Sunday, October 9, 2011

ASF: "Dracula"

Vampire-mania is clearly with us [see Twilight, True Blood, et al.], so what better way to prepare for the upcoming Halloween season than with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's suitably dressed-out version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula as adapted by William McNulty.

Played straightforwardly [along with some appropriately melodramatic comic renderings of dialogue] by a talented ensemble of veteran ASF actors and newcomers to the Montgomery stage on Peter Hicks's gloriously Gothic & period sets, director Geoffrey Sherman allows his actors to find nuances of character to suit McNulty's well-crafted and literate script. -- Yes, there are the familiar lines that draw audience responses [for example: "I never drink (pause)" says Dracula; and, of course on hearing a wolf's howl: "Listen to them, the children of the night; what sweet music they make!"]; but these and others are spoken with conviction of character that fit the script without further comment.

Brett Rominger's eerily lush musical score, claps of thunder, and plenty of smoke introduce us to a Nosferatu monster [Craig Hanson] -- with long fingers & sharp mails, a hunch-back, and bulging bald head -- as he takes his first victim in a graveyard, a child [Ella Grace Johns]. A fluid scene change to Dr. Seward's large Victorian-Gothic consulting room: Abram Van Helsing [Paul Hebron] is ushered in by Irish housekeeper Margaret Sullivan [Jennifer Barnhart]; when she leaves him, Renfield [Greg Jackson] enters pretending to be a doctor/consultant, though he is one of the inmates in Seward's hospital.

It is clear from the outset that all is not well: Renfield's strangely erratic behavior and his regular attempts to escape, his eating of live animals beginning with flies, then rats, then..., and his references to "forces beyond his control" are a study in madness and he has to be kept under control by asylum attendant Briggs [Brik Berkes]; Seward [Keith Merrill] is "paralyzed with grief" over the mysterious death of Mina [Sandra Struthers Clerc] and the failing health of Lucy Westphal [Mairin Lee], caused, it seems, by certain wounds on her neck, and has summoned his mentor Van Helsing to solve the matter.

The mention of a new neighbor, Count Dracula [Juri Henley-Cohn], impacts Van Helsing immediately, and when Dracula insinuates himself into the house and seduces several of the people there, Van Helsing's diagnosis is that Lucy does not have a disease, but is in thrall of the un-dead...Nosferatu...the vampire. Soon, Dracula also controls the housekeeper.

When Lucy's fiance Jonathan Harker [John P. Keller] returns after having made his escape from Dracula's castle in Transylvania, the hunt is soon on to find and destroy the monster Dracula.

The story is so familiar, that there is no doubt about the ending; the delight is in the journey to it; and there are a few surprises. -- Yes, there will be blood [not too much]; yes, there will be special effects, some of which are startling, and all of which are accomplished so that audiences wonder "How did they do that?"

Mr. Berkes returns to ASF after successes last season to a strong showing here, and Mr. Hebron -- too long away from the ASF stage -- is exceptional as Van Helsing. Ms. Clerc and Ms. Lee alternate the roles of Mina and Lucy, providing each the opportunity of showing both the prim & proper vs. the possessed character. Ms. Barnhart's role affords no-nonsense practicality and devious passion. Mr. Keller's Harker is at once tortured and sympathetic. And Mr. Merrill's depth of feeling is impressive. -- In a role so well written as to almost steal the show, Mr. Jackson's Renfield is lively, intelligent, and no doubt a madman, but one who achieves audience sympathy...and very funny at times.

As we watch Dracula weave his influence and make others writhe in pain as they try to escape his physical control, Mr. Henley-Cohn's powerful presence bewitches us as much as it does the characters on-stage -- we can't help but be caught in his spell, by the irresistability of the forbidden.

Finally, his lair discovered and his end ensured with holy water, a crucifix, and a stake through the heart, with elaborate special effects Dracula's spell over the several initiated vampires appears to be over...but is it?

Faulkner: "The Phantom of the Opera"

Montgomery's newest theatre is presenting the first local area production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster musical, The Phantom of the Opera, on the theatre's Grand Opening.

Faulkner University is showcasing its beautiful new state-of-the-art theatre space -- located across the Atlanta Highway from the main campus -- to sold out enthusiastic audiences, about 100 of whom have dinner before the show, and another 80+ are seated in comfortable auditorium seats.

Ever since it opened in London in 1986, Phantom has had a continuous run there, and generated award winning productions in most of the world's major cities as well as countless touring productions.

Vocally demanding of virtually all its principal characters, the story revolves around a physically disfigured Svengali-like musical genius -- the Phantom [Terry Brown] -- who terrorizes an opera company, claiming the opera house belongs to him and demanding that his protege Christine Daae [Alyssa Boyd] must displace the current prima donna Carlotta Giudicelli [Christina Burroughs], and that the leading tenor Ubaldo Piangi [Tony Davison] will also be relegated to minor roles.

Complicating matters is the presence of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny [Matt Roberson], in love with Christine and her sworn protector from the machinations of the Phantom.

Co-directors Jason Clark South and Angela Dickson, along with a fine pit orchestra conducted by Andrew Cook, have gathered a company of some 42 Faulkner students & faculty and area actors/singers into their 2-hour and 45-minute extravaganza, complimented by lavish period costumes & wigs, and numerous moveable set pieces, some of which are so large and clunky that they overwhelm the playing space and create cumbersome scene changes & crowded staging.

There are some outstanding singers in this company; tops among them is Ms. Burroughs, whose powerfully clear and precise soprano was showcased in several songs, never once faltering in quality and passionate dramatic intensity. She is matched by Mr. Davison's tenor that is rich in their duets, a voice impressive also in Smokey Joe's Cafe earlier this season.

Ms. Boyd -- appropriately for her role as Christine -- has a lighter and sweeter soprano voice that she uses for best effect in quieter reflective moments: "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again". Mr. Roberson's strong baritone compliments Ms. Boyd, but got lost in its lower registers [as did several voices] due in part to the orchestra's volume...some sound balance checks need to be accomodated as Faulkner investigates its new equipment.

Mr. Brown's Phantom sounded shaky for much of the performance; though he reached for and met most of the score's high notes, it was apparent that he struggled for much of the time.

While the voices carry a lot of this production, relationship developments are essential to audience engagement, and here very little chemistry between major characters was evident except between Carlotta and Ubaldo, and in secondary characters. -- One never felt the necessary conflicted attraction between Christine and the Phantom until almost the end of the play; and the romantic attachment between Christine and Raoul was so tentative that actions belied words. -- Perhaps these relationships will develop during the run of the show.

On the other hand, Braxton McDonald and Chase McMichen as M. Firmin and M. Andre, along with Bill Nowell as M. LeFevre, created an excellent comic trio who fed off one another's every gesture and nuanced dialogue. -- And Angela Dickson as Mme. Giry turns in a solid truthful performance; as she provides answers to the mysterious Phantom's background [placed awkwardly in Act II for some reason], it is good to know Ms. Dickson can deliver the goods.

The Faulkner company should soon get used to its new performance space and figure out the best uses of equipment. Several areas of the stage, for example, were either left in darkness or such deep shadow as to render actors almost invisible at important moments of the action. -- Since productions like The Phantom of the Opera require more sophisticated lighting than Faulkner's all-too-few lighting instruments allow, this company and the excellent new space would benefit from a substantial investment in lights.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel"

Actress and first-time director Kim Mason has chosen a challenging debut production in Mitch Albom's curious Duck Hunter Shoots Angel now on-stage at the Wetumpka Depot. The author of Tuesdays With Morrie creates a strange, reflective, comedic, and occasional social commentary that seems at times to not know where to place its emphasis or what exactly it wants to be as it jumps from one to the other in mid-scene.

Is it a story about redemption, race relations, tabloid journalism, North vs. South -- or perhaps all of these? Filled with so many stereotypical characters [a crazed tabloid editor, two "redneck" simpleton duck hunters, a depressed reporter with his reluctant photographer, a naively innocent woman, a smarter than average teenage shopkeeper, a half-alligator/half-man (tabloid journalism's idea of a fine story)], Albom's script does manage a number of clever comic lines and biting and uncomfortably critical comments on today's culture, but remains a cipher even at the end.

That being the case, Ms. Mason demonstrates a clear understanding of the bizarre as she guides her ensemble to handle their characters truthfully, no matter how strange or disconnected the script seems to be.

Urged on by his obsessive boss Lester [M. Gabriel Santos], Sandy [Dave Haenlein], the depressed white journalist, spends much of the play in conversation with a "Voice" [Layne Holley] who interrogates him about his assignment to cover a story in Alabama that suggests that two local duck hunters had shot an angel -- a prime topic for The Weekly World and Globe, a paper he claims to be "ten notches below the National Enquirer". His black sidekick photographer Lenny [Steve Mitchell] is a sardonic realist ever ready with a sly comment that Mr. Mitchell delivers with casual assurance.

The inept hunters are brothers Duwell Early [William Harper] and Duane Early [Alan Patrick], two bumbling clowns whose antics are among the most comically diverting of the evening as these actors comprise a fine double-act as they try to first understand that they killed an angel and are facing "hellfire & damnation" and second as they attempt to hide the truth and/or bilk more money for their story.

In several conversations with the "Voice", Sandy experiences flashbacks to a relationship with a young unnamed Woman [Sonjha Cannon] he had a brief affair with years ago in Alabama, and the memory of leaving her without explanation serves to be the link to Sandy's depression. It turns out -- not surprisingly -- that she had his child unbeknownst to him, who now is the local shopkeeper named Kansas [Madeline Caver], a clever sort who seems out of place in this Alabama backwater swamp.

In a smart bit of writing, Albom frequently uses the last bit of dialogue from one scene as the first speech in the following scene, no matter whether they are connected in time, thus making some interesting segues both of words and themes.

Though there does seem to be some sentimentalized redemption for Sandy by the end, a "tabloid ending" involving Duwell's becoming an angel seems a bit too convenient.