Sunday, September 26, 2010

ASF Interns: "the House at Pooh Corner"

Nancy Rominger's production of The House at Pooh Corner is a sweet, gentle, and utterly charming showcase of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's new Acting Intern Company.

Adapted by Bettye Knapp from the A. A. Milne classic, scenic designer Brave Williams transforms the Octagon Theatre into a cut-out picture book reminiscent of the original's illustrations, and Aaron Turner's clever and colorful costumes make for instant character recognition.

Running at about an hour -- not too long for young children's attention, and long enough for the parents who accompany them -- the action only occasionally lags while the story unravels.

Christopher Robin has called an emergency meeting of all his favorite companions, the stuffed animals surrounding him in his childhood, each with its own personality that makes them more alive in his imagination than any real-life character.

But, what is the emergency? Is it to build a house for Eeyore to stay warm in, or to escape the "roaring yellow animal" that is rampaging through the woods? -- No...Christopher Robin's emergency is that he is about to be sent "away to education", something he resists with all his might in order to remain with his playmates and not grow up [stay tuned to on this theme for Peter Pan that opens at ASF in November].

En route to Christopher Robin's inevitable departure -- one which he ultimately accepts -- the characters demonstrate how teamwork succeeds when adjustments are made to others' contributions, that change is a necessary element of growing up, and that lasting friendships are based on unquestioning love and accepting others for what they are.

This group of young actor-interns show evidence of becoming an ensemble, much like the characters they portray with simplicity and directness. They become the characters.

Corey Triplett's Winnie-the-Pooh, the "bear of very little brain", is gentle and unassuming, while Brett Warnke's take-charge Rabbit serves as a strong counterpoint. Tara Herweg [outstanding as Kanga] is a no-nonsense motherly figure, the "adult" voice of reason in the group who firmly but lovingly controlls her enthusiastic son Roo [Kevin Callaghan]; and Caitlin McGee is genuinely innocent as Piglet.

From his first moment on-stage, Seth Rabinowitz's portrayal of Eeyore, slow of movement, downcast of eye, and philosophically resonant of voice, captures the audience's heart.

Erik Gullberg plays three roles -- Early and Late Rabbits nicely contrasted in behavior and costume, and the pogo-sticking energetically loud Tigger, this last that could steal the show were it not for Gullberg & Company's generosity to one another that allows each to take focus appropriately.

Christopher Robin and Owl are played by Tyler Jakes, a clever choice of doubling, as Christopher Robin is reluctantly facing adulthood and Owl represents wisdom. Jakes shows each character distinctly -- the youthful internal conflict of the real boy is sensitively drawn, while the birdlike mannerisms and authoritative demeanor of Owl are clear opposites.

Children respond to the animated actors and are drawn into the action so much that responses from them to an on-stage question are delivered without hesitation. -- Adults can enjoy this too, though the dialogue frequently appeals on a grown-up level [Question: "What does 'organize' mean?"; Answer: "Delay!"], and songs that mimic Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" elicit an older generation's recognition and approval.

Watch for these actors in the upcoming ASF season. If this production of The House on Pooh Corner is any indication, their contributions should be eagerly anticipated.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cloverdale Playhouse: UPDATE

On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, some 250-300 invited guests, Mayor Todd Strange, Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby, the theatre's Board of Directors, Board Chairman Dorman Walker, Morris Dees [the mastermind behind the project], and several dignitaries filled the soon-to-be-refitted Cloverdale Playhouse in Montgomery, and were treated to a concert by award-winning soloist, Bruce Hornsby.

Introduced by WSFA television newscaster Mark Bullock, the emcee for the evening, Hornsby's two-part concert received standing ovations for his versions of many hits in assorted musical styles, and he regaled the crowd with stories about his collaborations with the likes of Don Henley, Willie Nelson, and others.

The event served to celebrate the naming of the theatre: "In recognition of her lifetime dedication to community theatre, [largely over some 40 years at the helm of the Montgomery Little Theatre] the Board of Directors voted unanimously to name the Cloverdale Playhouse's stage the Elizabeth Crump Theatre."

Additionally, the lobby of the theatre is named the Sara Hardt Mencken Lobby, for native Montgomerian and wife of H. L. Menken, a celebrated writer herself, and an aunt of local artist Anton Hardt.

Both Elizabeth Crump and Anton Hardt were in attendance to receive deserved applause and recognition for their several contributions to theatre, the arts, and the Cloverdale Playhouse.

It was also announced that the Cloverdale Playhouse is consulting with creative director Peter Brosius of the award-winning Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis to help develop a children's theatre component of the Playhouse.

Designs for the planned renovation of the theatre by Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, Inc. were on display at the reception following, designed by Bob Vardaman.

Thanks were extended to the many individuals who have contributed to the renovation fund, spearheaded by Mike Jenkins IV, which is anticipated to be complete within a short time so the renovations can begin.

-- Funding is still needed, as are volunteers.
Contact Emily Flowers at (334) 294-4390 or at for information.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Millbrook: "Play On!"

The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. have announced an ambitious 7-play 2011 Season while producing this year's penultimate production of Rick Abbot's "Play On!".

Directed by Chris Perry, this three-act comedy rings a lot of familiar chords for anyone involved in amateur dramatics. Tracking a second-rate theatre company's doomed production of a cliche-ridden murder mystery penned with daily re-writes by the playwright, the plot goes from a rehearsal to a dress rehearsal to opening night as personalities clash and frustrations mount.

It doesn't paint a pretty picture of community theatre, though much of its content accurately depicts its foibles: actors who can not separate their stage roles from their off-stage lives, some who show up without learning their lines, unfinished props and sets, a mishmash of sound cues, a director more concerned with taking coffee breaks than directing, and tempers flaring at the slightest provocation...certainly the fuel for a lot of laughs, especially of the self-reflective type.

Here are local veteran and neophyte Millbrook actors playing actors who perform roles in a play, challenging them to distinguish one from the other, a task managed pretty well by the company in an ensemble performance. -- The trick here is to play each stereotype with conviction: for example, the ditzy teenaged actress concerned with late-night curfews and looming high school exams plays a maid whose role in Murder Most Foul serves to do little more than set the scene and introduce characters. In the role, Kristi Taylor shows those elements as high school gradually overtakes the other, resulting in ever-increasing volume and pace in the actual performance.

There are additional challenges in this production. First, the accoustics in the Millbrook theatre render speech almost unintelligible during rapid-fire and impassioned exchanges, of which there are a lot in "Play On!".

Second, Abbot has written clear characters and clever stereotypes, and though this company does show them individually, they are played with the same intensity throughout, with everyone at the same loud volume and same fast pace, that much of the play's humor is lost and characterizations get a bit muddled.

Millbrook newcomer Derrick Lovett [playing Saul Watson who plays Doctor Rex Forbes in the play-within-a-play] turns in the most distinct performance. Gifted with a clear voice, supple body, and animated face, Mr. Lovett's mannerisms in both roles are finely tuned to each, and his ability to switch personalities mid-sentence shows an admirably disciplined actor. He is engaged in every moment, and is therefore eminently watchable. Even his riotously funny "extended death sequence in rehearsal" transforms to a more simple one in the "performance".

The Millbrook Community Players keep finding new talent which should come in handy for their December production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and for next year's season.