There is a conventional "happy ending with a marriage", but this is managed by a number of tricks, traps, and deceptions. Having spread a rumor that she is dead, Helena disguises herself as a holy pilgrim and enlists the Widow Capilet [Celia Howard] and her daughter Diana [Lauren Sowa] to help her fulfill Bertram's demands -- the ring and her pregnancy -- by deliberately having Diana seduce him and then switch places with her under cover of darkness. In this regard, her duplicity is similar to the men' her mind, the end does justify the means.

The seduction scene is played as a clever battle of the sexes, with the woman clearly in charge. Ms. Sowa teases and Mr. Coughtry complies, looking ever so adolescently foolish in his yearnings. When his demands are proclaimed in public, there is nothing for him but to capitulate in dismay and discomfort; and though his reclamation to the proper and the good is abrupt, one can not help but believe that his protestations of loving Helena and becoming a model husband are prompted more to save his life than to declare an honest affection for her.

Each character in this production speaks Shakespeare's words clearly -- a trademark of this season, and a distinct credit to the company. The words and actions in "All's Well That Ends Well" provoke us to consider our own attitudes, our moral assertions, and our ability to laugh at the uncertainties of our lives.

Red Door: "Conecuh People"

Once more, the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs is presenting "Conecuh People" by Ty Adams and directed this year by Randy Thornton. Based on Wade Hall's book, the story looks back at the Hall family of the 1940s and 1950s, and evokes a past-time with pleasant nostalgic reminiscences.

The story is narrated by Tyson Hall in the role of Wade Hall, Jr. His naturalistic mannersims, pleasant singing voice, and comfort in the role immediately get audience interest and engagement as he introduces a host of family, neighbors, teachers, and assorted Bullock County citizens whose advice and example molded him from childhood and led him ultimately to "find my place in the world."

Thereafter, the play is little more than a series of monologues and brief scenes, interspersed with folk songs and church hymns, that trace his journey of self-discovery leading him to admit that like all of us he is influenced by people who might otherwise go unnoticed by society.

At two-hours and forty-five-minutes, this gentle story takes far too long to tell, partly due to all-too-frequent "dead" moments when nothing is happening on stage, and partly due to the deliberately slow pace that gives the same weight of importance to every character, no matter how minor an influence on Wade, Jr. Even the songs are slow and ponderous.

The language is often poetic, reflecting the original book's haunting descriptions, but much of this cries out for lively delivery and energetic movement which, when it does occur in this production, is a most welcome change.

Kim Graham as Wade's math teacher Estelle Cope Campbell, and Janet Wilkerson as the snuff-dipping Elma Lee Hall, bring such energy to their roles. Though Ms. Wilkerson's indulgently long monologue is in need of judicious editing, both these women enliven the action.

Anne Brabham plays Aunt Emma's generosity in caring for Wade with appropriate gentility; Betty Hubbard's depiction of "Mama" when she is forced to leave her grandson is one of the most touching moments in the play.

Peggy Windham as Wade's mother, "Babe", is thoroughly committed in her role, but the interpretation is so much at odds with the text's description of Babe's intelligence and passion, that to see her as a dazed and bewildered simpleton is jarring.

Hats off to Aleta Davis, a gifted singer and actor, for providing the most truthful character and the most credible characterization in this version of "Conecuh People". As Verse Lee Johnson Manley, the Black woman who raised Wade, giving her every right to call him "my baby", Ms. Davis plays every moment as if it was happening for the first time. -- She trusts in her baby's ability to help her "get a birthday and an age" without the benefit of a birth certificate; when they succeed and Verse Lee "becomes a person" at last, her joy electrifies.

"Conecuh People" has had a number of incarnations for some years, each one with a distinct interpretation. As a work-in-progress, it might be a good idea to take a few years off from performing it to incubate a new version.

Monday, April 19, 2010

ASF: "Hamlet"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is marketing this year's repertory as "A Season of Intrigue", and with the opening this weekend of "Hamlet", they are off to a good start. -- One of the staples of William Shakespeare's canon, the play abounds in intrigue both public and personal that, under Geoffrey Sherman's capable direction, makes this English Renaissance play accessible for contemporary audiences.

Chief among the ASF production's many qualities are its clarity and directness. Although some purists might complain of cutting it in principle, careful editing of the long script has honed the dense material into a two-hour and forty minute presentation that moves the action forward so that audiences are engaged in every moment -- a spare production that retains the essentials and focuses on the contradictions and complexities of human nature and of people's uncertain and unpredictable behavior.

As composer James Conely's military trumpets echo from around the house and soldiers are revealed on the parapet of Peter Hicks's grey framework castle, they are visited by the Ghost of the recently dead King, and it becomes increasingly clear that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark", setting up the intrigues that follow.

A revenge play similar to others of the Elizabethan & Jacobean periods sets the young Prince Hamlet [Nathan Hosner], along with his best friend and confidant Horatio [Matt D'Amico] the task of avenging his father's "most foul...murder" at the hands of his uncle Claudius [Anthony Cochrane], who has usurped both the throne and the widowed Queen Gertrude [Greta Lambert], whom he married right after the funeral of his brother, thus securing for himself the powers of state.

Obvious from his first appearance on stage that Hamlet despises his uncle, and coupled with the disturbing ghostly apparition's charge for revenge and Hamlet's resulting "antic disposition" [whether feigned or actual madness] and Polonius's [Rodney Clark] determined belief that Hamlet suffers from lovesickness for his daughter Ophelia [Kelley Curran], a number of intrigues are set in motion: secrecy, spying, eavesdropping, and prospects of iminent war between Denmark and Norway make complexity and confusion interfere with Hamlet's fulfilling his father's command while sustaining our interest.

Much attention has been paid to respecting Shakespeare's words in this "Hamlet". Without fail, the language is spoken by this company of actors with a clarity of diction that is rare, and with an comfort that makes the Bard's poetry credible in their mouths. When we hear the words clearly, the story and the characters [no matter how complex] deserve our attention and garner our respect. That being said, there are a couple of jarring notes in the sounds of voices: Mr. Cochrane's British accent is at odds with the American accents of the rest of the cast, and giving the Gravedigger [Paul Hopper] a Southern accent gets a couple of laughs but draws attention away from the content of the lines.

Performances in the featured roles are consistently first-rate, and Sherman grants to each his or her moment(s) to dominate the proceedings. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- Hamlet's university friends, and Claudius's spies -- Jordan Coughtry and Michael Pesoli have a depth that isn't often seen; their nervousness and anxiety at being caught out by Hamlet in their deception are credibly humorous.

Mr. Clark's Polonius, a dignified and often bewildered chancellor, gives a solid display of advice to his son Laertes [Matthew Baldiga], and is continually caught off-guard by the intrigues of Hamlet and other members of the royal family. Mr. Cochrane and Ms. Lambert as the king and queen, in love at the beginning of the play, become more distant from each other as he is caught up in preserving his authority and she faces the truth of their relationship; his attempt at prayer and acceptance of his inability to repent of murdering his brother shows a humanly conflicted individual, and her account of Ophelia's death is a model of controlled passion and grief.

As the obedient daughter Ophelia, Ms. Curran displays her reluctance to be used as a pawn to entrap Hamlet & her real affection for him is crushed by his strange behavior; her later mad scenes are magical theatre moments in this show. Ricardo Vazquez delivers the First Player's speech in preparation of the play that will "catch the conscience of the king" in effectively naturalistic ways that reinforce Hamlet's advice to the players on acting styles.

When Laertes returns to avenge the death of Polonius, Mr. Baldiga burns with a fire that wants to burst out in contrast to Hamlet's indecisive behavior, and prepares us for their climactic fight. -- The action of the play builds so much to this fight, that one expects an extraordinary display of swordsmanship, a quickness full of risk and danger, one that makes us gasp in fear and admiration. Unfortunately, the fight in this production has none of those elements. Rather, it is slow, with moves that are all too clearly plotted out, so the tension just simply isn't there.

Nonetheless, most of our attention has been on Hamlet all the while, and Mr. Hosner gives a performance that is detailed and complex. As his Hamlet is effected by the cumulative events, and the opposition to his revenge [not the least is his own lack of action] builds from scene to scene, he fluctuates from anger to bewilderment to aggressiveness to irony to devious tactics to introspection, and takes us on this internal journey with him. Hosner's ability to speak the verse and communicate its various & simultaneous poetic meanings shows a master actor achieving a thoroughly believable character with all his contradictions. His delivery of the famous soliloquies -- "To be or not to be...", "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I...", among them -- are among the best renditions one can expect.

And his final scene with Horatio -- the ever-patient and supportive friend in the person of Mr. D'Amico here demonstrating the damage done by all the intrigues and his quiet acceptance of the death of a friend whose tale he has to tell the world -- is a painful reminder that greed and self-interest produce wounds that do not heal easily.