Thursday, March 30, 2017

WOBT: "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Director Blair Dyson's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre has one of that theatre's strongest acting ensembles gracing the stage in Neil Simon's 1983 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy. Set in the title's Brooklyn neighborhood in 1937, it tracks a Jewish family's lives as World War II is about to erupt in Europe where many of their family and friends still live.

The War is occasionally referenced in the two acts, reminding us that even during the Depression, the hard times in America pale in comparison to the horrors of the holocaust to come.

But war is the last thing in the mind of Simon's alter-ego, the precocious 15-year-old Eugene Jerome [Sam Elsky] who is more interested in sports and a fixation on women's breasts. -- Eugene is also the narrator of the piece who regularly comments on his frustrations with other family members: his mother Kate's [Zyna Captain] constant nagging and unremarkable cooking; his Aunt Blanche's [Melissa Strickland] fragile health; his admiration of elder brother Stanley [Christian Chapman] who "instructs" him on "the ways of the world"; his older cousin Nora's [Grace Moore] breasts and dreams of becoming a Broadway star; his younger cousin Laurie's [Tori Sigler] retreat into bookishness because of a perceived illness; and the solidity of his father Jack [Gary Essary] whose wise advice is sought on every important issue or decision.

While several characters' choices need Jack's sage advice, and with two families living under one roof due to financial straits in hard times predictably cause some friction, the resulting anger and misunderstandings [some recent and some long-held resentments] are eventually forgiven because of the bond of love and family they share.

What holds this production together is the sincere portrayals of all the characters. The playwright's witty dialogue is delivered truthfully, demonstrating these actors' ability to humanize their sometimes outrageous pronouncements. And for all their complaints about others behaviors, the love that is rarely expressed in words is demonstrated by their actions.

They invite us into their home and their lives for a couple of hours, and we can't help but love them back.

ASF: "Dauphin Island"

First done in Montgomery as a reading in 2015's "Southern Writers Project", playwright Jeffry Chastang's Dauphin Island is being given its World Premier production on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon stage. In an intermissionless 90-minutes, director Nancy Rominger and her two actors -- Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel and Esau Pritchett [both veterans at ASF] -- involve audiences in the relationship that develops over a weekend between two unlikely souls.

Set in a remote rural landscape in Southern Alabama, a place where people could easily get lost or where they could escape the pressures of the outside world, the contrived meeting of Selwyn Tate [Mr. Pritchett]  and Kendra Evans [Ms. VandenHeuvel] when his car breaks down and he stumbles into her yard, then tracks the small and large events they share as the relationship changes from combative to a kind of detente to trust and a love that both understand will not be fulfilled.

Make no mistake, this is not a twenty-somethings romantic tale; these are adults who have life experiences that have molded them into the persons they are today. Coming from very different backgrounds [information about each one's past is distributed bit-by-bit throughout the play], their individual experiences with marriage, children, family, jobs, social expectations, and the need to break traditions, affords the playwright and the company the opportunity to delve into subjects that audiences share in common with the characters.

And when we are graced by the strong and truthful performances by these two gifted actors, there is hardly a moment when we are not engaged.

Yet things happen so quickly, stretching credibility that the aforementioned changes in their relationship as well as some elements of their physical appearance could have happened in a matter of hours.

Ms. VandenHeuvel and Mr. Pritchett are so committed to their roles,mspeaking the play's naturalistic dialogue with utter confidence and comfort, that audiences readily accept the gaps in the script that omit sufficient evidence that might have supplied clearer answers to the characters' motives.

Production values (set, lights, costumes, sound) are all top notch, making the Octagon's intimate space the ideal location for this intimate two-handler. -- And the quality of the acting involves audiences long after the performance ends.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ASF: "Sherlock Holmes"

It's not often that stage scenery gets applause these days, but James Wolk's stunning sets for the Alabama Shakepeare Festival's production of Sherlock Holmes did just that on opening night virtually every time the massive revolving Festival stage revealed yet another superbly detailed location. These, and Paula Scofield's gorgeous period costumes, transported the audience back to late-Victorian England for 2 3/4 hours that ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes -- an uber-sleuth whose powers of deduction set the standard for other fictional detectives -- put lesser humans to shame from his 1887 appearance in "A Study in Scarlet" through a series of novels and short stories till 1927. But, how does he do it? His mantra, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", was first expressed in "The Sign of Four" (1890); and his mastery of deductive reasoning has been variously portrayed by stage and film actors from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch.

And now at ASF, Brik Berkes takes on the role in director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of American actor-manager-playwright William Gillette's version of Conan Doyle's character. Gillette called his play Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner (1899), and introduced theatre-goers to Holmes's deerstalker hat and calabash pipe; and he wanted to bring in a romantic element to a character hitherto a confirmed bachelor.

Gillette and Sherman keep Holmes off-stage for a long time, preparing the audience for his arrival with numerous references to his abilities; so from Mr. Berkes's first entrance on, we are treated to the familiar as well as some new facets of his character. Always assured to the point of arrogance, it is no surprise that Mr. Berkes's Holmes emerges victorious in thwarting arch-enemy Professor Moriarty [Rodney Clark plays the title character's nemesis to crusty perfection] and his underworld organization of criminals. But, his growing interest in Alice Faulkner [Alice Sherman], who is planning to avenge her sister's murder by withholding incriminating letters, adds another level to a man unused to romantic feelings.

Miss Faulkner is being held under duress by James and Madge Larrabee [John Manfredi and Jennifer Barnhart are both duplicitous to the core], who are also in cahoots with con-man safe-cracker Sidney Prince [Seth Andrew Bridges plays him with an irresistibly charming East End swagger that provides much of this production's comic relief].

As the plots intertwine, and with delightfully understated performances by Paul Hebron as Holmes's invaluable assistant, Dr. Watson, and James Bowen as a "sometime servant" John Forman, Holmes second-guesses everyone except Miss Faulkner who ultimately in Ms. Sherman's gentle yet firm depiction enables Holmes to admit his feelings towards her.

Supporting roles are handled by an assortment of returning and local actors: former ASF acting-intern Jason Martin returns to play three roles here; and Liam South, a fifth-grader veteran of A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan at ASF, plays errand boy Billy with confidence and maturity.

Making their ASF main stage debuts: Adrian Lee Borden gives French maid Therese a vigorous persona; Scott Bowman plays a tough hoodlum Jim Craigin and returns in an almost unrecognizable disguise as an officious Count Von Stalburg; and Sam Wootten appears first as Bassick, one of Moriarty's nasty henchmen, returning in a delightfully contrasting role as Parsons, a nebbishy butler.

There were a few technical problems on opening night, and the play itself creaks here and there with turn of the century plot devices, but the performances and the production values mentioned above engage us from beginning to end, resulting in a fine evening's entertainment.