Monday, February 29, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

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

In the true spirit of community theatre at its best, the Cloverdale Playhouse opened its Fifth Season with Christopher Durang's uproarious 2013 Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. -- At the eleventh hour, Maureen Costello stepped in to play the role of Masha, glancing at her hand-held script but otherwise fully realizing the role, and being graciously supported by the rest of the cast; and the control booth suddenly crashed shortly before the start, leaving Stage Manager James Treadway to work miracles so the audience was hardly aware of any technical difficulties. -- And so, the "show went on" to the delight of the almost full house.

Directed by the Playhouse's new Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton, the pace occasionally slowed down as a consequence, its two acts coming in just short of three hours; but that should be remedied once Ms. Costello is more confidently off-book and the light and sound cues are restored.

In rural Bucks County, PA, middle-aged Vanya [George Jacobsen] and his sister Sonia [Katie Pearson] bemoan their economic and social condition -- unemployed and unemployable and steadfastly resigned to doing nothing about it but complain, and supported by their successful movie-star sister Masha [Ms. Costello], who pays the bills since the deaths of their parents -- and spend their time bickering and wistfully awaiting the appearance of a blue heron at the nearby lake.

Their maid Cassandra [Danielle Phillips], true to her classical mythology namesake, predicts doom and leavens the plot with dire warnings that no one believes, until of course, they begin to come true, especially on the arrival of Masha with her handsome, sexy, and obtuse boy-toy Spike [James MacFarlane] in tow. Masha plans to sell the house, with seemingly no concern for what happens to Vanya and Sonia.

Add to this mix a naive local beauty and aspiring actress named Nina [Sarah Worley], who Spike brings back with him from a swim in the lake, and who serves as a distraction from his attention to Masha, and the ensemble is complete.

With a debt to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov [theatre cognoscenti will catch the numerous references to The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull among others, as well as to several other theatre nods], knowledge of these is not necessary for an appreciation of Durang's masterful plotting and acerbic wit. -- For example, though a rare occurrence on local stages, several actors here received deserved applause on their exit lines.

There is a fine sense of ensemble acting in this production, each individualized character contributing to the others in serving Durang's text. -- Ms. Phillips plays Cassandra as a Caribbean "psychic" who can revert to in-your-face street-wise patois in a split second. And she saved the day a few times with references to her "psychic powers" to cover for missing sound cues. Ms. Worley's naivete as Nina is a delightful contrast to some other characters' more overbearing demeanors; her ability to sustain innocence is laudable, and her attachment to "uncle" Vanya marks the sweetest moments of the production.

Mr. MacFarlane's Spike is reminiscent of Chance Wayne from Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth -- a callous gigolo companion to fading movie-star Alexandra Del Lago; but here, Spike is a more likable sort due to Mr. MacFarlane's winning smile, relaxed attitude, and ability to accept whatever comes his way. And he seems as comfortable wearing only underpants or fully dressed.

Durang focuses attention on the siblings, their idiosyncrasies, and long-held rivalries. Since Masha holds the purse-strings, and is used to getting her way on everything, she assumes that others will submit to her every whim; but when Ms. Costello starts giving orders about attending a local costume party as the Disney version of Snow White [Danny Davidson's costumes are a treat], assuming that the others will compliment her persona by dressing as Dwarfs, or in Spike's case as Prince Charming, she is in for unexpected resistance. Vanya insists on portraying Doc instead of Masha's choice of Grumpy; Nina willingly goes along with anything her idol Masha wants, so dresses as Dopey; but it is Ms. Pearson's insistence on playing the Evil Queen ["as played by Maggie Smith going to the Oscars", complete with sequined gown and shining tiara] that takes center stage away from Masha and allows Sonia to bathe in the limelight for a while. -- Ms. Pearson not only puts the attention on Sonia, but relishes the fact and earns audience sympathy.

There's a lot more in the two acts for actors to sink their teeth into, not least is Vanya's tirade against today's obsession with electronic media which Mr. Jacobsen delivers with an intensity that has the audience firmly on his side despite the slow pacing of a long speech.

With its many laugh-out-loud moments, controlled direction, brilliantly realized costumes, Mike Winkelman's evocative set, and ensemble acting by some of the area's finest Thespians, the Cloverdale Playhouse's season is off to a solid start.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Theatre AUM: "Miss Julie"

Swedish playwright August Strindberg was an early proponent of the naturalistic school in which important social themes, simplicity of form, and realistic details dominated the stage. In 1888, he penned Miss Julie, a play that almost didn't make it past the censors of his day, and which has challenged directors and actors ever since, as it posits a Darwinian approach to a steamy encounter between an aristocratic woman and a servant in her household -- a reflection of the disintegration of a 19th Century class system dominated by wealth and title but threatened by middle-class entrepreneurship: the genteel giving way to practical cut-throat men of business.

Theatre AUM, ever committed to introducing its audiences and student actors to classics of world theatre, is presenting an uninterrupted one-hour and five-minute version of Miss Julie in the guise of a "typical technical rehearsal process" in a blank space with "fragments of rehearsal furniture, props, and costumes", and with a Stage Manager reading the scripted set description of the Count's kitchen before the action begins. Whether this conceit by director Val Winkelman adds to an understanding of the piece is debatable, but it does impress on audiences that they are watching a play, so perhaps they ought to pay close attention to its ideas and themes made clear through the accessible language in Harry G. Carlson's translation.

On Midsummer's Eve, the cook Kristine [Samantha Blakely], exhausted from a full day's work, prepares a simple meal for the Count's valet Jean [Jay Russell], her intended fiance, who enters exclaiming that the Count's daughter "Miss Julie is crazy again"; ever since she recently broke off her engagement, she has been acting strangely, and is now dancing with the peasants. And Julie [Blaire Casey] is so caught up in the emotional freedom of the night, she asks Jean to join her dancing; as Jean tries to politely refuse, Julie's approach changes and she cajoles and soon demands obedience.

There is continuous discussion/debate on the importance or irrelevance of social classes: Jean has pretensions of using his charm and education to rise above his station, but is often forced by habit to keep his place; Miss Julie descends the social ladder in order to be free of the restrictions imposed on her to always keep up appearances, but can't function if she relinquishes the power that comes with her title; and Kristine, a superficially devout church going peasant has no inclination to change, though she sees both sides with clarity.

What starts as a frivolous social faux pas by Julie soon becomes a battle of the sexes, with each combatant adept at manipulating the other by wielding sexual attraction and well-aimed words as their potent ammunition. When Jean tells her "You play games too seriously", and with Kristine conveniently off to bed for the night, Julie leaps on it as a challenge. Mistress and servant, aristocrat and peasant: Who will survive as the fittest?

They hide in Jean's bedroom from a group of peasants who take over the kitchen in their Midsummer revelry (their singing, dancing, and carousing only described by the Stage Manager), and on coming back to the kitchen, Julie is filled with shame for having had sex with him, and their roles are reversed. On the Count's return, Jean reverts to servant behavior. Seeing no way out but suicide, and with Kristine's sanctimonious disregard for their plight, Julie relinquishes control to Jean saying "Command me, and I'll do it".

Such a pair of characters who can hardly keep their hands off each other despite the strict social taboos would be better served by amping up the physical intensity between the actors, and affording more stage time to the erotically charged atmosphere inherent in the script.

Hamlet's advice to the Players: "to hold...the mirror up to nature" and to "suit the action to the words, the words to the action" still holds some value. The litany of potent words in Miss Julie: love, hate, proud, crazy, vulgar, master, servant, whore, razor, ambition, flattery, fear, whip, et al., cry out for intensely passionate performances. And though the ensemble trio at AUM told the story clearly enough, and focussed some attention on the aforementioned Darwinian themes and social issues, they were rushed through the performance without spending sufficient time to let the words and actions sink in or to show the struggle with physical intimacy that their characters experience, and lead to their ruin.

In our own time, we are seeing the entitled few obdurately holding on to some mythical past and unaware of the damage they are inflicting on the other 99%; perhaps Miss Julie's unfortunate ending could be a lesson for them to digest.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Red Door: "Wedding Belles"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs recently opened Alan Bailey's and Ronnie Claire Edwards' modest comedy Wedding Belles for a two-weekend run. Directed by Kathryn Adams Wood, it tells the unlikely story of garden-club ladies in the fictitious town of Eufala, TX who in 1942 befriend a young girl who has agreed to meet and marry her fiance there before he ships out to fight in World War II.

Yet another in a string of recent scripts that rely on stereotypical characters and contrived conflicts that usually end with predictable reconciliations, Wedding Belles fulfills all the requisite components: feuding sisters , bossy and controlling Bobrita [Belinda Barto] and the dependent hypochondriac Bible-quoting Violet [Alicia Atkins], often married Glendine [Lisa Norton], and amateur astrologist Laura Lee [Beth Egan] whose reluctance to complete any task signals the state of denial about her husband's death.

For no credible reason, this quartet agree to host a wedding for an orphaned stranger Ima Jean [Charity Smith] who Laura Lee brought home after a chance meeting at the local bus station; this in the midst of arguments about the most important day in their social calendar. Clearly, they are all in need of help, but the dramatic conceit that throws them together as the ladies prepare their annual garden-club gala at Laura Lee's home, is far-fetched.

As the ladies' in-fighting swells, and Ima Jean's fiance Jesse fails to show up, the tension gradually relaxes as they shift focus and begin to face their respective demons and realize the value of friendships new and old. When a phone call informs them that the bridegroom has indeed arrived after hitchhiking his way there instead of taking a bus, the women are more determined than ever to mend their fraying relationships and host a fine wedding for their new friend.

The script contains plenty of references to the time period's "war effort", food rationing and gas coupons, Mrs. Miniver and the Dionne Quintuplets, and has a character's hair done up in rag-curlers. The costumes and furniture have a period feel, but using a recognizable copy of a recent Montgomery Advertiser and modern styrofoam ice-cream bowls spoils the illusion.

Tough the acting ensemble are committed to delineating their characters by emphasizing a specific personality and behavior, their delayed cues slow down the pace to a degree that audiences can anticipate the dialogue before it is spoken.

Reliable themes about friendship and compassion for our fellows are important to emphasize every so often, and it is these gentle reminders that allow audiences to emerge from the theatre with some satisfaction.

Millbrook: "L'il Abner" (musical)

Al Capp's long running comic strip L'il Abner (1934-1777), featuring the rag-tag hillbillies of Dogpatch, "the most unnecessary place in the USA", first appeared as a Broadway musical in 1956, with book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and music and lyrics by Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer; a film version followed soon after in 1959. Long a staple of high school and community theatres, the Millbrook Community Players are currently mounting a production directed by A. John Collier.

With a compliment of 42 actors (several of whom play multiple parts, and including two last minute understudies taking on featured characters), numerous scene and costume changes, Sam Wallace's adept musical direction, simply staged choreography by Daniel Harms, and playing a featured role himself, Mr. Collier has a lot on his plate. -- Of course, "the show must go on", and though opening night was fraught with tentative dialogue, lengthy scene changes, slow lighting cues, and an over amplified piano that frequently drowned out the song lyrics, the Millbrook company delivered a pleasant two-hour and twenty minute entertainment.

L'il Abner is an old-fashioned musical with a script that comically stretches credibility, a mixed bag musical score, and some gentle but pointed satirical criticism of corporate influence on American politics and mistrust of the Federal government that remain true to Capp's intentions and speak eloquently to issues that glare at us in today's headlines.

While naive but good-natured muscle-man L'il Abner Yokum [Michael Armstrong] continues to evade and avoid the romantic yearnings of virtuous and voluptuous Daisy Mae Scraggs [Kaitlin LeMaster], and the nastiest local rube named Earthquake McGoon [John Collier] is determined to marry Daisy Mae as the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race approaches, and at which the women of the town who can catch their men are to be married by Marryin' Sam [Sam Wallace], there's another plot afoot: Senator Jack S. Fogbound [Eric Arvidson] and greedy capitalist General Bullmoose [John Chain] are determined to re-locate nuclear weapons experiments away from Las Vegas to Dogpatch, unless they can find something "necessary" about the place.

Comes Mammy Yokum [Grace Moore] to the rescue. Her "Yokumberry tonic" has sustained L'il Abner's physique for years, and could do the same for mankind; the catch is that the tonic virtually cancels out the libido, making them unresponsive to any romantic inclinations.

Dr. Finsdale [Vicki Moses] demands experiments that must test the tonic's effects before declaring is the "necessary" thing that will save the town. So, with a lot at stake, Fogbound and Bullmoose conscript an assortment of conspirators to wrest the formula from L'il Abner: Stupefyin' Jones [Emily Pose], whose mere presence stops men in their tracks, Appassionata Von Climax [Rae Ann Collier], a spoiled femme fatale who can entrap most any man by her looks, and Evil Eye Fleagle [Greg Fanning], who can freeze people in their tracks by putting his evil-eye "whammy" on them.

That's a lot of shenanigans to contend with, and needless to say, the town will be saved -- more from the ineptness of the participants than anything, much like the town hero, Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose incompetence in battle changed the course of the Civil War. When a letter from Abraham Lincoln is discovered declaring him a hero, the town rejoices.

Along the way, we are treated to a number of moments that stand out: rousing renditions of "Jubilation T. Cornpone" and "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands" showcase the company's strengths at satire, "If I Had My Druthers" and "You Can Tell When There's Love in a Home" are homespun declarations that most of us can relate to, the rendition of "I'm Past My Prime" shows how people young and old perceive their lot in life, and the romantic duet "Namely Me" by L'il Abner and Daisy Mae is a sweet reflection of youthful innocence.

Mr. Armstrong and Ms. LeMaster are good on the eyes and credibly indicate the innocence of youth, Ms. Collier and Ms. Pose are made to look their parts as seductive sirens but have little opportunity to capitalize on their attributes as their actions are glossed over too quickly (as are many of the moments in the dialogue that drive the script's satirical intentions), and the ultra modest costumes belie the physical allure that Daisy Mae and Appasionatta and Stupefyin' Jones are meant to have.

Mr. Wallace dominates the stage at every moment. His larger than life Marryin' Sam with full command of character, strong singing voice, and generosity in supporting his actor companions is a model the rest of the cast is fortunate to have in their company.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Faulkner: "The Addams Family: Musical"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre opened The Addams Family: Musical on Friday night to an enthusiastic sold-out house. With a mediocre book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, the 2010 Broadway show benefits here from Angela Dickson's confident direction, fine costumes, and energetic choreography, from Matt Dickson's eerily evocative and well-constructed sets, and from a strong cast of triple-threat actors-singers-dancers.

Based on Charles Addams's New Yorker magazine's single-panel cartoons, and the popular 1960s television program, the full complement of Addams family characters is on display, with all their macabre inclinations combined with close-knit family values. -- Here are the instantly recognizable clan: mischievous masochist Pugsley [Lucy Wilson], sadistic Wednesday [Brittney Johnston], scatterbrained Grandma [Emily Woodring], good-natured romantic dreamer Uncle Fester [Morgan Baker], almost mute butler Lurch [Tony Davison], somber stone-faced Morticia [Alex Rikerd], passionate Latin-sophisticate Gomez [Brandtley McDonald], and a Chorus of "dead, undead, and undecided" Ancestors -- even Thing makes an appearance -- and the extended family as we know it is intact.

The plot hinges on Wednesday's plan to marry a "normal" young man from Ohio named Lucas Beineke [Blake Mitchell]. She conscripts Gomez to keep her engagement a secret from Morticia until the two families meet for dinner at the Addams's spooky mansion. She is her mother's daughter, after all, and knows that Morticia could spoil everything for her; but in a family that prides itself on not having any secrets, Gomez is conflicted.

So it is agreed that everyone will act "normal" in welcoming their guests. When Lucas's parents Mal [Chris Kelly] and Alice [Mattie Earls] arrive, it soon becomes clear that "normal" may be interpreted in various ways. -- Both families behave "normally", and exhibit shared concerns. For all of the built-in strangeness of the Addams clan, they and the Beinekes display the skeletons in their respective closets, eccentric uncles and grandparents, while demonstrating sibling rivalries, trust issues, parental concerns for their children, and a sincere bond of family.

The story and staging are promising at first, showcasing the ensemble strength of Faulkner's company in "When You're an Addams"; and it has some clever numbers like "Pulled" in which Pugsley enjoys being stretched on "the rack" torture device even more than Wednesday does in administering it. -- "Fester's Manifesto" in Act I about the importance of love is delivered in earnest and followed in his Act II charming declaration of love in "The Moon and Me".

However, predictable plot complications, several contrived and unfocussed digressions, and creaky groan-worthy jokes and pop culture references, tend to bog down the otherwise enjoyable goings-on.

These notwithstanding, the performances and characterizations are top-notch. Mr. Baker as Uncle Fester (an occasional narrator of the play for no apparent reason) is a soft-hearted and thoroughly likable sort. Mr. Kelly and Ms. Earls provide a down-to-earth quality that is a fine counterpoint to the other-worldly Addams clan. Ms. Wilson's Pugsley is impish with a deliciously cruel frame of mind.

Ms. Johnston shows her acting strengths as she struggles with her "normal" desires for marriage and family against the darker side of her nature, switching from petulant to aggressive to sincerely loving Lucas, she is matched with Mr. Mitchell's credible and "very normal" attraction to Wednesday as he tries to be supportive to her demands. Together, they manage to engage audience approval; we wish them well.

Ms. Rikerd has the look and attitude of Morticia down to a fine level, serving as a counterpoint to Mr. McDonald's far more flamboyant Gomez. Both put in strong performances, and have many excellent moments individually and together, but their all too infrequent moments of romantic connection, especially in "Tango De Amor" and when Gomez kisses up and down Morticia's arm, cry out for more extended stage business to enhance their relationship.

Mr. Brandtley, especially, commands every scene he is in. His powerful singing voice is matched with charisma that allows him to demonstrate a broad range of emotions. His Act II rendition of "Happy Sad" with Wednesday, in which he truthfully depicts the contradictory feelings of a "normal" father who is coming to grips with the fact that he has a grown-up daughter who must be allowed to make her own decisions, is the single most touching moment of this production.

It is in scenes such as this that the talents of the Faulkner company go beyond the limitations of the script, and which make this version of The Addams Family: Musical a charmingly entertaining evening of theatre.

Wetumpka Depot: "Steel Magnolias"

Despite its national popularity since its 1987 New York debut, and despite the numerous local offerings over the years, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias seems to never disappoint; and the Wetumpka Depot Players are opening their 36th Season with another solid production.

Popularized even more by the 1989 film, it is the by now familiar story of six women from fictitious Chinpaquin, Louisiana who meet at least weekly in Truvy's [Jennifer L. Haberkorn] beauty parlor to swap stories and gossip, and to bond with one another without any male interference. They have been doing this for a long time, so it is imperative for any acting company to exhibit a complete comfort with one another [even a newcomer to the group adjusts over time].

Director Carol Heier is gifted with a cast of six veterans who not only deliver dialogue with conviction, but who -- with subtle gestures and facial expressions, and some exquisite comic timing -- demonstrate a kind of shorthand communication that only happens when people know one another well.

Steel Magnolias is a testament to the resilience of Southern women -- the "steel magnolias" of the title --  who are able to survive most anything that comes their way, while their menfolk who never appear on stage too often can't handle things unless they can "shoot it, stuff it, or marry it". -- The Depot's ensemble cast, with a keen balance of humor and pathos, show that they achieve both individual and group strength by relying on one another.

The plot revolves around Shelby's [Adrian Lee Borden] marriage, ill-advised pregnancy, and untimely death from complications of type-1 diabetes, the action affords insights into mother-daughter relationships, marriage, trust, compassion, small town social concerns, and friendship.

While Ms. Haberkorn's Truvy claims with clever posturing that "there is no such thing as natural beauty", and swaggers with complete candor that "it takes a lot to look this good", her demeanor softens when she hires Annelle [Natalie Rimel], a shy young newcomer to the town and "who must have a past"; and while she often comes across as hard nosed, she has a soft heart and a giving manner. Her business, after all, is ostensibly to make everything beautiful, so when events lead to frustration, anger, and tears, she is the one to make things right. And Ms. Haberkorn is adept at shifting attention and doing just that.

Clairee [Cindy Veasey], the former first lady of the town and widow of its former mayor, and Ouiser [Gayle Sandlin is a last minute replacement in the role], the local outspoken curmudgeon and brunt of many jokes, are two long time "frenemies" whose behavior belies their closeness; and though each may appear to be self-absorbed, they come to the rescue to support Shelby and her mother M'Lynn [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as they face Shelby's choices and consequences of having a baby.

There were a few tentative moments on opening night, but these will surely be ironed out as the sold-out run continues. -- With Shelby's death, M'Lynn's anger builds; Ms. Jones is impressive in her impassioned speech in defense of her relationship with her daughter as she roars "I was supposed to go first" and that "I want to hit something", to which Clairee grabs Ouiser and relieves the tension by shouting "Here; hit this". Only people who love and trust one another can get away with this, and the Depot audiences are in for a treat as they watch these seasoned actresses at their best.