Saturday, April 30, 2011

Red Door: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Alfred Uhry's popular prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy is showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs under the sensitive direction of Fiona Macleod.

With countless stage presentations, and a film version to its credit, and several Broadway revivals [the current one stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones]Uhry's play provides plenty of opportunities for its three-member cast to demonstrate their skills and remind audiences of the importance of friendship.

In its numerous episodes, Uhry recounts the twenty-five year relationship between Daisy [Anne Brabham], a well-to-do elderly Atlanta Jewish matron, and her African American chauffeur Hoke [Stan Cooks] who was hired by Daisy's son Boolie [Danny Davidson] despite his mother's protestations of impinging on her independence. When Boolie instigates getting his mother a chauffeur, he is met first with refusal, then resistance, and finally capitulation. Throughout the 2+-hours' playing time, Mr. Davidson's patience pays off as he maneouvers her to thinking she is making decisions on her own and is in control.

In Ms. Macleod's gentle handling, the journey taken by Miss Daisy and Hoke builds in its numerous episodes from fractious resistance to growing comfort, outspokenness, trust, and friendship. -- Unlikely as it is from their first moments together [especially considering the racial & social chasms between them in 1948] by its end in 1973, these characters have changed along with the times.

As Daisy, Ms. Brabham is unflinching in her insistence that she is neither prejudiced nor putting on airs, yet she continually treats Hoke as an inferior in both subtle & direct ways, and it is to her credit that the steps in her journey to self-realization are almost imperceptible and that in her final days it is he alone she wants for company.

Whether in quiet domestic scenes, travelling in a sequence of more modern cars [suggested on-stage by chairs and a steering wheel], facing a bomb-attack on Daisy's Temple, attending a banquet for Martin Luther King, Jr., Daisy teaching Hoke to read, or criticizing Boolie's wife's cooking and celebrations of Christian holidays, this production makes the most of mixing humor and pathos to truthfully depict the humanity of its characters.

Mr. Davidson is utterly convincing as Boolie; his frustrations in satisfying his mother's whims conflicting with his love for her are done with humor and compassion as he attempts to ease most conflicts with the refrain: "You're a doodle, Mama."

Mr. Cooks's Hoke is an animated and clever representation of a man used to the prejudices against him and his race who nonetheless is his own man who gets what he wants through charm and wit. Though he slyly negotiates the terms of his chauffeur's contract with Boolie, he is unselfish in his care for a woman who resists him, making Daisy realize that ultimately he has become her only and truest friend.

This Driving Miss Daisy chalks up another in a long line of successful Red Door Theatre productions by Ms. Macleod.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Faulkner: "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

Based on the 1903 play and novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, the musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel [music by Frank Wildhorn; book & lyrics by Nan Knighton] has been entertaining audiences at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Set during the "Reign of Terror" at the time of the French Revolution, it is an adventurous romantic tale of passion and political loyalty that capitalizes on the strong singing and emotional strength of its principal characters, directed by Angela Dickson, with astute musical direction by Randy Foster.

Famous Parisian actress Marguerite St. Just [Austin Woddail] marries English dandy Percy Blakeney [Daneil Monplaisir] on the eve of the Revolution and moves with him to England while her former lover Chauvelin [Chase McMichen] and Robespierre [Bill Nowell] the leaders of the internal police -- the "Committee of Public Safety" -- continue bringing countless accused criminals to the guillotine, including ones Marguerite had unintentionally named as traitors.

Appalled by the cruelty of the police, Blakeney and several of his friends decide to mount a secret underground counter attack, announcing their intentions by letters signed mysteriously with a drawing of a red flower -- the scarlet pimpernel -- that becomes the nickname of the leader, Blakeney, whose identity is a secret to all but his closest allies.

When Marguerite's brother Armand [Jared Roberts] is arrested, Chauvelin threatens to reveal Marguerite's past romance unless she will help in finding "The Scarlet Pimpernel". -- The moment of reckoning will be at a masked ball thrown by the Prince of Wales [Allen Young], as Chauvelin hopes to unmask the "pimpernel" and win Marguerite back; but he is to be thwarted.

Along the way, tensions mount, deceptions abound, and audiences are treated to the strong choral and individual voices of the cast who render Wildhorn's extraordinary musical score with confidence. -- From the frightening moments at the guillotine to the silliness of the men's chorus of fops, the chorus fills the hall.

But it the individuals who hold the day: Ms. Woodail's clear soprano solos are tastefully rendered and emotionally truthful; Mr. Monplaisir's comic strength is also matched with a dramatic flair and a romantic intensity in the love duets with Marguerite.

Mr. McMichen, as Chauvelin, is given the most dramatic opportunities to shine in vocal interpretation...probably his strongest role at Faulkner to date. He demonstrates a fine capacity for investing emotional character-driven intensity to each moment.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has something in it to suit all tastes, and Ms. Dickson's company provides a fine interpretation.

Friday, April 22, 2011

ASF: "Julius Caesar"

Knowledge of Roman history -- especially in reference to Julius Caesar -- relies for many people on Shakespeare's dramatization of his assassination and its aftermath. From school studies on, they can quote short passages from the play: Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." for example.

But, while Shakespeare's version of history isn't completely accurate, he does tell a good story with a lot of rhetorical bombast meant to rile up his audiences against the threat of tyranny and the self-aggrandisement of individuals who drag down "government by the people" in the guise of restoring it to health. A play about loyalty, patriotism, and friendship, Julius Caesar is set in Ancient Rome, but sounds like today's headlines -- evidence of its universal appeal.

Hats off to ASF director Geoffrey Sherman who dresses his actors in togas, allowing the words to speak for themselves instead of imposing some modern dress concept as an attempt to make it relevant. -- It is Shakespeare's words produced by expert actors that carry the power of this production. Familiar as many of the speeches are, the words resonate freshly from the mouths of the cast.

Audiences are encouraged to participate in chanting dialogue as the crowd of Roman citizens, calling for "Caesar...Caesar" on his triumphant return to Rome, and "We will be satisfied..." when conditions change. -- This technique [evidence exists that Elizabethan audiences often called out during performances] did engage some of the audience, though at times it interfered with hearing important words or seeing important stage action.

Caesar [Rodney Clark] enters to overwhelming support from the crowd, but is immediatley warned by a Soothsayer [Greta Lambert makes the most of a small pivotal role and masterfully portrays the character and speaks the words brilliantly] to beware the Ides of March, and it is clear that some people -- Cassius [Thom Rivera] and Brutus [Stephen Paul Johnson] -- are not celebrating as much as the others, fearing that Caesar wants to be an absolute ruler, and causing a conflict between their fears and their admiration for Caesar. Meanwhile, Antony [Peter Simon Hilton] is ever faithful to his friend and his country.

As the conspirators plot Caesar's assassination, leaving Antony out, there are several incidents that test their mettle and their beliefs. Prophecies and dreams are, from the beginning, very significant elements in the plot and behavior, and it is the concerns of Caesar's and Brutus's wives that make up much of the human responses to the events. Brutus's wife Portia [Jenny Mercein] provides a telling insight, and Caesar's wife Calphurnia [Tara Herweg] gives warning with an honest sensibility.

The assassination at the end of Act I is sufficiently bloody for any modern taste, and though Caesar is absent from then on [except as he returns as a ghost in Act II], Mr. Clark's presence is so strong that one can believe he is there. -- So, it is Brutus who demands attention from then on, becoming the central character; and it is his dilemma, his questioning of his own patriotism, whether his participation in Caesar's death was justified, and what is to become of Rome now, is the focus of attention.

The famous debate between Antony and Brutus pits two rhetoriticians against one another, and it is to the credit of both Mr. Hilton and Mr. Johnson that each man's testimony seems completely honest. Shakespeare's speeches for each are in dynamic contrast and utilize tested persuasive techniques to sway their audiences. And how good it is for us to hear the words with such clarity and passion.

The "triumverate": Antony, Octavius [Corey Triplett] and Lepidus [Erik Gullberg] maneouver for power and eliminate most of the conspirators at the Battle of Philipi. And Brutus, by now resigned to his fate and anguished over his participation in killing Caesar, falls on his sword, becoming in Antony's words "the noblest Roman of them all".

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

ASF: "Much Ado About Nothing"

What a pleasure to once again attend a Friday night opening at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It is more of an occasion, and a pleasant way to end the day. Would there were more of these night-time openings, especially with high quality productions like Dianna Van Fossen's bright, funny, and intelligent rendering of Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. -- She invites her audiences into an exotic world: India in the 1930s, near the end of the British "Raj".

Costume designer Brenda Van der Weil's period British military uniforms and tailored frocks, along with Indian saris & turbans [and the clowns in an outrageous admixture of "guru", boy scout, organgrinder monkey, and an outrageously overdone red-jacketed guard uniform], and Peter Hicks's evocative and elegant set provide this world for Shakespeare's play.

In Much Ado, Shakespeare created some extraordinarily witty and comical lovers in Beatrice & Benedick -- constantly arguing with one another in games of one-upmanship, neither ready to admit love for the other, though everyone else knows it to be so -- and it could be the world today with wars and personal intrigues everywhere, concern for multiculturalism as the world is gradually changing, so many people quick to judge others on flimsy evidence or worse -- causing untold damage by constantly repeating lies with an authoritative voice, making these lies the only "truth" they know.

The Prince, Don Pedro [Thom Rivera] takes up residence in the home of Governor Leonato [Stephen Paul Johnson] on his return from a successful military campaign; in his retinue are the aforementioned Benedick [Peter Simon Hilton] and the younger Claudio [Erik Gullberg] who falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero [Catlin McGee] and proposes marriage. Pedro's bastard brother Don John [Phillip Christian] schemes against both the marriage and his half-brother, enlisting Borachio [Brik Berkes] and Conrad [Seth D. Rabinowitz] to trick Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful.

Before their plot can be put into action, Beatrice [Jenny Mercein] and Benedick -- both adamant in their refusal to capitulate to love, and Benedick vowing to be an eternal bachelor -- engage in some of Shakespeare's wittiest repartee about the nature of love and marriage, which Ms. Mercein and Mr. Hilton produce with seeming ease and vitality of character that we instantly like them and want them to be together. Despite their denials, their friends determine to have each one "overhear" reports that each passionately loves the other; and what comic results there are of this trickery, with each now believing the other is in love.

When Claudio denounces Hero at the altar due to Don John's plotting, she swoons and is later reported as dead, and Leonato and his brother Antonio [Rodney Clark almost steals the show with his slow but certain comic descent into drunkenness] demand repentance of Claudio for defaming Hero. And Beatrice demands that Benedick get revenge.

In a most clever turn, Shakespeare creates a loveable clown in Dogberry [Eric Hoffman is brilliant in the role], the local constable who unintentionally misuses words so terribly and is a contrast to the glittering language used by Benedick & Beatrice. -- Additionally, it is he and his cohorts who by sheer accident capture the evildoers and bring them to justice.

All will end happily -- it is, after all, a comedy -- with music and dancing after the assorted lovers are convincingly reunited and Benedick renounces bachelorhood when Beatrice says she will have him. Ms. Van Fossen ends with a "Bollywood" dance that sends us all away feeling happy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ASF: Moonlight and Magnolias

"Tara's Theme" -- the evocative signal music of Gone With the Wind -- fills the darkened Carolyn Blount Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, conjuring memories of the film classic. Lights come up to reveal film mogul David O. Selznick's MGM studio office in Hollywood in 1939, as he cries out in disbelief: "You didn't read the book?!?!?", starting the merriment of the next two hours on stage.

Selznick was in a jam: he had shut down production of the long-awaited filming of Margaret Mitchell's novel, fired director George Cukor and pulled director Victor Fleming off the lot of The Wizard of Oz as a substitute, discarded innumerable scripts, and brought in prolific script writer Ben Hecht to re-write the screenplay in five days. It made no difference that Hecht had not read the book. Cost was no matter. Selznick was on a mission. He needed a save his marriage to partner Louis B. Mayer's daughter, to put the studio and himself in top place in Hollywood, and to emerge from under the shadow of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg.

All this is true. -- What happens in Ron Hutchinson's witty script of Moonlight and Magnolias, directed by Geoffrey Sherman, is a fictionalized account of what might have ensued behind those locked doors, with only bananas and peanuts for sustenance, communication with the outside world prohibited except for occasional food deliveries and intercom messages from a secretary, and personalities and ideologies clashing.

For a full appreciation of Moonlight and Magnolias, it is important to know GWTW; but Hutchinson's script provides more than adequate details of its plot, characters, and dialogue for most any attentive audience to understand the basics and to enjoy the farce before them.

The five days it took to accomplish Selznick's charge are described in three scenes that delineate the physical and mental degeneration of the project's participants -- their dishevelment and frustrations building -- along with the growing detritus of paper, banana peels, and peanut shells that litter the stage.

There is a lot of ego in the room. Each man argues his own importance to the project. Hecht [Brik Berkes] the writer claims words are the soul of any film and that his words are the best, while Fleming [Thom Rivera] insists that the director's vision brings those words to life and that he knows how to shoot it. Pragmatist Selznick [Eric Hoffman] says that "the little people who go to the movies" have the power to make or break a film, and that he knows what they want -- melodrama [not real life] -- and he knows how to deliver it.

Much of the delight to audiences is to watch these egos collide...and collide they do. What starts off somewhat innoculously with Selznick and Fleming acting out scenes as the book's characters while Hecht labors at a typewriter to get it all down becomes increasingly frustrating when Selznick insists that all the dialogue must come directly from Mitchell's novel, and Hecht insists that no Civil War movie ever made money and that certain parts of the book [Scarlett O'Hara's questionable moral stance, a white person slapping a black person, for example] risk censorship from the fearsome Hayes Office, and should not therefore be filmed.

In 1939, the onset of World War II around the corner and Hollywood prejudices against both Blacks and Jews add some seriousness to the proceedings of Moonlight and Magnolias.

Hecht, a real life civil rights activist and avowed Zionist, provides a kind of moral center to the play, and Mr. Berkes has some settling moments amidst the mayhem as he faces-down Selznick's stubborn refusal to admit his own Jewishness. And his physical embodiment of writer's cramp -- stiff gnarled fingers from days at the typewriter -- is matched by a clever cramp in the leg as well.

Fleming, whose directorial vision is marred by a burst blood vessel in his eye, is another clever script point that Mr. Rivera capitalizes on, and when after Hecht & Fleming attempt to leave, but have second thoughts and stay because they had promised to do so, there is genuine sincerity in the decision.

Secretary Miss Poppenghul is played by Nandita Shenoy as a stereotypical wide-eyed, almost robotic bimbo, complete with a mincing tip-toed bounce of a walk and high-pitched voice. Portrayed with complete conviction by Ms Shenoy, it is an odd choice and out of the established naturalism of the men's roles. Though there are many opportunities for developing the character's frustrations at deflecting the persistent entreaties of Mayer, actress Vivien Leigh, and others to get a phone-call connected to Selznick [frustrations we can only imagine since most of her time is spent off-stage], there is hardly a sign of it throughout her several all-too-brief on-stage appearances, so her exhaustion at the end of the play is surprising.

The actors in Moonlight and Magnolias are a fine ensemble who demonstrate a lot of comfort and generosity for one another, and whose energy is admirable, but it is Selznick's vision that drives the script. He knows what sells, and the MGM motto --"Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art for Art's Sake") means little to a man determined to sell GWTW as a melodrama. In the person of Mr. Hoffman, the powerful character of Selznick fits like a proverbial glove...whether cajoling Hecht and Fleming, outrageously impersonating characters while acting out the plot of the novel, evading the unpleasant reality of impending war in Europe, or being defensive about his Jewishness...he never loses sight of his objective; and after five grueling days of merciless dictatorship, he knows he has accomplished what he set out to do, probably saved his marriage, believes he has a potential hit on his hands, is confident that his reputation will be secure, and resumes the cool and polished countenance of a successful businessman. -- Image, after all, is also what sells.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Theatre AUM: "The Great Easter Egg Hunt"

There's a lot of silliness going on at Theatre AUM. Thursday night's sold-out crowd was treated to a raucous two hours of Ken Jones's The Great Easter Egg Hunt, a lively and irreverent send-up of small town Southern culture, as the zany residents of Umatilla, Florida continuously sabotage one another in their quest for a golden egg and the promise of prizes and the right to reign as king or queen over the town for the next year.

Director Neil David Seibel is at the helm of the mayhem on stage. Told in episodic short scenes, much of the first act introduces various teams of provocateurs -- couples in love or lust, matronly gossips, rednecks, members of the local rifle club, and a local judge who imbibes too much home made cider -- and they could be our neighbors.

Hardly any of them are nice people, yet we are drawn into their lives by the very audacity of their characterizations. The gossip-mongers are so quick to judge others and spread only nasty rumors, considering themselves to be unassailable in their conviction of superiority. The local bad-girl who flaunts her reputation hides the fact that she is actually fairly nice so she won't be lonely [a good study of contradictions by Tina Neese].

The conflicted lovers Will [Mickey Lonsdale] and Perry [Andi Klimetz] are at the center of the plot. Constantly at odds with one another -- he is "smart" and has been accepted to Harvard, and they quibble about nuances of vocabulary that get misinterpreted at every turn with neither of them willing to budge. If either of them finds the golden egg, they might be doomed to remain in Umatilla (which both want to leave) and never realize their dreams.

Some of the roles are little more than caricatures -- and nasty ones at that. The redneck Dumpling brothers [Clem, Horseshoe, and You] are embarrassingly dumb, and the rifle-toting members of the gun-club just "have to shoot someone". When confronted with "You don't shoot someone without a reason", the retort is "Sure you do: this is America." It seems that "manhood" is defined in part by shooting a gun. Frightening, isn't it? And no wonder that Will & Perry are so intent upon leaving.

LaBrandon Tyre does an excellent job of portraying the judge as he becomes increasingly out of control from drink, even hallucinating that Will is Jesus and that he is experiencing "the rapture". Mr. Tyre's antics are hilarious.

Sarah K. Worley plays Perry's mother -- Lambie -- with a mix of flamboyance and a sense of rightness, and shows how appalled all of us should be at the behavior of the citizens of Umatilla.

While most of the characterizations are meant to be laughable, Wes Milton's depiction of Herring Pernell [one of the hunters in short-cropped hair] is downright frightening and dangerous, even when walking around in boxer shorts emblazoned with college football insignia. -- There are several moments in the comic action that provide a more serious cricicism of the goings-on in Umatilla.

E. John Williford, III's set design is detailed with a high degree of realism, taking the audience into the realm of a small town, and affording actors plenty of space for their grotesque behavior...and the actors are uniformly committed to their roles, taking us on a wild journey for about two hours.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Millbrook: "Anne of Green Gables"

The Spring season is underway in Millbrook with the Millbrook Community Players' production of Anne of Green Gables, Joseph Robinette's affectionate adaptation of L. M. Montgomery's classic.

Directed by Chris Perry with a wealth of local talent -- some 38 in all, mostly area school children -- the staging capitalizes on these talents by providing on-stage opportunities for so many neophyte actors.

For those unfamiliar with the book or with several film and television adaptations of it, the story of orphan Anne Shirley's [Jubilee Lofgren] teen years begins as she is reluctantly adopted by kindly brother and sister Matthew [Joe Nolin, Jr.] and Marilla Cuthbert [Renae Perry] whose house -- "Green Gables" -- is the idyllic location on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Red-haired, green-eyed, freckle-faced, and skinny, Anne bemoans her plain looks and dreams of escape to both physical beauty and overly-romanticized places. In fact, she describes most everything she experiences with over-the-top melodramatic language and gestures sourced, no doubt, from exposure to the popular novels of the day.

Teased and ridiculed by children and adults alike, Anne is befriended by a neighbor girl Diana Barry [Elizabeth Knott], a local popular beauty, and they swear to be "bosom friends" for life.

Anne talks a mile a minute, sometimes imprudently, her imagination working overtime -- annoyances that nevertheless endear her to others. She is very intelligent, too, providing competition to Gilbert Byrne [Cory Jones], a local Lothario and the smartest boy in school. Their love-hate relationship adds a spark of youthful romance to the plot.

Most of the other characters are drawn with bold strokes -- nohing too subtle: Ms. Lofgren's broad gestures and declamatory speaking especially make her stand out from the crowd, while Mr. Nolin's and Ms. Perry's more naturalistic styles serve as contrast.

Angela Pietrzak turns in a simply conceived performance as local busybody Rachel Lynde who, it turns out, has a softer side. And Pamela Trammell's no-nonsense rendering of Aunt Josephine Barry is a model of controlled solid naturalistic acting.

Fitting several years into its two-hour & twenty-minute two acts, the production often feels choppy, as scene changes stop the action during long periods of stage darkness. Either adding music during these changes, or overlapping action from two scenes, might help.

Mr. Perry's actors have for the most part overcome the accoustical challenges of Millbrook's theatrical space, though some voices are hard to hear because he has staged the actors facing off-stage instead of angled towards the audience.

All in all, this Anne of Green Gables is a sweet tribute to the goodness in all of us, enabling us to settle our differences with generosity and compassion.