Friday, October 14, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Shape of Things"

On stage, as in real life, "things aren't always what they seem". So it is at The Cloverdale Playhouse's provocative production of Neil LaBute's 2001 The Shape of Things, in Sarah Kay's crafty debut as a director. 

Performed on J. Scott Grinstead's inventive set with its many moveable parts [a now signature component of his designs], it is an efficient intermissionless 90-minute production. 

LaBute's tersely colloquial language and episodic structure afford glimpses into the public and private lives of the play's four characters, while also contesting the nature of art, the moral responsibilities of the artist, and an analysis of what some people are willing to do for those they love. And the opening night audience was conscripted into these themes so that conversations and debates continued after the performance ended...a measure of this production's success.

In it, Evelyn [Dominique Taylor] is a self-assured graduate student Art major working on her thesis project and caught in an attempt to deface a piece of sculpture by Adam [Graham Butler], a nerdy undergraduate English major and a part-time museum guard. There seems to be some sort of mutual attraction between them that grows more intimate over time as she encourages subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Adam's behavior and appearance that result in his willing participation and gradually developing self-confidence.

Adam introduces Evelyn to his outgoing best friend Philip [Hunter Stewart] and his more demure fiancé Jenny [Dawson McLean], whose eccentric wedding plans provoke some disagreements between the couples.

The gifted ensemble creates nuanced characterizations with subtle changes over the breadth of the play's numerous scenes, as their discussions about what comprises "art" intertwine with each one's perceptions of their own accountability to themselves and others, and whether or not they are obligated to say and do what is right.

Mr. Stewart starts as a good old boy, but has deeper feelings and ideas. Ms. McLean's sensitive portrayal of Jenny veils a more assertive nature. Mr. Butler's persona as Adam undergoes so many changes in convincing and heartbreaking measures. And all their relationships with Evelyn hinge on her ability to distance herself from them while simultaneously controlling every moment. -- In short, we feel for them and the circumstances they are compelled to face.

As much as Ms. Taylor's Evelyn has the capacity to get the others to reveal their most intimate beliefs and behaviors and manipulates their actions and various relationships, she herself remains a cipher, and even says "It's hard to read me" when she regularly fends off any attempt to get her to divulge specific information about her background or purposes until the end. 

While the script provides many hints as to its devastating ending, most in the Playhouse audience were caught off-guard by its revelations, leaving them to address the themes of The Shape of Things in their own lives.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Pike Road: "Nunsense"

A perennial favorite, Dan Goggin's musical comedy Nunsense has been staged frequently in the River Region since its 1985 Off-Broadway debut, the latest spirited iteration being staged by the Pike Road Theatre Co., directed and choreographed by James Keith Posey.

In it, five of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are planning a fund-raising talent show. It seems that some 56 of their convent were accidentally poisoned, having consumed tainted vichyssoise prepared by one of the nuns. They had buried 52 of them when Mother Superior [Jan Roeton] purchased a state-of-the-art television and they ran out of money. The four remaining corpses have been literally "on ice" till now. -- Imagine what happens next.

Mother Superior hogs the spotlight, though competitive Sister Hubert [Tara Fenn] and streetwise Brooklynite Sister Robert Anne [Michon R. Givens] both vie for attention and higher places in the talent show and in the convent's hierarchy. Novice Sister Leo [Tiffany Presley] always wanted to be a ballerina, and wacky Sister Amnesia [Savannah Bowden] -- her name tells you most of what you need to know -- also performs with a foul-mouthed puppet.

That's the set-up; there's very little else in the plot...but the evening is really about entertainment, a number of Dad-jokes, some audience participation that goes on a bit too long, all of which demonstrate the assorted talents of this able ensemble of actors.

Individually and as a group, they continually ramp up the energy and commitment with dynamic showcasing of their talents in some 18 songs [and quite lot of dance as well], engaging the audience at every turn.

Goggin affords each character some moments to shine, and each member of the company takes the spotlight confidently in character, and in good voice. -- Ms. Roeton amps up the energy in "Turn up the spotlight"; Ms. Presley's charming "Benedicte" endears us to her; Ms. Bowden's "So you want to be a nun" and "I could've gone to Nashville" are hilarious and heart-rending in turn; Ms. Givens steals the show with "Growing up Catholic" and "I just want to be a star"; and Ms. Fenn brings down the house with "Holier than thou".

Another enjoyable production of Nunsense puts the Pike Rod Theatre Co. firmly on the local map.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Way Off Broadway Theatre/Prattville: "The Outsider"

With mid-term elections on the doorstep, Prattville's "Way Off Broadway Theatre" is currently skewering the American electorate in Paul Slade Smith's 2015 satire The Outsider, a two act romp performed by an impressive acting ensemble under Melissa Strickland's confident direction.

Set in the present day in the governor's office of an unnamed  small state, and taking care to remain neutral regarding political parties, Smith's script centers on the figure of Ned Newley [Roy Goldfinger], a man who had just been sworn in as governor because the previous incumbent had been ousted for philandering. The problem is that Ned is painfully shy in front of the media, giving the impression that he's incompetent, and his staff attempt to save his administration by coaching him for an immediate media appearance.

Though second in command Dave Riley [Jason Bush] and pollster Paige Caldwell [Ashley Nicole Portis] try their best, with ditzy "temp" secretary Louise Peakes [Stephanie Higley] muddling things up, they are at their wits end, and conscript CNN spin-doctor Arthur Vance [Douglas Dean Mitchell] to take on the task of turning things around.

The challenge is not merely in getting Ned to be comfortable in front of a camera; it's far more contrived than that -- The philosophical issue is focused on what voters want and/or deserve from their elected officials. Do they want "an actual leader who looks like an idiot", or do they regularly vote for and get "an actual idiot who looks like a leader"? We often hear candidates claim that as "outsiders" from the political elite, they are the best candidates. Conversely, voters also say they want experienced candidates. -- Points to ponder these days; and it doesn't matter which side of the political divide you support: finger pointing can be made in both directions.

Into the mix come TV interviewer Rachel Parsons [Kristen VanderWal] and cameraman A. C. Peterson [Drey Nelson] as counterpoints to the main plot who also manage to shed some important light on its serious outcome and messages.

And there are a lot of serious messages amidst the comic mayhem: "People will vote for anyone if they think that person will get them what they want;" often, "people who know nothing about government actually run the government;" "no sane person wants to work in the government;" "government makes a lot of noise;" "most of us view government as something we'll never understand;" and perhaps most importantly, a democracy "government is what all of us collectively have made a decision to do together because we can't do it order to benefit all of us."

Appearance and reality are regularly at odds in The Outsider. Without giving away the various twists and turns of events -- and there are so many unexpected and outrageously comical elements on display -- audiences are invited to laugh at themselves throughout the fast moving two-and-a-half hours playing time. 

The satirical bite is handled masterfully by this slick ensemble of actors, each of whom defines a memorable persona, establishes convincing relationships that make us care about them, moves with purpose, and articulates the glittering dialogue with credible assurance. 

Provocatively funny, and skillful throughout, The Outsider is a welcome addition to this theatrical season.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Millbrook: "Clue on Stage"

First, there is Clue -- the Hasbro board game, a whodunnit, in which players are meant to figure out whether a murder was committed by Miss Scarlet-with a wrench-in the dining room, or by Col. Mustard-with a rope-in the study, know the drill. This was followed by Clue, the Musical, Clue, the Movie, and now showing in Millbrook is Clue on Stage which was adapted in 2018 from Jonathan Lynne's screenplay, though it is not a slavish replication of it.

Played largely for laughs by an ensemble company of twelve actors, and filled with every stereotypical cliche of the genre, director Brady Walker capitalizes on the text as given: characters trapped in a mysterious country house, a storm, a conniving host, a supercilious butler, a contrived challenge to the guests, and multiple murders, to provide audiences with an evening's entertainment.

The dinner party guests are greeted by the butler Wadsworth [Brandon Shearin] and a French maid Yvette [Tammy Arvidson]; each is given an alias and sworn to secrecy, and we find out that each is being blackmailed by their host, Mr. Boddy [Kaden Blackburn], who offers them a way out: either pay him double, or kill the butler with a weapon for each as a gift.

In a 30-minute Act I, we see Mr. Green [Eric Arvidson], Mrs. White [Bre Gentry], Mrs. Peacock [Tammy Lee], Professor Plum [Dean Miller], Miss Scarlet [Taryn Watkins], and Col. Mustard [Scott Rouse] try to outwit one another without exposing their own secrets until first Mr. Boddy and then the Cook [Amy Lynn Miller] are both murdered. -- Act II serves to unravel the plot and discover the guilty party.

Of course, not everything is what it seems, and there are several "red herrings" along the way. A few twists by the end [a singing telegram [Maggie Kervin] and a stranded motorist [Gage Parr] add to the mix], do resolve the conflict with the help of one character's divulging their actual identity.

The detailed set provides an effective atmosphere, and costumes by Angie Mitchell describe each character in turn, but all-too-frequent straight-line staging looks awkward, and much tentative dialogue makes important information hard to hear, and clever jokes and double-entendre fall flat.

That notwithstanding, the audience seemed to enjoy themselves as they embarked on the familiar Clue journey.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Theatre AUM: "Cross Cast: acting showcase of songs, scenes, and monologues"

At the start of each academic year, Theatre AUM produces an Acting Showcase, affording student actors opportunities and experiences in presenting short selections that demonstrate their individual strengths. 

This year's title is Cross Cast, with selections performed by an ensemble of eight actors -- all male -- performing [with the exception of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from the musical South Pacific], some 16 selections written for female characters.

As an exercise, there are a number of challenges, not the least of which is to bring a fully realized character to life in an excerpted monologue from a play, without the luxury of developing a role over two full acts; in addition, in order to make a significant impact, each selection needs to stand on its own in a clear moment independent of the play's context; ideally, in both monologues and scenes, there ought to be clear beginnings, middles, and ends; and they should be presented with full-on energy and clear diction from the very start, and end on a strong note.

There is a range of acting talent in this group, and not every selection hit the challenges above.  Yet, there is strength in both individuals and in shared selections.

While several pieces were excerpted from familiar plays like Crimes of the Heart, Nine to Five, and A Chorus Line, the less familiar scripts made us listen more attentively -- and guess what? In almost every selection performed in just 45-minutes, one could almost forget that men were playing female roles; the subject matter hit on topics that are more universal: "Am I ok?" in this world today; "What is my worth?"; "Do we succumb to outside pressures?" -- quite the accomplishment.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Nora's Playhouse at the Sanctuary: "Ashes & Ink"

 The World Premier of emerging playwright Martha Pichey's potent Ashes & Ink opened at The Sanctuary in Montgomery to a welcoming opening night audience.

Produced by New York based "Nora's Playhouse", an organization dedicated to "creating opportunities for women theatre artists", the play focuses on addiction and mental health, topics which many people find difficult to address, especially when they impact immediate family.

Sensitively directed by "Nora's" founding Artistic Director Caroline Reddick Lawson, the two-act play's episodic structure shows us how these issues impact the developing relationship between Molly [Mariah Reilly] and Leo [Michael Buchanan], each of whom has lost a spouse and are now made to face their respective sons' issues, as well as their own.

There's a lot packed into the two-hour running time: various forms of addiction, enabling and denial, good intentions with questionable results, control vs. freedom, trust issues, parental roles and children's needs, the difficulty of being honest about one's self and others especially under stressful circumstances.

Molly's almost adult son Quinn [Chason Marvin] is an aspiring actor who has been in treatment for drug addiction, and whose clashes with his Mother shift on his good and bad days. -- Leo's young son Felix [Austin Wendell] has difficulty expressing his needs and feelings about the loss of his Mother, though he and Quinn manage to strike up a bond.

Molly's blind sister Bree [Meghan Yapana Ducote] helps catalogue recordings of bird songs for Molly's research project, and becomes a sounding board for Molly's challenges.

And Molly and Leo -- polar opposites in personality [she gets frustrated easily, and he is calmer, even as he pursues a PhD] -- try to make their relationship work while attempting to manage their sons' problems.

The journey isn't easy for any of them. Or for the audience. The ensemble of actors dig deeply into their characters, sometimes exhibiting raw emotions that can't help but impact anyone with a compassion for the problems facing their fellows.

Played on Rita Pearson-Dailey's finely detailed unit set contrasting Molly's city apartment with Leo's rustic country place, that allows for smooth transitions; and with Katie Pearson's well-chosen costumes, the action only occasionally slows down during scene changes.

Ashes & Ink provides a powerful evening in local theatre, with attention to difficult subjects made accessible through an intelligent script and a strong acting ensemble.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Adapted by Eric Schmiedel from Lee Smith's novel, with music and lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, Fair and Tender Ladies debuted at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the late 1990s, and is being given a sensitive re-boot at the Wetumpka Depot.

Under Kim Mason's astute direction [Ms. Pell is also the Musical Director of this production], the key to Fair and Tender Ladies is in its ensemble performances. -- Central to it is the character of Ivy Rowe [Adrian Bush], whose lifelong journey of dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, of mistakes and compromises, and of lessons learned and taught, is told through a narrative of flashbacks to her youth in an impoverished backwoods community that eventually lead her to leave, seek out new and sometimes illicit experiences, marry and have numerous children, and finally recognize that the bonds of family and life's simple pleasures are more fulfilling than any grand endeavor. And, Ms. Bush has the wherewithal to imbue Ivy with a natural sensitivity that allows audiences to get caught up in her life.

Through the play's two acts, she interacts with a catalogue of family, friends, and neighbors, all played by two principal actors and an ensemble: Leanna Wallace plays her mentally slow sister Silvaney and cousin Geneva; Sarah Housley plays impatient sister Beulah and three other roles; Ms. Wallace's welcome return to the stage affords her the opportunity to deliver a luminous depiction of Silvaney that is balanced by the no-nonsense Geneva; Ms. Housley's chameleon-like changes of character bring insights and subtleties to each.

The remainder are played by the on-stage musicians. Amanda Borden, Lee Borden, Tim Henderson, Lloyd Strickland, and Matt Wallace masterfully play some ten musical instruments among them, while depicting the ensemble characters in Ivy's life. -- Each character is clearly delineated in the performances, and indicated by Carol Heier's period and character driven costumes that contribute significantly to this production.

The music and lyrics from the aforementioned trio captures both the rural-country flavor of period and place, as well as the poetry of language that captures simplicity of speech with vivid images and insightful and sometimes profound commentary. 

Despite a disappointingly small opening night audience, a few tentative moments, and an all-too-steady pace that cried out for some variety to move the narrative more quickly, the Depot's Fair and Tender Ladies ought to make its mark in the annals of River Region theatre.