Sunday, September 23, 2012

Theatre AUM: "The Little Foxes"

Director Mike Winkelman has mounted a solid production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) at Theatre AUM, thanks in part to Michael Krek's evocative minimalist set, Val Winkelman's stunning period costumes, and strong performances by actors in its key roles. -- Certainly a scathing commentary on American capitalism in 1939, Winkelman's interpretation [often through actors directly addressing the audience & making them complicit participants] resonates with today's obsessions with instant gratification, greed, and venture capitalism.

Set in a small unnamed Southern town in 1900, Hellman's three-act play recounts the story of the Hubbard siblings -- Oscar [Frank Thomas], Ben [David Wilson], and Regina [Maddie Bogacz] -- as they attempt to become instant millionaires by merging their cotton business with Chicago tycoon William Marshall's [Zack Travis]. While each of them must put up equal shares of $75,000, Regina's sickly husband Horace Giddens [Michael Krek] refuses to join in their scheme on his return from a long hospital stay in Baltimore.

Mr. Krek has a keen eye for scenic design, evidenced recently in his set for AUM's Proof where he compressed the space and capitalized on that play's intimacy; for The Little Foxes, his set makes AUM's lab theatre seem larger than  it is -- by putting the living room on a diagonal, using white frames for its high windows & archways against black curtains, and dressing the stage with a relatively few judiciously placed pieces of period furniture, the space appears large enough to replicate a Georgian or Victorian mansion while giving actors plenty of room to move.

Ms. Winkelman's attention to period detail in her character driven costumes once again articulates her understanding of integrating them with the needs of the play and providing actors with helpful tools with which to assume and develop their roles. Fabrics, color pallet, and cut all support the play's intentions. Like Florenz Ziegfeld who dressed even his chorus-girls from the skin out, Ms. Winkelman appreciates how well clothes do make the man or woman believable on stage.

Peopled by veteran and relatively inexperienced actors still learning their craft, there are a number of stand-out performances here, despite articulation and vocal energy issues that blur some important information, or heightened emotional moments and audience responses that covered lines as well.

Mr. Thomas's gruff stooped-over depiction of Oscar and his frustration at being dominated by his other siblings is palpable. Nicole Holt's nervous mannerisms in playing Oscar's closet-alcoholic wife Birdie, the most genteel member of this clan and an outsider coming from the Southern aristocracy that the others aspire to, and who realizes too late that her family's plantation was the only reason Oscar married her, make her Hellman's most sympathetic character.

Mr. Wilson portrays Ben as a smooth-talking bachelor with nothing to lose, and yet when thwarted he is the most ruthless of the family, going so far as to approve of a marriage between Oscar's weak playboy son Leo [Jackson Wheeles] and Regina's naive daughter Alexandra [Tina Neese].

Ms. Bogacz's acting debut in the pivotal role of Regina [originated by Tallulah Bankhead, and later by a catalogue of famous actresses] is impressive. There is no doubt that her Regina knows how to manipulate others by coquetry or sly allusions, and knows how to put up a good front by using Southern female charm or feigned ignorance to her advantage in getting her own way. Though Ms. Bogacz occasionally relaxes her control, her Regina is a match for almost all the men in this man's world of 1900. Her single-mindedness in leaving home and marriage for the perceived social whirl of Chicago and Europe to be provided by a successful business venture blinds her to how self-destructive she truly is until Horace intervenes.

In Mr. Krek's Horace, Regina has met her match. Though everyone believes Regina can make Horace do whatever she wants, he has nothing to lose as he sees his own death from a heart condition as all too imminent, and will not stand by to see greed destroy everything he holds dear. -- Mr. Krek's performance is the most nuanced on the AUM stage as he depicts Horace's ailments credibly, as well as his concern for his daughter's welfare and for the servants Addie [Allyson Lee] and Cal [JaMarcus White], his compassionate affection for Birdie, his complete disregard of Oscar, Ben, and Leo, and his defiance of Regina.

Theatre AUM continues to expose Montgomery audiences to important plays in world theatre, and this production of The Little Foxes connects to the world today by delivering the goods to which all theatre should aspire.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Millbrook: "Our Town"

Now a staple of American theatre, Thornton Wilder's revolutionary Pulitzer prize winning Our Town's (1938) deceptive simplicity has led many companies to believe it is an easy play to produce; yet, it challenges actors and directors to embrace its serious and profound themes told through the simplest of means: almost no plot, details about the ordinary citizens of a small New England town, bare furnishings on a bare stage, and the engaging presence of a character called only the Stage Manager who serves as both a narrator & chorus [and who takes an occasional small role in the story], who manipulates time and offers provocative insights on life and death, family and social values, dreams and personal goals, and the nature of the temporal and the eternal.

The Millbrook Community Players, with director Stephanie McGuire in charge, have mounted a clear and sensitive production with a large cast of local actors inhabiting Grover's Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 through 1913.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the romance between neighbors George Gibbs [Daniel Harms] and Emily Webb [Annabelle Dubose] over the twelve years of the play, from teenage crushes through marriage and Emily's death from childbirth of their second child. And the assorted family and townspeople add to the truthfulness of their story.

Grover's Corners is an "average" American town, where doors are seldom locked, where neighbors look out for one another, where secrets are few, and where -- though there may be significant changes in the world beyond its borders, and several citizens die -- the town remains essentially the same.

Life's recognizable features -- sibling rivalries, generation gap arguments & misunderstandings, an assortment of town eccentrics and gossips, and the inevitability of death -- are the things that bind the audience to what is reflected of themselves from the stage. And the Stage Manager [Matt Jordan] pointedly and dispassionately provides commentary on it all.

Mr. Harms and Ms. Dubose give sensitive performances as the two young lovers. Their individual innocence and heartfelt attraction and devotion to one another is admirable. As parents, Michael Snead and Angela Pietrzak as Doc and Mrs. Gibbs give credible portrayals of solid citizens whose values are impressed upon their son George; and Roy Goldfinger and Karla McGhee as Mr. and Mrs. Webb turn in strong characterizations as well, with Mr. Goldfinger creating the most fully realized role in this production -- vocally and physically, he is the gold standard here, and a model for others to emulate.

But it is the Stage Manager who guides the entire production. Mr. Jordan's comfortably casual demeanor is palpable from the start. It is essential that audiences connect with this role, and Mr. Jordan makes it easy for them. Directly addressing us throughout, taking detours to provide background and historical details, commenting on the action and the characters, interpreting enough for us to understand the extraordinary within the ordinary, and making it clear that we are in a theatre where we are meant to think about our own beliefs, the context of Grover's Corners and its inhabitants becomes everyplace and everyman.

The final scene in the graveyard at Emily's funeral, where the dead speak and comment on eternity, claiming that "people don't appreciate life while they're living it", causes the Stage Manager to question the mystery of the universe -- we can never know for certain, he says -- but meanwhile, life continues.