Sunday, April 29, 2012

WOBT: "All the King's Women"

Director Laura Morrison is an unabashed & self-proclaimed Elvis fan, so it is not surprising that she has chosen Luigi Jannuzzi's tribute -- All the King's Women -- to stage at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Beware, all ye who enter here! Elvis fans or not, there is a litany of reliable facts about "the King" dutifully scattered within its nine monologues & vignettes that are played by an ensemble of five actresses from the River Region. -- While the majority of the scenes are based on real events, four of them are invented scenarios, and all are punctuated with stereotypical characters and generic humor.

There is no central plot to follow in this collection, only loosely connected scenes that track from a monologue set in 1946 when Elvis got his first guitar, through the controversial television censorship issue, to Elvis' meetings with President Nixon and artist Andy Warhol -- all thoroughly documented, and linked by voice-over news reports of each time period and piped in pop songs of the day.

Long blackouts between scenes -- necessitated at times to accomodate costume changes -- make it important for actors' energy levels at both the starts and ends of each picee to be high and for lighting and sound cues to be sharp in order to sustain audience attention and get them to engage with the assortment of characters.

While the five actresses frequently succeed in fully embodying the various roles they assume at the starts of the scenes [there is no time to develop a character], these overlong blackouts force them to re-establish energy and audience connection at each successive scene.

And then, they are saddled with Jannuzzi's ponderous script that makes each scene's point early-on and then continues it for too long to arrive at an already predictable end.

That being said, there are a few highlights in this production, staged on an all black neutral set. Michon R. Givens brightens up "3 a.m. In the Garden with God", an invented monologue about a chance meeting with Elvis in a supermarket.

Zyna Captain, Hollie Pursifull, and Tammy Hyman as White House secretaries awaiting their idol in "When Nixon Met Elvis" are all fanatical, but each is a distinct personality befitting their secreataial rank in the political hierarchy.

Misty Corrales gives a spunky depiction of a woman whose boyfriend lied to her in "The Backup Singer".

But the most touching piece [and the most truthfully performed] is Ms. Captain's fact-based monologue "One Private Guard", who she sensitively portrays as a humble and dedicated Graceland employee whose insights provide the most engaging moment of this play.

Red Door: "The Passing of Pearl"

What starts off slowly and tentatively in the Red Door Theatre's production of The Passing of Pearl picks up about half-way through Act I, tickling the audience's funny bone and touching their hearts with the title character's oft repeated dictum: "It's not who you are, it's who you can be."

Pearl's Spirit [Anne Brabham] haunts the small Memphis diner she ran for many years, and where she dispensed fried chicken & banana pudding to all customers whether they could pay or not, along with large helpings of good will to one and all.

Pearl has just died, it seems, and her snobbish & resentful daughter Charlene [Johanna Hubbard] arrives from out of town to assess "this dump" as she calls the diner, in order to build condos on the site and turn a profit.

As long-term loyal employees, African-American waitress Leateen [Juanita Smith in her first stage role] and Caucasian waitress Daphney [veteran Kim Graham], come to pack up the diner, their talk focuses on Pearl's impact on them and the community, with plenty of reminiscences both serious and humorous.

Their plea to keep the diner open in memory of the stalwart Pearl falls on Charlene's deaf ears, but what ensues is then fairly predictable: revelations about racial issues in the 1960s South, charity extended to those too proud to ask for it, trust in the Lord, assorted confessionals, surprises at the reading of Pearl's last will & testament, and an inevitable change of heart, all come in equal measure.

Though Ms. Brabham's smiles & frowns, and her very presence in almost every scene, indicate her judgement of other characters' actions, we learn most about her through Leateen and Daphney. Ms. Smith and Ms. Graham are never self-conscious in their roles, and demonstrate a fine rapport. They have their secrets too that are divulged in due course with a no-nonsense approach. But, for two persons who have worked side by side for over twenty years & who can finish one another's sentences, their dialogue has too many long pauses to be thoroughly convincing.

Ms. Hubbard makes Charlene pretty despicable, though this is tempered by her frustrated attempts to please her mother even after her death, and her final reclamation that allows Pearl's ghost to depart with satisfaction.

There are a lot of gentle lessons to be learned here about friendship and humane & compassionate -- and most of all fair -- behavior & treatment of others.

Artistic Director Fiona Macleod has a sure hand in guiding these actors around the finely detailed set -- one that is as comfortable, recognizable, and nostalgis as Vain Colby's script -- and it is more than fitting that she has been presented with the Red Door Theatre Excellence in Action Award "for exemplifying the spirit of the Red Door Theatre by fostering and encouraging its growth and promoting and enhancing its image." -- Truly, "It's not who you are, it's who you can be" means a lot both in The Passing of Pearl and at the Red Door Theatre.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"

The Wetumpka Depot Players have done it again...taken a potentially out-moded Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and turned it into a fast-paced, energetic, tongue-(firmly)-in cheek, and joyously relevant hour and a half romp that is receiving well deserved spontaneous ovations in its sold-out run.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat shows evidence of its 1960s roots by lampooning several polular song styles of its day. Calypso, rockabilly, go-go, country, and French cabaret songs are among those featured either in solo or production numbers whose clever lyrics and spot-on uninhibited delivery by director Kristy Meanor's inventive ensemble.

This musical is based on the Bible story of Joseph, the favorite of Jacob's twelve sons who is sold into slavery by his siblings, comes to respect and prosperity in Pharoah Rameses' Egypt by interpreting dreams & saving the country, and ultimately rescues his family from starvation in Israel and reunites with them in the spirit of forgiveness and reconcilliation. (Some valuable lessons here without heavy handed moralizing by the actors, or by Narrator [Kim Mason] who often engages in the action she describes.)

Built into the text are anachronistic dialogue and costume choices that the Depot capitalizes on in both overt and subtle choices that -- with so much for audiences to take in from its 35-member ensemble -- are integrated seamlessly into the plot, props, and character choices. -- Look for references to Wheaties, Time magazine, "The Wetumpka Herald", and see eyeglasses, gym shoes, a reverb microphone, cigarettes & French berets, cowboy hats & boots, spike-heeled shoes & miniskirts, some contemporary jewelry, and "smart phones", let alone Elvis & his screaming/swooning groupies, and a bespectacled business tycoon. -- Oh yes, there's also a stunning "coat of many colors"

It is easy to see why eleven of the brothers are jealous of Joseph [Jonathan Conner]. He not only gets special regard from old Jacob [a reliable Bill Nowell] and a regal coat that sets him apart, this Joseph is a bit of a narcissist whose dreams tell him he deserves special distinction; and he lords it over them. Perhaps this Joseph needs to be taken down a peg or two, but the vile treatment doled out by his brothers must come full circle by the end.

Music Director Marilyn Swears and her pit orchestra keep the action moving and switch musical styles effortlessly, adding distinct sound effects to the various forms, and adjusting volume & pace to the actors' delivery and audience responses.

Zebulun [David Brown] leads the Country Western "One More Angel in Heaven" with an earnest appeal in bemoaning Joseph's reported demise; Gad's [David Rowland] effete treatment of the cabaret number "Those Canaan Days" is a show stopper; Isachar [Gabriel Santos] delivers "Benjamin Calypso" with athletic energy; and Pharoah [Matthew Walter] does an unabashed star turn as Elvis in "Song of the King" (pun intended).

There is so much to take in, but the script and score are definitely focussed on Joseph. Mr. Conner has made his mark in other Depot productions like Big River and Second Samuel, and continues to impress in this role. -- With his engaging baritone bookmarking the beginning & ending of the play with "Any Dream Will Do", with confident stage presence and a winning persona -- the guy can "mug" or be a "straight man", invest credibly in the complexity of his character & draw us into Joseph's plight, and play on audience sympathies with a sly wink & endearing smile -- he makes us care about him because he is so  much like us: sometimes confused, sometimes self-centered, sometimes gragarious, sometimes proud, but always optimistic & trusting of things greater than himself.

ASF: "Henry VIII"

Henry VIII, or "All is True", Shakespeare's last (?) play and here intelligently adapted and directed by Robert Richmond, is the final production to be introduced into the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's "English Season" repertoire.

Its lavish pagenatry and the epic proportions of Shakespeare's script have been scaled down and amended so that eleven actors provide today's audiences access to larger than life historical characters whose legendary personae threaten to blur the truth.

Not that the Bard was always accurate in his depictions -- this play is an unabashed compliment to Elizabeth I and James I and their ancestors, among other things -- but Shakespeare has a way of making history come to life by creating characters and plots with universal appeal.

Mr. Richmond's adaptation is supported by the collaborative efforts of Tony Cisek's simple & flexible set, Phil Monat's brilliant lighting, Richelle Thompson's creative sound design, Anthony Cochrane's masterful score, and Elizabeth Novak's stunningly authentic costumes that create a world both distant and contemporary that can be observed with studied detatchment and felt with emotional engagement.

Set when Henry is seeking a divorce from Queen Katherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir, the play also follows the political and personal intrigues surrounding his court. -- There are sympathetic characters like Buckingham [Paul Hebron's superlative depiction of a wrongly accused man's dignity] and Queen Katherine [Greta Lambert -- exquisite in the role] who are innocently caught up in the political intrigue; and villainous ones like Cardinal Wolsey [Rodney Clark is a duplicitous multi-dimensioned prelate]; but none are without flaws or saving graces.

Even Henry [Timothy Carter], who is often depicted as a man intent on producing a son no matter the cost to God or man, is in Mr. Carter's portrayal a man in conflict who wants both to preserve his marriage to Katherine whom he loves and legitimize second wife Anne [Vanessa Morosco] as his queen with or without the Pope's approval, meanwhile controlling the religious and political intrigue going on around him. Quite an accomplishment that has audiences shifting allegiances throughout.

A pivotal scene [a pre-divorce trial] shared between Katherine and Wolsey pits two strong-willed combatants against one another. Here, as in every scene, Mr. Clark exudes the aloof confidence Wolsey achieved by guile (he does get his comeuppance in a later agonizing scene), while Ms. Lambert's luminous Katherine is every bit his match as she sees through the Cardinal's protective veneer.

This Henry VIII ia another excellent ensemble production where eleven actors take on all the roles, two of which don't appear in Shakespeare's original: Princess Mary [Sophia Priolo] the daughter of Henry and Katherine and Will sommers [Louis Butelli], Henry'a actual court jester. -- Ms. Priolo has no dialogue -- just a lovely soprano singing voice -- but contributes much to the play as she serves as a reminder of what is to come. Mr. Butelli, on the other hand, is almost continually on stage, a kind of master of ceremonies who takes on seven other roles with simple & effective costume adjustments, athletic movement, and vocal dexterity suitable to each role, as he plays with props & puppets and deftly signals light & sound cues to move the action to the next scene.

As the plotting becomes more and more threatening, Henry takes charge, and we are left at the end with the birth of Elizabeth that signals a future prosperity, one which Shakespeare's audiences [and we] can celebrate along with him.

Faulkner: Little Women"

Faulkner University's sweet production of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in a musical version of her beloved 1869 novel, preserves the spirit of the original source. One of America's most treasured stories -- a paean to the strengths of women -- Little Women celebrates family, romantic love, and perseverance.

Set mainly in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War, the March family women -- Marmee & her four daughters -- must get on with their lives while Mr. March is away as an Army Chaplain.

The central character is Jo [Kristi Humphreys], a tomboy and independent minded aspiring writer who narrates their story from a boarding house in New York where she has met Professor Baher (sp) [Jason Morgan], a man whose honest opinions of her writing she trusts.

Instead of writing old-fashioned melodramas -- "blood-and-guts" stories, she calls them -- he encourages her to write what she knows best and from her heart, and though it takes her a while to find, her strength is to write about the family that truly inspires her.

And what a family it is: Meg [Mara Woddail], the family beauty and sensible one; Amy [Brittney Johnston], the impatient one who measures success by material things; Beth [Emily Cozart], the gentle one who dies of Scarlet Fever, and Marmee [Angela Dickson] the rock who holds their world together.

Into their lives come Aunt March [Abby Roberts], their wealthy relative; Mr. Laurence [Tony Davidson substituting at the last minute due to illness for Allen Young on the night I saw it], their rich next-door neighbor and later benefactor; and grandfather to Laurie [Chase McMichen], and Laurie's friend Mr. Brooke [Michael Williams], who provide the love interest for two of the little women.

The plot is carried in part by several songs that invoke a gentler time while reinforcing its values and indicating a future for women to take their rightful place in the world. -- Music continues to be Faulkner's strong suit, as they feature musical plays frequently. In Little Women, director Jason Clark South is fortunate in having a cast who uniformly have strong solo voices and the acting skills that clearly tell the story and develop characters & relationships, making them come alive so we care about them.

Unfortunately, the sound system continues to be a problem, making the actors' voices and Randy Foster's virtuostic piano accompaniment incredibly loud, distorting spoken words and sung lyrics deafening and often fault to the talented cast.

Nonetheless, the ensemble performances, especially Ms. Humphreys' depiction of Jo, are complex, distinct, and admirably astute in interpreting song lyrics.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

ASF: "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival continues its "English Season" with a fast-moving and clever staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Bard's only comedy to focus on middle-class life & characters. Whether it is true that Queen Elizabeth was so taken with the character of Falstaff in the Henry plays and wanted Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love is questionable; the result in this play does not so much show him "in love" as "in lust" however, and is presented with a large amount of good natured fun at his expense.

With director Diana VanFossen at the helm, the time of the play has shifted from the Elizabethan Period to 1910 England, and is staged on Peter Hicks' colorful art deco painted/stained-glass set with a backdrop silhouetting an iconic view of Windsor Castle fronted by an open-space "street scene" showing three houses reminiscent of Classical Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Elizabethan staging, and an indebtedness to the conventions of comedic writing and the popular culture of Elizabethan Windsor. Indeed, Merry Wives contains a catalogue of such conventions that appeal to middle-class audiences then and now: numerous suitors for the hand of an attractive young woman, only one of whom is appropriate; parents arranging a suitable husband; wily servants who change allegiances at the drop of a coin or two; disguises & cross-dressing; a jealous husband and a faithful wife; ridicule of "foreigners" who fracture the English language; mistrust of the upper class; self-assertive women; sexual allusions and double (even triple) entendre; and the attempted cuckholding of two prominent citizens by Sir John Falstaff -- and the merry wives' counter-schemes to humiliate the lecherous yet somehow loveable knight.

When best friends Mistress Ford [Vanessa Morosco] and Mistress Page [Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel] discover that Falstaff [Wilbur Edwin Henry] has sent each of them identical love letters, "the game is on": they determine to lead him on and embarrass him for his duplicity and arrogance; and this plot defines most of the action to come. What a delight to see these fine actors shrewdly maneuvering Falstaff in three separate and increasingly ridiculous schemes involving a laundry basket, disguising him as a woman, and adorning his head with large horns while he is pinched by "faeries" in the forest.

Adding to the fun is the bafflement of Mistress Ford's jealous husband Frank [Peter Simon Hilton] who, try as he might to discover his wife's supposed unfaithfulness, gets more and more frustrated. Mr. Hilton's comic posturing & timing are highlights of the role. He is abetted by George Page [Brik Berkes], the trusting husband of Mistress Page, though the Pages become the brunt of a joke when their daughter Anne [Bliss Griffin] marries her true love Fenton [Jackson Thompson] against their wishes.

Anne's other suitors -- an effete gentleman named Slender [Craig Hanson], Sir Hugh Evans [Louis Butelli] a Welsh parson, and a French physician Doctor Caius [Paul Hebron] -- are each played for broad comic effect through "camp" posturings, misuse of the English language, and over-the-top behavior.

Central to it all is Sir John Falstaff's persistence and the willingness of most everyone else to see him thwarted. Justice Shallow [Rodney Clark] holds a grudge against him and even Falstaff's cohorts -- Bardolph [Colin Meath], Pistol [Timothy Carter], and Nym [Jay McClure] -- and the Host of the Garter Inn [James Bowen], join forces in getting even with the rotund drunkard knight for his conceived or real affronts against them. And the wily Mistress Quickly [Jennifer Barnhart] cheerfully pushes the plot along as she plays for all sides and especially for her own gain.

Mr. Henry shines as Falstaff in ASF's excellent ensemble. Despite the character's many unattractive qualities apparent in this portrayal -- he is a drunkard and a glutton, unscrupulous in lusting after two married women, critical of most other people he comes in contact with, has poor manners and worse hygeine, and is an untrustworthy friend -- Mr. Henry somehow salvages Falstaff from our complete derision. A likeable con-man, this Falstaff is so good-natured that we as well as the characters in the play can forgive him.

Ms. VanFossen has added a clever Punch and Judy show as a prologue that sets up the action yet to come, and does it as a harmless children's entertainment that accentuates the silliness and knockabout plot. And her incorporating lavish puppets in Falstaff's final comeuppance is staged as a kind of masque popular in Shakespeare's time-- James Conely's carnival musical score [think hurdy-gurdy or caliope] supports & punctuates each scene, keeping the festive mood alive even in the play's darker moments.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour production, the light [Phil Monat is the lighting designer] shining through the translucent set pieces, combined with Brenda Van der Wiel's richly hued costumes, saturates each moment. The collaboration of actors, director, composer, and designers helps create a masterful handling of Shakespeare's greatest farce.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

AUM: "Six Characters in Search of an Author"

Once again, Theatre AUM is taking a brave step in producing a rarely performed pre-absurdist play, this time by Italian innovator Luigi Pirandello -- Six Characters in Search of an Author written in 1921, and updated in this version to allow both contemporary and Montgomery area references to help involve audiences in its challenging ideas.

Though this kind of theatre may not appeal to everyone, AUM is consistent in its educational theatre purpose. Universities must provide their students and audiences exposure to various theatrical forms & processes, and while Pirandello may not have as great an impact as other world playwrights, it is essential that a comprehensive curriculum engages with his ideas not only on the page in classrooms but in performance on the stage as well, to bring life to the heady philosophical material of Pirandello's text, especially as it attends to the nature of theatre itself.

The play "begins" as the audience arrives: stagehands are building a set on-stage while other company members gather. They are getting ready to rehearse a play by Pirandello [NOT Six Characters], and when it is time to start their rehearsal, we are already involved. While their theatre jobs are often designated [director, leading lady, stage manager, et al.] they are referred to by their actual names, lending a kind of authenticity to them.

But then, a set of mysterious "characters" arrive unannounced, requesting and then demanding that the acting company present their story, one which their author had left unfinished. Theirs is an unsympathetic family melodrama replete with infidelity, prostitution, possible incest, envy, mistrust, and death: irresistable fodder for the struggling theatre company to take on.

What follows are several arguments on the nature of theatre & illusion. Which is more real -- characters in plays whose lives never change, or actors whose job is to give the illusion of truthful portrayals of written characters, or any ordinary person whose life continually changes and who takes on numerous roles with each new circumstance?

And how do we respond to the stage action of Six Characters... when we are frequently addressed by actors from the stage and expected to react or at least consider/reflect on their conditions?

AUM director Mike Winkelman's ensemble of some 23 actors display the contrasting realities with conviction. While the behaviors of the theatre company in the play are easily identifiable and sometimes stereotypical [the smugness of leading actors, the ineptitude of a neophyte props man, the aloofness & condescension of the director], the play's six characters, only identified by their relationships to one another [father, mother, stepdaughter, et al.] become far more interesting & engaging, and yes, more real...and when they see themselves imitated by the professional actors, it is to them and to us both incongruously laughable and downright insulting, partly because the actors get it wrong, and partly because each character's version of the events is distinctly different from the others' -- just as in real life, one's sense of the truth is limited by the individual experience.

The AUM company is to be applauded for tackling this Pirandello play. The conviction the ensemble brings to their roles and to the subject matter is presented in a naturalistic mode whose clarity is only occasionally muddled by inarticulate speech or by the din of overlapping dialogue.

If audiences leave the theatre discussing the nature of truth & illusion, reality & appearance, then Six Characters in Search of an Author has accomplished a significant goal.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Boys Next Door"

The second production in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Inaugural Season -- Tom Griffin's touching comedy The Boys Next Door -- is setting a high bar for local theatre. Ensemble performances by artistic director Greg Thornton's team of gifted actors have audiences laughing and crying by turns as they connect to the lives of four mentally backward men [the appropriately called "boys" of the title] and their compassionate counselor as they attempt with his help to transition back into a society they barely comprehend.

Each suffers from some degree of mental problem: Arnold [Greg Babb] is marginally deficient, worries about everything and is taken advantage of by local merchants; Lucien [Aaron Fonesca] is severely retarded; Norman [Stephen Dubberly] who works in a donut shop & consumes the day's rejects and left-overs is the most cheerful but is obsessed with the large set of keys he has strapped to his belt; and Barry [Jon Chapman] is a documented schizophrenic who appears to be the most normal but believes he is a golf pro & offers lessons for $1.13 an hour.

Jack [Scott Page], their counselor, has issues of his own, doubting the value of his work with them and fearing burn-out, seeks other employment.

They are all wounded souls trying to make the best of their conditions; and all of them take steps and several missteps towards resolution. -- Whether Arnold's frustrations with the other "boys" will ever allow him to escape to Russia, whether Lucien will convince a Senate committee he is "capable" by singing the alphabet song [with errors], whether Norman's romance with Sheila [Tara Fenn] will ever amount to anything significant, whether Barry's romanticized version of his father Mr. Klemper [George Jacobsen] will asuage the fear he has of him when Klemper visits his son, and whether Jack will recognize how essential the "boys" and he have become to one another -- all these are part of the gently humorous and very real lives displayed on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

This is a gifted ensemble. Each of the actors has discovered specific behaviors appropriate to their individual conditions: peculiar tics or shuffling walks or facial expressions combine with a good amount of vocal dexterity to make the roles distinct and memorable. And the humor stems directly from the fact that they can be clearly identified through the truthful portrayals of the actors. -- In contrast, Mr. Page's calm demeanor and completely naturalistic depiction of Jack, his inherent kindness to the "boys" and compassion for their multiple predicaments, and his firm consistently gentle guidance of them helps audiences understand the "boys" and care about all of them.

There are some remarkable scenes of discovery in this production: the budding romance between Mr. Dubberly's Norman and Ms. Fenn's Sheila is so honest and sensitive that one can't help but approve, despite Jack's explanations of how the relationship is doomed from the start; Mr. Fonesca's inept testimony before the Senator [sensitively played by Roy Goldfinger] hides the generous & loving soul beneath the surface affliction; Mr. Chapman's [Barry] catatonic response to his father's crude and cruel treatment [a shocking scene played with grit by Mr. Jacobsen] is a fine contrast to his previous bravura; and Mr. Babb's Arnold, reaching the last straw and determined to go to Russia finally agrees to return with Jack to the place they can all call home.

Jack's dilemma, too, is a complex one. Divorced and burning out, he questions his impact on the "boys", and thinking that they "all deserve better", asks himself: "What happens when they don't need you anymore?" And while "They all stay the same...I don't" is clear from the start, they all need one another.