Monday, November 28, 2011

ASF: "A Christmas Memory"

Truman Capote's largely autobiographical A Christmas Memory (1956) has become a staple fare for the holidays, evoking a past & more gentle time and the simplicity of a heart willing to give for the pure joy of giving, asking nothing in return but friendship and love.

Its most recent version now on offer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a musical adaptation (2010) by Duane Poole, with music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall. -- Although it adds characters to Capote's text, this version is otherwise true to the original's intentions, capitalizing on incorporating Capote's narrative that makes the simple profound and the ordinary poetic.

The heartwarming story of the close and loving relationship between a boy named Buddy Faulk [James Zitelli] and his elderly cousin Sook [Kay Walbye] is narrated and bookended by the adult Buddy [Jonathan Rayson], a successful author who questions his writing ability and purpose, and who returns in 1955 to sell his childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama, where he meets Anna Stabler [Terry Burrell] the long-time family housekeeper, triggering reminiscences of the 1930s events that shaped him and ending with the adult writing the story of his childhood.

In its two acts, sensitively directed by Karen Azenberg, Buddy's and Sook's 1930s adventures are interspersed with songs and 1950s commentary on them. -- A total of seven actors create an excellent ensemble of multi-dimensional, credible & familiar individuals, allowing the sentimental material to tap into the audience's awareness of the truths Capote has to tell about country life, love and loneliness with a kind of warm wisdom that only comes from the heart.

Unlike today's techno-savvy and techno-demanding children, Buddy is happy to tell stories, find a Christmas tree in the secret part of the woods, make home-made decorations out of paper & tinfoil, string popcorn & cranberries, and bake fruitcakes to deliver to neighbors and send to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- all in the company of his best friend and playmate, the guileless and ingenuous Sook [and their dog Queenie].

Buddy lives with Sook and two other middle-aged cousins -- Jennie [Carolyn Mignini] who runs the family business and is the realist of the group, and Seabon [Rodney Clark] a kindly but timid soul who has never acted on his dreams or desires. They are concerned that Sook is a hindrance to Buddy's maturity, and Jennie wants to send him to a military academy so he can grow up with traditional male influences. -- Thus, their idyllic life in flying home-made paper kites is threatened.

And there are outsiders too: tomboy Nell Harper [Lizzy Woodall at the opening performance], Buddy's "neighbor and worst enemy", constantly taunts the boy and "double-dog-dares" him to demonstrate courage; and Haha Jones [Rodney Clark in the second of three roles in all, the other one being Farley Wood, the nosy postman] is the beligerent supplier of whiskey needed for the fruitcakes, and whose gruff manner belies a hidden kindliness.

This gem of a play doesn't have big production numbers with a cast of thousands, nor does it have the glitz & glamor of fancy costumes and sets [all of which have their place in the likes of blockbuster musicals]; but it makes up for it by enthralling audiences in allowing them to connect with the hearts of its characters, and it entertains us with a rustic charm both visual and thematic.

Songs like the ragtime "Alabama Fruitcake" are irresistably engaging, and "Mighty Sweet Music" has the cast accompanying Tom Griffin's peppy pit orchestra on-stage playing spoons, lemonade glasses, washboards, and Jews-harp capture the essence of simple down-home energy. While Anna's "Detour" describes her past, and Seabon & Buddy connect touchingly with "Stars to Guide" them.

Whether it is possible to never grow up like Peter Pan, we might all prefer to remain young forever like Sook. And though time has a way of challenging us in many ways, and death is inevitable, we can all have an influence on one another. As Sook says: "Just because a person dies doesn't mean they're gone...just moved on to a better place."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "An Evening With Mark Twain"

Brought in for just one short weekend, Kurt H. Sutton's impersonation of Samuel Clemens in An Evening With Mark Twain graced the Wetumpka Depot's stage with the wit and wisdon, and frequent spot-on criticisms of American culture, society, and politics.

Mark Twain is revered as America's greatest humorist, and was known later in his life for remarkable speaking engagements across the land where he entertained the crowds by reading excerpts from his books & stories, and reminiscing on his life.

So it is here: the setting is his "parlor" -- a carpet, a wing-back armchair, a lectern, a couple of instruments, and some other props -- from which he recites, sings songs, passes judgement on several sacred cows, and entertains us with his quick wit, sly grin, and frequent forays into folk and "spiritual" music.

Originally devised as Mark Twain Tonight by Hal Holbrook many decades ago, an entire cottage industry has emerged with actors portraying Twain. Mr. Sutton has been on the circuit for over six years, and clearly has a comfort in the role, a command of a wealth of material, selections of which vary from performance to performance, and a demeanor that gets an audience to respond as to a long-time friend [though it took a while for the audience to warm to him and respond appreciatively to an old-fashioned style of storytelling].

We have to listen carefully to sometimes get the joke -- a turn of phrase, a clever pun, or a sly off-hand remark delivered with a shrug of the shoulder or a double-take or a well-timed delayed comment.

If we listen carefully, there is no doubt why Mark Twain's works have continued to captivate readers in three centuries; not only are his subjects timeless or at least relevant today as when they were first penned, but Twain's prose descriptions of rivers & nature & human foibles are rendered to create vivid and lasting pictures.

And his humor always hits its target. For example, he once told someone that he came across "the ugliest woman I ever saw", but the next day when her sister was around, he "now withdraws the statement". Or that "I can cut out bad habits, but not moderate them", concluding that a person with no bad habits is a "moral pauper". Or calling Congress the "Grand old national asylum for the helpless", stating further that we have "the best Congress money can buy" -- sentiments which met with approving laughter from the audience. -- And his rambling story of "Grandfather and the Ram" told by the town drunk who falls asleep in a drunken stupor before finishing the tale, gets funnier with each section as the storyteller gets distracted by the details of the story.

In Act II, Sutton spends much of the time with selections from Huckleberry Finn, and plays all the roles, stating further that this book particularly has been banned by some group or another ever since its first printing, and wisely noting that "nothing sells as well as a banned book". -- Huck's moral dilemma is, of course, that he doesn't turn in the runaway slave, Jim, and thinks he will go to hell for it, but that he can't quite figure out why anyone could enslave another; the choice of going to "the good place" where he would be always in the presence of do-gooders & hypocrites is unbearable for Huck, so he prefers "the other place" for his eternity.

This Mark Twain gave us a lot to think about at a time when slogans and moralizing have little substance; we could well take notice from the master.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Millbrook: "A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody"

The Millbrook Community Players' 2011 season is coming to a close with Ron Bernas' comedy/murder mystery, A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody. In its two hours, virtually every convention of the genre is parodied good-naturedly by a company who play it straight, with no attempts to signal or belabor the humorous intent.

Wealthy businessman Matthew Perry [John Chain] is seemingly very happy in his long marriage to Julia [Sharon Demuth], but longs for the "freedom" his friends appear to have -- to go on trips, play golf, etc. -- and on New Year's Eve, the couple reveal their New Year's Resolutions to each other: hers is to finish reading Doctor Zhivago, and his is to kill her before the year ends.

Since her death must look like an accident, and since this is a sophisticated couple who can exchange witticisms casually, she offers ideas for her demise, though they are all rejected for reasons apparent to anyone familiar with the murder-mystery genre, and she adds a resolution to urge him on his way that she will have a mad passionate affair with their butler Buttram [Michael Snead].

The couple's ditsy-blonde daughter Bunny [Katie Moore] shows up with her new boyfriend, up-and-coming lawyer Donald Baxter [Shelton Davis] and announces her engagement, so everything gets complicated for Matthew & Julia: a June date is too soon for Bunny, who has so many preparations to make, so Matthew suggests the next January 1.

Can their resolutions be changed? Matthew won't budge, so Julia resolves to stay alive. -- Let the games begin.

The play's several scenes take us through the year as numerous off-stage deaths occur, prompting the intervention of Detective Plotnik [Paul Foree], a gumshoe who thinks he is clever, but is easily distracted by "evidence" he finds. All the deaths seem to have happened after Donald arrived on the scene, so he is a suspect; the "butler did it" when Plotnik overhears a phone conversation; and so on -- circumstantial evidence at best. -- And the parties the Perry's throw throughout the year have fewer and fewer guests, as the invitees fear for their lives while the body count increases in ever-increasingly odd circumstances.

It is a credit to this ensemble that they play their roles honestly, with no hint of self-indulgence. So the humor comes through. In one hilarious scene at the couple's Halloween party, everyone is in costume appropriate to their character: Prince Valiant [Donald] & his lady in waiting [Bunny], Charlie Chan [Plotnik], Big-Bad Wolf [Matthew] and Little Red Riding Hood [Julia], and a Bunny [Buttram] with ears and cottton tail spoofing Playboy bunnies.

Of course, not everything is as it seems, and all will turn out for the best by the end. Without giving away essential plot reversals and revelations, let it suffice that there are a few appealing surprises here.

Highlight performances come from Mr. Chain and Ms. Demuth whose stage comfort and experience come to the fore; Ms. Moore portrays a dumb-blonde with credible naivete; and Mr. Baxter [in his acting debut with only a couple of weeks in rehearsal] shows a lot of promise.

Director Fred Neighbors has a quietly pleasant hit on his hands.

Friday, November 4, 2011

AUM: "Servant of Two Masters"

Italian comic playwright Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters has been on stage almost continually since 1743, making the rounds of professional and educational theatres and finally landing again at Theatre AUM where, under Neil David Seibel's direction, it affords veteran and neophyte actors opportunities and challenges to build on.

Based on the improvizational commedia dell'arte traditions of the 16th Century, the play's stock characters and exaggerated comic style provide this ensemble company a wealth of occasions to hone their craft.

The scenario gets a bit confusing, and requires significant "suspension of disbelief" from the audience, but in a nutshell: Beatrice [Tina Neese] disguises herself as her deceased twin brother Federico in order to get back from Pantalone [Mark Dasinger, Jr.] a dowry so she can find and marry Florindo [Wes Milton]; only Brighella [Shane Tyus] knows Beatrice's true identity; Pantalone's daughter Clarice [Brittany Carden] loves Silvio [Geoffrey Morris], the son of the pompous Dr. Lombardi [Nicholas Warman], but has been promised im marriage to Federico; Beatrice entrusts money & goods to her sly servant Truffaldino [La'Brandon Tyre] who, in attempting to get even more for himself, agrees to also be Florindo's servant.

As the script requires that the two masters can not be on stage simultaneously until the end, our focus is on Truffaldino's ability to extricate himself from potential problems while pleasing both masters equally. With an assortment of keys, letters, and property given to him by various characters with the admonition of only "for your master", the illiterate servant can not tell which "master" is meant, and has to extricate himself from numerous difficulties which after much confusion bring all the lovers together, forgiveness for Truffaldino, and his own marriage to the crafty servant Smeraldina [Laura Bramblette].

In true commedia form, the characters are broadly drawn: crafty servants, romantic lovers, foolish fathers, pompous doctors -- all have certain conventional manners of walking and talking, and costumes [gorgeously rendered by Val Winkelman with an eye to commedia conventions & stylish characterizations] recognizable instantly in the theatre. The AUM company paint them in bold strokes that suggest their characters; some are more successful than others, but given that several actors here have little stage experience, their efforts succeed only to a degree. [In commedia, actors took years to perfect the expressions, postures, and lazzi (stage business) of a single character type, and spent whole careers playing just that one role.] What these young actors have accomplished in a few weeks is a good start...and most of the cast have achieved a fine sense of comic timing.

Although much of the enjoyment comes from the physical behavior on stage -- and the ensemble commits to its demands very well -- the complexities of the plot & character relationships are found in the brilliantly witty dialogue. Regretably, a lot of the words are muddled in their articulation, especially when delivered as rapidly & passionately as the style demands.

Cliff Merrit's forced perspective "street-scene" backdrop and a lot of open space provide plenty of room for the physical action; and the music choices that begin with the pre-show music and punctuate the goings-on throughout cleverly comment on the Italian setting as well as the particular events -- everything from Rosemary Clooney singing "Mambo Italiano" to the theme from "The Godfather" and Dean Martin's "That's Amore". -- And Mr. Seibel also adds a sweet [but too short] sequence where the lovers eat a plate of spaghetti right out of "Lady and the Tramp".

Theatre AUM is again presenting a challenging production that theatre students [and local audiences] experience only rarely...and this new crop of student actors is one to watch.