Thursday, February 25, 2010

Faulkner: "Jane Eyre"

One of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, Jane Eyre has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times. The latest incarnation of Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece is being performed at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, this time as a musical by John Caird and Paul Gordon.

The story foillows Jane [Anna Sailors] from her youth as an orphan under the severe charge of her aunt, Mrs. Reed [Rebekah Goldman], to her time at the Lowood School where she fares no better as a charity case, to her eventual departure on her own to become a governess at Thornfield, owned by Mr. Edward Rochester [Chase McMichen], with whom Jane falls in love.

Bronte's novel contains a lot of criticism of the harsh Victorian practices of class discrimination and rigid governance at all levels; yet it also is a passionate work, with Gothic and Romantic overtones, that encourages the breaking of stereotypes, and favors people who are true to their principles. As an early feminist, Jane rejects traditional religion, proposes forgiveness as an important element in relationships, and shows that love between equals is attainable.

The Faulkner production under Angela Dickson's direction runs over two-and-a-half hours, partly because the script attempts to include so very much of the novel's narrative. We do get a rather complete picture on the stage, though some script editing would be in order.

Art Williams is the musical director who accompanies expertly throughout. The music, while pleasant enough, is dependent on a single motif for its numerous songs whose lyrics contain much of the narrative scope of the plot and characterizations. And much of it is played at a slow and deliberate pace which reinforces the atmosphere, though the plot plods along as a result.

The ensemble acting here is good, with some actors playing double roles. And the principal roles are effectively drawn through the actors' committment and the excellent singing voices. -- Sophia Priolo's operatic soprano is clear and light in keeping with her portrayal of the socialite Blanche Ingram. Abby Roberts plays Mrs. Fairfax whose deafness is the cause of much of the needed humor of the piece, and her rich voice blends well especially in duets.

Ms. Sailors and Mr. McMichen are well matched actors playing the fated lovers Jane and Rochester. It is clear from their first meeting that they are meant for each other, not so much in a superficial romantic way, but rather as intellectual and emotional equals. And their voices link them even more securely in the performance.

Faulkner continues to tap into their student resources, and the younger roles are played by talented local students; and some original artwork has been supplied by Madison Faile, whose portraits and sketches show promise of a successful future.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Millbrook: "Nunsense"

Starting off their fourth season, the Millbrook Community Players have a sure-fire hit on their hands with the very popular and zany comic musical, Nunsense. The play has made the rounds of countless community and educational theatres for years, some in the local area, and each one has had its own particular take on it.

Under John Collier's direction, and with Chris Perry's musical direction and Katy Hoffmaster on the piano, the seven featured actresses exhibit individual talents and a fine sense of ensemble performance.

The "Little Sisters of Hoboken" are holding a fundraiser performance event showcasing the assorted talents of the convent: singing, dancing, stand-up comedy, and ventriloquism are all included in the selections. -- It seems that they must raise sufficient funds to bury the four remaining of the fifty-two sisters who died of food poisoning accidentally brought on by tainted vichyssoise prepared by one of the nuns, Sister Julia (Child of God) [Shari Taylor]; and this must be done before the local health authorities inspect their kitchen.

The assorted talents of the sisters are showcased in the variety show they produce under the stern guidance of Mother Superior [Angie Mitchell]. Their black and white habits disguise their internal yearnings for performing: Sister Robert Anne [Brooke Brown] wanted once to be a musical star and can belt out a song with the best of them; Sister Mary Leo, the novice, [Victoria Martin] dreamt of being a ballet diva, the novice mistress Sister Mary Hubert [Felicia Swanner] sings gospel music, and Sister Mary Amnesia [Daphine McCormick] is an amazing country-western singer as well as a very funny ventriloquist. Even Mother Superior finds her untapped talent when under the influence of a street drug called "rush".

There is a lot of silliness in the script -- corny jokes and cliche witicisms about Catholicism and convent life, with songs like "Nunsense is Habit Forming" a throwaway line about "penguins", a Carmen Miranda impersonation, a tap-dancing chorus line, and a disastrous video called "Nunsmoke".

Yet all of it is good-natured fun that requires precise comic delivery, various high quality vocal styles, and an ability to be slightly risque without offending anyone.

There are still a few unresolved technical issues in Millbrook's new theatre space. Lighting has been improved but not yet enough for much dynamic variety; this should be resolved as new instruments are added. And the acoustics are so lively that the piano often drowns out the singers' voices or causes both tempo and pitch problems by blurring its sound to the actors.

The actresses in this production unquestionably have the requisite talents, and they also work as a tight ensemble unit. Hats off to them in this adventure.

AUM: "The Cherry Orchard"

Theatre AUM's season continues with a lively ensemble performance of American playwright David Mamet's spot-on adaptation of Anton Chekhov's masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard. Mamet's trademark concise language and attention to the comic nuances of serious situations is true to the spirit of the original Russian play, making its down-at-heels aristocrats and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie more credible than they have been in a long time. No more a dusty relic, this version of The Cherry Orchard is a truthful and provocative analysis of very pertinent modern dilemmas.

Mike Winkelman directs his cast with a keen understanding of various eccentricities of individual personalities -- the self-centeredness of some, the naivete of others, and the fact that many of us talk a lot without holding meaningful conversations; in fact, it is easier sometimes to avoid uncomfortable problems than to face them. We are nonetheless drawn into their lives through the flexibility of the individual voices and through Winkelman's wizzardly choreographic vocal and physical style.

In 1904, as the middle class is overtaking the aristocracy in her homeland, Mme. Ranevskaya [Rebecca Dennard is solidly making her mark as one of local theatre's strongest actors in the role] returns from France to her home in Russia on the brink of bankruptcy. Steeped in the class restrictions of her day, she is both unwilling and incapable of comprehending her situation, and does everything to avoid it until it is too late.

She is surrounded by her younger daughter Anya [Ariel Taunton plays her as a charming yet petulant adolescent], and various hangers-on in her retinue. At home, her older daughter Varya [Vivian Walker's prim behavior belies an undercurrent of passion] and her brother Leonid [Lee Bridges's erratic behavior & befuddled demeanor can speak volumes] have been keeping the house and estate in order during Ranevskaya's absence; yet neither of them has the ability to directly face the problem at hand.

Greeting them on their return is Lopakhin, a former serf on the estate who has come up through the ranks into the middle-class; he advises her to sell off the estate and cut down the celebrated cherry orchard on it to make room for holiday cottages and earn a steady income. In the role, David Wilson's practicality is ignored as incomprehensible, partly because he is their social inferior, and partly due to his stumbling behavior -- a mix of awe in his new-found social place, his admiration of Ranevskaya who had treated him kindly when he was a child, and his inability to break the social codes and declare his love for Varya.

The social boundaries keep everyone locked in place, even as the new order is being established; it is hard for all social ranks to adjust to the inevitable changes in their lives. When Lopakhin buys the estate at an auction, that is the last straw; the social order can never be the same, yet he is prevented from taking his place among the aristocrats.

Both serious and absurdly comical in subject matter, Winkelman has his actors speak more at each other than to each other -- each living in his or her own world for most of their stage time -- and much like today, most attempts at direct communication fail.

Val Winkelman's exquisite costumes are among the best ever produced for Theatre AUM. Her attention to period detail of shape and fabric, and her choice of colors and styles perfectly suited to the ages and personalities of each character completely support the director's vision and the playwright's intentions. Stunning.

Even the old servant Firs [Bill Nowell is masterful in this role], the last remnant of the devoted servant, lives so much in the past; he is left in a vacant house at the end of the play, ignored and forgotten while the cherry orchard is being chopped down.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Guest Review: ASU "A Soldier's Play"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley--Critic & Actress

Eager audience members mingling in the lobby of Alabama State University were surprised to find themselves joined by a company of young soldiers at attention, setting the tone for what proved to be an admirable staging of Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play", which ASU is entering into the 2010 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Fuller's play, which also won the N.Y. Drama Critics' Circle Award for best American play when it debuted in 1981, is a classic "whodunnit". The mystery is used to deliver an exploration of racism [both interracial and intra-racial] and the power struggles it creates. It uses well the red herrings created by people's mischaracterizations of others through stereotyping.

Set in 1943 at the then segregated U.S. Army's Fort Neal, LA, the play opens with the murder of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters. A light-skinned black man, Waters has schemed to use his rise through the military NCO ranks to raise his station in life, hoping one day that, by his successfully emulating white people, his children will rub elbows with the children of well-to-do white people.

The chief obstacle in his trajectory is "lazy and shiftless Negroes", especially "Southern Negroes", whom Waters says make a mockery of their race and damage any hopes of respect from whites. -- Throughout his military career, he has targeted these "geechees" in an effort to clear them from his environment, going so far as to kill a black soldier who donned a tail and danced like a monkey for white soldiers' entertainment.

When Waters, wel played by Andrew Preston, targets a beloved member of his unit, Private C.J. Memphis, to teach him a lesson and to set an example for the other black soldiers at the base, he sets his own demise in motion.

Captain Richard Davenport, assigned to investigate the murder, is a rarity himself. A Howard University graduate and an officer, he sees possibly more racial discrimination from his equals and superiors than does any other black soldier in the play. In his initial encounter with the white Captain Charles Taylor, he is told that his color signifies that the Army does not take seriously the investigation of the murder of a black sergeant.

Sayyed Shabbaz cooly plays Davenport as an "all business" sort who expects respect, if not for himself as a black man at least for his rank. His foil, Taylor, is matter-of-fact about the Army's regard for black soldiers and oficers. You expect Taylor to be derogatory and condescencing, and he is -- "Being in charge just doesn't look good on a negro," he tells Davenport. Yet Taylor sincerely wants to find Waters' killer or killers, even if they are, as he suspects, white officers within his own command. As for the suspects in Waters' murder, they are the usual ones when the victim is a black man: Ku Klux Klan members, white coldiers. But Davenport's keen eye detects something deeper.

When the silly and jocular, but oh-so observant Memphis saya of Waters, "Any man not sure of where he belongs must be in a lot of pain," he heralds an outcome for the audience: When power, pain and hatred mix, the damage will be great. Nepierre Green plays the "fool" Memphis with a touching authenticity; it's believable that this character can have sympathy for a man who constantly belittles him and his fellow soldiers for simply being who they are: young men who delight in their women, music, baseball, and hopes of getting a chance to fight Hitler's army.

The history between Waters and Memphis is relayed to Davenport during his investigation by Private James Wilkie, whom Waters stripped of his corporal's stripes for being drunk on guard duty, and Private First Class Melvin Peterson, who is the only soldier to stand up to Waters' abuse. Mikell Sapp and Julius Thompson, in the roles of Wilkie and Peterson respectively, deliver good performances throughout, particularly in their contributions to the ensemble in scenes with fellow enlisted men in their segregated unit.

While there are key elements of the story that are relayed in dialogue between a handful of central characters, much understanding of the world within the play is communicated by the ensemble that comprises the company of enlisted men. This young cast, featuring many of ASU's freshman and sophomore actors, manages admirably to convey life in a segregated Army and in a segregated country. The characters' life experiences as black men and black soldiers is complimented by the actors' honest portrayal of frustrated and energetic young manhood.

All this plays out on Alton England's cleverly designed set. The soldiers' barracks is authentic looking, and a moving set piece doubles as an interior and exterior setting. An obstacle course element triples as a roadside murder scene and a stockade. England makes good use of the theater's versatile but small stage.

The production's authenticity is greatly enhanced by the efforts of costume designer Ramona Ward. Even the creases in the soldiers' uniforms appeared to be military regulation.

Often overlooked, but powerful in this production, is sound design. Brandon Hubrins and Alexandra Phillips use percussion to convey presision, tension, and danger. -- Wednesday night's production pas somewhat plagued by sound cue troubles that have likely been cured for future performances.

"A Soldier's Play" tells an engaging story that all fans of mysteries and stories on the human condition and war will surely enjoy. It is imperative that the audience hears every line. This is sometimes made difficult however, by the young cast's mistaking fast delivery of dialogue for pacing [common among young actors], but it is not insurmountable. It is obvious too that some scenes were worked harder in rehearsal than others, but nothing truly falls short, and nothing seems overwrought. If anything, a larger flaw is that the physical tension and action in the smaller scenes between Taylor and Davenport and Davenport and the soldiers, does not match the tension in the dialogue. A few cases of tentative line delivery slow the pace and interrupt the strong characterization, but this too is minimal.

Director Brian Martin and his cast have taken on a complex and hefty pplay, and despite some unevenness among the major characters, they have delivered a strong production that took the audience in and earned their appreciative applause.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

City Equity Theatre/Birmingham at Huntingdon: "Bully"

Theodore Roosevelt was an extraordinary and multifaceted man: statesman, historian, conservationist as well as a hunter, author of over 30 books, devotee of physical fitness, foreign affairs mediator, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Harvard educated family man, and the 26th President of the United States. He had an extraordinary network of friends & aquaintances from ordinary citizens to celebrities and heads of state, and a forceful personality that sometimes aggravated others.

Those of us who were privileged to be in his company at Huntingdon College on Tuesday night, in the person of Birmingham actor Alan Gardner, were given a lot more than a history lesson. We were in the presence of a man whose sensibilities to the world around him in the early 20th Century still resonate today.

The two act play, written by Jerome Alden and directed by Alan Litsey, is called "Bully! An Adventure with Teddy Roosevelt" -- and what a "bully" adventure it is. -- For two hours, Mr. Gardner riveted the audience with an impressive catalogue of facts and historical detail delivered at an exhausting pace and with such verve and passion for his subject that simultaneously provoked analysis of the country and the world's condition 100 years later.

By the age of 42, Roosevelt had done more in his life than most can claim to have done by the time they reach old age. -- In 1912, having served two terms as President, he is urged by some to run for another term, and from his Summer White House at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island, he discloses to the audience the admiration he had for his father, his love of family, the devastation he experienced at the loss of his first wife and his mother on the same day, and the numerous experiences that shaped his long-term philosophy -- a joy of living, a sense of purpose, admiration for strength of mind-body-and-character, a patriotism that becomes infectious, and a suitable realistic understanding that practicality governs most business, and an insightful message that "any politician who doesn't like publicity is a dead politician".

In Act II, though he loses the Republican candidacy to Taft, he doesn't go down without a fight. Taft's political machine was too strong, despite Roosevelt's popularity in the polls. -- We can see via Mr. Gardner's uncanny personification of T. R. that it is still common that men and women of character, those with courage, honesty, and common sense and who are committed to service, are overcome by the ruthlessness and selfishness of the politically powerful...yet they are never defeated.

Gardner lavishes upon us a tour-de-force tribute performance that too few Montgomerians shared. It deserves a longer run. Regardless of our own political convictions, the man on stage on Tuesday was admirable in so many ways: both in the persona of Theodore Roosevelt, and the actor, Alan Gardner.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Red Door: "Catfish Moon" (and a local restaurant)

Early in Act II of Catfish Moon, Laddy Sartin's gentle comedy now playing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, the title of the play is explained: a "catfish moon" foretold good fishing. As one character observes, "people knew how to read the signs", and keen observation of nature affords mankind the necessary information to survive...It also serves as a metaphor for the lives of the four characters in this excellent ensemble production.

Three boyhood friends, now middle-aged, meet at an old fishing pier where they shared many moments of their youth. Nostalgic reminiscences and various attempts to recapture the past make it clear from the start that their former innocence can not be revisited with any certainty. Life has changed them all, and they have not read the signs of ageing very clearly. Their personalities have not changed much over time, but their flaws and foibles, their awkward and stumbling attempts at reviving a youthful intimacy, now get in the way.

All this is done on a remarkable realistic set provided by the Troy University Theatre Program. The details of a decaying wooden pier and surrounding tree trunks and waterside greenery transform the Red Door Theatre and create an appropriate mood.

Curley [Randy Thornton] is the "big brother" of the threesome who brings his friends Gordon [Steve McCary] and Frog [Mark Moore] out to the pier with a scheme to buy the property and a boat and turn it into a refuge for them to escape the routine of business and re-live the past: "We used to enjoy life; now it's passing us by", he exclaims, but is warned that "sentiment and business don't mix".

Curley's sister Betty [Peggy Brown Thornton] is recently divorced from Frog, and now is dating Gordon, which threatens the friendships that Curley tries so hard to sustain.

Mr. McCary's portrayal of Gordon in his bashful attempts at intimacy and reliance on the Horoscope Hotline for romantic advice is depicted honestly in all its bumbling, and when he slips "off the wagon", his drunken behavior is both hugely comical and thoroughly credible. -- As Frog, Mr. Moore starts out as a one-note firebrand, but settles into the role honestly as his character realizes the truth of relationships. -- Mr. Thornton plays Curley's intense determination to recapture his life and his need to bring together and arbitrate arguements among everyone who has ever meant anything to him with a conviction that only late in the play is explained. -- Yet, it is only Ms. Brown Thornton's Betty who has read most of the signs clearly. Her every gesture and textured line readings are a model of comfort and consistency.

Under artistic director Fiona Macleod's astute direction, these ordinary people and the plainness of their dialogue become so comfortable for the audience that it is easy to engage with them. The restraint of the cast in depicting their characters so naturalistically is admirable. And while no epic action occurs [only occasional shouting and virtually nothing is fast-paced], the production's leisurely deliberateness establishes that these characters have grown accustomed to one another and accept who they are without question. And so do we.

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Dining in Union Springs
Whether you live nearby or travel a distance, the "Union Pizza Company" across the street from the theatre serves exceptional Italian food at reasonable prices, and has a "Pre-Theatre" menu featuring main courses as well as pizza & sandwiches. Portions are more than generous, and the atmosphere is rustic trattoria -- but it is the quality of the food that counts. Fresh ingredients and authentic recipes by chef-owner Gary Weiss make this a destination restaurant that surpasses anything within 150 miles.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

ASF: "Harriet"s Return"

Seven days into Black History Month, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is presenting "Harriet's Return", author and actress Karen Jones Meadows' stirring tribute to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who went on to become a noted "conductor" for the Underground Railroad, a "General" under John Brown, another "Moses" and "Mother Harriet" to countless abused victims of slavery.

A tour-de-force two-and-a-half-hour performance by Ms. Jones Meadows tracks Tubman's life from childhood to old age, wherein she portrays some 30+ characters who intersect and often re-appear in Harriet's eventful life.

The play sets the themes of Tubman's life with her modern-day counterpart defiantly and aggressively indulging in a diatribe against stereotypes of African Americans' and their self-loathing for succumbing to white society's judgements. None too soon, she transforms into the young Araminta ["Minty" as she is known], her vivid red evening dress changed into a shapeless brown sack.

From then on to the end of Act I, we follow her treatment and shame at the hands of "masters" and other slaves, her connection to family, the injury that makes her "stupid" and creates the voices she hears for the rest of her life, her realization at age 14 that "I'm growed" and insists on calling herself Harriet, her marriage to the unfaithful love of her life John Tubman, the advice she receives from Mama and Papa Drake, and her eventual escape to freedom in Philadelphia.

Act II picks up the action as she helps free her family from slave conditions in the South. "God came through for me," she says, "and I'll come through for him." Scene after scene recounts the now familiar history of her exploits with abolitionists and the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, her work with Frederick Douglass and John Brown, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Emancipation Proclamation, her move to Auburn, NY where she faced the snobbery of former slaves now living a better life, and founding a home for old and indigent former slaves before going on a successful lecture circuit to educate anyone who would listen.

Quite a lot to fit into an evening; and though some scenes are drawn out beyond their dramatic interest, there is no doubt about Ms. Jones Meadows abilities as a performer and a writer. She has an ability to switch characters -- sometimes with a mere shift of posture -- and a vast arsenal of voices that distinguish each role with conviction.

But the play is more than this. The earnestness with which she admires her subject gives the story a vivid life of its own. And the longer we stay in her passionate presence, we can not help but be influenced by the messages she provides: problems are fixed from within, each life should have a purpose, every individual can make a difference, even bad experiences make us stronger, it is all people's responsibility to pass on their knowledge and wisdom.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wetumpka Depot: "Second Samuel"

A full house and a well-earned standing ovation greeted the Wetumpka Depot Players at the curtain call of "Second Samuel", the inaugural production of this, their 30th Anniversary Season.

Atlanta playwright Pamela Parker's well-crafted and Pulitzer nominated play is set in the fictitious small town of Second Samuel, Georgia in 1949, where everyone knows everyone else's business, or so it seems. -- The recent death of the town's matriarch, Miss Gertrude, impacts the lives of the citizens and reveals their assorted eccentricities, relationships, and secrets...often in the most outrageously comical ways.

The stage is divided into four acting areas: the Change Your Life Hair and Beauty Shop, reminiscent of "Steel Magnolias" where the town's women gossip, is balanced by the Bait & Brew "social club" as the men's counterpart; in the center is Miss Gertrude's porch, and in front of it is a tree stump where much of the narration takes place.

Parker's tightly-woven plot -- and director Tom Salter's attention to its details and rhythms -- bring an honesty of perspective to its themes of tolerance of race, gender, personalities, disabilities, or virtually anyone who is "different." The script's balance of humor and pathos, certainty and doubt, accusation and forgiveness keep our attention throughout. -- And the multi-talented ensemble of novice and experienced actors find nuances that elevate their characters from stereotypes to complex individuals.

Miss Gertrude had touched so many lives that virtually everyone wants to contribute to the party at her house after the funeral: the beauty shop owner, Omaha Nebraska [Kristy Meanor], volunteers to do Miss Gertrude's hair for her burial, and many others are willing to pitch in. But when she reveals a secret, their hidden prejudices emerge. What first seemed fairly benign, provokes arguements and conflicts stemming from the observation that everyone has peculiarities they don't want to be made public. -- And it is up to someone to calm things down.

That someone is the narrator & central character, a young man named B-Flat who, despite his mental disability and often strange behavior, has more sense than all the rest of the characters put together. He is one of the town's "outsiders"; the other is his best friend, a black man named "U. S." [Bobby Mays], who tends bar in the Bait & Brew.-- Miss Gertrude had looked after B-Flat from his childhood, and he is devoted to her as much after her death as during her life.

In an extraordinarily detailed portrayal by Jonathan Conner -- faltering speech, facial tics, palsied fingers, nervous gestures, perceptive commentary, honesty and clarity of thought, and an uncanny ability to switch attitude in mid-sentence -- B-Flat's strangeness appears so natural and the characterization so complete, that audiences relate to his predicament without any reluctance. Our sympathy for B-Flat's disability disappears, and is replaced by affectionate understanding and acceptance of one another's differences.

Director Salter allows his actors time to explore the subtleties of character, and allows the themes to emerge slowly and without fuss or heavy handed preaching. Whether by unison speech, comic timing, spurts of anger, sensitive conversations, solo or group harmony songs, or physical arrangement of characters, his production is a clear celebration of how best to find acceptance in the community and in ourselves.