Sunday, December 13, 2015

WOBT: "Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa"

Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa is a short three-act comedy by Michal Jacot that comes in at a running time of an hour and a half including a 15-minute intermission at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

Director Blair Dyson makes his community theatre directing debut as he guides his six-member cast of neophyte and veteran actors in often predictable and sometimes hilarious moments on stage.

The naturalistic finished living room of a home in suburban Oregon designed by the director along with Marc Alewine and Jessica Brumett, reflects the personality of its new owner Amber Hartley [Annabelle DuBose] an obsessive perfectionist with a place for everything and everything in its place. Amber wants to host "the perfect Christmas celebration" with her family, plans that go awry from the start, only to be pleasantly resolved by the end. -- It is Christmastime, so the spirit of the season is bound to make an impact on even the most recalcitrant members of the clan. That they end up with an unexpected perfect day is, in the words of one of them, "a Christmas miracle".

Amber's intentions are disrupted by her sloppy sister Frankie [Cameron Wasner], her hold-over flower-children parents Al [Mike Proper] and Marie [Casey Wasner], and her sarcastic older brother Keith [James Scott] who brings curmudgeonly Grandpa [West Marcus] from the retirement home.
En route to its inevitable positive conclusion, there are sibling rivalries, parental guilt-trips, and outrageous demands from Grandpa who, at times much like Ebenezer Scrooge, has a soft side.

Jadot's modest script, with its predictable plot and fairly one-dimensional characters, does contain a few surprises and frequent enough situations that afford the acting company some shining moments.

The family have learned to tolerate Grandpa's tirades and eccentric behavior, and Mr. Marcus can be counted on to play Grandpa with just enough aplomb that his outbursts and infantile tricks are rendered palatable. -- Mr. Proper and Ms. Casey Wasner are a fine parental double-act who play well off one another. -- The sibling rivalries and goading between Ms. DuBose and Ms. Cameron Wasner [an 11th-hour replacement in the role of Frankie] are crafted convincingly. -- And Mr. Scott, making his theatrical debut as the much maligned older brother, gives an animated and cunningly sardonic performance that is a stand-out in this production.

A light-hearted Christmas show, Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa leaves audiences with smiles on their faces and hearts filled with good will.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Two for the Holidays"

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

Thornton Wilder and David Sedaris might not be an obvious partnership. Multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Wilder, one of this country's most influential mid-Twentieth Century playwrights who tested the boundaries of minimalism and other provocative theatrical styles, and Sedaris, a quirky satirist whose New Yorker magazine and National Public Radio segments conferred him a cult status from the 1990s onward, come from two different worlds. -- Yet, the Cloverdale Playhouse is ending its Fourth Season with one act plays from each of them under the umbrella title "Two for the Holidays". Montgomery audiences are being treated and challenged by Wilder's 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner and Sedaris's 1996 The Santaland Diaries.

In a little over half an hour, Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner takes us through 90-years of Christmas dinners with the Bayard family. Under Layne Holley's sensitive direction, we watch her twelve member ensemble of actors portraying characters who are born, grow up, and die, to be replaced by successive generations bound by their commitment to the simple things of life. Religion, literature, philosophy, love and marriage, the inevitability of death [whether from old age, disease, or war], the value of family history and memories -- all these hold the family together so that even in stressful times we are assured that these universal experiences are what count, and that time alone will see them through.

Wilder's theatrical conceit [one that reminds us continually that we are in a theatre and are meant to ponder his ideas] is to have continuous action in the one dining room, a place before the days of cell phones and social media distractions, where families gather and talk to one another. Characters age before our eyes through subtle costume adjustments and undisguised wig changes, and by actors changing postures and vocal textures. They enter and exit through doorways that symbolically represent birth and death; and so, the cycle of life continues, with each generation repeating phrases, actions, and references that have come before. -- The simplicity of his conceit, one which he developed more fully in Our Town, registers with a profound refinement that leaves audiences more than satisfied.

The acting company are dressed in lush period costumes created by the team of Val Winkelman, Mike DiLaura, Danny Davidson, and Marlene Moore-Goodman, contributing to the naturalistic details of Hannah Butler's set. And while there were a few tentative line readings in their performances, the actors uniformly served the playwright's intentions to leave a lasting impact on audiences.

And "now for something completely different" in the second half, David Sedaris's irreverent The Santaland Diaries, directed by Eleanor Davis, is an extended monologue by a man whose elf name is "Crumpet" [Greg Babb]. Quasi-autobiographical, the "mostly true" Santaland purports to tell the journey of an out-of-work man who, in a behind the scenes tell-all, applies, interviews, trains, and ultimately becomes an elf in Santaland at Macy's department store in New York City.

Self-deprecating and outlandish in his pronouncements about the behaviors of an assortment of children, parents, and especially his fellow employees throughout the growing frenzy of the Christmas Season, Mr.Babb is at his best in the play's more outrageous moments. Uneven at times, he has an ability to deliver Sedaris's witty dialogue with impeccable comic timing, a vocal style reminiscent of Paul Lynde, and an infectious awareness of the scorn he has for the "grinding enthusiasm" and "relentless cheer" of the public face he must show. -- But even "Crumpet" succumbs somewhat and becomes "good by association" with the true spirit of the holidays.

The contrast of these two pieces, each a minor gem in its own way, has audiences laughing and thinking...and perhaps giving consideration to celebrating the holidays with loved ones with an acceptance of one another's contributions to making us who we are.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Radio T.B.S."

To end their 35th Season, the Wetumpka Depot Players are re-mounting a production of Radio T.B.S. that they first produced in 2002. Directed by Tom Salter, Mark Landon Smith's comedy has a cast of ten women, each one more eccentrically low-brow than the next, and whose intertwining escapades stretch credibility no matter how their caricatured personalities register to audience delight as familiar.

The action is set at the Luna Del Mar Trailer Park where Vesta Poteet [Cindy Veasey] and Dixie Mandrell [Janice Hancock] run the on-site radio station and broadcast local gossip, announcing early on that the annual Miss Manatee beauty contest will be shortly followed by this year's Nativity Pageant whose theme is "Jesus and Elvis: a Tribute to the Kings." -- What follows is inevitably linked to the play's title, the "T.B.S." standing for "Trailer Park Broadcasting Scandals".

Vesta and Dixie follow Missy Goode [Carol Majors] on a road trip to Graceland with her unseen monster granddaughter in tow. -- Mary Eunice Wheaton [Cindy Beasley], the trailer park's self-appointed morality enforcer, whose dictatorial behavior finds fault with just about everything, is crusading to evict Imogene Hurst [Sonja Cannon], a bohemian outsider whose lifestyle infuriates Mary Eunice. But weather girl Harlene Akers [Hannah Meherg] is the only one who shows a bit of gumption against Mary Eunice's petition, and befriends Imogene.

Pauline Felts [Sally Blackwell] coerces her unwilling daughter Mayola [Ashlee Lassiter] to enter the Miss Manatee contest, and conscripts local charm school maven Alveeta McClay [Charlotte Henderson] to mold Mayola into a presentable candidate for the pageant.

Madge Husky [Judy Savage] opens her home's Elvis shrine for a tour, the chief item being a pork chop that resembles Elvis in profile.

This all plays out in two acts running two hours and twenty minutes; and while the admirable cast are to be commended for their excellent ensemble acting and for presenting their characters' foibles and eccentricities with complete commitment, Smith's script could benefit from judicious editing. Each scene simply goes on at such repetitive length that the jokes become predictable and lose their intended punch. -- Most of the laughs come from the inventive antics of these gifted actors, whether it is, for example, Ms. Veasey's vivacity as Vesta, Ms. Lassiter's dead-pan boredom as the misfit Mayola, or Ms. Henderson's unflappably charming Alveeta.

With garish costumes and tacky set pieces to complement the script's bizarre story and characters, the Christmas Season might never be the same.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Red Door: "Always a Bridesmaid"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs is presenting a laugh-out-loud comedy: Always a Bridesmaid, another in a series written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten [their The Hallelujah Girls and Mama Won't Fly have been performed at the Red Door]. -- Despite the season, the Red Door is not showing a Christmas-themed show; and it pays off.

Director Kim Mason has a knack for comedy and a history of getting the most out of her actors, and the ensemble here is a veteran cast of six women who are clearly having a good time together on stage as they portray an eclectic bevy of "friends for life" who had promised years ago to be bridesmaids in one another's weddings -- no matter what!

It is that "no matter what" that holds the slightness of the plot together. Kari [Sarah Smith] is today's bride who narrates a series of scenes depicting the assorted weddings (and near misses) that have lead up to her own; she gets progressively more intoxicated as she addresses the attendees at her wedding reception, where her mother Libby Ruth [Elizabeth Roughton], the perfect optimistic one, and the other "friends for life" are her bridesmaids too: Monette [Leigh Moorer], the often married one, Charlie [Janet Wilkerson], the reluctant one, and Deedra [Eve Harmon], the worldly sophisticated one. -- They are joined in each scene by Sedalia [Jordan Allen Campbell], the no-nonsense manager of the "historic Laurelton Oaks" venue where all the weddings take place over seven years.

Ray Thornton designed an architecturally and naturalistically finished set for this production that shows the sitting room of an upscale wedding venue in stark contrast to the often garish bridesmaids costumes the cast wear [let imaginations run wild, there will still be many surprises in store]. -- There is no costume designer credit in the program, but the costume choices most certainly need to be applauded.

The ensemble performances are top-notch, with each one defining her individual quirks while generously sharing the stage with the prima donnas here.

The standards are high all around, yet there are individual moments of outright hilarity: Ms. Smith's descent into drunkenness is welcomed each time she appears; Ms. Roughton's unflappable naivete garners spontaneous laughter; Ms. Harmon grows into a spirited combatant who says she'll marry "the last man standing" in her wedding day's slugfest between her fiance and ex-husband; and Ms. Campbell is able to turn on a dime from a charming self-possessed professional hostess into an axe-wielding harridan when the bridesmaids get out of control.

Kudos to Ms. Moorer who accepts her character Monette's nonchalance about her frequent and sometimes frivolous trips to the altar with a comfort so natural that she is credible from start to finish, her smug demeanor never at risk under any circumstances.

Ms. Wilkerson has established herself as one of the Red Door's most reliable comic actors whose mere entrance onto the stage warrants appreciative laughter, followed by physical silliness and dead-pan delivery of clever dialogue. The genius of her performance here is that no matter how outrageous, Ms. Wilkerson is grounded in an inventive and truthful commitment to her character.

Ms. Mason keeps the action moving at a solid pace for just under two hours including intermission, and audiences leave in a jovial mood from watching these talented actors.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Faulkner: "An O. Henry Christmas"

Howard Burman's An O. Henry Christmas, an intriguing and inventive telling of several O. Henry stories, is being given a strong and sensitive showing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, under Faulkner alumnus and first-time director Tony Davison.

With an eight member ensemble of students, alumni, and faculty at his disposal, Mr. Davison exhibits clear storytelling and mostly effective staging, though placement of actors occasionally blocks important action from view, and some tentative vocal projection rendered some dialogue difficult to hear.

Played on Matt Dickson's detailed set -- a kind of Skid Row outdoor gathering place for an assortment of New York City vagrants and homeless -- and with Angela Dickson's evocative costumes, this production is one of Faulkner's most visually accomplished in its simplicity; and the acting company match it skillfully for its uninterrupted 90-minute running time.

On Christmas Eve, a rag-tag group gather, each with a back-story that comes to light as they argue among themselves: Hal [George Scrushy establishing himself as a fine actor here], an unapologetic drunk who has squandered his inheritance; Dinty [Matt Dickson is utterly convincing], a cynical and frustrated artist waiting to produce his masterpiece; Fran [Brittney Johnston who never fails to inhabit her characters with complete believability], a tough street-wise skeptic; Agnes [Emiy Woodring in a sensitive portrayal], ever optimistic and supportive of her friends; Marguerite [Alex Rikerd in a sympathetic role], a sickly defeatist who believes she is dying; and Grover [Morgan Baker is stalwart], a former doctor refusing to practice because "there are no second mistakes die". -- They are joined at several moments by Guido [Douglas Hamilton is the newcomer to the acting company], a cop on the beat who must uphold the law regarding vagrants, but who is sympathetic to their situations.

A mysterious stranger named O.P. [Chris Kelly commands every scene], who insinuates himself into their dismal world by trading stories for food and shelter, and cajoles them into participating in the stories he provides them (the O. Henry stories of the play's title -- and though none of them are named, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Last Leaf" are among the familiar tales they spin).

These stories serve to either reflect the experiences of the characters, or provide them with ample encouragement to change their behavior. It is Christmas, after all, and most of them change for the better when they realize how important sacrifice is in the service of their fellows. Their individual journeys to self-realization are the crux of the matter in this gentle and hopeful production so appropriate to the Christmas Season.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

'Tis the Season, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is re-mounting A Christmas Carol, a reliable holiday offering adapted and directed by ASF's Artistic Director, Geoffrey Sherman, one that he continues to tweak for each of its several iterations so that no matter how familiar it is there are subtle shifts of emphasis in his script that keep Charles Dickens's classic tale engaging and magical.

Magic is the key to Sherman's storytelling in that he makes Dickens a character who performs actual magic sleights-of-hand and serves as the production's narrator. Wynn Harmon reprises the role as an effusive master of ceremonies, and conducts the evening's proceedings by signaling lighting, sound, and scene changes and even taking on a few minor roles.

With enchanting sets by Paul Wonsek, and actors dressed in Elizabeth Novak's glorious period costumes, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge -- literature's most famous skinflint and his trademark "Bah, humbug!" retort to anything that suggests Christmas cheer -- is peopled with long-time ASF actors reprising roles along with new faces in the crowd of some twenty-five thespians on stage.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge [Rodney Clark] is visited by the Ghost of his long-deceased business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes], who tells him that three other Ghosts are on their way to lead him to changing his miserly ways. -- In turn, the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Noelia Antweiler], Present [James Bowen], and Future [John Henry Carter] lead him through the signal moments in his life and encourage Scrooge to alter his behavior.

As Scrooge comes face to face with his former employer Mr. Fezziwig and his wife [Paul Hebron and Diana Van Fossen] whose generosity and infectious good-will enliven the dancing at their party, with Belle [Alice Sherman] the romantic love of his life he loses by becoming too greedy, his ever-optimistic nephew Fred [Bjorn Thjorstad], and, of course, the Cratchit family -- Bob [Jonathan Kaplan], Mrs. Cratchit [Jennifer Barnhart], and chief among their assorted children, Tiny Tim [Liam South on the night of this review] -- the road to his reclamation is magical in its simplicity and brevity: one night.

And the focus is on Scrooge throughout. Mr. Clark's performance is somewhat darker than in previous productions, a choice that in the beginning makes him a thoroughly despicable character, even though we might laugh scornfully at his diatribes against Christmas and anyone with the effrontery to celebrate the holiday in his presence. -- But this also makes his change into a man who knows best how to celebrate Christmas all the year through even more appealing. -- For all of his complaints against the holiday, Mr. Clark's Scrooge responds almost immediately to the examples thrust before him by the Ghosts, and we can watch him ever-so-gradually relax his petulance and wish for change, even though he thinks he is beyond help.

When the final moments arrive and we see the now-reclaimed Scrooge dancing, laughing, beside himself with generosity and joy, the magic has worked, and audiences smile and cheer along with him, and concur with Tiny Tim's response: "God bless us, every one!"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Millbrook: "Miracle on 34th Street"

A medley of Christmas songs greets the audience at the Millbrook Commnity Players' production of Miracle on 34th Street, the heartwarming chestnut of a play based on the 1947 film of the same name.

Though performances are a bit early on the calendar [this show closes before Thanksgiving, the day on which the action of the play begins and on which the Macy's Department Store's annual famous parade officially ushers in the Christmas season], director Stephanie McGuire's cast of twenty-two actors valiantly charms audiences with nostalgic reminiscences of times past, and gentle reminders that kindness, decency, and "believing in something when common sense says not to" can defeat the overblown hype and crass commercialism that threaten to ruin the Christmas season.

The opening night performance ran at a slow pace and a long two-plus hours that could be trimmed with more efficient scene changes and consistent energy from the cast. But this familiar tale is given an infectious merriment by its central character Kris Kringle [Sam Wallace], and its tried-and-true lessons that deserve attention.

Just as the big parade is about to start, Macy's "Santa" shows up drunk, and kindly retirement home resident Kris Kringle is conscripted as a substitute by Doris Walker [Karla McGhee], and winds up as the best department store Santa Claus ever. -- Mr. Wallace inhabits the role so completely, that it comes as no surprise that he convinces almost everyone he is the real thing. He's a "jolly old elf" who gradually convinces Doris's daughter Susan [Jaycee Parker is making her mark as an actress here] who has been taught by her mother that Santa is a myth.

There are the nay-sayers, of course, chief among them Dr. Leslie Sawyer [Shea Jackson], who crusades  to have Kris committed to a psychiatric institution by unmasking him as an insane and violent fraud. Ms. Jackson doubles [as most of the cast do] as a Bag Lady; her disguise renders her almost unrecognizable...fine work here.

There's also a love story: lawyer Fred Gayley [Michael Snead] is a neighbor in love with Doris, who, when he accepts Kris's court case endears himself to Doris and simultaneously helps Susan discover her imagination and belief in Santa Claus, thus winning Doris's heart.

We all know how it ends -- Fred wins the court case and Kris is named the one true Santa Claus, Doris and Fred are planning their marriage, Susan gets her Christmas present wish for a father and a new house...and audiences are warmed by the good will of Miracle on 34th Street.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

AUM: "Helvetica"

On a rainy Saturday evening when major football rivalries were being contested in both Auburn and Tuscaloosa, and when the performance was temporarily suspended when a fire alarm prompted Theatre AUM to clear the building, a small but undeterred audience was treated to an excellent production of Helvetica by Chicago-based playwright Will Coleman.

Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference's prestigious 2015 "Charles M. Getchell New Play Award", Helvetica's numerous episodes recount the title character's life as tracked by the three actresses depicting her -- at age eight [Past Helvetica: Danielle Phillips] when her mother died, as a grown woman [Present Helvetica: Amber Baldwin] on the day her husband leaves her, and in old age [Future Helvetica: Tara Fenn] on the day she dies. -- And Theatre AUM has the opportunity of putting its own stamp on a play that has of yet no conventional ways of staging and interpreting it.

Mike Winkelman's simple flexible scenic design allows the frequent time shifts to segue smoothly, and is accommodated by the narrator of Helvetica's story: a stuffed bear named Myron [Kodi Robertson] whose infectious innocence and knowing manner tempers the non-dramatic narrative sections. A kind of "Pooh-bear" confidante and adventuring accomplice who was Helvetica's "friend at first sight", Mr. Robertson inhabits the role so completely and credibly, that we trust him immediately to tell the story fairly.

At an uninterrupted 90-minutes, director Neil David Seibel's talented 12-member ensemble turn in truthful depictions of an array of characters who inform Helvetica's complicated life: parents [Kerry Jackson and Blaire Casey] who love and protect her despite having problems of their own, and from whom she learns to trust her imagination and yet remain a realist; a husband [Jay Russell] who seems at first to be an ideal match, but who can't grasp Helvetica's independence as she becomes a successful author of children's stories; a fan who becomes an unlike;y colleague [Samantha Blakely] who illustrates her books; her publishing agent [Grayson Dobbs] who encourages her to write again after a long dry period; a cancer patient [Haeley DePace] who is sympathetic to Helvetica's situation; her doctor [Intisar Seraaj-Sabree] who comforts her in her anticipated surgery; and an animal shelter worker [Cathy Ranieri] whose practicality is worthy of emulation.

Throughout this engaging production, we see how events in childhood inform the adult in all of us, that people often damage those they care for in an attempt to protect one another by avoiding unpleasant topics, and that there is a powerful impact in the various expressions of love for our fellows.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhoiuse: "Dial M for Murder"

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

The well crafted three-act script of Dial M for Murder is given a fine-tuned interpretation by director Fiona Macleod's veteran ensemble at The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Wrtitten by Frederick Knott, whose Wait Until Dark played at Cloverdale in its 2013 season, this 1952 thriller and his most popularly successful play is not a traditional "whodunnit"; it is clear early on that English ex-professional tennis player Tony Wendice [Stephen Dubberley] is plotting to have his wife murdered. He married Margot [Brittney Herndon] for her money, and after he discovers her brief affair with American tv murder mystery writer Max Halliday [Michael Buchanan], he intends to inherit all of her estate upon her death by blackmailing Captain Lesgate [Matthew Givens], a Cambridge University acquaintance who has had a series of illegal escapades in the intervening 25 years since they were at university, and who like many others "has his price".

When Tony's well-hatched "perfect crime" goes awry, and Margot kills her assailant, it is up to intrepid Inspector Hubbard [Cushing Phillips, III] to unravel the elaborate details (a love letter, blackmail notes, an attache case full of money, a missing handbag, and several latchkeys) to entrap the villain.

Played on Mike Winkelman's detailed set, punctuated with instrumentals of songs popular in the 1950s that also comment on the action ["Stardust", "Ebb Tide", "My Foolish Heart"], and dressed in Danny Davidson's and Mariah Reilly's period character driven costumes, the focus is thereby on old-fashioned storytelling.

Ms. Macleod has confidence in her actors to truthfully communicate Knott's sophisticated language and behavior of mostly upper-middle class Londoners; so, while modern investigative procedures and technology provide shortcuts to the rotary-dialed telephones and gumshoe police procedures in Dial M for Murder, audiences can give over their collective attention to figuring out the contrivances of the plot twists and the characters' motives and relationships.

Ms. Herndon appears as a socially confident woman who loves and trusts her husband, ignorant of his discovery of her affair and of his plans to have her killed; she wants to keep secret her relationship with ex-lover Max, and naively believes that Max and Tony can be friends. When she dispatches her would-be murderer, her character takes on another more layered dimension, and the subtle changes in her relationships with both men bring audiences to her side.

Mr. Buchanan's return to the local stage is most welcome. His natural demeanor and gradual development of trust and mistrust of Margot and Tony has him emerge as quietly heroic.

Mr. Givens brings a credible down-at-heels quality to the blackmailed murderer, and Mr. Phillips gives a mildly "Colombo-esque" delivery of some of the play's most melodramatic dialogue; since the play's ending is determined by the Inspector's deductive abilities, Mr. Phillips' portrayal has audiences always connected to his words and thought processes. With the assistance of officer Thompson [William Flowers, III], an importantly imposing presence to help thwart the crime, Mr. Phillips connects the evidence for us in clear and entertaining ways.

Acting honors here, though, go to Mr. Dubberley's complex depiction of Tony. Villains are often the most enjoyable to watch; we might despise their behavior while admiring their intellect. Mr. Dubberley exudes assurance in his roles of loving husband and trusted friend, while simultaneously plotting the most heinous of crimes without any hint of bad conscience or guilt. Cold and calculating, Mr. Dubberley's Tony is a character we love to hate.

English dialects were a little heavy-handed at times, and scene changes could be tightened up to sustain the suspense, but all-in-all, this production of Dial M for Murder will keep audiences involved and thrilled at following the plot to its deserved outcome.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Tuesdays With Morrie"

Just a week after the triumphant production of Driving Miss Daisy at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Wetumpka Depot Players are presenting Tuesdays With Morrie, another sensitive and  intermissionless 90-minute play about a long-term relationship that develops over time.

Based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Mitch Albom, and co-written for the stage by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, Tuesdays With Morrie shows Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz's influence on Mitch, one of his star students. Morrie [Bill Nowell] is nearing death at 78 years of age, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease], and Mitch [Lee Bridges] has become a successful sports journalist some sixteen years after he graduated from Brandeis.

A chance viewing of a television interview with Morrie on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" where he learns of Morrie's disease, Mitch decides to visit his aging mentor, in part out of guilt for not having kept a promise to keep in touch after he took his degree. -- A successful career has not brought him happiness,  so Mitch sets off from Detroit to Boston for a one-time meeting, and winds up visiting for fourteen weekends.

As directed by Kristy Meanor on an open stage that uses minimalist set pieces to depict its scenic locations, these two veteran actors create credibly distinct characters in telling Albom's story. -- Morrie's thick Jewish accent and directness in speaking his mind [often in quotable aphorisms that are the gentle teaching moments of the play], and his up-beat demeanor despite the swift progress of ALS, bespeak his compassion for others above his own concerns, and become, in Mr. Nowell's capable portrayal, the triggers for Mitch's reclamation. -- Mr. Bridges shows a range of conflicted attitudes [guilt, angst, indecision] that are influenced and corrected by Morrie's therapeutic advice. The fact that he avoids touchy-feely moments is all the more poignant when he succumbs to tears and an embrace of the old man who is his surrogate father.

In the course of an hour and a half, audiences learn from these two men the value of acceptance, compassion, openness, communication, and love that can bring the happiness we all seek. It might just be "the meaning of life" that Mitch seeks and that Morrie dispenses.

Friday, October 16, 2015

ASF: "Driving Miss Daisy"

It can't get much better than this at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival: a time tested script by Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry, sensitive direction by John Manfredi without a hint of patronizing sentimentality, a design team at their best, and a stellar ensemble of actors, resulting in a provocative and emotionally wrenching iteration of the Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy. -- The standard has been set high as ASF begins its 30th Anniversary Season in Montgomery.

Staged in the Octagon Theatre to capitalize on its intimacy, Driving Miss Daisy succeeds in engaging its audiences from the start and never loosens its gently insistent grip for the 90-minute playing time covering twenty-five years that start during Truman's presidency and end sometime after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The plot is so well known that there are no surprises in store, though Uhry's deceptively simple script does provide any number of insightful revelations about race relations in a reluctantly changing South, and resonate in 2015 as much as they did at its 1987 debut.

When a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish widow Daisy Wertham [Greta Lambert] wrecks yet another car in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood, her son Boolie [Brik Berkes] hires Hoke Colburn [James Bowen] a 60-year-old "colored man" as her chauffeur. Used to her independence, Daisy resents her son's intrusion in bringing a "stranger" into her household, and refuses to engage with Hoke whom she "mistrusts"; and while she claims to not be prejudiced, she still refers to Hoke as one of "them". -- But the cards are stacked against Daisy as Boolie tells Hoke that Daisy can't fire him because "you'll be working for me."

This unlikely relationship is tracked over the next couple of decades via episodes that demonstrate a gradual mutual respect so that in her old age, Daisy claims "You are my best friend."

The performances in Driving Miss Daisy are completely credible as the characters age twenty-five years, thereby enabling us to invest in their lives and both laugh and cry as they reveal themselves to us in everyday as well as extraordinary situations.

In Mr.Berkes' capable portrayal, Boolie is a caring son who knows well his mother's foibles and how to placate her more modest requests with an off-handed "You're a doodle, Mama", but can be firm in making her journey into old age as comfortable as possible, correcting her when appropriate. And his reticence in attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. event for fear of losing business and being socially ostracized is a difficult decision. -- He learns to trust Hoke sooner than his mother, and their negotiating Hoke's contract is a lesson in understanding.

Mr. Bowen's Hoke [arguably his best performance at ASF] is an instantly likable person who is practiced in negotiating a job, a raise in pay, and relationships with white people by maintaining a pleasant demeanor regardless of the years of inherited prejudice levied against him. Sly as a fox, Mr.Bowen exhibits Hoke's inherent kindness in being ever patient with Daisy's demands and biases while keeping his integrity intact when he refuses her last minute invitation to the MLK event. -- Theirs is a friendship that is powerful in its honesty.

In her thirty years gracing the ASF stage in Montgomery, Greta Lambert has rarely been as luminous as in her depiction of Daisy Wertham. Her exquisitely nuanced performance that shows Daisy's pride and steadfastness, her sense of humor and puzzlement at world affairs, her motherly instincts and her teacher's practicality, and her ability to remain hopeful as she expertly transitions into old age [without make-up enhancements, relying instead on her subtle vocal and physical adjustments], makes her Daisy a master class in acting. -- The relationships with her on-stage counterparts are crafted with such detail that she seems to effortlessly inhabit the role. -- She is able to carry audiences along her journey that enables them to identify with her as she experiences the power of friendship that transforms her.

The final scenes showing the impact of her dementia are handled gracefully; as Hoke patiently and with the utmost concern for his friend feeds her a piece of pie, there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Faulkner: "The Other Side of the Bridge"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre is hosting the premiere of an original play entitled The Other Side of the Bridge by director and Faculty member Angela Dickson -- the bridge being the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the events taking place in 1965, and the "other side" being both literal as well as a story that is not part of the common history of the Civil Rights Era.

As a tribute to her father who served as a National Guardsman whose job was to protect the marchers after they had crossed the bridge on their way to Montgomery, Ms. Dickson envisions a Christian white family who, like many others at that time, tried to keep their lives as normal as possible during a turbulent time. From the perspective of the play's narrator [Brittney Johnston] who is the grown up version of one of the children, most of the adults in her play, for better or for worse, "loved us enough to lie to us, or not tell us the whole truth". -- Some subjects were for adults only, and Ms. Dickson's characters -- the father John [Matt Dickson], the mother Millie [Jesse Alston], Trip [George Scrushy and Andi [Mattie Earls] -- debate their allegiances to family and country, and are concerned with the safety of their families; but they do not talk with their children about the racial issues virtually on their doorstep.

On a stormy day, while celebrating their son Dusty's [Kieran Cross] birthday with cake and gifts, John invites a stranded African American threesome to both shelter in their home and join the simple festivities. While Michael [Colby Smith], Jennie [Jocelyn Jointer] and Sarah [Theresa Jett] humbly accept John's hospitality, Uncle Ned [Hunter Lee Smith] objects, saying that his brother is ignoring family in favor of strangers who he despises for the color of their skin.

But John sticks to his principles against Ned's prejudice and emerges heroic in the view of his grown up daughter, the Narrator, who only in retrospect can deal with the public and private events of 1965, since the family had never talked about them,

To add a further moral emphasis to her play, Ms. Dickson has two preachers -- one white [Chris Kelly], one black [Tony Davidson], who serve in neighboring churches and are good friends -- serve as a kind of Chorus, who profess the need for love and compassion in all our lives and at all times in our lives, to give them a solid foundation.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, ones that resonate over time and continue to impact our lives. lessons about loyalty and duty to family and country, lessons about equality and diversity, lessons about love.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

AUM: "Celebrating 40 Years -- Gala"

For the past 40 years, Theatre AUM has been a model for educational theatre, balancing its academic programs with a commitment to producing plays from the breadth of world drama -- classical and modern, tragedies and comedies, straight plays and musicals, old standards and new scripts -- challenging its students and local audiences with its sometimes risky choices and a variety of theatrical styles.

So, its Gala celebration on Saturday night -- Celebrating 40 Years, co-directed by Neil David Seibel, LaBrandon Tyre, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman -- was unsurprising in showcasing its educational theatre mission, while affording the audience a capsule of scenes, monologues, and songs from its 40-year repertoire, and featuring an ensemble of 20+ current students, alumni, faculty, and guest artists, some of whom reprised roles they had appeared in decades earlier.

Celebrating with them in the audience were Guin Nance, former AUM Chancellor who started the theatre program, Bob Gaines, who was Department Chair from 1977-2007, Mary-Lynn Izzo, a former AUM costume designer, Randy Foster, who directed several productions, and Mike Cunliffe, an alumnus whose play Movie Night was excerpted in one of the evening's most memorable performances by Sophomore Kodi Robertson.

In a kind of love-fest between actors and audience, all some of these veterans had to do was take the stage for the audience to enthusiastically welcome them home; and Eleanor Davis [triumphant in a rendering of "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch" from Company], Layne Holley [powerhouse samplings from Godspell and Noises Off], Scott Page [passionate in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat], and Sam Wallace [restrained in singing "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks], did not disappoint.

Each of the selections was done as an "audition piece", with actors introducing themselves and the titles to be performed. And while it is hard to pin down the best of the best, the talents showed a wide variety of offerings. -- It was a treat to see AUM's managing director Katie Pearson share the stage with her daughter Rita Pearson-Daley (a last-minute replacement) as mother and daughter in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. And selections from All in the Timing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brigadoon, and Coastal Disturbances demonstrated the range that AUM is noted for.

Even a few theatrical in-jokes punctuated the evening's two acts. Waiting for Godot, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and yelling a single word -- "S-T-E-L-L-A" -- from A Streetcar Named Desire, among them, received appreciative laughs and applause.

It was truly an upbeat celebration, with Theatre AUM proclaiming "this is who we are...this is what we do", with the promise of continuing their traditions. Congratulations.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Millbrook: "Route 66"

It's time to "get your kicks" on Route 66, the Roger Bean musical revue now showing in Millbrook under A. John Collier's direction and finely rendered scenic design. -- Little more than a compilation of 30+ songs from the 1950s and 1960s, its premise is a cross-country road trip along the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.

With a talented cast of four -- Jody Dow, Tina Hosey, Michael Snead, Pat VanCor -- who perform in solos and in various combinations, the trip and their songs are connected by an assortment of period radio advertisements for Chevrolets, "a little dab 'l do ya" Brylcreem hair-gel for men, "let Hertz put you in the driver's seat", Firestone tires "where the rubber hits the road", Delco batteries, and Uniflo motor oil among them: a nostalgic treat for audience members of a certain age.

Some of the better moments in this pleasant two act show are: a sensitive version of "Mother Road", clever novelty numbers "Beep-Beep" and "Long Tall Texan", a hilarious "Rolaids, Doan's Pills, and Preparation-H", the touching "Oklahoma Hills", and popular foot-stompin' renditions of "Fun-Fun-Fun" and "I Get Around".

While a few of the pieces are performed with solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, the ensemble sings mainly to an over-amplified pre-recorded soundtrack that unfortunately distorts much of their sound. And the static-filled radio advertisements are also disarmingly loud, making the words almost unintelligible.

All in all, though, Route 66 is a diverting entertainment. Thrown in with the ticket price is a Southern style dinner catered by Felicia Swanner of Swanner's Catering, making an evening out complete.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Love. Loss, and What I Wore"

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the Nora and Delia Ephron stage adaptation of Ilene Beckerman's best selling book, is playing at the Wetumpka Depot with a different all-women's cast on each of its three weekend run. So, though Cast #1's turn has ended, there's still time to see other groups of River Region and beyond actresses take to the boards in this charming, funny, poignant, and occasionally irreverent take on women's obsession with clothes and the memories they associate about life and death, and relationships of all sorts.

Staged as readings [the six member cast are lined up on high stools with scripts on lecterns in front of them, and with several dresses displayed behind them], director Kim Mason takes audiences on an uninterrupted 90-minute ride into the hearts and minds of an eclectic ensemble as they dissect siblings, mothers, and grandmothers, current and ex-husbands, changes of fashion, and signal moments of growing up and getting older -- all through the lens of their collective association with clothes.

Each of the women here -- Elizabeth Bowles, Sharon DeMuth, Kristy Meanor, Katie Svela-Crews, Lizzy Woodall, Susan Woody -- has moments that bring her individual personality to the fore, but it is their combined sense of comradeship in shared experiences that provides a comfort level that connects actor and audience. -- And, they are all good storytellers.

Whether the subject is prom dresses or wedding gowns or bras, boots or shoes or bathrobes, sibling rivalries or motherly advice, philandering husbands or their own sexual dalliances, breast cancer or rape or the untimely death of a family member, these women and their stories effortlessly keep our attention.

And oh, by the way, this isn't merely a play for women; the men in the house on Saturday night "got it": the serious and lighthearted moments alike; "I have nothing to wear" from a closet full of clothes, the "Does this make me look fat?" refrain, and the never-ending battle of finding anything in a cluttered purse, resonate with men and woman alike.

Lots of laughs, a few tears, and an overall confident cast make Love, Loss, and What I Wore a delight.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

WOBT: "Godspell"

Rarely off the boards at schools and community theatres since its 1971 Off-Broadway premiere, the John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell is being given a three-weekend run at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Directed by Jason Morgan, with an eleven-member cast of veterans and newcomers, the revised in 2012 version's earnestness in its many teaching moments drawn mostly from St. Matthew's Gospel give audiences ample opportunities to reflect on personal beliefs and behaviors as well as to study the avowed Christian stances taken by many of 2015's public officials.

The litany of over a dozen parable messages -- "those who are humbled shall be exalted", "turn the other cheek", "walk in someone else's shoes", "one can't be a servant to two masters", "let him who is without sin cast the first stone", et al. -- are told in a variety of musical styles as Jesus [Hunter Lee Smith] conscripts his Apostles, a rag-tag bunch who, on opening night, exhibited some individual strengths in characterization [Paul Neace in the double role of John the Baptist and Judas], singing [Jailyn Ausborn and Alicia Ruth Jackson], tap dance [Daniel Harms], mime [Merelee Robinson], and stage presence [D'Andre Massey], but who [with Lucie Chesser, Olivia Johnston, Danielle Phillips, and Jillian Rabb] never quite congeal into a unified ensemble.

Perhaps because much of the movement was so very casual, and a lot of the dialogue spoken so softly as to throw away important contemporary popular culture references and ideas, the sporadic energetic moments better demonstrated a discipline that made them memorable. -- In addition, several scenes were staged in dark areas of the theatre, so the actors could not be seen clearly.

Godspell has survived for over forty years in great part due to its timeless themes and messages that bear repeating today. Songs like "Prepare Ye" and "Day by Day" have a permanent place in the canon of musical theatre. Hopefully, the next two weekends' performances will achieve the solidity the play deserves.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Smoke on the Mountain"

Smoke on the Mountain, the popular and often produced 1988 Gospel-bluegrass musical, is playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot. -- Director Hazel Jones' talented ensemble turns in broadly stereotypical characterizations; but they impress us with their versatility in both singing and playing an assortment of musical instruments, often switching from piano to upright bass to guitar, washboard, spoons, and so on. -- The actors are complemented on stage by Elizabeth Bowles and Donny Tomlin who deftly accompany them on mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dulcimer among others -- a truly "joyful noise".

The Connie Ray and Alan Bailey story of The Sanders Family's appearance in 1938 at the fictional rural North Carolina Mount Pleasant Baptist Church's "first ever Saturday night singing", mixes familiar songs from The Hymnal with original tunes so like them it is hard to tell the difference.

Pastor Oglethorpe [Jeff Langham] attempts to maintain the traditional purity of his congregation's mission while simultaneously bringing them "into the modern world". -- He invited The Sanders Family who say that "witnessing is the most important part of our mission...and the songs"; but the Pastor isn't prepared for their unabashedly honest and often shocking behavior, and must placate the three ladies sitting judgmentally in The Amen Corner of the church.

And what a group this family is: first on the scene is the bright-eyed and pig-tailed June [Faith Bruner], who doesn't sing, but rather "signs" the lyrics as her testimony -- not the standard ASL by any means, but some outrageous interpretive gestures that Ms. Bruner produces with hilarious dead-pan simplicity.

The other children are twins: petite curly-haired blonde Denise [an effervescent Leanna Wallace] -- "the girl" as she is quick to differentiate from Dennis, "the boy" [Joseph Collins], a mentally challenged [PC] towering figure whose innocence and sincerity are always on display. -- Their rendition of "Christian Cowboy" scandalizes the Pastor when they dance enthusiastically; Ms. Wallace's admitted "lapse of faith" when she ran away to audition for Gone With the Wind is sweetly rendered; and Mr. Collins' "sermonette" when he goes off-script from what his mother penned for him, shows Dennis' natural ability as a preacher.

Mom Vera [Sally Blackwell] and Dad Burl [Lloyd Strickland] are the bedrock of the family. These actors demonstrate such a natural comfort that we are instantly drawn to them. Each provides ample  lessons in compassion and tolerance -- the virtues so often lacking in many professed Christians in the public eye -- and they are also adept at quoting Chapter and Verse in cleverly orchestrated competitive games of one upmanship with Mr. Langham's Pastor.

Jonathan Yarboro plays Burl's brother Stanley, an ex-con who found his way in prison, and is still struggling with the hypocrisy of others. In a finely nuanced performance, Mr. Yarboro's character is the most tolerant and unassuming man whose testimony of prison experience shows the good in even the most hardened individuals.

Through all the testifying and songs, both Pastor Oglethorpe and we are gradually seduced by the honest homespun faith of The Sanders Family. Audiences are leaving the Depot with smiles on their faces from this engaging production. -- If only their "joyful noise" could have a permanent impact.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ASF: Disney's "The Little Mermaid"

Guest Reviewer Layne Holley is a River Region actor and scenic designer.

Audiences of all ages are delighted with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid". Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the musical tells the story of a little mermaid who...Seriously, you know the story, right?

ASF's technical teams are on their game here. Kudos especially to the scenic design and stage crews; these are true treasures in the house of ASF. The set and lighting designs are versatile, easily establishing the mood and sense of place for each scene. They are deceptively simple, but the artisanal and technical prowess are on full display when, for example, Prince Eric's ship makes it's very imposing entrance.

The production features several flying sequences, a few of them stunning, such as Prince Eric's near drowning and rescue by Ariel. His drift toward the bottom of the sea (performed gracefully by Jeff Sears' flying double) and Ariel's rescue (performed with such physicality by Michelle Pruiett's flying double, enhanced by Brenda Van Der Wiel's costuming, that she actually looks like a darting fish) is entrancing.

This production is clear and solid; however, there are pervasive weaknesses that keep it from attaining the height of "true spectacular". -- Van Der Wiel's costumes are creative and intricate, with a perfect palette; but there is a certain lack of undulation in Triton's kingdom, especially within the realm of the wicked sea witch Ursula (Donna Migliaccio), and particularly on the person of Ursula, from whom we expect a material roiling of conniving and opportunism.

Overall, this production's pacing feels a fraction of a beat slow, and there is very little of the physical tension and excitement in most of the actors' voices and bodies that are required for work to read from the stage and to drive engagement, especially among the more mature audience members. Seasoned theatre goers will likely appreciate the energy and commitment in the second act number "Positoovity", featuring a chorus of tap-dancing gulls led by Scuttle (Billy Sharpe).

Unfortunately, there is not much more of this number's "positivity" throughout the production except in the performances from veteran actors Rodney Clark (Grimsby) and Kevin Morrow (King Triton). -- Clark and King are committed and active both vocally and physically in every moment they spend on stage, but it accentuates the slow pace and lack of sizzle in other areas.

Personal mic scan only amplify the stage voice; they cannot create the vibrancy and variety that come from actors who push and project their characters into life and up to the balcony. Sharpe, Clark, and Morrow -- who do not back off just because they are miked -- threaten unintentionally to steal the show.

These criticisms aside, there are several moments in the production that are captivating: the aforementioned rescue sequence and "Positoovity", of course, and also the lovely quartet "If Only" that is perfectly staged and beautifully rendered. It is moments such as these, sprinkled throughout, that will have audiences young an old, with all levels of appreciation, enraptured.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

WOBT: "100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy"

Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears have penned a witty comedy now playing under Sam Wallace's steady direction at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville. 100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy has three acts with two intermissions, a few dated 1980s references, and a fairly predictable plot, but Mr. Wallace's solid ensemble cast take the stage with confidence, and deliver an entertaining evening with plenty of laughs.

Mr. Wallace's set design -- the living room of popular and prolific playwright Charleton "Chuck" Reynolds [Matthew Givens], and in Act II, several restaurants -- affords plenty of room and flexibility, and is furnished with an abundance of set-dressings and props made especially for this production (give them a close look during intermission).

At the start, Charleton's latest play has just opened in New York, but its single scathing review from critic Charity Starr [Michon R. Givens] is so upsetting that he vows revenge in front of his teenage son Terry [newcomer Timothy Rotkiewicz] and their housekeeper Mrs. Glinda Bellows [Janie Allred], who delight in inventing scenarios for him to get even. Yolanda Weintraub [AUM theatre major Cathy Ranieri] insinuates herself into Charleton's life in numerous attempts to spark his love interest, and when the critic shows up she perceives an instant rivalry.

But Charity has come to "clear the air" and "ask a favor" -- it seems she has written a play herself and "needs his help with it", claiming that though his characters are "wooden", he writes good plots. -- Sensing an opening for the revenge he seeks, he agrees to tutor her over a series of lunches that she will pay for, and so the scene is set.

Act II takes them to an eclectic assortment of restaurants where they are served by a Waiter [T. J. Maddox who assumes various ethnicities and personalities in a tour de force performance that has audiences anticipating each successive and distinct embodiment]. -- It comes as no surprise to us that Charleton and Charity develop an affection for each other that neither expected at the start; opposites do attract at times.

The tables are turned in the final act when Charity's first play opens in New York, and the critical response is the opposite of what she expected. -- And, as a comedy, there must be a happy ending, no matter how contrived.

As an ensemble company, these actors turn in creditable and credible performances, enhancing naturalistic speech with over-the-top emotional tirades, and delivering the playwrights' witty dialogue confidently. Mr. Rotkiewicz is especially adept at his character's sophisticated-beyond-his-youth dialogue that shows a lot of promise for future productions; and Ms. Allred is commanding in her no nonsense approach. Together, they serve as a kind of Greek Chorus that supplies wit and understanding that the other characters take more time to comprehend.

Ms. Ranieri's characterization of the ever-annoying Yolanda is done with vacuous simplicity that garners plenty of laughs. -- And Mr. Maddox almost steals the show with his depictions of the eclectic Waiters, each of which has instantly recognizable traits that he gives a human touch.

But Mr. and Mrs./Ms. Givens [they are actually husband and wife, appearing on-stage together for the first time] are excellent sparring partners. When sparks fly as they often do, and when smoldering love bursts into flame, they are always believable and funny. Good work here.

Mr. Wallace directs with a confident hand. 100 Lunches moves at a steady pace, allows time for humorous dialogue to be digested, and delivers a satisfying repast for a Summer's evening at the theatre.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Millbrook" "The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns"

With a couple of dozen popular songs from the 1950s and 1960s arranged by Michael Borth linking its meager script together, Roger Bean's The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns is a diverting nostalgic pastiche now playing in Millbrook.

Its compliment of four of Millbrook's experienced actors -- Kaitlin LeMaster, Grace Moore, Lauren Norris, Taylor Trucks -- directed by A. John Collier, test their strong singing voices for close to two hours of almost non-stop vocals, a challenge to even the most experienced of singers, that this ensemble does with credit as they portray the quartet of "song-leaders" from fictitious Springfield High School as they prepare for graduation day.

Mr. Bean has created a small cottage industry out of the "Wonderettes", this being one of two sequels to the original, relying on the "more-is-better" philosophy, but struggles to make the magic happen beyond the first act. -- The title ...Caps and Gowns is misleading, since only Act I has to do with the standard end of high school rituals, and Act II is set some years later at the wedding of one of them to a former teacher -- a preposterous scenario that shows the foursome stuck in the same stereotypical adolescent behavior exhibited in Act I.

Sad, really, since the ensemble shows a lot of talent that has no where to go in the second act. This is demonstrated in unfortunately undisciplined behavior and dropped energy that are needed to sustain them beyond the first act.

They are at their collective best when singing [which fortunately is most of the stage time], complemented by color-coordinated costumes and Daniel Harms' period-style choreography, and with only an occasional hint of irony in sending up the 1950s and 1960s attitudes expressed in the lyrics.

The 50s naivete comes across in "At the Hop", "Rock Around the Clock", "Dedicated to the One I Love", and "Graduation Day", and the more liberal attitudes of the 60s are apparent in "Don't Mess With Bill", "Good Lovin'". and "The Look of Love" -- and each member of the quarter has moments to showcase her individual talent.

For additional nostalgia , get to the theatre early for an ice cream social; it should get audiences in the mood for this gentle trip to simpler times.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Red Door: "Conecuh People"

After several years' hiatus, Conecuh People, Ty Adams' stage version of Wade Hall's autobiographical book of the same name, is once again on stage at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- Directed this time by Kathryn Adams Wood, and with a complement of some 25 local actors, it is a nostalgic reminiscence of hard working salt of the earth rural Alabamians through the eyes of the character of Mr. Hall, played here by a trio of actors -- "today's" older narrator [Craig Stricklin], the boy [Sam Miller], and the young man [[Tyson Hall, who is actually the great nephew of the author he portrays].

Played in front of a tin roofed country house porch, and with a number of moveable set pieces, the action unfolds by shifting time periods between the 1940s and 1950s with commentary from the present day, recounting two events that shaped Wade Hall's life -- one good and one bad -- and we are introduced to a myriad of relatives and local characters who impacted the boy and the young man. -- Their homespun advice that urges him on to college, the army, and a teaching career comes at a cost as he is wrenched from the care of his grandmother as a young boy. But he learns valuable lessons along the way.

Interspersed with songs that often support the action, though occasionally seem out of place, and accompanied by Jane Padgett's solo keyboard, there are a number of excellent vocalists in the cast.

The play's episodic structure calls out for greater variety of pace and energy expressed in this current production to make up for the non-dramatic narrative sections, but the ensemble of actors put on a pretty good show.

The women in Mr. Hall's life have the greatest impact, with individual actors of note: Juanita Smith as his African American surrogate mother whose strong singing voice and sincere request for Wade to find out her birthday so that on her death she can accurately be remembered are rendered in one of the play's most sensitive and credible scenes.; Janet Wilkerson as the snuff dipping Elma Lee Hall is confident and funny; Belinda Barto plays Velma Rotten Driggers, a well-intentioned sort whose energy gives a spark to a scene where she makes him late for class.

But the focus is mostly on Wade himself, and each of the aforementioned actors compliments the others in developing the one central character we come to care about.

Above all, the lessons we and Wade learn from ordinary people very much like ourselves -- the bonds of family, a regard for one's fellow man, the value of hard work, respect for the past, and a recognition that no matter how far we remove ourselves from where we were raised, home will always be a place of solace -- all these are what leaves the larger impact.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

ASF Interns: "As You Like It"

One of the most anticipated productions of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's season is the Intern Company's annual abbreviated Shakespeare that tours to schools throughout the Southeast before an all-too-short run in the Octagon Theatre. -- Under Greta Lambert's expert editing [indeed, entire scenes and several characters are expunged], the texts retain the essentials of plot, character, and theme, and as their director she capitalizes on her eight member ensemble's talents and enthusiasm to demonstrate Shakespeare's relevance to contemporary life.

This year's exciting journey is As You Like It, one of the Bard's most consistently popular comedies. In a mere hour and a half, we have two sets of feuding brothers, a masterfully choreographed wrestling match [the fight consultant is Cory Lawson, one of the Intern actors], delightfully romantic adolescent lovers, a witty fool, gender switching disguises, a melancholy philosopher, and silly rustics brought to life by a group of actors who play multiple roles with the mere change of a hat or a coat -- and since much of this comedy relies on characters in disguise, this company's adroitness in switching roles is so fluid that you'd swear there were more than eight of them.

Two pair of feuding brothers set the action in motion. Duke Frederick has banished his elder brother Duke Senior [both are played convincingly by Jonathan Weber], but has allowed his niece Rosalind [Betsy Helmer] to remain at court as a companion to his own daughter Celia [Jessica G. Smith]. At a David and Goliath wrestling match between Charles the Wrestler [Cory Lawson] and the underdog Orlando [Patrick Burr], Rosalind and Orlando fall in love-at-first-sight without expressing their mutual fervor. A fine chemistry here. -- When both Rosalind and Orlando are banished [he by his brother Oliver [Mike Petrie, Jr.] and she by her uncle], they each flee to the Forest of Arden.

Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede, and Celia accompanies her in the guise of Aliena, Ganymede's poor sister; they are accompanied by the Fool Touchstone [S. Lewis Feemster], and Orlando takes with him the aged Adam [also Mr. Feemster], and spends his time composing amateurish poems praising Rosalind which he hangs on every available tree in the forest.. -- Inevitably, they meet up in the pastoral setting of the Forest where Duke Senior has established himself along with several Foresters and the melancholy Jaques [Cory Lawson in a merrier than anticipated role, but whose "All the world's a stage" speech still hits home].

The element of disguise garners much of the laughter of this production. Having found Orlando's poems, Rosalind as "Ganymede" helps the awkward and unsuspecting Orlando woo "Rosalind" by having him practice on "Ganymede", but to further complicate matters, a local swain named Silvius [Jonathan Weber again gets our sympathy] is helplessly in love with shepherdess Phebe who rejects his attempts to win her; Phebe [a feisty Metushaleme Dary] falls in love with "Ganymede" when "he" castigates her for her abusive treatment of poor Silvius. -- And Touchstone falls for the goatherd Audrey [Mr. Petrie in an outrageous impersonation  complete with a beard that belies "her" sex].

So there is a lot to resolve by the end, and as this is a comedy, all will be settled with weddings and celebratory dancing.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Member of the Wedding"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse continues its 2015 season with director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Georgia novelist and playwright Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. More than the simple coming-of-age story of 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams [Rita Pearson-Daley], McCullers investigates race relations, the impact of war on everyday people, and the need for love and belonging in a bewildering society.

Set in the Summer in the mid-1940s [the kitchen and backyard of Frankie's house is given an authentic if Spartan look by Layne Holley and Joe Collins] and populated chiefly by Frankie, her family's "colored" maid Berenice Sadie Brown [Yvette Jones-Smedley], and her younger cousin John Henry West [Charlie Hill], the action takes place in just a few days as preparations are being made for the wedding of Frankie's brother Jarvis [Kodi Robertson] to Janice [Bailey Johnson].

Very much an outsider who senses the lack of warmth of her widowed father Mr. Addams [Buddy Rousso] and resents the exclusion of the neighborhood children, Frankie wants adventure in her life and determines to escape the boredom at home by accompanying Jarvis and Janice on their honeymoon.

Mr. Thornton has cast veteran and neophyte actors from around the Montgomery community, including several school and university students, to create an ensemble to bring to life these complex characters. And while the supporting roles including John Henry's mother Mrs. West [Sarah Worley], Berenice's current boyfriend T. T. Williams [Greg Faulkner] and his "no-account" friend and Berenice's relative Honey Camden Brown [Jeffrey Sean Lewis] provide some insights into social and political issues of the day, the focus is largely on the threesome -- Frankie, Berenice, John Henry -- and the production is at its best when they talk, argue, play cards, and share meals in the kitchen.

Indeed, the comfort with each other that these three exhibit gives remarkable credibility to their very ordinary conversations. -- The often married Berenice becomes Frankie's sounding-board and surrogate mother; Ms. Jones-Smedley gives a frank and honest interpretation to the dialogue that makes us feel as Frankie does that she is the most trusted member of the "family" they have created. Young Mr. Hill inhabits John Henry's naively perceptive and uninhibited nature to the fullest. And Ms. Pearson-Daley's Frankie is a constant bundle of contradictions that are completely recognizable adolescent traits. And each of them is somehow yearning for love and acceptance, though they have difficulty in expressing these needs.

As Frankie matures throughout the play's two-and-a-half hours [she doesn't get to go on her brother's honeymoon despite her belief that she would be welcome], she questions Berenice, John Henry, and herself about love and relationships, the racial divide, and the consequences of war, and with Berenice's sage advice begins to move on.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Millbrook: "Ghost of a Chance"

Billed as "a deadly romantic comedy", Ghost of a Chance by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus appears at first to have a lot going for it; but the authors can't seem to settle on what their play is going to be, and switch gears in Act II, much to the detriment of the comedy.

Directed by Susan Chain and staged on John Chain's finely detailed set, it begins as a witty story about Bethany [Heather Allen], a young widow, with fiance Floyd [Miles Joye] in tow, who arrives to sell her deceased husband's hunting lodge before embarking on a second marriage. Accompanied  by her busybody soon-to-be mother-in-law Verna [Pat McClelland], Bethany is shocked when the ghost of her dead husband Chance [Brandon Gonzalez] shows up. -- Get it? Ghost of a Chance!!!

Bethany hires a "medium" named Crystal [Karla McGhee] to exorcise the ghost before Adam [Michael Snead] arrives to purchase the cabin. -- Of course, Chance is visible and audible only to Bethany, setting up a series of clever scenes where dialogue addressed to the unseen Chance is misinterpreted by the other characters.

Though clearly derivative of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, and with references to the delightful film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Act I is full of comic possibilities; but slow pacing and tentative movement make much of it fall flat.

And then, the play changes gears at the end of the first act, with revelations of attempted suicide and terminal diseases. -- Act II then becomes more serious and didactic about love and relationships, making the most of life and the cards we're dealt, business ethics, greed, and the afterlife, driving points home with a preachy quality, and leaving the actors struggling to maintain the play's initial comic impulses.

Energy lapses all too frequently, and in an over two hour playing time, many of the clever lines are hardly audible. -- Too bad, really, since the first act and the combined efforts of the cast make one want to enjoy it more.

AUM: "The Lesson"

In a mere 45-minutes' playing time, Theatre AUM's version of absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson (1950) manages to both entertain and infuriate. Ever cognizant of its educational theatre mission, AUM's Theatre Department regularly offers a wide variety of dramatic styles for local audiences to experience, and for their students to explore beyond the classroom, essentials for a well-rounded education.

Theatre of the Absurd plays are not always easily digestible, as they show a world that defies logic, one which can not be comprehended, leaving mankind to maneuver a world vacant of meaning in seemingly foolish ways. -- So, here is The Lesson, a "comic drama" in which a Pupil [Haeley DePace] comes to the Professor [Allyson Lee] to prepare to take the "complete doctorate" exams. Add in a Maid [Blaire Casey] who serves as a kind of gatekeeper into this hell as well as a conscience for the Professor, and the stage is set.

Simple arithmetic and basic language lessons deteriorate into confrontations on "literal" vs. "theoretical" approaches with their concurrent frustrations that result in deadly violence and the knowledge that this is but one in a long series of similar lessons that will be repeated ad infinitum and with the same results. Reminiscences of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are hard to miss.

Played on Frank Thomas' dark Spartan set [a raked rectangle with walls, doors, and a few sticks of furniture], director Val Winkelman has chosen to emphasize the comic side of Ionesco's "comic drama", and abetted by La'Brandon Tyre's garishly toned clown costumes, guides her all-female cast of three through their paces. -- Curiously and confusingly, some gender-specific references to the professor as "him" or "sir" have been retained, leaving one to wonder how the dynamic between the Professor and the Pupil might have been in Ionesco's original, since virtually no sexual tension between them is evident in this production.

With exaggerated movement and physical reactions, voices that range from naturalistic tones to heightened screeching, and adding contemporary popular culture references to such films as The Princess Bride and Chicago, Ms. Winkelman's ensemble are fully committed to their roles, and clown around with gusto.

But underneath the buffoonery there are serious layers. Especially topical is the commentary on the state of an educational system that gets so bogged down in theory and the need to understand mathematical processes and linguistic subtleties above and beyond rote memory with its simple answers, points out some of the confusion and arguments facing public education today. -- While this almost gets lost amidst the frenetic antics, it is ample reason for Theatre AUM's educational theatre mission to produce a play that still resonates some 65 years after its debut.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Picnic"

In the 1950s, William Inge was one of the most highly regarded American playwrights with a string of Broadway hits (Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs) which not only garnered Oscars and a Pulitzer, but were also made into popular award-winning films.

These well-written plays evoked a middle-America with quintessentially conservative values that had certain rules of behavior that were largely unquestioned, but were soon thereafter seen as outdated. Inge's popularity faded, and he was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. -- Today, however, his hometown of Independence, Kansas hosts its annual "William Inge Theatre Festival", helping to secure his stature in American theatre.

The Wetumpka Depot Players are currently reviving a production of Picnic (first performed at the Depot in 1992, after having achieved immense popularity from the film version starring Kim Novak, William Holden, and Rosalind Russell). Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, River Region theatregoers are transported to a 1953 late Summer in a small Kansas town whose Labor Day picnic is the most anticipated event of the year, and whose ordinary citizens are easily recognizable.

The action takes place in the adjoining back yards of Mrs. Owens [Kim Mason] and Mrs. Potts [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as preparations are underway for the picnic, and where pretty much everyone has a dream to fulfill.

Mrs. Owens lives vicariously through her two daughters -- Millie [Ashlee Lassiter], an awkward tomboy eager to learn as much as she can, and Madge [Jennifer L. Haberkorn], the pretty one who is tired of the burden of beauty. Each one want to break out of their stereotypical roles, and Madge's wealthy boyfriend Alan [Jay Russell] seems to be an ideal match for her.

Rosemary Sydney [Kristy Meanor] is a spinster schoolteacher who boards with Mrs. Owens and wants desperately to marry her long-time boyfriend Howard Bevans [Lee Bridges], a set-in-his-ways businessman who seems to be afraid of commitment.

When, at the beginning of the play, Mrs. Potts hires handsome stranger Hal [Jerry S. Cappadona] to do some odd jobs at her house, all the women's eyes turn to him with varying degrees of admiration: the mysterious good-looking outsider with a ready smile and disarming demeanor. -- While Mrs. Owens views Hal with suspicion and mistrust, the others (especially Madge) are captivated; when it is disclosed that Alan and Hal were fraternity brothers, and Alan vouches for him, Mrs.Owens' misgivings are eased a little.

Mr. Cappadona's presence is felt even when he is offstage. We wonder if his bragging is truthful or a mere deception. But there is little doubt that Hal's presence has made a difference in everyone's life. His date for the picnic with Millie is doomed when drinking makes people tipsy or sick or uninhibited; and it becomes clearer by the  minute that Madge falls for him.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Bridges give two remarkable performances as Rosemary and Howard; their true to life confrontation that eventually results in a marriage proposal is both touching and passionate. -- Ms. Mason's depiction of a caring mother who suffocates her children is credible throughout. And the magical chemistry that grows between Ms. Haberkorn and Mr. Cappadona grows from denial to trepidation to complete commitment.

All this allows Inge to explore various themes that resonate today, outside the 1950s setting: unrealistic dreams don't always get resolved the way we want -- in fact, we often have to "make the best out of the hand we're dealt"; social rules may provide a sense of security, but breaking them is often necessary for personal growth and understanding; appearances don't always provide accurate assessments; being pretty can be a curse. -- And the Depot's production of Picnic delivers on all accounts.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Faulkner: "Into the Woods"

Ever since its 1987 debut, the multi-award winning musical Into the Woods has proved to be among Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's most popular and enduring plays. -- No stranger to the Faulkner University stage and to other Montgomery theatres, and given more notoriety from the recent film version, Faulkner is once again mounting a production under Angela Dickson's direction, with musical direction by Randy Foster.

Placed on Matt Dickson's darkly romantic set [lots of gnarled trees evoking a deep perspective], Ms. Dickson has brought together a solid ensemble of students, alumni, and guest actors to bring the play to life. -- She capitalizes on the strong singing voices of her actors, always a quality of Faulkner productions. And they interpret the challenging score with confidence.

The play introduces several well-known fairy tale characters -- Jack [and the beanstalk] (Matthew Klinger's naivete is endearing), Cinderella (Valla Brooke Johnston in fine soprano voice), Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Wilson turns in one of the most delightful performances), and Rapunzel (a captivating Emily Woodring), and creates a story of the childless Baker and his Wife (Brandtley McDonald and Kari Kelly dominate the proceedings with their excellent performances) -- having them all attempting to fulfill their individual wishes, and cleverly intertwining them by adding several twists to their stories as they travel "into the woods" to secure their desires. Throw in a couple of narcissistic Princes (Colby Smith and Blake Williams strut their stuff with assurance). -- Complicating matters is a curse brought on by a Witch (Jesse Alston creates a complex character; a force to reckon with), and the threat of Giants in the neighborhood.

The Witch it seems has placed a curse on the Baker's family but says it can be reversed and they can have children if they will get for her "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold"; so, off they set on the quest, ultimately securing these items: Jack has a cow called Milky White, Little Red's cape, Rapunzel's hair, and Cinderella's slipper. -- And, oh yes, those magic beans that are bartered and thrown down to cause the beanstalk home of the Giants.

"There is something about the woods" that mystifies and seduces the assorted characters. And in Act I, the quest for the spell's ingredients is uppermost in their minds. Laced with some deftly humorous dialogue, we get involved in their lives, and applaud the seemingly happy ending. But wait; there is Act II. -- Once each character gets what they want -- Jack has money, Cinderella has married her Prince, Little Red thwarted the Wolf, and the Baker and Wife have their promised child -- it seems that in the light of day, these things have not brought them happiness (they are either bored or want more). They each have a lot to learn about real life vs. fairy-tale dreams.

And as the Giants return to seek revenge, the characters we have come to know so well turn on each other in sometimes deadly fashion. There are lessons to be learned as the survivors realize they must work together in harmony in order to be successful.

Monday, April 13, 2015

ASF: "King Lear"

William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies -- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra -- were all written between 1600 and 1607, a transitional period between the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a time of the Bard's exceptional output as governments were shifting and the English Renaissance world continued its obsession with lust for power, shifting allegiances, and individual ambitions.

Fittingly, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has opened director Geoffrey Sherman's provocative production of King Lear amidst our own political in-fighting that too often shows little regard for reasonable discourse or consideration of the consequences of rash and stubborn self-serving actions reminiscent of this bygone era. The next Presidential election is a year and a half away, and already the gloves are off; heads might roll by then. -- Costumed with a lush pallet by Pamela Scofield, and placed on Robert F.Wolin's stone fortress set, welcome to our own version of Game of Thrones.

From the beginning of the play, certain themes and refrains are evident. Shakespeare's contemporaries were concerned with the Natural world and often contrasted "natural" with "unnatural" behavior. Throughout King Lear these contrasts are painted so we see the "natural" [loyal, honest] actions of Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, and the Fool in opposition to the "unnatural" [deceptive, scheming, disloyal] actions of Goneril, Regan, Albany, Cornwall, and Edmund. -- For the Renaissance audience, it was important for conflicts to be resolved and the "natural" order of things to be restored; the wicked are to be suitably punished, and while Lear and Cordelia die tragically, the kingdom is restored by Albany and Edgar. -- While there is argument for change in the play [out with the old feudal ideas, in with a new rational approach], Shakespeare appears to be more of a traditionalist here.

The play opens with the aging Lear [Rodney Clark in one of Shakespeare's most demanding roles] distributing his kingdom among his three daughters before he dies, though he stipulates that he will retain the honors and trappings of kingship and live by monthly turns with each of his daughters, assuming that peace and prosperity will be assured. They are each made to profess the degree of their love for him to deserve their portions. His two elder daughters -- Goneril [a cruel vindictive Jennifer Barnhart] and Regan [Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel at her most seductive] -- proclaim their love in excessive terms and Lear succumbs to their flattery. The youngest and favorite daughter Cordelia [Alice Sherman is understated and sincere in her honesty and love] can not follow suit and can say "nothing" to equal her sisters. When Lear banishes and disowns her ("Nothing will come of nothing..."), the King of France [Jonathan Weber] takes her for his bride, claiming that she herself is dowry enough.

When the loyal Kent [Brik Berkes, a master of disguise and sardonic humor] intervenes by pointing out Lear's foolishness, he too is banished, but returns in disguise in service to his king.

And Gloucester [Paul Hebron balances the Lear story with complete conviction], another loyal subject and himself the father of two sons -- legitimate Edgar [Bjorn Thorstad, meek at first but stalwart in consideration of his father's plight] and the bastard Edmund [Nathan Hosner's virile amoral portrait is a man we admire for his directness but loathe for his deceit] -- tries to keep the peace while the duplicitous Edmund schemes to pit his father and brother against one another, causing Gloucester to disown Edgar, who disguises himself as the mad Tom o' Bedlam. Edmund then aligns himself with each of Lear's favored daughters for his own gain.

While Goneril and Regan and their husbands Albany [Wynn Harmon has a conscience that will not let him continue the fight with Lear] and Cornwall [Jonathan C. Kaplan: low-keyed and brutal] plot to wrest all power from Lear, the king is reduced to scrambling for any sense of royal dignity as both his kingdom and mental faculties crumble around him. -- Accompanied by his Fool [James Bowen whose desperate attempts to get through to Lear are evidence of loyalty that knows no bounds], Lear abandons his daughters and rages against a storm as his inner turmoil reaches a breaking point. -- Soon afterwards, Cornwall and Regan gouge out Gloucester's eyes as punishment for his assumed guilt in aiding Lear and the French army led by Cordelia who are on their borders. The reunion scene between Gloucester and Edgar is one of the most touching in this production, and is balanced by the final scenes that reunite Lear and Cordelia.

Duplicitous and power-hungry siblings, lustful men and women, and greedy outsiders are pitted against honest and loyal retainers; and Shakespeare makes a lot of these contrasts. -- Lear is most certainly guilty of rash and stubborn actions, whether due to naivete or dementia, and could learn from the loyalty of Kent and Gloucester [and even from his scheming daughters who on the surface present reasonable arguments for their father in his old age to be ruled by younger and more vibrant people]. -- But Mr. Clark's Lear does garner sympathy as he justifiably claims "I am more sinned against than sinning" and "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child", and his ineffectual response to his punishments: "I will do...such things."

Lear is at the center of all the action; whether or not Mr. Clark is on stage, his plight and his presence are deeply felt. The consequences of his rashness in Act I become too much for Lear's already compromised mind to bear, and the subtle ways Mr. Clark bridges brief moments of lucidity with confusion and madness are exquisite signals of his acting powers. His is a monumental performance that carries the play to its tragic conclusion.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

ASF: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a leader of the Art Nouveau movement of the late Nineteenth Century, so it is appropriate that James Wolk has incorporated the iconic "Mackintosh Rose" into his steel scenic design framework for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Oscar Wilde's 1895 comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, as flowers feature prominently in dressing the stage throughout the play's three acts.

Wolk's arching architectural outlines create a transparency and lightness that compliment the glorious silliness that Wilde promotes in his "trivial comedy for serious people" as he skewers the English upper classes with some of the wittiest language to grace the modern stage.

Director Geoffrey Sherman's charming production features a nine-member ensemble cast of ASF veterans who delight audiences with their individual character quirks and spot-on delivery of Wilde's epigrammatic bon-mots.

At the center of the plot are two friends -- John Worthing [Nathan Hosner], who is known as Ernest to his city friends, and Algernon Moncrieff [Bjorn Thorstad] -- who each have invented excuses to avoid what they perceive as social burdens; Jack escapes the boredom of the country by inventing a libertine brother Ernest who he must rescue from time to time in London, and Algy creates a sick country friend named Bunbury as an excuse for getting out of family obligations in the city. With evidence contained in "Ernest's" cigarette case, Algy gets him to admit his double-life and learns that Jack has a pretty young "ward" named Cecily Cardew [Jenny Strassburg] who lives at his country estate.

In Act I, Jack comes to town intending to propose to Algy's cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax [Alice Sherman], but is thwarted by her pretentious and formidable mother Lady Bracknell [Diana Van Fossen] when she finds out that "Ernest" is an orphan who was found in a handbag that had been left at Victoria Station.

Act II introduces Cecily and her prim and proper tutor Miss Prism [Greta Lambert] who is taken with Rev. Canon Chasuble [Paul Hebron], both of whom are fastidious and old-fashioned. -- Algy arrives, pretending to be Ernest, and falls instantly in love with Cecily and asks for her hand in marriage. -- Jack arrives home in mourning clothes [having decided to get rid of his "brother" Ernest], and Gwendolyn shows up to secure her engagement to Ernest despite her mother. -- As each of the women has a fascination with marrying a man by the name of Ernest, and each believes she is engaged to Ernest, there's a lot to be resolved.

That resolution concludes Act III with Lady Bracknell's pursuit of her daughter bringing her to Jack's country home, and finding Miss Prism, who had been in her family's employ years ago and who had absentmindedly placed her three-volume novel in the baby's carriage and the baby in a handbag which she left in Victoria Station.

All the actors are top-notch in their roles; even the servants have their moments. Rodney Clark as the aloof manservant Lane, and Brik Berkes as the doddering butler Merriman, provide comic counterpoints to the upper classes. And Ms. Lambert and Mr. Hebron are so sincere in their depictions of simpler times, that they too give a balance to the sophisticated witticisms of their social betters.

The play is about love, after all; as a comedy, all will turn out for the best, and ASF audiences have been charmed by Wilde's oh-so clever study of the ramifications of love.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Millbrook: "Clue, the Musical"

"Mr. Green...with the the kitchen!" is but one of the 216 possible outcomes of the Millbrook Community Players' production of Clue, the Musical.

Based on the Parker Brothers board game that's been around since 1944, this stage version -- book by Peter DePietro; music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci; lyrics by Tom Chiodo -- has already made the rounds of many River Region theatres, and has achieved some degree of popularity nationwide since its 1995 debut.

Sam Wallace directs on a set that replicates the "Clue" game-board and which adds a few unexpected flourishes with nicely disguised entrances. -- The board game's rules are so familiar, but the script adds Mr. Boddy [the host at the mansion who is to be murdered by one of the six characters] and a female detective brought in to solve the murder and disclose whodunit, with what weapon, and in which room of the mansion.

It seems (in an over-long and convoluted first act exposition) that all the guests have some relationship with Mr. Boddy and might just have a motive for murdering him. Mr. Boddy serves as a kind of narrator who provides clues to the audience throughout Acts I and II, and invites them to interact by figuring it out by the play's end. -- And there is an unremarkable musical score that only occasionally puts some life into this diverting but rather ordinary story.

The ensemble cast play their roles with assurance providing some clever details to enhance their cartoonish personae to garner appreciative laughter from the audience, though some of the dialogue is either rushed or covered by audience responses that we often miss some of the script's witty references.

The deliberate pace of many scenes often slows down the madcap energy so necessary here. But the clear good will of the cast helps make a pleasant evening in the theatre.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Theatre AUM: "The Vagina Monologues"

Eve Ensler's award-winning and provocative The Vagina Monologues, continually revised and updated since its 1996 Off-Broadway debut, has spawned an annual global movement to raise awareness and to help organizations to end violence against women. With "V-day" productions around the world from February through April each year, Theatre AUM's current production directed by Neil David Seibel is one such event.

Ms. Ensler performed all the monologues in the original presentation, but theatres are encouraged to add as many actresses as they see fit to present these pieces that unflinchingly showcase voices that demand to be heard some twenty years since they first insisted on getting attention to issues that are, unfortunately, still too much with us.

Mr. Seibel has gathered an ensemble of thirteen veteran and neophyte actors to express through words and movement, a melange of subjects that once were taboo or rarely given public notice: the freedom that the text claims expresses both the darkness of brutal treatment of women [rape, genital mutilation, domestic violence] and the joy of self-discovery and self-worth. [Like in ntozake sange's for colored girls..., women, independent of men, often get the strength from one another that they need to survive.]

On a dark multi-leveled platform set, and with a few screen projections, this production focuses attention on the subject matter and the words. "Words" are important for Ms. Ensler, who conducted countless interviews that became the germs of her play. They liberate the speakers whose voices had been ignored or silenced for too long.

While the directness of the language in this play and subject matter may have shocked audiences almost twenty years ago, there were very few moments on opening night that elicited any audience discomfort. And they were fleeting.

Hats off to the ensemble who handled a litany of names and nicknames for body parts, and frank assessment of their tastes and smells, without self-conscious immaturity; and for bravely challenging us to correct many issues that impact women unfairly; and hats off to Theatre AUM for continuing its educational theatre mission.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Red Door: "A Southern Exposure"

Only around for a few years, Kelley Kingston-Strayer's A Southern Exposure is on the boards at the Red Door theatre in Union Springs with director Tom Salter at the helm of this four-character comedy-drama.

One of many such popular cottage-industry plays about feisty, eccentric, and stalwart Southern women, this one takes place in the small town Kentucky kitchen of Hattie Belle Hurt [Beth Egan], whose granddaughter Britney [Sarah Smith] announces to her and two doting maiden Aunts -- Mattie [Belinda Barto] and Ida Mae [Betty Hubbard] -- that she is heading to New York with her Brooklyn-born Jewish boyfriend...a shocker to them all. Britney expects a marriage proposal, but as Hattie Belle correctly intuits (since he has never been introduced to the family, and that their cultural differences matter a lot) the relationship is doomed from the start.

Here is a rather standard situation about generational differences: a rebellious college-bound girl at odds with her overly protective grandma who raised her. As in real life, families often avoid confrontations or talk around important issues. People we love are frequently the hardest to open up to. -- And as in real life, communication improves once Britney moves to New York; their phone conversations are more relaxed and forthright than when they are face to face.

Britney's fantasy of a better life in glamorous New York City never becomes all she wants it to be, so when Hattie Belle's auto accident brings Britney back to Kentucky, their family bond gets more secure, and it isn't long before she realizes that "homegrown is best" for all involved. -- When Hattie Belle is diagnosed with terminal cancer, their conflict resolves in a touching scene with openness and honesty, and without recriminations. -- Both Ms. Egan and Ms. Smith are convincing in their journeys from combatants to trusting partners; we sense a fine connection between them.

There is a lot of good-natured humor scattered throughout the play's two acts, both between Hattie Belle and Britney, and with the inclusion of the two aunts. Ms. Hubbard inhabits Ida Mae's practical wisdom with an outspoken directness in this production's most comfortably credible portrayal; card-shark that she is, she offers her niece some sage advice with genuine touches of affection. Ms. Barto's Mattie, a gloriously over-the-top depiction of absent-minded dementia, has some tender and assured moments of lucidity. (Her assortment of wigs and costumes to suit seasonal holidays and events are witty and handled with aplomb.)

By the end, we are left with three resilient women we feel will survive.

Faulkner: "Almost, Maine"

Since 2004, Joseph Cariani's Almost, Maine has been one of the most popular plays at high schools and colleges around the country, and is now gracing the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's stage.

In a series of some eleven vignettes, director Jason Clark South's cast of four actors play multiple roles in mostly two-character scenes all of which are set in the fictitious isolated and unincorporated town of "Almost" [hence the name] Maine, and where several of its citizens fall in and out of love in serious and comical ways.

Some of the plays more cloyingly saccharined takes on love and romantic relationships are abetted with elements of magical realism [a lost shoe unexpectedly drops from out of nowhere; a repair man attempts to fix a woman's broken heart that she carries in a paper sack], yet they retain their doggedly optimistic stance.

Allison Turberville, Joe Vasquez, Blake Williams, and Emily Woodring step in and out of their roles in Mr. South's colorful and amusing costumes [lots of winter wear suitable for a USA-Canada border town in winter when the aurora borealis are occasionally displayed on the backdrop]; and though they demonstrate significant comfort in each role, a greater variety of pace and energy and a stronger delineation of their quirky behavior would enhance each moment.

Unfortunately, there are lengthy scene changes caused by large and unwieldy set pieces that are unnecessarily complex (though nicely rendered), and allow audiences to disengage from the action.

Nonetheless, we are entertained by the various situations and declarations of love, and while some liberties have been taken with the text, we can laugh at the outrageousness of people literally "falling" in love, or sob at a broken relationship due to lack of communication, or watch as a couple struggle to admit their love for each other --- sound familiar?