Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ASF: "Blood Divided"

Blood Divided by Jeffry L. Chastang is the second world premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this month marking the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War almost to the day of Jefferson Davis's inauguration on Goat Hill in Montgomery.

A companion-piece to Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's The Flag Maker of Market Street, and playing in rep with it, Chastang's powerfully moving drama that also emerged from the Southern Writers' Project was enthusiastically greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation at Sunday afternoon's opening performance.

Like its companion-play, Blood Divided explores relationships among people with close relationships -- either blood relatives or surrogate family -- whose political and social philosophies are at such odds that they bring about critical conflicts not easily settled.

On the eve of Alabama's secession from the Union, we are introduced to a quartet whose intertwining lives and changing relationships are central to showing Mr. Chastang's themes: patriotism and racism, family bonds and political conformity, reason and custom, youth and adulthood, Federal Union and Confederate States -- all of which speak directly to 21st Century concerns.

Dr. William Baldwin [Jack Koenig] and his son Willie [Sloan Grenz] in many ways have a typical father-son relationship -- the adolescent boy wants to declare his independence, and the father holds on to his authority. Where they differ most importantly is in their separate stands on slavery and secession. The boy's youthful assessment of slavery as "natural" goes against his father's having freed his slaves. It does not matter that Willie's prime surrogate father is a freed slave named Jim [Billy Eugene Jones], the overseer of Dr. Baldwin's plantation and with whom he has an easy comfort as equals; he does not comprehend the contradictions of this behavior with his proclaimed beliefs.

Baldwin's closest and most unlikely friend is William Yancey [Brian Wallace], whose adamant and passionate support of the Confederacy is in direct conflict with Baldwin's pro-Union sympathies. But Yancey's charisma infatuates Willie to such an extent that he too supplants Baldwin as a father-figure and influences the young man's independent yearnings.

Under Nancy Rominger's scrupulously egalitarian direction [unquestionably her best effort so far at ASF] -- no easy sides to take here, as each person and each conflict is given its due, and with completely credible performances that illustrate the complexities and ironies within each of them, the human stories underlying the socio-political conflicts rivet our attention from beginning to end.

The ensemble actors depict essentially good men, though each is flawed in some way, making them accessible to us today. Mr. Koenig's textured portrayal of Baldwin, his steadfastness in trying to understand others' beliefs & actions, and his drive to do what is right while knowing the cost, make him a father to emulate. Mr. Wallace's depiction of Yancey's arrogance and audacity to risk even his life for a cause he holds precious and his inability to compromise show laudable attributes, and his leadership ability is unquestioned. Mr. Jones shows the contradictions of a freed slave: his independence is essential, though he retains several signs of humility & subservience for his own survival; and his easy open relationship with Willie is perhaps the most comfortable relationship on the ASF stage. Willie as performed by Mr. Grenz is utterly convincing in his adolescent behavior and immature rantings, yet this is tempered in later scenes as life experiences both reaffirm some concepts and bring others into question.

The sensitive collaboration of playwright-director-actor effects audiences throughout the two-hour performance, making them reassess their own beliefs and understand how so many of the play's conflicts are still with us. -- How is it, for example, that "we all come into this world slippery and screaming" as equals, but that our cosmetic differences bring about so many conflicts? How is it that "common sense" reveals such disparate conclusions? How is it that conscientious debate between intelligent sparring-partners turns too often to violence and division? How is it that misinformation is taken as truth when it is repeated often enough? How is it that an entire race of people can be vilified in one breath, and that an individual in the group can be regarded only as "an exception" to the accepted norm without negating the general premise?

The tragic ending to Mr. Chastang's drama appears inevitable [Willie enlists in the Confederate Army & goes into battle never to return], yet it is touching. If some solace can be gained from the loss of a loved one, a person with such potential, it might be that we forsee a better future, a greater understanding of one another. -- It has been 150 years since the Civil War started, and though progress has been made, we're not there yet.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Theatre AUM: "Art"

Yasmina Reza's one act play Art has become an industry in itself, grossing over $30-million worldwide since its 1994 debut in France, and in its receiving numerous awards for playwrighting, acting, and productions.

Its latest incarnation is currently showing at Theatre AUM under the cautious direction of Val Winkelman on Michael Krek's appropriately minimalist set.

Cautious it is, taking a scant hour to complete -- an hour that rushes through many moments that call out to be savored at some length, or that seems tentative in allowing silences so audiences can digest its glittering dialogue, its provocative ideas, and its complex relationship developments. -- Nonetheless, its ensemble cast of three talented actors debate the nature of art, but more importantly disect their relationships and try to comprehend the value of friendship.

Often referred to as a "play for actors", Ms. Reza's script affords each one plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their various skills. -- The plot is simple: Serge [La'Brandon Tyre] has just bought an all-white painting by a well-known artist named Antrios for 200,000 francs. His two long-time friends have quite different reactions both to the painting and to the price. Marc [Chris Howard] hates it and doesn't mind saying so, while Yvan [Wes Milton], who never wants to offend anyone, is ambivalent.

If this sounds familiar, AUM's recent production of Moliere's The Misanthrope also analyzes how speaking one's mind, or trying to be politically correct, or allowing others' opinions to dictate one's own self-worth, often create tensions and cause people to reassess what means the most to them. -- So it is here.

Though there is no explanation of how the 15-year friendship among them began, though the "all white painting" central to the debate is both textured and contains various shades of white & cream [choices that remain puzzling], and though the art critisicm is given slight attention, the play's tight structure, its combination of dramatic scenes interspersed with short "aside comments" or more lengthy monologues, its even balance of attention on all three characters, its witty dialogue, and its moment-to-moment plotting make it an actor's dream to play.

As the men meet by twos and then by threes, they discover not only that each one keeps secrets about their private lives, but about how they truly feel about one another. Marc is seen as a smug and insensitive sort, Serge as an art diletante, and Yvan as a henpecked wimp though it is two weeks before his wedding day.

As tensions build, the defenses come down, and gradually each man changes a bit. They have all realized that words can hurt, especially when they are trying to defend something they believe in that others attack. And sometimes words are inadequate.

Ms. Reza modulates her script so it starts relatively slowly, builds to an inevitable fight and has a slow denouement. Along the way, we see the silliness of being too attached to material things, the arch pretentiousness that begs to be quashed, and a milquetoast get a bit of backbone.

Ms. Winkelman stages her actors in several triangular positions, highlighting the interdependence of the relationships, and the actors -- to a man -- distinguish themselves in embodying their characters most credibly, displaying their acting talents with energetic enjoyment, and serving Ms. Reza's words.

Red Door: "Country Songs"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs continues to bring insightful interpretations of minor plays on Southern themes, this time in a production of Country Songs by Judy Simpson Cook.

Set in 1986, Cook's play explores the familiar themes and situations besetting Southern women seeking independence from thier men. This time, Mildred [Johanna Hubbard] -- another in a long line of cosmetologists a la Steel Magnolias -- is a spirited middle-aged wannabe country songwriter who attempts to break out of a humdrum existence while doling out advice to anyone who will listen, particularly to high schooler Carly Ann [Charity Smith], whose adolescent dreams of proms and life-after-high-school are highly romanticized.

Mildred's best friend Earl [Beau Shirley] tells her that country star Laverne & the "Catawba River Music Makers" are coming to town and that Mildred's ex-husband Dwayne [Dustin Anderson] is the band's coordinator...he might just be able to get Laverne to play one of Mildred's songs and provide her the means to success.

Hovis [Robert Moorer] is Mildred's current beau who doesn't want to see her get hurt and is justifiably jealous of Dwayne; Mildred just can't seem to forget him even years after their marriage broke up.

Mildred's philosophy -- to "be whatever you want" and to "make independent decisions" and "not be guided by what other people might think of you" -- comes back at her with a vengeance as she must reassess her own fear of being alone, and her true motives for wanting so much for her song to be played: Is it for herself and what she really wants? or Is it at least in part to show up Dwayne and declare her independence from him?

As the men in her life express their love for her, Mildred is forced to make a decision: Dwayne's attempts to rekindle their past relationship is sabotaged by his interference in getting the song played; Hovis's earnest romance is half-heartedly returned; and Earl's persistent and often embarrassing intrusions that he intends as protection keep him in the "best friend" category.

There is some extraneous comic relief in the characters of Chester & Lester [Travin Wilkerson & Joseph Crawford], two bumbling grease-monkeys who can fix anything wrong with a car, but who are too embarrassed to set foot inside Mildred's female emporium.

First time director Anna Perry creates a fine ensemble out of the "all Bullock County" cast -- the first time at the Red Door. She affords each character its moments to shine, allowing audiences to identify with their problems, and achieving a good balance of humor and seriousness. Their truthful characterizations make them appear all the more human, not easily seen as either good or bad, but rather as flawed, just like all of us.

Ms. Perry directs at a steady pace that could be enhanced by quicker scene changes and by a variety of intensity that could drive pivotal scenes and get actors to walk more purposefully, thereby adding interest to an already solid production.

There are some standout performances here too. Mr. Shirley's sincerity as Earl, and his physical comfort, dead-pan delivery, and impeccable comic timing add dimension to his character. And in the central role, Ms. Hubbard carries every scene with conviction and flexibility that make her confusion and frustrations emerge as utterly believable with hardly a trace of stereotypical behavior.

We can all learn something from this play: the value of friendship, the necessity of compromise, the pursuit of dreams, and the homespun philosophy that "there's nothing better than sweet potato pie, but too much of it will make you sick."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Faulkner: "Steel Magnolias"

The show must go on! --- Faulkner University's production of the popular comedy Steel Magnolias certainly followed this hallowed dictum on Friday night. With one cast member down with the flu after the opening performance, and her replacement called away on a family emergency less than 30-minutes before show time, veteran Faulkner actor Kari Gatlin took the stage book-in-hand, and with generous support from fellow actors and backstage crew, kept the show alive for its sold out audience.

Ms. Gatlin played Clairee, a wealthy and wise-cracking matron in a small Louisiana town who, along with several other women, meets regularly at Truvy's [Brooke Brown] beauty parlor to get their hair done, to gossip, and to find refuge from their men. The shop, on Jason Clark South's detailed naturalistic set, is a woman's domain where no self-respecting man would dare to enter, and where the women literally and figuratively let their hair down.

Playwright Robert Harling created this comic gem in 1987, and his insightful rendering of women's relationships and Southern attitudes have not lost their apeal.

Under Mr. South's able direction, Faulkner's six veteran actresses create a fine ensemble where no one character dominates; yet each one emerges as a distinct personality we all recognize from life around us.

Familiar from its many professional and amateur productions in and around Montgomery, as well as from its popular but flawed film version, Steel Magnolias lets us into the intimate lives of these women who meet regularly at Truvy's where a sign proclaiming "There is no such thing as natural beauty" signals Truvy's philosophy, though it is contradicted by the lives of the women.

Ms. Brown's vivaciously brash and compassionate Truvy hires a secretive wallflower named Annelle [a clever evolution into "membership" in the girls' club by Heather Baker] as her new born-again shop assistant on the day of a local beauty queen's wedding.

Everyone is curious about Annelle's background but get distracted by Shelby's [Sophia Priolo] wedding plans. Pretty in pink -- her signature color -- and with the soft-spoken charm of Southern gentility, Ms. Priolo shows Shelby as a woman of her own convictions that her well-intentioned mother M'Lynn [stalwart Rebekah Goldman] disapproves -- decisions ranging from hairstyles & color coordinated wedding flowers, to not taking her diabetes "medicines", to choosing a life-threatening pregnancy.

The group is complete in the entrance of Ouiser [LaVera Brown], a no-nonsense antagonistic sort who, as played with brutally comic honesty by Ms. Brown, adds pepper to the stew as a character we love to hate, and who heightens the on-stage energy of all her compatriots.

As witty and caustic repartee between Ouiser & Clairee, and mother-daughter disagreements between M'Lynn & Shelby reveal the closeness of their relationships over the play's two acts, and with Truvy moderating them and Annelle offering simple wisdom as advice, the women all gain strength from one another as they rely on the group's unity.

Though life can often be unfair, and as one character puts it "That which does not kill us makes us stronger", the women's natural beauty triumphs at the end.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Millbrook: "The Mousetrap"

A dark and stormy night -- a snowstorm, that is; telephone lines are down; a set of eccentric and suspicious characters have arrived at a remote English guest house called "Monkswell Manor" a drafty building that hundreds of years earlier had been a monastery and whose new proprietors are an inexperienced young couple about to celebrate their first wedding anniversary...and the radio proclaims that the murderer of a woman in London might be in the area. -- So begins Agatha Christie's tale, The Mousetrap, which premiered in 1952 and has been continuously running ever since, making it the longest-running play in history, and which is now being produced by the Millbrook Community Players.

Long considered to have set the gold-standard of the murder mystery genre, the play continues to entertain audiences; half the fun of seeing a play of this sort is in trying to figure out "who done it", by peeling away the layers of plot and circumstance, the "red herrings" that distract us from the truth by leveling suspicion on several of the characters before a twist-ending that reveals all. Christie herself admonished her original audiences not to reveal the ending in order that fresh audiences would be startled by the result. -- That convention is still acknowledged today, so don't expect to read the answers here.

Let's just say that nothing is exactly as it appears; every character has both opportunity and motive for the crimes, so no one is above suspicion.

Mollie and Giles Ralston [Madyson Greenwood & Doug Greenwood] play the newlyweds with sincerity and conviction. One can sense their struggling with the grand opening of their inn and trying to make the best of it. Their inexperience in managing their assorted guests' demands and eccentric behavior is engaging.

As the paying guests arrive one by one, and the storm blocks them in, there is nothing to do but try to make things as comfortable as possible. -- Mrs. Boyle [Hidi Loop] is a cantankerous sort who is hyper-critical of virtually everything and intollerant of anyone else. Christopher Wren [Daniel Harms] is a strange unkempt young man who delights in nursery-rhymes and fantasy life. Major Metcalf [Roger Humber], a salty old coot, flows with the punches. And Miss Casewell [Kayle Georgiafandis] is a masculine looking loner. -- And then an unexpected guest arrives seeking shelter from the storm; Mr. Paravicini [John Chain] is a lively Italian who wears make-up and can't seem to explain much of his background.

Before the phone goes down, a call from the police tells them that an officer will soon be there, as he suspects the London murderer will be in the vicinity because he is mysteriously connected to another murder case that happened years ago at a farm near to the Manor.

When one of the guests is killed, the interrogations begin. After all, since they are isolated by the storm, the murderer must be one of them.

True to the murder mystery form, all will be revealed through various interrogations and re-enactments; though each time suspicion lands on one character, something else is revealed to shift attention to another. -- And this ensemble company make the investigation worthwhile for the audience, sustaining interest and allowing us to be convinced we have identified the culprit before the conclusion.

Director Susan Chain guides her experienced and neophyte actors through the plot's complexities, allowing each moment and each piece of the puzzle to get its fair share of attention, but she misses out too frequently on making each moment contribute to building tension so necessary in this genre by giving each one the same emphasis. A varied pace would help too in establishing a rhythm of highs and lows that is missing here.

Frequently, the actors' voices can't be heard -- partly due to the poor acoustics of the theatre, and partly due to the actors' weak projection -- but can be made clearer with focussed effort in the use of the voices.

Regardless, The Mousetrap can capitalize on its long reputation as a model of the form, and the Millbrook production makes it work.

Monday, February 7, 2011

ASF: "The Flag Maker of Market Street"

To mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned through the Southern Writers' Project two companion-plays by writers with Alabama connections to be set in Montgomery in the 1860s. The first of these world premieres, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's masterfully provocative The Flag Maker of Market Street, opened on Sunday, challenging audiences to come to terms with the myths and dilemmas that revolve around the South both then and now.

In its two hours, audiences are transported back to just before the Civil War, when secession from the Federal Union caused friction within families and between friends who had divided sympathies, when the economy of the South was at risk, and when the institution of slavery was being threatened -- a whole culture was in tumult -- a time, like today, when entitled people instilled fear in the common man through intimidation and twisting facts, when fine manners disguised the brutality underneath, and when choosing convenience over what is right often ruled the day.

Ms. Wilder (the author of the prize-winning Gee's Bend that also premiered at ASF), has a gift for writing dialogue that drives her plots and distinguishes her characters & their conflicts so well that they come to life as authentic to time & place while telling compelling human stories.

Basing her characters on actual Montgomerians of the period, though admittedly not attempting to be historically accurate in all its details, the playwright sets her play in the Dry Goods Store of George Cowles [Jack Koenig], a Unionist who owned slaves and who had ordered 200 sewing machines whose sales he thought would make him rich. His friend William Bibb [Brian Wallace], a fiery big-talker Union sympathizer, believes that Cowles should refuse to make a Confederate flag when he is asked to do so by Jefferson Davis. But Cowles enlists his newly-purchased slave Mae [Nikki E. Walker] to sew it. Lydia Frost [Adria Vitlar], a prominent local socialite with impeccable manners & charm, buys a machine and agrees to take sewing lessons, but keeps putting it off as she gets caught up in the festivities surrounding Davis's innaugural, and is thoroughly unaware of her tunnel-vision in support of the Confederacy or of her own duplicity in her treatment of people, especially slaves.

From the start, it is clear where the playwright's sympathies lie. In two monologues -- the first from Cowles who bemoans the economic divide between the haves and have nots, and who sees the impending war as about both money and ideological patriotism; the second from Mae as she relives her painful 30-lashes whipping and the strength to endure that she gains from memory of her husband in his love and quest for freedom -- we see the struggles of the South to make sense of its contradictions, of its need to "make people feel good about themselves" regardless of the cost, and of the inevitability of change. -- Pretty heady stuff, that had the opening performance's audience quietly assessing the play's themes at the intermission and after the performance ended.

But these words receive their impact through the expert direction of Leah C. Gardiner and the sensitive ensemble acting. -- One might quibble at the use of exaggerated Southern accents that can be discomforting as they can create unintentional caricatures, though here (especially in Ms. Vitlar's depiction of Lydia Frost) they effectively depict the deceptive nature of her character, one who becomes ever-increasingly frightening and crude and ultimately pathetic in her intractable insistence on her rights. In one scene particularly, she claims to be humiliated, though she has just humiliated Mae, and the picture of the two women side by side -- the one proud & haughty, the other humble and bowed -- leaves a lasting image.

Mr. Wallace's portrayal of Bibb is filled with contradictions. On the one hand, he avows the Union cause, on the other he rarely acts on his words, preferring others to do what he can not bring himself to do. His political debate with Cowles is one we could be having today -- "our rights are being taken away", "the country is falling apart" sound painfully familiar in light of recent debates of our own. And his inability to comprehend Cowles's dilemma -- to make the Confederate flag vs. to risk his livelihood for not doing so -- shows him as a counterpoint to Lydia's intractability.

And Mr. Koenig's Cowles, a man fraught with conflict & dilemma on the general political arena, is not so conflicted in his relationship with Mae. He sees in her what others do not or can not because of their blinkered vision. For others, Mae is a non-person, an invisible, one who can be overlooked or trampled without a second thought; but for Cowles, she is a talented person who can read and write and "figure" even though it was against the law for slaves to get an education, and he recognizes her abilities and trustworthiness, taking her into his confidence and thereby risking the wrath of the powerful. Mr. Koenig's ability to depict these conflicts (including a contradictory behavior in owning slaves while being sympathetic to the Union) and manage an ironic tone in many an encounter with Bibb and Lydia, provides an insightful characterization.

As Mae, Ms. Walker's ability to inhabit the slave's subservient posture [head bowed and not looking a white person directly in the eye] while communicating her independence from these accepted social restraints, and her adapting to each moment to ensure survival, as well as her uncomprehending delight at being treated as a human being by her white master, create a multidimensional character whose small triumphs should be celebrated.

Together, this ensemble creates an absorbing drama that approaches Ms. Wilder's subjects straightforwardly, leaving us to ponder them long after the curtain falls. There are no easy answers to the issues -- after all, many of them are still with us -- and the play concludes on a moment of both moving forward and taking a stand.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "First Baptist at Ivy Gap"

Now in its 31st season, the Wetumpka Depot Players are currently offering Ron Osborne's comedy, First Baptist at Ivy Gap, and playing to sold-out audiences.

Set in the church's fellowship hall (on a realistic reproduction of a period rural interior), at first in 1945 and in Act II in 1970, its talented ensemble of six women -- their strengths and their issues -- is familiar to us all: Wanda [Edith Ellington], the feisty preacher's wife and compassionate comfort-giver, Luby [Sherida Black], the anxious widow whose son is serving in World War II, Olene [Kami Scarborough], who flaunts her dreams of becoming a Hollywood star, Mae Ellen [Merelee Robinson], the church's renegade organist who also wants to escape small-town life, Sammy [Jen Tuck] the community's outsider, and Vera [Valari Lagrone Radford], the rich and influential snob.

Though they try to put aside their differences to serve the Lord while rolling surgical dressings for the Red Cross, it is clear from the start that these Christian women all like to gossip, and "love hearing things that shouldn't be said". Yet, some of their unspoken secrets and yearnings threaten this small group's unity.

In Act II, another war is going on, and their lives have changed in many ways: Sammy's oldest son is serving in Viet Nam, Luby has become a recluse since her son died in World War II, Olene in her return for the church's 100th anniversary almost scandalizes the women with her career "success", Edith, Mae Ellen, and Vera remain -- but all six of them have softened with age and experience, though their individual personalities remain intact.

Director Carol Heier guides her cast gently through the simple plot, and makes the most of its slight material. Osborne revisits many of his themes about the strengths that women give to one another [seen recently in a production of his play Wise Women at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs] -- and is reminiscent of the Depot's production of The Dixie Swim Club.

First Baptist of Ivy Gap is a familiar and predictable piece that nonetheless shows how forgiveness and simple values and friendship -- and time -- can heal even deep wounds and misunderstandings.