Friday, November 20, 2009

Montevallo "On the Verge"

Eric Overmeyer's 1985 "On the Verge, or: The Geography of Yearning" is currently playing in the University of Montevallo's Chichester Theatre. -- The "Chi Box" has fewer than 50 seats and is set up in arena style, providing a lot of intimacy for this witty journey of allusions and illusions...the story of three intrepid Victorian women explorers seeking independence from the world of men as they both literally and figuratively hack their way through "Terra Incognita": the unknown land.

Probably the biggest challenge to the trio of women is Overmeyer's dense script, one that is simultaneously witty and stuffy. Victorian sensibilities are expressed in the more formal language of 1888, while the women's attitudes and experiences are infused with apparent anachronistic references to more modern times. -- In fact, they are travelling both through the Antipodes, Africa and Tibet, and through time, winding up in 1955 in America. As they travel, their language adapts to these changes, and is especially rich in references to popular culture.

Fanny [Jerrica Cleckler] is the most conservative of the group and the only married one. Mary [Leslie Baird Hinson] seems to be the eldest and perhaps the least willing to change and the most intent on discovering new lands and her place in them. Alex [Marie Pope] is younger than the others, more forceful and flighty. -- Together, these actresses make a good ensemble who share stage time generously while developing the complexities of their individual characters as they yearn for self discovery.

And they have to manipulate an extensive number of "props" that signal the world ahead of them, much of which is managed with Overmeyer's humorous analysis of the contemporary world as they attempt to figure out the uses of such items as egg-beaters, Presidential campaign buttons, and cream cheese by use of osmosis.

Most of the dialogue is convincing, though a number of mispronunciations distract from its very precise intentions.

Appearances along the way by an assortment of characters -- real and imagined -- ranging from Fanny's husband Grover to a cannibal, a Yeti, a motorcycle-riding troll, and a gypsy [all played by David Wencil and Logan Reid], the women's journey takes a number of unexpected comedic twists, all the while keeping in mind the script's and director Tammy Killian's focus on the play's feminist themes.

These are intelligent women who have been subjected to men all their lives. Risking their lives and reputations by daring such a journey without any men along and completely without the usual male porters, the bravery inherent in all women is highlighted. They yearn for independence and for knowledge. As they encounter the future with every step, their knowledge of themselves increases also. Though Fanny says that time travel is a risky business, Alex advises them to embrace the future with all their hearts.

Content with the world of 1955, Fanny and Alex settle there, while Mary, ever restless, must continue as a solo sojourner, and fulfills the sub-title of the play -- the geography of yearning.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Auburn "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Neil Simon's 1982 semi-autobiographical "Brighton Beach Memoirs" may have closed recently in New York due to low ticket sales, but the production now showing at Auburn should have a successful run. Judging from the enthusiastic opening night response, director Scott Phillips has a hit on his hands.

Part one of Simon's so-called "Eugene Trilogy" [it was followed by "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound"], the play is set in the home of a Jewish-Polish immigrant family in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn in Depression Era 1937, and contains the playwright's trademark humor mixed with some serious issues and detailed character development.

Narrated by the 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome -- here played convincingly by Richard Davis -- the assorted family crises are played out for us through the prism of Eugene's clever and touching observations about both himself and the members of his family.

At 15, Eugene dreams of becoming either a famous professional baseball player or a "writer" -- he can't decide which -- and feels constrained by having to conform to all the adults' wishes [and being blamed for everything that goes wrong] and the sexual bewilderment of puberty.

Life is tough in Brighton Beach: the Depression makes jobs scarce and with low salaries for Eugene's father Jack and his older son Stanley, mother Kate struggles to make ends meet in the household where every penny counts, the Jerome's have been sharing their home with Kate's widowed sister Blanche and her two daughters, and World War II is about to erupt -- yet somehow the bonds of family and essential life values sustain them all.

Things come to a head when everyone, it seems, has a problem that must be solved immediately. Cousin Nora, the pretty one, thinks she has a chance of getting a role in a Broadway play, hoping to earn enough money to provide her mother's independence; yet, she has not finished high school and will need the diploma for her future. Stanley gets fired from his job on a matter of principle and does not want to sacrifice principle for anything. Blanche feels frustrated by her dependence on the kindness of her family. The long-suffering Kate seeks to protect everyone, especially the children, and maintain a peaceful home. And each must seek advice from Jack who has been working two jobs, one of which is ending.

There are a lot of contradictions in the characters' behaviors, ones that are made believable by Simon's script and the talents of the actors who say the lines with conviction. They emerge as very human characters. For example, Kate tries to find the good in all things, yet she hates the Irish neighbors she has never met, calling them "those people" and pigeonholing them as dirty drunks. Stanley and Eugene are constantly at odds with one another, yet their bond as siblings is strong enough to allow us to believe that they can either love or hate one another within a minute's time. Nora requests Jack's advice, though she resents the fact that he is not her father and therefore has no right to advise her.

Any number of these confrontational scenes are played truthfully by the individual actors. As Nora, Heather Rule's naive enthusiasm at her Broadway prospects and then her deflation and anger at being told there are more important things in life ring true. When Blanche [Laura Walter] and Kate [Bridget Knapik] finally have it out -- the sibling rivalry that has been festering for all their lives is out in the open --we believe them and accept Jack's [John Tourtellotte] hands-off attitude as he tells them it is about time they talked about it. We feel compassion for Ben Young as Stanley when he is made to stand up for his principles despite disappointing or angering his parents.

A quibble here: With so much at stake, it is unfortunate that so much of the heightened emotions were played at the same loud volume; it is tiring for an audience to listen to so much yelling when other choices are available to the actors, and variety would have made it more palatable.

Through it all is Eugene...commenting, criticizing, glibly poking fun, and coming to terms with his own place in the family and the human race. He is fixated on sex -- he is curious and eager to learn, and Stanley guides him through this journey as only an older brother can: honestly and openly, yet with a bit of derision that comes from his own flawed understanding. As Eugene darts from one subject to another, and lets us in on his thoughts with frequent aside comments directed at the audience, we become his co-conspirators, in a way...and that is the root of much of the humor of the piece. We like Richard Davis in the role, so we are inclined to share his roller-coaster ride with the same enthusiasm he brings to it.

Pip Gordon's scenic design replicates a detailed two-storey house of the period, giving more credence to the production. And the actors' attention to authentic Brooklyn dialect [thanks to vocal consultant Daydrie Hague] lends even more credibility to the performances.

What keeps us attuned to the Jerome family are the themes that transcend time and place: people of principle, the bond of family, sacrifices we make for one another, charity seeking no recompense, the dignity of the individual...and a sense of humor...that is essential.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Depot at ASF "The Wedding from Hell"

U p d a t e :
After a brief successful run in Wetumpka, "The Wedding from Hell" transferred for two performances at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it played to sold-out houses much to the delight of the audiences. -- Under Kristy Meanor's direction, the shift from procenium to three-quarter-round staging was successful in keeping characters audible and in view of the audience, though some of the movement got a bit distracting [the recitation from Shakespeare's "Richard III" worked better with less movement].

Written by Depot members Tom Salter, Kristy Meanor, and Mary Katherine Moore, this 90-minute comedy takes a Southern wedding to ridiculous heights and includes "every redneck stereotype in the book" going through their dysfunctional paces at the "Miller-Light wedding" [get it?].

All the bridesmaids are called Brittney [as is the "pregnant" bride], there's a Bible-thumping preacher named Wanker, an effeminate wedding planner named Dash LaRue, frustrated beauty queens, clog-dancers, assorted drunks, a shotgun-toting father of the bride and his over-sexed wife, a social climbing ex-wife, and an Elvis impersonator among the 24-member cast of characters.

Some tightening has been made to the production since its first appearance, and singular hilarious moments have been improved. Especially notable is Merilee Robinson's "signed" interpretation of "The Rose" done brilliantly in dead-pan. It brought down the house.

Without exception, the actors continued their remarkable sense of ensemble without ever breaking character and without any attempt to try to be funny. And it is clear that they were enjoying themselves.

There is a lot of clever dialogue, and the situations get more and more complicated as time passes. It is too bad that an intermission was included -- the whole running time was just 90 minutes; a sustained hilarity would have been preferable.

Outrageous costumes, wigs, and props completed the picture, making "The Wedding from Hell" a rambunctious romp and a total delight.

ASF "Ferdinand the Bull"

This season's Alabama Shakespeare Festival "Intern Company" is taking the stage for the first time in the Octagon Theatre with a visually stunning production of Munro Leaf's children's classic "Ferdinand the Bull" under Nancy Rominger's direction. -- Adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarias, and with music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, the version expands the number of characters of Leaf's story, adding subplots that,while clever inventions, distract somewhat from the principal title character. We forget about him for much of the time.

Made famous first for its pacifist bias in 1936 -- Hitler & Franco hated it, while Gandhi admired it -- and later for the Disney film that garnered an Academy Award in 1938, "The Story of Ferdinand" introduced the world to Ferdinand, a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in a bullring. Despite taunting from the other bulls, and an accident that brings him into the corrida, Ferdinand sticks to his principles and refuses to fight. That's it, plain and simple...and a good message for young and old alike: "be true to yourself" and "not all brave people fight" are lessons for everyone.

There are many clever and humorous aspects in this adapted script and in the performances of the likeable cast. Duque Dodo [Ricardo Vasquez] speaks in an exaggerated Castilian accent, Cochina the Pig [Lauren Sowa] spouts Shakespeare, and there are numerous cliches like "bring home the bacon", "take the bull by the horns", and "high on the hog" that punctuate the dialogue and shift the focus away from Ferdinand.

Ferdinand [Matthew Baldiga] is urged by Cochina to behave like all the other bulls and take his rightful place of honor in the bullring, though she does not know that the bull gets killed at the end of the fight. And she believes that the right humans will recognize Ferdinand as the best bull. When she finds out, she tries to save her friend. Peaceful & quiet through it all, Ferdinand sits on a bee whose sting sends him into wild behavior that the humans misinterpret as ferocity, so they take him to fight. This episode went by so quickly that there was little time to respond to Ferdinand's pain before he was taken away.

Duquito Danilo [Michael Pesoli] is a counterpart to Ferdinand; he wants to be a flamenco dancer, but is too meek to thwart his father Duque Dodo's demands of becoming a famous matador, and he does want to please his father. -- Once in the ring, the most important fight he has is to fight for himself by dancing...and the Duque relents and praises his son's talent as a dancer. Ferdinand too goes back to the country to smell the flowers.

Spectacular costumes by Jeffrey Todhunter are a visual delight: colorful, authentic, and suitable for each character. And the set by Peter Hicks provides a bright landscape and a red-orange-yellow color pallet evoking the Spanish terrain; and a simple device transforms it into a bullring.

The lyrics to the songs are witty and further the plot, and the score suggests the Spanish culture.

Performances are endearing, and engage the audience -- even the little ones -- to interract with the dialogue.

There are dark moments that might frighten the very young; this play seems suitable for children 5-years of age and up.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Millbrook "Cotton Patch Gospel"

At their new home in the Robinson Springs School, the Millbrook Community Players are presenting "Cotton Patch Gospel" by Clarence Jordan, with music & lyrics by Harry Chapin.

Originally performed by one actor and a musical quartet, this version expands the cast to six actors, accompanied by a piano and four guitars. The Gospels of Matthew and John are turned into a down-home gentle retelling of the Bible re-set in contemporary rural Georgia.

Jordan's purpose was to tell the Bible stories in language that reaches out to ordinary people so they might better connect with its messages than through the standard versions. The expressions of "modern feelings, frustrations, hopes, and assurances" that come from this play have an immediate relevance to us all.

Over its two hour running time, we are shown the life of Jesus through the eyes and mouths of various disciples, primarily Matthew, played by Chris Perry who also directed this venture. In fact, the play is a virtual monologue for Perry; the other actors have few lines, though they do supply much of the singing.

As "Matthew & Co.", Perry both narrates the chronology of Jesus' time on earth and plays numerous persons throughout the narrative: Jesus, Mary, Joseph [Joe here], John the Baptizer, the Good Samaritan, Herod, Pilate, Judas, and many others. It is a tour de force that Perry is well-equipped to handle.

He can be a neutral narrator, a soft-spoken or angry Jesus, concerned parents, stern politicians, an evangelical preacher, and a troubled betrayer with equal ease and conviction. Quite the performance.

The familiar Bible passages are instantly recognizable in Jordan's version, allowing us to nod approvingly of the change in style. Songs often reinforce the messages of the episodes; for example, the admonition to "turn the other cheek" is sung as "Turn It Around"; other numbers like "Jubilation" or "Everybody's Lost Now" establish moods and commentary.

Musical accompaniment was top notch. Unfortunately, the sound system at the theatre made much of the lyrics impossible to hear. A combination of over-amplification of instruments with inadequate microphones for voices rendered so much of it incomprehensible. We got the messages because the Bible stories are so familiar, but could not hear a lot of the words.

"Cotton Patch Gospel" is both an earnest theological presentation and a comfortable entertainment that garners tears and laughter -- and compassion for one another.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Theatre AUM "Lysistrata"

An enthusiastic standing room only opening night crowd witnessed Theatre AUM's lively production of "Lysistrata", a masterful Old Comedy by the Greek playwright Aristophanes known for its frank depiction of sexual relations, witty double entendre, and very direct and hugely comical obscenities.

First performed around 411 BC during the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, today it is often played as an anti-war play [on March 3, 2003 it was produced around the world as "The Lysistrata Project" in an attampt to disuade the President from going to war with Iraq]; or with its title character the first female protagonist of its time, it is often seen as a feminist treatise.

Director Neil David Seibel chose to set his AUM production in the 1960s, and fills the scene with assorted flower-children clad in knee-high leather boots, mini-skirts, and mis-matched colorful patterned outfits on a set reminiscent of television's "Laugh-In", and firmly embraces the anti-war interpretation that only occasionally gets serious and which exercises a good deal of decorum in presenting the play's sexual subject matter -- ribaldry here, not lewdness.

Adding to the nostalgic setting -- one which pre-dates virtually all the cast members -- Seibel has chosen numerous popular songs of the 60s to further his points. Bookending the play with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" as an anti-war anthem, other titles such as "These Boots Were Made for Walking" and "Hit the Road Jack" target the feminist theme.

The women of Greece are both tired of a seemingly interminable and senseless war and sexually frustrated while their menfolk are absent. They are lead by Lysistrata [Shaina Pierce] to end the war and bring their husbands home by going on a sex strike. She calls a meeting of women representatives of all the city-states and has them swear an oath to deny making love with their partners until peace is declared --not an easy task considering that the women become equally frustrated sexually, yet one which ultimately and preposterously succeeds.

Characterizations are broad and bawdy, but retain an innocence and naivete due in part to the reminiscences evoked by the 1960s. The AUM actors were energetic and seemed to enjoy romping through the play's silliness. It is one of the traps of such a time location -- we either overlook or de-emphasize the serious issues of the day in favor of a feel-good nostalgia. And there were real issues in the 60s as well as today that fade into the background as we concentrate on having fun.

Aristophanes satirized men and women fairly equally in this play, and most certainly proposed some intelligent solutions to war -- compromise through political diplomacy for example. After the men -- notably Cinesius [Wes Milton comically uncomfortable in extremis as he desperately tries to make love to his wife Myrrhine (Sarah Worley) as she taunts & finally denies his advances] -- give in to the women's demands, Lysistrata [Shaina Pierce] forcefully explains that former allies can yet again be friends, and that we all have a lot more in common than we remember during times of disagreement.

There are some moments of hilarity in this production, though there is some unevenness in the overall production: tentative movement and sustaining character for example. Laura Bramblette as the Leader of the Women's Chorus creates a fine impersonation of Ruth Buzzi's old woman on Laugh-In, and received applause & laughs on merely making an entrance. As the ditzy air-head Calonice, Laura Selmon, complete with blonde wig and high-pitched voice, deserves our admiration. And the Old Men's double act played by Chris Howard and Mark Dasinger keeps the disguise going with reminiscences of Tim Conway's old man from Laugh-In and the Carol Burnett Show.

Ms. Pierce's Lysistrata is matched by Phadra Foster's Spartan Lampito; together, they are a major force to contend with, whether through biting dialogue or sheer physical dominance.

The staging is "traverse" style, placing the audience on two sides of the acting area. While this aids the intimacy somewhat, there are some challenges built in: actors must not face one side more than the other, and when facing away, they must be heard clearly. -- There were a lot of lines that simply could not be understood because of this arrangement; and this was further complicated by a lot of physical movement, whole-company dances, and the deserved audience responses.

In all, this was an enjoyable production that clearly delighted the opening night crowd, yet somehow -- the pleasantness and naivete of the 1960s dominating the proceedings -- the bite of the satire didn't penetrate quite far enough.