Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Millbrook: "Witness for the Prosecution"

Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie's 1925 short story that was turned into a play and later a film, has a legion of faithful fans, and surprisingly [based on the Millbrook Community Players' opening night audience's reaction] several who did not already know its surprise ending -- one that won't be spoiled here.

Essentially a courtroom drama replete with circumstantial evidence, suggestions of both innocence and guilt, questionable testimony, and plenty of red herrings to throw us off the track, it tells the story of Leonard Vole [Daniel Harms], a man accused of murdering a wealthy spinster in 1950s London in order to inherit her substantial estate.

Vole retains celebrated solicitor Sir Wilfrid [John Chain] and Mrs. Mayhew [Martha Ann Henry -- the most natural and convincing member of this acting ensemble]; together, and despite some misgivings, they piece together the evidence in this two-and-a-half-hour production.

Director Dean Kelly has assembled a cast of veteran and neophyte actors, and follows Christie's deliberately slow pace and old-fashioned structure to gradually reveal plot and character, so audiences must pay strict attention to minute and seemingly insignificant details.

While the courtroom sequences show Sir Wilfrid's and prosecution lawyer Myers' [Clifton Kelly] interrogation abilities as a test of wits, the challenge is to make the lengthy exposition preceding it dramatically interesting while the physical action is relatively static. -- And the actors here seemed tentative in delivering their lines: slow speech and long pauses diminished the conviction and authority of much of the dialogue.

Once the testimony begins, however, the audience interest is sustained by the persistence of the lawyers and the conflicting evidence provided. -- In an unexpected move, Vole's wife Romaine [Rachael Pike in a complex role] is called on as the titular "witness for the prosecution" instead of for his defense where her testimony might have been suspect. And, as her ambiguous responses contradict Vole's version of the events surrounding the woman's death, the truth must be discovered.

Mr. Harms brings significant naivete to the character of Vole, making his guilt or innocence a matter of audience choice, and Ms. Pike's aloofness as Romaine make her motives immediately suspect. So, it is up to Mr. Chain's Sir Wilfrid to plow through the maze of testimony with a deliberateness of purpose to discover the truth.

Of course, we are challenged along with the characters in the play to sift through the testimony and seek the truth without being prejudiced by appearances. That is Christie's major strength, and the Millbrook Community Players deliver the goods.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Broadway Our Way"

For three performances only through tonight and tomorrow afternoon, the Wetumpka Depot Players are giving benefit performances of Broadway Our Way, a revue production featuring songs from nine Broadway shows that the Depot has produced over its 32 years, and one showstopper from their own scripted production of The Wedding from Hell.

They have recently refitted the theatre with new seating, and have upgraded their lighting equipment; hence, the need to raise funds for this award winning company's home space. [And, the Depot Players will be hosts for the Alabama Conference of Theatre's Community Theatre Festival in October.]

The cast, all dressed in evening wear, is an ensemble of many of the Depot's most familiar faces, many of them reprising songs they performed in full productions. Performing solos, duets, trios, quartets, and group numbers are: Sally Blackwell, David Brown, Jonathan Conner, Jennifer Haberkorn, Patrick Hale, William Harper, Kim Mason (who also directed), Kristy Meanor, Brad Moon, Merelee Robinson, Tom Salter, Cindy Veazey, and Jimmy Veazey.-- Marilyn Swears on piano is another Depot regular, even taking on a few lines of dialogue in this show, and provides the only live accompaniment masterfully.

Most of the numbers are played straight, but some others are given a "twist" of interpretation, given the "revue" nature of this evening's entertainment. Patrick Hale's version of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma had a true homespun feel; Jonathan Conner & David Brown's rendition of "River in the Rain" from Big River was sensitively harmonized, but then Mr. Conner demonstrated an amazing falsetto in a comical version of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. Cindy & Jimmy Veazey's interpretation of "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma was a lovely romantic duet; Jennifer Haberkorn's shows a strong comic persona in "Lovely" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and "I Can't Say No" from Oklahoma; Brad Moon once more taps into his inner-Elvis with "Jailhouse Rock" from All Shook Up; Tom Salter's in-your-face tirade in "Guv'Ment" from Big River was an audience favorite; Kristy Meanor and William Harper's fine tongue-in-cheek version of "Old Fashioned Wedding", and Kim Mason and David Brown's one-upmanship in "Anything You Can Do" -- both from Annie Get Your Gun -- got plenty of well earned laughs; Sally Blackwell produced a moody & sensitive "Blue Champagne" from G.I. Jukebox; and, just before the finale came "The Rose" from A Wedding from Hell, sung straight by Ms. Blackwell and "signed" with deadpan boredom and edgy intensity by Merelee Robinson: outrageously funny!

In less than and hour and a half of non-stop entertainment, the Depot Players have sent a tribute to Broadway musicals and their long history in Wetumpka.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Intern Company, under Greta Lambert's astute direction, have created a sprightly touring production of Shakespeare's A  Midsummer Night's Dream that has been taken to several schools and to The Tipping Point as well as performances indoors and outdoors at ASF.

Eight actors play all the roles with quick costume changes and excellent script editing by Ms. Lambert, who knows the play well, having played Titania in the inaugural production of The Dream when ASF moved to Montgomery from Anniston.

She has honed the script to its essentials so it is performed without an intermission, keeping the story lines and character relationships clear, and affording each member of this talented ensemble opportunities to create memorable characters.

A staging challenge no doubt at each new venue on its tour, this production loses none of its spirit or audience connection in its "home" theatres; in fact, it has probably gained some.

One of Shakespeare's most popular and accessible comedies, the play's three "worlds" are the court of Athens, the working-class Athenians, and the fairy kingdom. How these three intertwine through telling their various love stories is the crux of the matter and the source of much of its comedy -- and in this production, all the actors have roles in each of these worlds.

Once this convention is accepted, the roles are never confusing -- subtle and lightning fast costume changes, fluid staging, and most of all this talented cast's ability to switch mannerisms for each role sustain interest, heighten the comedy, and tell the story clearly.

Ms. Lambert's metaphor sets the earthly Athenian kingdom in a world of gypsies [a clever nod to the gypsy lifestyle of many actors] and the folklore associated with them. She follows Shakespeare's lead that suggests that forests are magical places where fairies live (complete with such human foibles as love, jealousy, etc.), where the rules of the "real world" are suspended, and where mortals are transformed.  As the script "holds...the mirror up to nature", so too do Athens and the woodland fairy kingdom mirror each other.

And what energy these actors bring to this production! Played around a gypsy cart that transforms into the forest [in the Octagon there is a forest backdrop], they keep the action flowing so fast that their energy is contagious, and the vigor of their performances and their expressive bodies & faces engages young and old alike for the duration of the performance.

In the double roles of worldly and fairy kings & queens, Johnny Viel [Theseus/Oberon] and Bliss Griffin [Hippolyta/Titania] connect so well that we instantly believe their relationships and their commanding statures. As the two pairs of Athenian lovers -- Candace Scholz/Jay McClure and Laura Bozzone/Craig Hanson -- the intensity of love is heightened by their being mistakenly drugged by the fairy Puck [Ivan Perez] to love the wrong mate, and a scene in which they "have it out" as it were, is a knock-down furiously comic fight. -- This trick is a mirror of Oberon's drugging Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking; in her case, she awakes to see the rustic Bottom [Colin Meath] who has been transformed into "an ass" by Puck when he was awaiting his cue in a rehearsal of a play he and others were to perform at Theseus & Hippolyta's wedding.

When the spells are finally taken off their victims and a kind of order has been restored to one and all, it is time for the play within a play to be performed. The story of Pyramus & Thisbe as performed by the "rude mechanicals" before the king and queen is a silly as they come, but done with pure innocence and over the top histrionics by these well intentioned tradesmen with Bottom as the "leading man".

Though "ill met by moonlight" at the start of the play, Oberon & Titania are reunited by the end; Theseus & Hippolyta are married as are the lovers; and everyone can celebrate in a dance. There are several dreams in the play [nightmares, wishes, etc.] and though we might agree "what fools these mortals be" and that "reason and love keep little company nowadays", we have been entertained so well that the memory of this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream will last a long time.