Monday, October 27, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Crimes of the Heart"

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

"...this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."
                           -- Julia Sugarbaker: "Designing Women"

Score another hit for The Cloverdale Playhouse. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart got its start at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979 and has been on the boards ever since --  with good reason: this perceptive comedy-drama is set in Hazelhurst, MS five years after Hurricane Camille, and recounts the domestic saga of the three MaGrath sisters, members of a Southern family who don't hide their eccentricities and foibles -- they "bring 'em down to the [kitchen in this case] and show 'em off".

Director Maureen Costello has assembled a tight-knit ensemble of Playhouse veterans and newcomers whose complex characterizations, bizarre behavior, and utter commitment to the truthfulness of these somewhat disturbed souls shape Ms. Henley's script in ever surprising revelations that keep audiences alternately laughing and crying for a full two-and-a-half hours.

The play is set in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy's house where spinster eldest sister Lenny [Deborah Robertson] has been living as his caretaker; middle sister Meg [Jaymee Vowell] answers Lenny's summons to return from her failed Hollywood singing career in order to lend support to youngest sister Babe [Sarah Adkins] who has just shot her big-wig lawyer husband Zachery because she "didn't like his looks".

Their cousin Chick [Rhonda Crim] antagonizes them with her haughty condescension while the sisters hire Barnette Lloyd [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], a young and seemingly meek attorney who just happens to have a "personal vendetta" against Babe's husband. -- Meg's former boyfriend Doc [Bill-e Cobb] brings word that Lenny's horse has been struck by lightning on this, her 30th Birthday which only Chick remembered by bringing her a box of almost year-old chocolates.

Hanging over the action is the specter of their Mother's bizarre suicide, their Father's desertion of the family, Old Granddaddy's physical ailments and domineering ways, Zachery's history of abusing Babe, Lenny's inability to have children due to her "shrunken ovaries", an incident during Hurricane Camille that almost crippled Doc, and Babe's "secret" that could prejudice a jury against her.

Yes, that's a lot to "bring down and show off", but Ms. Costello's ensemble inhabit their characters with complete truthfulness, that no matter how fantastic their behavior or attitudes, they are completely credible. We recognize them (and might just have relatives like them). -- To a person, these actors handle even the most far-fetched incidents as commonplace with such grace and charm that their surface quirks have us liking them even with their faults, and in true Southern fashion, "we're proud of our crazy people" on the Cloverdale stage.

Mr. Dasinger's Barnette at first appears to be naively innocent and unsure of his surroundings, especially in the boisterous MaGrath household, but he quickly falls under the spell of the sisters, Babe in particular, and there is a hint of possible romance that Ms. Adkins can switch on with a shrug or a pout, all the while admitting her guilt and accepting Barnette's suggestions and interpretations of the law.

Mr. Cobb's physical and vocal comfort in the role of Doc is admirable, and a far cry from his star-turn as the flamboyant Emcee in 2012's Cabaret. Totally natural as the humble happily-married Doc who seems to genuinely like the MaGraths, and wants no more than an evening spent with Meg without recriminations for her deserting him during the hurricane five years ago. A rock-solid performance.

In a powerhouse portrayal as Chick, Ms. Crim claims attention every time she hits the stage. Here is a woman one can "love to hate" -- a superficially charming young matron whose studied manners and social position are given a sharp edge with virtually every line of dialogue that she spews with criticism and holier-than-thou assurance. Yet, she is the one realist in the group; she may be right most of the time, though her attitude works against her. -- Postures, facial expressions, and comic timing are delivered with no inhibitions; excellent.

Each of the three MaGrath sisters has issues, ones they avoid by resorting to mundane daily tasks that provide a sense of security. -- Ms. Robertson imbues the introverted Lenny with flustered and fastidious gestures; she won't risk loving a man because she doesn't want any man to know she can't have children; so she throws herself into helping others as the seeming rock of the family. -- Ms. Vowell's depiction of the headstrong worldly Meg who pretends that her career is in good shape rather than admit failure, nonetheless goes with Doc for a "ride in his truck to look at the moon" as an attempt to relive a romanticized past. -- And Ms. Adkins plays the self-contradictory (perhaps schizophrenic) Babe with elements of innocence and sophistication, seduction and childlike wonder; and she can turn on a dime with complete conviction.

Together, their denial can make light of Babe's criminal act and switch attention to Lenny's forgotten Birthday, making lemonade, or other diversions...anything but admit the reality of their situation by believing "it'll work out". Family trumps the rest of the world, and these Southern women rely on that more than anything.

Playwright Henley and the Playhouse actors handle serious big issues so candidly that we are very comfortable in their company, and we don't mind at all that their craziness is in full view for us to enjoy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Man of LaMancha"

The multiple award-winning musical Man of La Mancha (1965) is being given a solid production at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre under Jason Clark South's direction.

Using Matt Dickson's flexible cave-like prison set's assorted playing levels, ramps, steps, openings, and drawbridge to good advantage, Mr. South's talented ensemble of 17 actors fill the stage portraying some 42 characters among them with simple costume adjustments and mannerisms to differentiate each role.

Add Marilyn Swears on piano and Mark Benson on percussion to expertly accompany the high quality singing voices of the ensemble, and the tale of Miguel de Cervantes' iconic "Don Quixote" comes to life for two-and-a-half hours on the Faulkner stage.

While Dale Wasserman's script, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, does not pretend to be utterly faithful to the complexities of Cervantes' 17th Century picaresque novel, it does capture its source's essential spirit, if not the full bite of its satire. -- Wasserman's conceit is to have Cervantes [Terry Brown] brought to prison facing charges of the Spanish Inquisition, where, as an entertainment to plead his case among the prisoners as a kind of warm-up to the actual trial, he conscripts the inmates to play the roles of his tale, while he himself inhabits the central character of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his quest as a knight errant to change the harshness of the real world and restore chivalry and goodness to "Impossible Dream", perhaps.

Accompanied by his ever faithful servant Sancho Panza [Brandtley McDonald], and instantly besotted by a kitchen-wench/whore Aldonza [Jesse Alston] -- a woman he idealizes as Dulcinea, in his mind the fair lady to whom the knight offers service -- Quixote's vivid imagination that borders madness at times, transforms the banal and ugly world into a romanticized idealization of it. -- His confusion of truth and fiction is questioned by the Governor/Innkeeper [Blake Williams] among others, much to his consternation.

Man of La Mancha is enhanced by its musical score, with a number of now famous songs: the entire Ensemble shines in a few of them, but it is in individual voices that both the music and lyrics both punctuate or comment on the action and demonstrate the many talents in Faulkner's cast. Antonia [Emily Woodring], the Housekeeper [Rhonda Cattley], and the Padre [Morgan Baker] compliment one another in "I'm Only thinking of Him"; and Mr. Baker's solo "To Each His Dulcinea" showcases his supple voice. Mr. McDonald's strong voice and fully committed characterizations make him one to watch whenever he holds forth in such numbers as "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip".

Ms. Alston's Aldonza/Dulcinea is thoroughly convincing, as she reluctantly portrays the difficult transition from kitchen wench to heroine; we feel her frustrations in her attempts to understand Quixote's fixations that are so contrary to the reality: "It's All the Same", "What Does He Want of Me?", "Aldonza", and her eloquently simple acceptance of his esteem in "Dulcinea" carry the audience on her journey with complete credibility.

And, fittingly, Mr. Brown's engagement in the roles of Cervantes/Quixote are served up with aplomb. His powerful baritone is in good form in the taxing songs "Dulcinea" and "The Impossible Dream", but more importantly, his credibility as both the confident author and the naively idealistic knight and his generosity in sharing the stage with other actors, garners him well-deserved "bravos" from the audience.

There are some hard lessons to be learned here: Quixote's "impossible dream" affords some hope despite the incessant cruelty of the real world around him -- and us. If as Cervantes/Quixote claims that "good always triumphs", the path to goodness has a lot of obstacles along the way. Seeing and experiencing the world as it is -- the polar opposite of Quixote's fantasy -- can drive a person to madness, or perhaps to redemption.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Millbrook: "Harvey"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley, River Region theatre artist.

The Millbrook Community Players are currently staging Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a congenial, well-to-do gentleman who happens to have a six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch rabbit as a best friend. The play's excitement surrounds the fact that Harvey, the anthropomorphic rabbit friend, is invisible to all but Elwood P. Dowd (Roger Humber).

Elwood takes every opportunity to introduce Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing sister, Veta Louise, and niece Myrtle Mae (Lavonne Hart and Christina Harvell), who live in Elwood's house and rely on his generosity. In fact, the play opens on Veta Louise using Elwood's stately home to host a lavish society luncheon with the intent of introducing Myrtle Mae as an eligible bachelorette to local society's mothers of eligible sons. When Elwood unexpectedly shows up and begins to introduce Harvey to all Veta Louise's guests, it is the last straw: Veta Louise decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium.

When Elwood and Veta Louise (and, of course, Harvey) arrive at the sanitarium, a comedy of errors ensues. While the orderly Wilson (one of the more natural comedic performances from Greg Fanning) takes Elwood to a treatment room, Dr. Sanderson (Mark McGuire) interviews Veta Louise -- and determines that she is the one who needs help. Now freed, Elwood quickly befriends Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly (Heather Allen) and offers to come back later and take them out for drinks. Elwood departs, leaving his sister in the hands of the sanitarium staff, and Harvey somehow unaccounted for and loose in the hospital.

Fortunately for Veta Louise, the truth comes out and she is released. Meanwhile, Harvey -- who it turns out isn't entirely imaginary, but is an Irish ghost called a pooka -- befriends the hospital's elusive director, who is quite shaken by the encounter. When Elwood shows up to take his new friends out and to look for Harvey, Dr. Sanderson knows exactly how to treat him. He wants to give Elwood an injection that will rid him of the delusion everyone believes him to be under. Veta Louise's cab driver (Randy Burdick brings a delightful deadpan to the role) interrupts and, overhearing, assures Elwood's sister that the treatment will work -- he has driven lots of troubled people to the sanitarium, only to take them back home after treatment has made them a "perfectly normal human being, and you know how awful they are". It's up to Veta Louise to decide whether Elwood should get the treatment or if she'd rather have Elwood as-is, eccentricities and all.

This production features several budding comic character actors: misters Burdick and Fanning, as well as Emily Burdick and Mike DeLaura.

Also among the highlights of the production is the exceptionally well designed and dressed set. Its functional design is well situated within the space and allows the audience to transition quickly and easily between Elwood's home and the doctor's office at the hospital.