Friday, December 11, 2009

Millbrook "The Homecoming"

The Millbrook Community Players, now in their second year and settling into their new home, are currently showing "The Homecoming", Earl Hamner's touching story adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, and made familiar to television audiences as the basis for "The Waltons".

Joe Nolin, Jr. directs the production's large cast of veteran and novice actors from the local community. Although some of the staging appears static and cumbersome (moving some 28 actors around a small stage is no easy task), and there is some difficulty in characterization and vocal projection, the play's themes and messages for the Christmas season ring true.

Set on and around Spencer's Mountain in rural Virginia during the Great Depression, the story is a reminiscence of its narrator and central character Clay Boy [Daniel Harms], the eldest of the eight red-haired children of Olivia [Christine Lamar] and Clay [John Collier]. -- On Christmas Eve, with a blizzard paralyzing the community, Clay delayed on his return home from his job some 40 miles away, and only two-dollars remaining in their hands to celebrate Christmas, the family discover that they are rich in many ways despite their poverty.

Clay Boy's truthful accounts of his family -- flaws and all -- are his means to this discovery. Although he loves and admires his stern father, Clay Boy does not want to follow in his footsteps; rather, he wants to be a writer -- a profession his father bruskly dismisses -- and feels that his father does not understand him. His sister Becky [Katie Moore] throws tantrums at the slightest provocation (a sign of her frustrated adloescence); the younger sister Pattie Cake [Gracie Moore] wants desperately to believe in Santa Claus; and his mother is concerned for her husband's safety and her brood's happiness.

Resistant to accepting the charity of their neighbors, the family are nonetheless impacted by everyone around them: the simple friend Birdshot [Cory Jackson], the City Lady [Victoria Martin] who distributes hand-me-down gifts to the poor, the Rev. Dooly [D. C. Conyer] who guides his flock and Clay Boy with unaffected messages of the Christmas season, and most especially the Staples sisters [Kathleen McPherson and Ginger Collum] whose kindness belies their reputation for selling bootleg liquor.

Though Clay Boy's grandparents [Fred Neighbors and Gail Lombard] offer some practical advice, he must find out for himself that things aren't always what they seem, and it is the simple things that matter most: the homemade ornaments for their Christmas tree, the lovingly hand-made clothes from his mother, the gift of a turkey for their holiday dinner, the bonds of family that transcend poverty, and most of all his father's respect.

Monday, December 7, 2009

State of Alabama: ACT Awards

The Alabama Conference of Theatre presented its top three awards at a ceremony at Troy University on Saturday, December 5, 2009, in conjunction with the "Trumbauer" Festival.

The Outstanding Secondary School Teacher of the Year Award: Connie Voight, The Randolph School

The Marian Gallaway Award for contributions to theatre in the State: Chris Rich, Troy University

The Hall of Fame Award for pioneer service & contributions to Alabama Theatre: Michael P. Howley, Alabama State University.

"Trumbauer" Results

The results are in. -- The annual ACT "Trumabuer" Secondary School Festival was held this past weekend at Troy University. -- Individual awards were earned in numerous categories of acting, design, and other theatre areas.

In the "One-Act Play" competition, two schools earned the right to represent the State of Alabama next March at the Southeastern Theatre Conference's annual convention in Lexington, KY.

Kudos to:
(1) Huntsville High School -- "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"
(2) Spain Park High School -- "Jedem das Seine"

ASF "A Christmas Story"

-- "What do you want for Christmas?"
-- "..a legendary official Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built into the stock."
-- "You'll shoot your eye out!"

These lines are repeated frequently in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's delightful production of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, and brought to life under Geoffrey Sherman's clever direction by a company of professional actors and local students recruited from many Montgomery schools.

Anyone who has seen the television movie version -- and there were plenty in the audience for its sold out opening performance -- anticipates this dialogue and many of the signal moments in the life of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker: his imaginative adventures as a cowboy, his school friends and the local bully, the friend who gets his tongue stuck to an icy lamppost, the delivery of a leg lamp, an outrageous pink bunny pajama set, the unchanging meat-loaf and red cabbage dinner, and numerous exploits and anticipation on the way to Christmas morning's opening of presents.

And we see all of this through the lens of the grown up Ralphie reminiscing on his childhood in Depression Era Indiana, as he vividly conjurs his family, friends, teachers, and local characters for us to see...but more on this later.

The young student ensemble is top notch: from Hailey Covington's unnerving depiction of Helen -- the science wiz who can also fight like a boy; to MaryKathryn Samelson as Ralphie's younger brother Randy who always "has to go wee-wee" and hides in the most unlikely places; to Jackson Massey's bully, Scut Farcas, who gets his comeuppance in right good fashion; to Riley Segars' portrayal of Flick -- the bully's victim; to Claudia Hubbard's always patient Esther Jane, and to Schwartz [Nathan Looney], Sarah [Helen Taylor], and Bob [Matthew Sailors] who participate fully in each scene.

But attention must be paid to Seth Meriwether as Ralphie. No stranger to the ASF stage [he has appeared in "A Christmas Carol: the Musical", and made a significant impression in both "Over the Tavern" and "Richard III"], this young actor is in the process of mastering a comic technique and complex characterizations and already exhibits a high degree of proficiency and maturity. -- In "A Christmas Story", he is so natural in the role, and such a likeable personality, that we are continually engaged in his dilemmas and cheer him on to success.

The adults in Ralphie's life -- his Mother [Sandy York], his Father, the "old man" [Bryant Mason], and his teacher, Miss Shields [Jennifer Lyon] -- are more than cut-out versions of adults that children often perceive. Yes, they do have their foibles and peculiarities, yet: Ms. York is so unassuming in the role of the Mother, that we are delighted when she can supply answers to the trivia her husband is attempting to discover, and admire her ability to be the real strength in the family; Ms. Lyon's magical portrayal of the ever-optimistic teacher is a scene-stealer; and Mr. Mason's pompous "old man" with his "catalogue of invective...and...lexicon of curses" belies his compassionate treatment of his wife and children.

In a tour de force performance as the narrator -- Ralphie's grown-up self who can "triple-dog-dare you" to not love this show --Rodney Clark pulls out all the stops as the lively and masterful storyteller, a man who realizes the impact his childhood experiences had on him, an understanding of the adults who molded him with their love, an ability to see both the serious and the comic in life's everyday occurrences, and an actor's flexibility in developing each of these parts so completely and believably.

Thanks to Shepherd's [and Grecian's] wonderfully descriptive and insightful and imaginative dialogue, to a design team that provide the illusion of a nostalgic past, and to Sherman's sense of the comic proportion of this story, the stellar performances usher in a delightful Christmas season in Montgomery.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Red Door "Holiday Memories"

What a shame that there were only three performances of Truman Capote's "Holiday Memories" at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Director Fiona Macleod is celebrating her first anniversary at the Red Door with this production -- a fine one that sensitively brings Capote's characters to life in a stage version by Russell Vandenbroucke.

Largely narrative, this stage version replicates Capote's stories pretty much as they first appeared in print, challenging the actors to bring the characters realistically to life. The stories set at Thanksgiving and Christmastime are reminiscences -- the "memories" of the title -- of Capote's devotion to his cousin Miss Sook Faulk in Depression Era rural Alabama when he was seven and she was sixty-something.

As the older Truman [the main narrator], veteran actor Stephen Dubberley shares much of the storytelling with the younger version of himself called Buddy and played by Thomas Dyer. Together, they control most of the action and demonstrate a fine rapport in connecting the older man with his younger self.

Miss Sook is personified by Eleanor Davis, one of Montgomery's most accomplished actresses, in an evanescent portrayal of the childlike woman who teaches Buddy his most important lessons: that simple things are often the best, that trust and friendship outweigh material possessions, that deliberate cruelty is the only unpardonable sin, and that life & truly living it are precious gifts available to everyone.

Into their lives come a succession of relatives, neighbors, school-mates, an Indian "moonshine" dealer, and assorted eccentrics that exist mostly as tangenital outsiders to their almost enchanted lives wherein they tell stories, invent games, and engage in numerous "projects" that are reminiscent of simpler, quieter times.

All these characters are played by Summer Pickett Rice and Mark Moore, and are defined so individually that one might think there were more than five actors in the production.

Capote's prose evokes a previous time and gets into the very souls of his characters so accurately, and with a sensitive touch that Ms. Macleod interprets in an elegaic style through mood-setting music, an almost mystical set consisting of platforms and hanging muslin drapes bedecked with Spanish moss, and period-looking costumes. The deliberately slow pace and gentle vocal qualities of the actors complete this tribute to Capote's text.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Faulkner "Man Day"

"Man Day -- the Psuedo-Musical" opened at Faulkner University's Dinner Theatre this week. Written by students Chris Kelly, Daniel Monplaisir, and Michael Morrow -- three of Faulkner's manistay actors -- this "work in progress" shows a lot of potential, much of which is realized in the two-hour production directed by Jason Clark South.

The premise is simple: the three students [they play themselves] are challenged by Mr. South [a clever impersonation by Bibb Herrod] to write, direct, and produce a play as a requisite for passing a course. Their fictionalized personae have rarely attended class and are at a complete loss as to how to proceed. They have been too caught up in celebrating "Man Day" -- any day they set aside to luxuriate in "being men" by excluding women, watching mind-numbing television shows, weight-lifting, and sleeping. The tests of their manhood and the challenges awaiting them in being responsible for producing the play become the premises for the play itself.

With no clue as to how to begin, and allowing any idea full consideration, they ultimately determine to write a "sci-fi-western-mystery-horror-action-comedy-Christmas play" -- and they actually manage to do it. Of course, much of it makes little sense other than to showcase the 22-member cast's abilities as well as the authors' sometimes self-indulgent wit.

Kelly, Monplaisir, and Morrow do have considerable talent which negates their on-stage character depictions. And they have the maturity to allow self-mockery as they target their own "real" foibles for the audience to view. This is not just an exercise in narcissism, though there is a lot of that too: witness the weight lifting scene with one character an out-of-shape contrast to the other two.

They know their way around the theatrical experience. For example, an audition scene parades many eccentricities of inexperienced actors' audition behavior and material, and exposes an assortment of recognizable character types with a good-natured critical focus.

And they have surrounded themselves with student actors with their own abilities: Rebekah Goldman's deadpan Goth named Mary Rose is both a laugh and a threat; Chase McMichen's personification of the forgetful Derrick who must also prove his manhood is a continual puzzle; Josh Saylor and Jason Peregoy as the seemingly inept sword-fighters create very effective combat that is both entertaining and seemingly dangerous; Peregoy is credited as the fight choreographer -- excellent work here.

There is so much in this script -- character types, popular culture references, linguistic oddities, genre analysis -- as well as an attempt to comment on relationships and identity themes in largely comedic ways, that the action often moves very slowly and without much purpose other than to draw attention to itself. It would benefit from judicious editing and a faster pace; but, as this is a "work in progress" much can be forgiven.

Faulkner University's talent pool is large, and this show -- limitations and all -- gives proof to it.