Sunday, December 16, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "A Very Second Samuel Christmas"

With playwright Pamela Parker in the opening night's audience, director Tom Salter announced A Very Second Samuel Christmas not only as the final sold-out show in the Wetumpka Depot Players' 32nd season, but also as its "World Premier".

This short play -- a scant 90-minutes including intermission -- follows the residents of the fictitious Georgia town of Second Samuel as they prepare their annual Christmas pageant to be performed for the first time in "a colored church": the "Rock of Ages Free African".

A second installment by Ms. Parker of her popular and prize-winning Second Samuel that the Depot produced to much acclaim awhile ago, it relies on the long-term recall/memory of the Depot's audiences to fill in the blanks about the assorted population of the town of 342 residents. Mr. Salter is most fortunate in having most of the 11-strong ensemble fitting easily into reprising their roles.

This new play retains much of the charm, gentle humor, and pathos of the original, but is still a work-in-progress. For the uninitiated -- and there were several on Thursday evening -- the script could benefit by the addition of some background details and references to its progenitor to catch them up on characters and relationships. [While most characters are largely unchanged from before, some of their names ("B-flat", "U.S.", "Omaha") need explanation. And despite the actors' total commitment to their roles, and their collective abilities to generate appropriate responses from the full-house, the admittedly engaging narrative stance of its central character is a mere substitute for more satisfying dramatic action.]

As before, the set is divided in half to accommodate frequent scene shifts : one side is the men's domain -- "The Bait and Brew" -- where they meet, play chess, and dawdle away the time; the other side is the "Change Your Life Hair & Beauty Emporium" where the women meet to gossip while having various treatments. At center is the entrance to the "Rock of Ages Free African" church, and closer to the audience is a tree-stump where B-flat narrates the homespun story.

It is some years after Second Samuel, and B-flat [Jonathon (sp?) Conner] -- a sensitive, simple, and slow young man who can predict the weather and is replete with facial and body tics -- has changed with the times; here, he is more confident than he was in the past, appears to have accumulated a lot of knowledge, and is more literate in expressing his philosophy of tolerance and of the essential goodness of mankind while quoting the Bible verbatim. Quite an accomplishment, and Mr. Conner remains faithful to making him the most convincingly rounded character in contrast to the stereotypes presented by most others in Ms. Parker's script.

Jimmy Deanne [Kim Mason] is still an impudent snob, despite Doc's [Brad Sinclair] claim that she is "softer than...appearances". When she is put-out at having "her pageant" plans ruined by the death of the preacher named "Wonderful Counselor", and by the storm-flood previously intimated by B-flat that destroys the church, Ms. Mason's brashness in the role makes her someone we love to hate. The rest of the fine ensemble support one another well, each with his or her individual quirks and issues that we can recognize as common recognizable traits.

When in Act II B-flat suggests that "everyone needs a miracle...[that] don't have to be flashy to qualify", said miracle shows up: the miracle in the ruined church -- the appearance of a bright light--the angel of the Lord -- ultimately brings all the play's characters together, who, despite their differences and conflicts with one another, listen to B-flat's recitation of the Biblical Isaiah's prophecy and of the later Nativity narrative, and conclude that B-flat's message of Christmas: "Believe and you'll see and be free" is one that can impact both the Biblical shepherds and modern people alike.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Season's Greetings"

Full disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

With laughs coming a-mile-a-minute throughout its two-and-a-half-hours, the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Season's Greetings cements its inaugural season as one of the best in town. Director Fiona Macleod has an excellent group of actors at her disposal, many of whom are veterans of the local theatre scene. -- And while there may not be a star role in this play, each of the actors shines both individually and as an essential part of the talented ensemble.

It doesn't hurt that Alan Ayckbourn [arguably the most prolific contemporary British playwright -- to date, some 77 plays] has given them a brilliantly funny and insightful script that is a gift to actors who can create memorable performances from it. Danny Davidson's costumes give an appropriate period feel, and are clearly chosen to provide insights to the characters. As an added delight to emphasize the play's intimacy (we feel we are eavesdropping at the Playhouse), Ms. Macleod has chosen to stage it in-the-round as Ayckbourn first produced it in 1980 at the "Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round" in Scarborough, England. While there are no walls in the set, there are several rooms defined by furniture arrangement and carpeting; so, with simultaneous action in the various locations, we can follow the frenetic goings-on with one overall view.

An enormously popular play that is revived by professional and amateur theatres virtually every year, Ayckbourn resisted writing yet another feel-good Christmas-is-for-children play but decided to do this one where the children are nearby but always off-stage and the adults behave like children on-stage.

It is the 1980s in Yorkshire, England, and Neville and Belinda Bunker are hosting a family and friends Christmas weekend where, in the playwright's words, "people who can't stand each other are forced together!" Theirs is a monotonous marriage; Neville spends more time in his workshop with his friend Eddie who escapes there to avoid his pregnant wife Pattie and their other offspring; Neville's alcoholic sister Phyllis has taken over the kitchen while her ineffectual doctor-husband Bernard prepares his annual dreaded puppet show for the children; Neville's Uncle Harvey commandeers the television and guards the area in the belief that the weapons that are his Christmas presents are necessary for protection against a yet-unseen enemy; and Belinda's spinster-sister Rachel has invited Clive -- an author and the only outsider (and consequently a romanticized curiosity to the group) -- to join them. "Just an average family Christmas", says Ayckbourn.

Perhaps not "average", though their circumstances and situations are commonly shared this side of the Atlantic; and yes, these are not very nice people -- just like children, they fight over inconsequential things, seek attention, bully one another, sneak around, are casually insensitive to the needs of others; and as adults, they judge success or failure by material things, prefer to let their drunkenness be an excuse for their moral infidelities; and like both, they kiss and make up  by the end.

Mariah Reilly returns to the stage as Belinda after too long a hiatus since her days at Huntingdon College, and creates one of the most natural and physically comfortable characterizations along with Lee Bridges' Neville; completely credible as husband and wife, their unspoken communication [or lack thereof] as well as an occasional quiet scene settles the often madcap pace of the play. And Mr. Bridges' mastery of the Yorkshire dialect is a standout among the inconsistent or sporadic standard British accents from some of the cast.

The friction between Eddie and Pattie is disarmingly frank at the hands of Jason Morgan and Jesse Alston; her persistence and his sporadic rage are both ridden with frustration -- his from lack of a job to provide for his growing family, and hers from confusion or ignorance of what is bothering her husband.

Mike Winkelman [an eleventh-hour substitute for hospitalized cast member David Hendrick] is all bluster and bravado as the lunatic Uncle Harvey. As he begins to suspect Clive of being a thief, he becomes more and more a sinister presence, issuing cryptic warnings to all.

Bill Nowell and Layne Holley are each so watchable as the childless couple Bernard and Phyllis. As he escapes from reality in producing the annual puppet show [be warned...his version of "The Three Little Pigs" has a lengthy preparation and is well worth the wait], and she escapes to booze [one of the most hilarious stage-drunks you'll ever see and by itself worth the price of admission], there is also no doubt that they love one another, as each comes to the other's rescue just in time.

As Rachel, Renea Dijab allows us to grasp her conflicted feelings for Clive [Kalonji Gilchrist]. Does she or doesn't she want a romantic relationship? or is a Platonic relationship even possible? As he attempts to figure her out, Mr. Gilchrist's Clive claims to be an average man, but gets the attention of both Phyllis [who is infatuated by his celebrity as a novelist, and in her drunken haze concludes that he is a homosexual], and by Belinda [who needs a man to pay attention to her].

When a midnight tryst between Clive and Belinda under the Christmas tree is thwarted by their triggering numerous gadgets and noisy toys, rousing the sleeping household and bringing potential doom to the holiday, what's left is to restore peace and harmony and the good will of the season, though not without some delightfully impulsive cost.

Audiences need to pay strict attention to all of the evening's proceedings; as split-scenes focus our eyes and witty dialogue garners huge laughs, it is sometimes challenging to see or hear everything. But there is no doubt that the combination of Ayckbourn's merry script, the astute direction by Ms. Macleod, and the antic ensemble performances make this production of Season's Greetings an excellent holiday treat.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Spoiler alert! Charles Dickens, one of the world's most renowned storytellers, was also an accomplished amateur magician -- who knew?! So, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol has a few on-stage "how did they do that?" tricks up its sleeves; it also has Dickens as its narrator who slips in and out of a number of minor roles in the person of actor Wynn Harmon.

Though narrative in place of dramatic action is risky business at best, hearing Dickens' prose is essential for audiences to appreciate the full flavor of his familiar Christmas classic, and while many can recite verbatim from the characters' quotable lines -- from "Bah, humbug!" to "God bless us, every one!" -- Mr. Harmon's nuanced delivery of the descriptive richness of the novel helps transport us to a distant time and place, and infuse us with just the right amount of Christmas sentiment.

Phil Monat's visually stunning sets and Elizabeth Novak's character-driven period costumes [and authentic replicas of the novel's ghostly apparitions] complete the picture.

So, while Mr. Sherman's production is traditional in most ways, his cuts and additions [including some diverting period songs] tell the story in an efficient two hours that hardly afford time for actors to be subtle in developing their characters or give audiences time to register the impact of its many short scenes before moving on to the next episode; and yet it seems to lag in a couple of them, most notably in a lengthy quibbling over the spoils that Mrs. Dilber brings to Old Joe, no fault to the actors.

None of this diminishes the impact of Sherman's vision for A Christmas Carol. -- Intact are the powerful presence of Brik Berkes as the ghost of Jacob Marley, a seven-year dead business partner who sets Scrooge [Rodney Clark] on his overnight reclamation from malicious ogre to giddy schoolboy in the finale, and the combined instructions of the ghosts of Christmases Past [Jillian Walker], Present [James Bowen], and Yet-to-Come [a mysterious non-speaking spectre].

Here too are Paul Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as the unabashedly gregarious Fezziwigs, Scrooge's persistently hopeful nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], and Alice Sherman as Scrooge's one-time fiancee Belle, whose captivating lullaby showcases this actress's rich singing voice.

Of course, there is the Cratchit family, whose dependence on Scrooge is key to their survival. The audience's collective hearts come close to breaking through the honest simplicity of Billy Sharpe and Greta Lambert as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, as they face their own poverty with determined faith in the goodness of mankind, love of family, and the prospect of losing their crippled son, Tiny Tim [Liam South is an ideal waif, following his older brother Crispin in playing the role at ASF].

But, it all comes down to Scrooge, doesn't it? Rodney Clark reprises the role, finding new ways to inhabit the penny-pinching miser's gradual decision to change into a man who "knew how to keep Christmas well" and be a model for us all. -- At the start, he is a villain deserving our ire, but he takes us along on his journey of self-discovery that invites us to assess our own beliefs and behaviors. Mr. Clark allows us to experience his changes of heart as he wishes he could have a word with his clerk, Bob Cratchit, or give a street urchin a coin, or mend the broken relationship with his nephew Fred. So when Christmas Day dawns and he sets about to make amends with one and all, we share his complete overwhelming joy, his childlike innocence, and his decision to "honor Christmas with all my heart". Lessons for everyone, and a fine way to introduce the Christmas season.

Faulkner: "Inspecting Carol"

Putting a satiric twist on the holiday season, Faulkner University is presenting Inspecting Carol by Daniel Sullivan and The Seattle Repertory Theatre. Using Nicolai Gogol's 1836 one-act The Inspector General for inspiration, Sullivan's play takes us to the "Soapbox Playhouse" and a rehearsal of their annual production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a heretofore guaranteed success, and one which allowed them to pay the bills [and doesn't every theatre need a moneymaker these days?].

There are several twists to be expected: rehearsals are delayed due to any number of actors' idiosyncrasies or demands, the director Zorah [Brooke Brown] is a self-proclaimed emotionally-charged Lithuanian, 12-year-old Luther [Danile Harms] playing Tiny Tim has outgrown the part, Phil playing Cratchit [Brandtley McDonald] is a walking hypochondriac, in an attempt to be multi-cultural the company hired an untried Black actor named Walter [Erik Gunn], Larry [Allen Young] who plays Scrooge is so bored from having played the role so many times that he did it once entirely in Spanish, an impetuously eager young man named Wayne [David Brown] arrives to audition and won't be denied a chance -- and, oh yes, they owe $30,000 and they're broke!

When their new accountant Kevin [Taylor McGregor] breaks the disturbing news that the National Endowment for the Arts has suspended their funding till an investigation is conducted, the company conclude that Wayne must be the NEA inspector, and do anything to please him. Just as in Gogol's witty play, Wayne's assumed identity leads to all sorts of havoc.

Director Jason Clark South and Scenic Designer Matt Dickson have things well in hand. On a flexible stage [lots of moveable parts for scene changes] that never appears crowded: the action moves along at a brisk pace, only occasionally are actors voices too soft, and the plot devices [too many to enumerate here, but suffice it to say that audiences familiar with A Christmas Carol and with theatre-lore will get an added kick out of it] provide numerous surprises from the talented cast. The razor-edged comedy may not always be as sharp as demanded by the script, but the actors are refreshingly engaging and uninhibited.

The ensemble feel to this production keeps things on an even keel with each participant's over-the-top antics threatening to overpower the others but always kept in check by the clever script and the combined talents of the acting company whose trust in one another keeps audience comfort intact. The characters' predictable in-fighting and backbiting, and a never ending surprising turn of events, ultimately result in a crazy revisionist rehearsal of Dickens' classic tale that has Scrooge ad libing his way through the morass of problems besetting the doomed production.

When the real NEA inspector Betty [Hannah Darrough] attends this rehearsal and -- surprise! surprise! -- actually likes it, the company is saved, and the audience goes home with a new and slightly skewed appreciation of A Christmas Carol.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Red Door: "The Homecoming"

Earl Hamner, Jr.'s 1970 autobiographical novel The Homecoming, later turned into the very popular television series The Waltons, is currently playing a sold-out short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs in a stage adaptation (itself a Christmas season favorite) by Christopher Sergel.

Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, the 23 member cast of area actors create a comfortable ensemble around Clay Boy [Joseph Crawford] its central character and narrator of his own story. Mr. Crawford, in his first major role at the Red Door, immediately engages the audience with his sincerity in recounting the events of Christmas 1933 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he is the eldest of eight red haired siblings.

At the height of the Great Depression, with a blizzard imminent and father Clay Spencer [Tim Gables] en route for Christmas at home from his job 40 miles away, brothers and sisters impatient for Santa Claus, and mother Olivia [Elizabeth Roughton] on the brink of despair and down to two-dollars to provide for her brood, Clay Boy is saddled with the responsibilities of being the temporary man of the house.

Clay Boy wants to be a writer, and though he loves & admires his father, he is frustrated by a seeming indifference from his dad who advises him to "become a responsible man, build a home, raise a family" -- the practical admonition of a practical man.

With his father very late in arriving, Clay Boy goes off in search of him, a search in which he meets an assortment of neighbors from whom he learns a great deal about his father that he never knew -- his kindness, his generosity, his love of family, and his admiration of his son. Several of these characters appear only briefly, but each makes a lasting impression -- so when Clay, Sr. predictably shows up in time for Christmas, he more than lives up to the reputation he has in the community.

Because this play is so familiar to today's audiences, and due to its sentimentality and predictable plot, its success depends a lot on the excellence of its acting company (particularly those in featured roles) and here we are in good hands. -- Emily Roughton is delightful as young Pattie Cake who believes in Santa and is so eager for Christmas to arrive; Eve Harmon's depiction of the angst-ridden adolescent Becky is a mixed-bag of anger and softness; Kim Graham and Cecelia Moorer as the eccentric spinster sisters who make bootleg eggnog are solid & unpredictably entertaining; and Mr. Gables does a fine job of bridging the practical unswerving parent with the loving-caring rock of the community.

Ms. Roughton's portrayal of Olivia is so consistently credible as she suffers while trying not to show it to her children, and demonstrates her love for her family with simple gestures and words of hope to sustain them through such difficult times. -- And it is when she and Mr. Crawford share the stage that the intimacy of a mother-son relationship rivets our attention. They are a good pair. Mr. Crawford commits fully to his role and produces an admirable balance of frustration and acceptance, puzzlement and discovery; while Ms. Roughton allows herself so unobtrusively to be the strength he needs so he can find out for himself that love and appreciation for family and friends are what is needed to get us through. -- And when Clay Boy receives an unexpected gift from his father, he is also given permission to lead his own life.