Monday, February 27, 2012

Red Door: "Southern Comforts"

Plenty of laugh out loud moments and a spontaneous standing ovation were the rewards offered to the two character comedy: Kathleen Clark's Southern Comforts which regrettably played for only four performances at Union Springs' Red Door Theatre.

The set-up and end result are fairly familiar and predictable -- two lonely widowed individuals, he from New Jersey and she from Tennessee, meet by accident and throughout several months of continual gender and regional misunderstandings and disagreements, fall in love and live happily (?) ever after.

This otherwise hackneyed premise is rescued by Clark's witty and continually surprising script, director Anna Perry's spot-on pacing, and two superb performances by Matthew Givens and Betty Hubbard.

While Amanda is visiting her daughter in New Jersey and covering the neighborhood for church donations, she comes upon Gus in his Spartanly furnished house [a chair, a tv, an all but empty bookshelf, and a few photographs]. A rainstorm strands her there, beginning a series of visits with a new-found friend.

It is easy to see who is in command. Though Gus claims he is content with his surroundings and living a bachelor existence, Amanda charms him [and us] with her cool politeness and steadfastness...traits often associated both with women and the South.

The ease with which they open up to one another stems at first from their liking baseball, though they disagree on the strategy of the game. And later, they escape coffee-klatches & boring church sermons to discover a lot more about one another: they are both strong-willed, but can tolerate political differences & desire for travel.

When their talk shifts to more sensitive issues like sex & marriage [one of the funiest scenes in the play] they each realize that change might be good for both of them.

In Act II, Amanda has moved in to Gus's house, complete with furniture and household belongings, bringing the woman's touch and a completeness to the house as well as to their relationship. -- Regardless, his [and her] attempt to install storm windows shows once again their disparate ways of handling matters...and it is funny.

Underlying all of this, however, is a very serious subject: meaningfull relationships can only be successful when both parties (a) love one another and (b) are willing to compromise. One line sums it up: "I want you to be happy whatgever it takes."

Perhaps we could all learn from this.

Friday, February 17, 2012

AUM: "Proof"

An all-student production of the 2001 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize drama Proof took to the boards at Theatre AUM this week with an appreciative full house audience. -- David Auburn's play is intelligently directed by Daniel Brown, who shows an assurance in managing the play's complex themes. And Michael Krek's inventive set placed close to the audience -- largely blackboard walls inscribed with faux mathematical theorems -- surrounding the actors and makes the play as claustrophobic and necessary to our understanding.

As it begins, we are introduced to Catherine [Brittany Carden] and her father Robert [Cushing Phillips, III], ostensibly celebrating her 25th birthday; however, it soon becomes clear that Robert has recently died & that his funeral is the next day. Is she hallucnating because she can't admit that he is dead, or is she possibly losing her mind? -- Robert had been a major force in mathematical research at the University of Chicago, having made his mark when he was about her age, but had produced nothing of note since then; she, on the other hand, could potentially come into her own in the same field, despite the fact that she had put her own education on hold to care for him during years of his mental condition's deteriorating. Is his mathematical acumen an inherited trait, and/or is his dementia also to be visited on her?

Hal [Frank Thomas] has been studying Robert's notebooks, believing that they might contain some new mathematical theory from the mind of the genius he admired & who mentored him as a PhD student; Catherine believes that his notebooks contain gibberish and is attracted to Hal. An admitted geek who plays in a band, Hal is caught in the act of smuggling one notebook, saying that people ought to read them and that he might have found something of importance in this one...a mathematical "proof" that has been challenging the professionals for a long time.

When Catherine's sister Claire [Rebecca Dennard] arrives from New York for the funeral, her avowed concern for her sister's well-being only thinly disguises her real motive of selling the family house and moving Catherine to New York where she can be looked after.

With Hal's insistence that the notebook contains a revolutionary proof, and everyone knowing Robert's state of mind, Catherine claims the proof is hers; but, how can this be? She never finished her university education, and the position that women have not contributed meaningfully to the field make her claim unreliable, so the rest of the play's discourse attempts to solidify her authorship.

The four-person ensemble take the AUM stage confidently, gradually providing details that challenge the audience to unravel the mystery and to engage in the complex relationships among the characters. -- Ms. Carden presents Catherine as a cipher whose undeniable affection and regard for Robert is clear at all points, and whose rivalry with Claire is handled with kid gloves; her uncertainty in trusting Hal [both professionally & romantically] helps create a fine complex individual.

Mr. Thomas is an engaging seeming-naive sort as Hal, yet his naturalistic presentation has credibility, especially in the later scenes. -- Ms. Dennard's role as Claire is a thoroughly hardened woman concerned for her sister's welfare but struggling to dig into the softness Catherine requires.

It is a treat so see Mr. Phillips on stage again in a challenging role; the scenes between him and Ms. Carden's Catherine delve fully into the interdependence they have for one another. Mr. Phillips shows the helplessness Robert feels so movingly that one cannot help but respect him without reservation.

Though the actors rushed their lines at the beginning of the production and seemed to match each other's intensity, they soon settled down to a slower pace that allowed the relationships and themes to be appreciated.

AUM ought to be proud of the accomplishments of this student production.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Lend Me a Tenor"

Ken Ludwig: master farceur + Lend Me a Tenor: a hilarious farce + The Wetumpka Depot Players = a hit...a palpable hit!

Veteran actor/director Hazel Jones has put together another sure-fire success for the Depot Players. Along with an eight-member cast of actors (some are welcome newcomers to the Wetumpka stage), and a luxurious hotel-suite set sturdily designed to withstand the constant slamming of its six doors, she keeps the mood giddy for two hours of playing time.

It is 1934, and the 10th Anniversary of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company who have contracted [sight unseen] world renowned tenor Tito "Il Stupendo" Morelli to sing the lead role in their production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello for their gala celebration. -- Morelli [William Harper] is reputed to be temperamental, a womanizer, and a drunk -- potentially a lethal combination.

Things are getting tense: rehearsal is underway and the guest artist is late arriving in town; star-struck Maggie [Erika Wilson] who met Morelli briefly in Italy tells Max [Phil Tankersley] that she wants an experience, a fling, before she marries him, and Max tells her that he could sing the role of Otello if Morelli doesn't show; Maggie's father, head man Saunders [Don Johnson], instructs timid Max to be Morelli's "keeper" and to keep him away from liquor and women...not an easy task when he arrives with his fiery wife Maria [Jan Hancock] in tow accusing him of infidelity.

Morelli suffers from indigestion and balks at rehearsing, bragging that he never misses a performance and always wears his own costume in the role. While Maggie hides in the bathroom, Tito helps Max become more confident in a very funny scene. Bullied by everyone to take his pills, Tito reluctantly agrees and takes a double dose; meanwhile, Max has spiked his wine with more pills. -- Maria has had enough of her husband's behavior, and walks out, leaving him a note. Ever the melodramatic actor, Tito threatens to kill himself when he reads Maria's letter, but Max puts him to bed.

Soon, Morelli's local co-star Diana [Laela Bunn] arrives to get Tito to "help her career", but Max puts her off, and then sees Maria's letter and the fast asleep tenor, thinking he is dead. Saunders and Max decide that Max will substitute in the role of Otello -- no one has ever seen "Il Stupendo", so a costume, wig, and blackface makeup would work. After all, Saunders' reputation is at stake, and Max needs a confidence builder. Even Julia [Charlotte Henderson], the head of the Opera Guild, and the hotel Bellhop [Matthew Walter] are eager to meet Morelli and will do almost anything to have some private time with him.

The trick is, of course, to keep everyone away from Morelli, and to hide his body while Max does a quick change into the Otello costume, wig, and blackface. -- Well, the disguise works, but that doesn't keep the women at bay, especially after Max's triumphant performance in the opera.

Meanwhile, Morelli has awakened and dressed for the there are two bewigged and costumed Otellos who can't appear on stage together for the play's joke to work, much to the audience's delight. And our "willing suspension of disbelief" is also tested since the two actors are so physically different...but that's part of the fun of it.

In true farcical tradition, with attempted seductions galore addressed to both Otellos, and lots of double-entendre dialogue [especially in a hilarious scene between Tito and Diana], and plenty of slamming doors done with split second timing and absolute committment by the acting company, the production of Lend Me a Tenor keeps the laughs coming.

Mr. Harper is a comic buffoon as Tito, and Ms. Hancock a harridan spitfire as Maria. Mr. Walter is a bundle of contradictory energy as the Bellhop, and Ms. Henderson's Julia is a flighty matron of the arts. Ms. Bunn comes into her own in the big seduction scene, while Mr. Hancock's over-the-top portrayal of Saunders makes us feel he is ready to burst at any second. Ms. Wilson shows both a comic sensibility and a truthfulness in her relationship with Max. But it is Mr. Tankersley who runs away with the role of Max: the underdog milquetoast who triumphs in the opera which we never see, but who also triumphs in gaining confidence and winning Maggie's hand.

Though the timing of some lines needs to be tightened to keep the pace moving at lightning speed, the Wetumpka Depot Players have created a happy romp with Lend Me a Tenor.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Faulkner: "Big River"

Two years after a production in Wetumpka. Marilyn Swears [Music Director], Trey Holladay, Dave Hanlein, and Barbra Blommers are again the talented orchestra for Faulkner University's presentation of Roger Miller's (music & lyrics) & William Hauptman's (book) Big River based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that opened on Thursday night to a welcoming crowd.

Played by an ensemble of actors from Faulkner and the Montgomery community, Big River is true to Twain's sensibilities concerning slavery and the fundamental conflict in young Huck between what he "believes" and what he "knows" is right. -- Central to the story is the relationship between the rustic white runaway schoolboy Huck [Chase McMichen] and a black runaway slave Jim [Tony Davison]. Jim naively sees things as they really are, while Huck wrestles with his conscience as he fibs in order to protect his companion from being caught while they float along the Mississippi River in pursuit of adventures and each one's version of freedom.

Mark Twain's classic is given a few new twists by director Angela Dickson and her talented company, while keeping the music as its centerpoint. [Faulkner is indeed fortunate in having such strong and confident singers in all the featured roles, and the Chorus numbers are powerful, filling the house with dynamic harmonies.] One such twist is using many of the secondary characters as supernumaries who provide many of the sound effects and who give hand props to other actors from the sidelines. This convention works to a degree, but occasionally it pulls focus away from the main action, important dialogue, or song lyrics that are meant to develop character relationships or move the action forward.

Huck's story is narrated first by Mark Twain himself [Roy Goldfinger], and then is taken up by Huck as it is in the novel. Mr. McMichen has a youthfully charming smile that befits Huck and which gets him out of numerous scrapes with his drunken ne'er-do-well Pap [Matt Dickson], the Widow Douglas [Tracy Stiff] and Miss Watson [Jesse Alston] who try to "civilize" him, "the law", and various others, including two con-men -- the King & the Duke [Roy Goldfinger & Matt Dickson again] -- as he is abetted by Tom Sawyer [Allen Young], whose ever-increasing sense of dramatic adventure frequently gets them in and out of trouble, and makes Jim the unfortunate victim.

There is a sense of "a boy's adventure story" in this production, a trait well known to ardent Twain readers; but that is not the thrust of either the novel or the musical adaptation of it. -- Yes, there are diverting songs like "Do Ya Wanna Go To Heaven" and "The Boys" that set up for young and old alike how many young people flaunt authority and rebel against their "better" natures in order to avoid responsibility. And "The Royal Nonesuch" is a clever take-off on "freak shows" that were popular in the 1800s. Some of the best moments in the play are when Messers. Dickson & Goldfinger take the stage; they are the consumate con-artists, and each actor lends a confidence & commanding voice to the proceedings; they are duplicitous, yet charming...everything a con-man should be.

But, some of the finest moments in both the source and the musical are the quieter reflective ones, especially between Huck and Jim: "The Crossing" tells of the plight of slaves escaping to the free States, "River in the Rain" (sung when the two are drifting on the raft) is a reflective and sensitive bonding between them, and "Worlds Apart" tells how Huck and Jim have the same experiences, but understand them differently because of their backgrounds and their races. It is in these quieter moments that the balance between singer and orchestra is best achieved; too often, the singers' voices were drowned out by over-amplification of the instruments.

When Huck saves Mary Jane [Bethany Telehany] from the wiles of the King & Duke, and is infatuated by her beauty, the beginnings of young love are in the air. Ms. Telehany's clear soprano is used to fine effect in both "You Oughta Be Here With Me" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go".

In its time, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a controversial book that dared to face race relations honestly and show bigotry and prejudice as the evils they are. Jim's stalwart belief in the possibilities of a new life free from the chains of prejudice, and Huck's eventual realization that true morality isn't exclusively found in religious orthodoxy, give both of them in Faulkner's version of Big River the freedom for which they have been searching.

Monday, February 6, 2012

ASF: "Travels With My Aunt"

In its "English Season", director Geoffrey Sherman refers to the Octagon Theatre's Travels With My Aunt as a "companion piece" to The 39 Steps which is showing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Carolyn Blount Theatre. -- The productions have several things in common: both are based on English novels; both are episodic narratives; both use the convention of four actors playing multiple roles; both have male actors impersonating female characters (a long and respected tradition in English theatre); both utilize on-stage props tables and moveable furniture to indicate changes of time and place; and both have central characters going on journeys of problem-solving and self-discovery.

While The 39 Steps is a fast-paced comic thriller, Giles Havergal's adaptation of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt is a more leisurely exploration of an unconventional world wherein a meek recently retired bank manager whose sole outside interest is in growing dahlias in his garden meets his bohemian 70-something Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral and, caught up in her mysterious lifestyle, travels with her to exotic and dangerous locales where he meets an assortment of her disreputable acquaintances & lovers past and present...and learns much about himself (and her) as well.

The popular culture references in The 39 Steps may be familiar to moviegoers; the allusions in Travels With My Aunt test the audience's knowledge of philosophy, art, and literature. -- This, and the fact that Mr. Sherman distributes the dialogue among all four actors who play the protagonist Henry Pulling, to demonstrate in each a specific facet of Henry's personality, making the audience experience both a diverting entertainment and an intellectual challenge.

The audience is challenged from the start when all four actors [Rodney Clark, Paul Hebron, James Bowen, and Timothy Carter] dressed in identical dark suits and bowler hats share Henry's first-person narrative of events leading up to the fateful meeting with Aunt Augusta. Soon, she expresses a need for a travel companion, and Henry is caught up in her sly implications that she has a lot to teach him and goes with her. All is not what it seems: his parentage is called into question, and Aunt Augusta's life-style choices demand explanation.

A true ensemble, these men shift from role to role with minimal change or adjustment of costume with apparent ease and fluidity -- and with distinct postures, gestures, and voices -- that make each character instantly clear. And, as they share the role of Henry with so many other personae, (only Mr. Clark plays Aunt Augusta) their talents come to the fore: regional, class, and national dialects are done convincingly; gender-switching is credible, with just a touch of "camp" at strategic moments; respectable and disreputable sorts are delineated with conviction -- the character list is so all encompassing. Not only that, but the actors also serve as "Foley artists", providing many of the sound effects (walking on a pebbled beach, pouring tea, etc. -- timed with the on-stage action) that are cleverly inserted into the production.

Greene's novel was written in the 1960s, and as he showed in other novels like The Quiet American, Brighton Rock, and The End of the Affair, he was much taken with the politics and morality of his time, taking an ambivalent attitude towards conventional ideologies while embracing new experiences with no sense of bigotry, and expressed most charmingly in the words of Aunt Augusta, to "never presume yours is the better morality".

So, while Aunt Augusta's forays into art smuggling, the occult, love affairs with various men, and her connections with Nazi sympathizers make Henry dubious about their relationship, her central credo is that love is what matters most -- it is her distinguishing feature, and we are inclined to forgive her other faults. This is her last opportunity to connect with her "nephew", and the love she bears him is more maternal than his "mother's" could have been. In Mr. Clark's capable hands, she is ever gracious, generous, optimistic, and trusting in mankind's better nature, and too polite to blurt out the truth...Henry must discover it for himself.

ASF newcomer Timothy Carter's resonant baritone and uncanny ability to embody characters as different as a gruff Det. Sgt. Sparrow and a coy teenage girl Yolanda, make him a welcome addition to the local theatre scene.

Returning actor James Bowen, playing several of Aunt Augusta's lovers and an assortment of male and female roles (especially the sensitive mourner Miss Patterson), transforms himself for each occasion.

And Paul Hebron's charismatic Henry as well as Henry's love interest Miss Keene, the flower-child Toolie & her CIA operative father O'Toole, and his ability to connect truthfully with Mr. Clark's effervescent Aunt Augusta, provide this chameleon-actor some of the production's finest moments. He does succumb to her influence, and seems to have found love by the end.

The so very many plot elements in this production belabor the point a bit and make it seem over-long, though never uninteresting. Henry is left at the end having to decide whether to stay with his Aunt or to go back home; though it is not completely resolved, much has been learned -- don't judge others, embrace life in the moment, be true to yourself...and love.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cloverdale: "The Gin Game"

The much anticipated inaugural season of Montgomery's Cloverdale Playhouse was realized on February 2, 2012 with a triumphant production of D. L. Coburn's two-character tragicomedy The Gin Game, winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize.

Under Artistic Director Greg Thornton's astute direction, Eleanor Kerr Davis and Bill Nowell -- two of Montgomery's most accomplished veteran actors -- received a rapturous standing ovation for their finely tuned performances in the "Elizabeth Crump Theatre."

Played on Mike Winkelman's detailed set -- a porch at a run-down retirement home -- and dressed in Danny Davidson's character-driven realistic costumes, Weller Martin [Mr. Nowell] and Fonsia Dorsey [Ms. Davis] engage in some 14 hands of "gin" while they recount their likes & dislikes, their past lives, and a number of secrets...frequently getting on one another's nerves in the process...all the while entertaining audiences with witty remarks and truthful assessments of their conditions.

The first Act is played largely for laughs, though underlying the humor of older people's outspokenness are some very real issues of growing older and surviving without the support of family. They meet on the porch to play cards [games of gin that Fonsia always wins, much to Weller's frustration], for example, to escape the lines of people in wheelchairs or their 10-foot-square rooms that contain all their worldly possessions. And, they are not at all interested in the continual "entertainments" that are put on for the residents or dance classes "when half of them can't get out of a chair". Each has found in the other a kindred spirit, and as we find out, a worthy sparring partner. Weller's curmudgeonly behavior while having always to be right, is matched by Fonsia's steadfastness and quiet determination.

For all their pretense of normality, it soon becomes clear that Fonsia's diabetes causes her a few spells, and Weller's bombast hides a growing dementia, and a climactic moment at the end of Act I signals more revelations to come. In Act II, the card games continue, but the stakes are higher as they reveal the truths of their pasts. "One more game" leads to a vindictiveness in a showdown that tests Weller's temper to the extreme.

Though each has been married & divorced, and each has had children, their families appear to have deserted them. Loneliness is becoming more real: they have little in common with anyone else at the retirement home, they have been deserted by their families [possibly due to their own stubbornness], and they resent having to go on welfare and lose their independence. So, they rely on each other.

Mr. Thornton interprets Coburn's well-crafted script with a quietly deliberate control that allows the plot details to be gradually introduced so the characters emerge in steps hardly noticeable and so truthfully that audiences identify with their problems and invest in their relationship.

And it helps to have at his disposal two veteran actors who, according to a program note "have appeared in over 100 productions around the River Region. [but] This is their first production together."

Mr. Nowell gives Weller a declamatory style that suits the character's self-absorption; he claims to know a lot, and insists on being right, so when Fonsia wins hand after hand of gin, his game strategy fails him. Is it "beginner's luck", or is she a shrewd player? And his constant interruption of her train of thought in dealing out the cards aloud -- "one, one - two, two - three, three" -- asserts his place of control.

Ms. Davis exercises consummate control over Fonsia's tolerance of Weller's demands, so when she retaliates in kind near the end of the play, we see her justification and feel with her the pain it causes. She communicates more with a gesture or a sly smile than mere words provide.

Throughout the play, Mr. Nowell & Ms. Davis portray their characters as duelists, he sometimes manic and she more often reserved; they are on opposite sides and play it as such. But the occasional moments of connection -- moments when truths are spoken without guile -- as they face each other across the card table are so honest and credible, that we engage in their lives willingly and address their issues as our own.