Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WOBT: "Uh-Oh! Here Comes Christmas"

Twelve independent stories over two acts comprise Uh-Oh! Here Comes Christmas, on offer at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville. Not a play exactly, but thematically connected to the Christmas Season, six storytellers/actors -- individually, in small groups, or as an ensemble -- take the stage to entertain with a diverse selection of stories and songs.

Written by Robert Fulgham of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten fame, and directed by William Harper (who sometimes joins the other cast members), the stories range from familiar childhood memories to downright silliness to heartwarming reminders of the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble -- Elizabeth Bowles, Ed Drozdowski, Stephen Dubberley, Reese Lynch, Kim Mason, Curtia Torbert -- is engaging, and demonstrates worthy stagecraft as they shift from serious to comical selections; and there is significant variety to appeal to most any theatregoer.

For example, Ms. Mason hits the right notes as she shifts from cynical to compassionate observer of an Asian refugee who goes "Trick or Treating" in a Santa mask, but captures the essence of Christmas. The company bemoan yet another "Christmas Pageant" in a humorous assessment of the universal dread that accompanies each annual event. A "Holiday Wedding" between a Jew and a Catholic provides plenty of gentle laughs at the idiosyncrasies of clashing cultures. And "Ponder" suggests a radical reinterpretation of the Nativity story with Ms. Torbert's spot-on ironic tone.

Mr. Dubberley shines in his telling of "The Good Stuff" as he recalls a gift from his young daughter that becomes more and more meaningful over the years; a consummate storyteller, Mr. Dubberley rivets attention through understatement. He is joined by Mr. Drozdowski and Mr. Lynch in a story of the "Salvation Army" family of bell-ringers.

In "The Refrigerator and Confessions", we learn that the best leftovers are memories; and in "The Juggler" the clearest message of Christmas as a time for belief and wonder and a capacity to make things real, encourages us all at the end to join in a chorus of "Silent Night" by candlelight and send us out of the theatre with a full heart.

Faulkner: "The Game's Afoot"

Ken Ludwig, best known for the hilarious farce Lend Me a Tenor, only last year penned The Game's Afoot: or, Holmes for the Holidays, a witty, sophisticated, comedy-thriller-whodunnit now on the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre stage, directed by Jason Clark South.

In it, actor William Gillette [Brandtley McDonald] invites members of his acting company to a Christmas Eve party, but with an ulterior motive: to find out the identity of the person who shot him at the end of a recent performance. (The actual Gillette wrote the play Sherlock Holmes and starred in it on Broadway for several years in the last century, amassing a fortune that he used to build a stone fortress in Connecticut that he equipped with secret passageways, hidden rooms, an early intercom system, remote controls, and many other devices that have become the stock-in-trade of murder mysteries.)

The house is the perfect place for a murder, so when the guests -- including an acerbic theatre critic who has written scathing reviews of most of the actors in the company -- arrive, and with actors engaging in histrionic one-upmanship by quoting Shakespeare, the scene is conveniently set.

Filled as it is with red-herrings typical of the murder mystery genre, there are numerous plot twists and unexpected revelations right to the end of the play's two acts.

Characters are broadly drawn, their stereotypes necessitating a fast-paced flair in comic timing and line-delivery, clear speech, and absolute confidence in presenting them without affectation; and while there is significant effort evidenced on stage, there is much unevenness in the company who often resort to cacophonous shouting matches, self-indulgent posing, and a slow pace.

Most successful, however, are the aforementioned Mr. McDonald as Gillette, whose rich voice and commanding presence are on show; Jesse Alston as Daria Chase, the "critic you love to hate" who oozes contempt for all others around her; Brittney Johnston as Aggie Wheeler continually surprises us with her changes in demeanor, so that we can hardly pin her character down; and Madyson Greenwood as Gillette's mother Martha, whose welcome return to the Faulkner stage exhibits confidence, comfort in her role, and an ability to sustain interest by intelligent and subtle shifts of tone and manner -- a sophisticated portrayal.

There is a certain amount of audience involvement, as we are meant to try to figure out the identity of the murderer along with Gillette, so we are kept on our toes throughout...with a few good laughs along the way.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Red Door: "Papa's Angels"

The holiday season continues at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs with its production of Papa's Angels by Collin Wilcox Paxton, in which a Depression Era family from rural Appalachia is challenged by the death of Momma Jenkins [Valerie Sandlin] caused by "the consumption" (tuberculosis) to learn how to survive in the face of tragedy and rely on love and family to discover that the true meaning of Christmas lasts throughout the year.

Paxton's unabashedly sentimental script and John Roman's repetitive musical score are managed most credibly by Doug Stroup as Papa Jenkins, an idealized devoted husband and father brought to the edge of despair by his wife's death. Mr. Stroup's physical transformation from a shining iconic man to a distraught slovenly figure (and back again) is thoroughly believable; Mr. Stroup commands the stage with a strong singing voice and expert guitar playing. We believe him every step of his journey.

Peopled by experienced and neophyte actors, there is some unevenness in character portrayals and clarity of speech, but this does not detract from the appeal of the script's seasonal messages.

Ms. Sandlin's Momma is sympathetically drawn and her devotion to family so strong that we understand the universal grief over her early demise in Act I. Yet, her children -- with the gentle help of Grammy [Bonnie Paulk] -- are resilient and determined to celebrate Christmas with their father whose self-destructive behavior spurs them on to reclaim him and restore family harmony.

Chief among them is tomboy Hannah Rose; Emily Roughton is so matter-of-fact in her portrayal of this spunky kid, that we side with her unquestionably as she defends her brother Alvin [Thomas Dyer] from a schoolyard bully.

But it is mute daughter Becca [Charity Smith] who is the real rock of the siblings. She narrates the story in voiceovers [though this is not always clear, and ought to have been accorded more specific attention in staging]. Clearly the favorite child, she compensates her inability to speak by writing down questions and thoughts that Momma records in a book; Becca turns this into a diary, including entries under the heading "What happened since Momma died": loss of school, loss of church, loss of Christmas, and loss of Papa; things that to her "just don't seem right". When Papa reads these entries, he finally understands the predicament he has placed his children in and determines to reunite with his family.

Bob Wood's rustic set evokes the time period convincingly, and though director Kathryn Adams Wood's staging often verges on pageantry with its predictable tableau moments that tug on our collective heartstrings, Papa's Angels emerges as a thoughtful reminder of what ought to matter most at Christmas and all the year through.

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Tradition continues at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with this year's re-mounting of Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, complete with its author Charles Dickens as narrator, occasional character, and magician to conduct the two hour proceedings.

The action is fast-paced, and while sometimes sacrificing some of the novel's plot details and thematic nuances in favor of magic tricks and diverting novelty songs, Mr. Sherman's version remains true to Dickens' demonstration of Ebeneezer Scrooge's [Rodney Clark] magical reclamation from miserly grump to a man who will "honor Christmas with all my heart".

To be fair, Wynn Harmon handles the sleight-of-hand magic tricks expertly, and is an engaging narrator as Dickens who seamlessly transforms into other characters and back again as if by magic. -- And the "song of the cat", a clever comic duet by Alice Sherman and Lea McKenna-Garcia, is enriched by their fine voices.

In this classic tale, a familiar staple of the Christmas Season ever since Dickens penned it in 1843 and the source of countless stage and film versions, the story of Scrooge's visitations by assorted ghosts who help turn the recalcitrant penny-pincher into a generous benefactor is bound to warm the hearts of even the most reluctant of us.

Many in the acting ensemble [including some local children] are reprising the roles they played in last year's inaugural production: Mr. Harmon conducts the play with a masterly hand...Brik Berkes returns as the ghost of Scrooge's seven-years-dead business partner Jacob Marley who sets the action in motion; he seems to relish the other-worldliness of the role with a fervor that initiates Scrooge's journey... Billy Sharpe and Greta Lambert once again give the utmost credibility to the downtrodden Cratchits whose devotion to one another and their brood of children -- Tiny Tim [Liam South on opening night was nigh on to perfect in the role, and whose "God bless us, every one" garnered appropriate sighs and cheers] among them -- is so gentle and honest that it transcends sentimentality... James Bowen's depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present is a jolly sort who relishes his ability to change people's demeanor by sprinkling magic dust on them, but who can also address the unpleasant realities of poverty and ignorance that infected Victorian London as much as they do now in America... Ms. Sherman again is secure in singing as she is in depicting Belle, Young Scrooge's [Joshua Marx] love-interest (a newly extended scene of their breakup helps in our appreciation of the older Scrooge's loss)... and Paul Hebron and Dianna Van Fossen double as the generous and life-loving Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, and later as Old Joe and Mrs. Dilber who greedily bargain over Scrooge's property... Seth Rettberg's ever optimistic Fred, Scrooge's nephew, is affable and good-humored... and the South brothers [Liam, Duncan, and Crispin] have been sharpening their collective talents with confidence and professionalism in multiple children's roles. ASF newcomer Rivka Borek inhabits the Ghost of Christmas Past with authority.

Mr. Clark's Scrooge has developed over time into a complex character whose reclamation is revealed in subtle degrees that suggest the difficulty of change, the devastating loss forever of his fiancee, and a desire to make things right with the world he has often rejected, when faced with his own mortality. So, his exuberance in realizing that the ghosts had worked their magic in one night and that he has not missed Christmas Day, is so naturally infectious that the audience can not help but get caught up in it with him.

Paul Wonsek's scenic evocation of Victorian London, and Elizabeth Novak's stunning costumes complete the picture. -- When the enormous and sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come appeared from a trap door spewing smoke, an audible "awesome" from a nearby child in the audience summed up the experience. Magic indeed!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Holiday Memories"

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

Artistic Director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Holiday Memories [Russell Vandenbroucke's resolute adaptation of two Truman Capote stories: "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory"] features a solid ensemble of actors dressed in Danny Davidson's character-driven period costumes on Layne Holley's evocative theatre-in-the-round set, and is sustained by a haunting original musical score by Mr. Thornton, his son Michael Thornton, and Kim Wolfe.

The challenges of performing in-the-round are largely successful, with only occasional difficulty with vocal projection and deep shadows that obscure the actors faces. -- But the fine thing is the achievement of a natural and close relationship between actors and audience in this delicate celebration of the best aspects of human nature.

The two acts -- Thanksgiving and Christmas -- provide an intimate look into the lives of an unlikely pair of best friends: a young boy named Buddy [Max Zink] and his childlike elderly distant cousin Miss Sook [Fiona Macleod], whose poignant tales of love and friendship in the rural Depression Era South are narrated by the adult Truman [Cushing Phillips]. As they come to life in Truman's memory, Capote's elegiac prose is contrasted by the ordinary speech of his characters and their relationship with each other and the simple world around them, peopled by an assortment of relatives and neighbors all played by Sarah Looney and Michael Dilaura. The result is a sublime mixture that celebrates honesty, friendship, innocence, and morality in a poignant tale so befitting the holiday season.

As Truman ruminates, Mr. Phillips captures the subtle nuances of Capote's text and imbues them with a compassionate understanding of the love and loneliness of both Sook and Buddy, two outsiders from the greater world. His insightful interpretation brings them to life for us as he assesses his youthful frustrations with being called a sissy and taking revenge on schoolmate Odd Henderson on Thanksgiving Day, only to be gently reprimanded by Sook who, despite her "simplicity", instructs him that "deliberate cruelty is the only unpardonable sin". -- As in other episodes in this production, Capote's message is rescued from potentially overdone sentimentality by the honest performances of Ms. Macleod and Mr. Zink. There is hardly a moment that lacks credibility, so much that we feel these are real people who have known each other and lived together for a long time.

When, at the beginning of Act II, Sook announced that it is "fruitcake weather", we follow her and Buddy preparing fruitcakes for casual friends and some strangers [even President Roosevelt is sent one], bargaining with Mr. HaHa Jones for whiskey for their cakes, and getting drunk together on the remainder of the whiskey, only to be scolded by the older relatives they live with. -- As a grown-up, Sook is blamed for this outrage, and tries to come to terms with her own condition, calling herself "tired and funny"; but Buddy defends her saying "not" thereby securing their bond.

Their quest for a Christmas tree, accompanied by a little dog named Queenie, and making homemade gifts to exchange are accomplished with unaffected efficiency; their excitement over these heart-given presents allows them to comprehend that "God is in everyday things and everyday people".

Soon after, Buddy is sent away to school. He reminisces about this last Christmas they shared, and as word reaches him that Sook has died, he realizes that she is "an irreplaceable part of myself". -- Capote's message is loud and clear, and a fine way to usher in the Christmas Season.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Millbrook: "A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol"

The Christmas Season is being ushered in across the River Region's theatres, the latest being the Millbrook Community Players' A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol that just ended its two-week run in a packed schedule that includes Frankly Scarlett, You're Dead on the Harriott II riverboat, and a one show only performance of Christmas in Oz planned for December 13.

Walton Jones, David Wohl, and Faye Greenberg collaborated on this nostalgic comedy with music as a sequel to their popular A 1940s Radio Hour, transporting audiences to Christmas Eve 1943 in a radio station in Newark, NJ where a group of actors create their version of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, and where we become the live radio station audience who respond to "applause" signs illuminated on cue by a sound-effects Foley artist.

This is a mixed-bag of characters, played by Millbrook's veteran and neophyte actors, and we see them both as the actors and the characters they play in the radio play. And, while the script assumes we are familiar with Dickens, the play can be enjoyed without it. -- There is a snowstorm that keeps the company captive for a while, and some improvising has to be done. We see the connections between the characters and their roles: for example, the grouchy William St. Claire [John Chain] who plays Scrooge changes his demeanor as Dickens' messages strike close to home. -- So it is with others; nothing surprising, but nonetheless entertaining.

Replete with the aforementioned sound-effects [Daniel Harms almost steals the show with his antics in providing them with imaginative "props" -- a folding ironing board that sounds like a squeaking door, for example -- and spot-on timing], and with several on-air advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes, BVDs, and Nash-Kelvinator products, we are taken back to another time period. -- And it is at the height of World War II, so there are promos for War Bonds and messages for "our boys overseas" that bring a connection to today's concerns for service men and women in foreign lands.

In keeping with A Christmas Carol, there are several sentimental episodes that touch the heart. Tracy Allgrove as Judith adds her lovely singing voice to a couple of songs that comment on the action. And the rest of the ensemble do valiant work in committing to their roles.

Hindered a bit by the theatre's acoustics and the physical distance between the stage and the audience, these actors must do double duty to keep us engaged.

Still, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol captures just the right tone for the season, and directors Susan Chain and Stephanie McGuire invite the audience to join in and have a good time in reminiscing.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "A Very Second Samuel Christmas"

The townsfolk of tiny fictional "Second Samuel, GA" recently took up residence at the Wetumpka Depot in an encore production of last season's A Very Second Samuel Christmas; playwright Pamela Parker has revised the play to enhance a few characters with only minor dramatic impact since much of it is narrative, but she has provided the central character named B-flat a monologue Christmas sermon that gives Jonathan Conner another opportunity to display his ample gifts as B-flat transforms into an elderly Black preacher and back again before our eyes.

B-flat, a man with a decent heart and nary a moral flaw in his crippled body and simple mind, narrates the story of what happened in Second Samuel one Christmastime in post-Korean war Truman Era.

The town's annual Christmas pageant is going to be conducted for the first time at the "Rock of Ages Free African Church", but the beloved 100-year-old pastor -- a man named "Wonderful Counselor" -- dies suddenly, and a storm floods the town and almost destroys the church, leaving a distraught Jimmy Deanne [Kim Mason] focussed more on her own inconvenience than on the two unfortunate events. And old prejudices come to the fore as the locals lose track of the reason for the season, and have to be reminded what really matters, helped by a miraculous appearance of an angel of the Lord and B-flat's persistent optimism.

The ensemble actors return intact, looking completely comfortable in their roles as before. The men continue to meet and argue in Frisky's [Stephen Dubberley] "Bait and Brew", while across town, the women gather and gossip in his wife Omaha's [Kristy Meanor] "Change Your Life Hair and Beauty" parlor. -- Eccentric personalities abound in this affectionate tale of a Christmas miracle.

As we are often distracted by the commercial appeal of the Christmas Season, perhaps we too might realize that it sometimes "takes a flood to get our attention", and we might learn from each other and from the words of the Angel to "fear not" as B-flat concludes the telling of the first Christmas.

Theatre AUM: "No Exit"

Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading figure in Twentieth Century existentialism, wrote No Exit in 1944 reflecting war-torn Europe's sense of futility and universal concern with life and death, eternal reward or punishment, and the possibility of oblivion...and Theatre AUM recently mounted a solid production that had audiences discussing it some time after leaving the theatre.

Hearkening back to Dante's inscription on the gates of Hell: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" in the "Inferno" section of his Commedia, and signaling the absurdity of Beckett's tramps/clowns who wait for a Godot who never appears, Sartre's one act No Exit is set in an anteroom to Hell where three strangers are escorted by a Valet [Naiya Jasmine] and politely told they can't leave, won't ever sleep, and worst of all (once each has acknowledged their transgressions) their existence in this place will be unbearable. There is no torturer, no Hell-fire and brimstone. Indeed, as the play concludes: "Hell is other people."

Introspective Vincent [Mark Dasinger, Jr.] was executed for cowardice during the War, and had cheated on his wife, bringing other women into their home. -- Estelle [Allyson Lee], a vain socialite, killed her own child and caused her secret lover's suicide. -- Inez [Blaire Casey] had a lesbian affair with her cousin's wife and caused several deaths as a result.

As played in-the-round on Frank Thomas's minimalist set (a triangular platform with three sofas), director Val Winkelman emphasizes the intimacy, isolation, and entrapment of the room on its three inhabitants. She has also stripped the script of some of its subtleties to make a forceable argument.

The ensemble actors gradually reveal their characters' true selves while becoming more and more concerned with their fate and how to survive an eternity together. -- Sexual tension is achieved as Estelle rejects Inez's "romantic" advances and attempts to retaliate by seducing Vincent who in turn rejects her.

As they come to realize that each one controls the others' destinies and that they are so much alike in their depravities ( all delivered in polite language and demeanor, and graced with a good amount of ironic humor), all pretense has been stripped bare and they are "as naked as the day they were born".

Theatre AUM has again provided a minor gem to Montgomery audiences -- provocative and pertinent, No Exit resonates today much as it did almost 70 years ago.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pure Artistry: "The Meeting"

When Jeff Stetson wrote his play The Meeting in 1983, the Reagan Administration was on its way to dismantling the Commission on Civil Rights, debates on affirmative action were underway, and the advances of the 1960s were in jeopardy. So, many of the questions raised in The Meeting regarding the disparate directions of the Civil Rights Movement endorsed by two of its leading figures had some urgency; the nation -- Blacks and Whites alike -- were divided in their allegiances.

Stetson depicts an imagined meeting in a Harlem hotel room between Malcolm X [Kalonji Gilchrist] and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Carlos Russell] just days before a fateful rally in February 1965 at the nearby Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm was mowed down by some 21 bullets, and three years before King's assassination in Memphis. -- Now playing at the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe, the play balances these two giants' points of view as they argue hawkish-aggression and non-violent civil disobedience, with occasional editorializing by Malcolm's bodyguard Rashad [Rod Richardson]. Though we now know all too well that both men would soon die, the prophetic irony of their frequently stated willingness to give up their lives to the cause can't be ignored. And the recognition that the paths each has chosen have bound them together is summed up in the line: "If they kill one of us, they can't let the other live, since he will be turned into a martyr."

Written as a literal and figurative chess game as well as a test of physical strength, we see these two men at a human level out of the glare of media attention and at a distance from their iconic status; and it is to the credit of co-directors Ronald McCall and Janice Dennis that they have not encouraged the actors to impersonate these men, but rather to reflect their attitudes and positions.

Nonetheless, any depiction of such instantly recognizable figures must inject personal charisma, forceful speech, and complete confidence in their aims. -- Stetson's text frequently reminds us of specific events and accomplishments, reputations, and significant obstacles each one poses to the other in accomplishing similar goals, so whatever predispositions audience members might have regarding either of these icons, certain expectations must be addressed. -- And there must be some tension in their meeting beyond a concern for personal safety, and a greater purpose that merely to talk...perhaps a determination of a new direction for the movement through achieving a victory for one side rather than a detente.

There are a few moments in the production at Pure Artistry that get to the heart of the matter, but all too frequently, the tentative delivery of dialogue and deliberately slow pace lacked the passion that the script's words implied. And these are important issues that need to be brought to the attention of today's audiences, many of whom can only recite a litany of names and quotable quotes without much thoughtful consideration of their significance.

Perhaps the production will find its feet during the run of the show. With a greater confidence in flexing their muscular ideals and philosophies as well as in arm wrestling, Stetson's script would be better served, and we would be more attentive to their musing: "Just think if we had joined hands and pushed in the same direction, what we could have accomplished."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Faulkner: "Les Miserables"

At roughly 2.5 hours, the relentless pace of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's production of Les Miserables, the international record-breaking musical, only rarely slows down. -- Spurred, no doubt, by the play's success since its original 1984 opening in London, and the recent blockbuster film, Faulkner's co-directors Angela Dickson and Jason Clark South are filling the house in the four week run of this most ambitious undertaking: non-stop action for some 31 actors, a demanding orchestral and vocal musical score, numerous large scene changes, and hardly a break from heightened emotions.

It is fair to say that while Faulkner's theatre is no match for the huge scale of a major Broadway house or a big-screen film, there are moments here that capture its power with the Chorus in full voice in the signature "Peoples' Song" and "One Day More", as they fill Matt Dickson's simple evocative set with strong harmonies and emotional power.

Victor Hugo's novel on which the musical is based covers the vast sweep of the French Revolution and its clarion call for "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" that can still be felt today in clear social and economic distinctions between the haves and have-nots; but the Revolution recedes somewhat when it concentrates on the personal stories of the people of little consequence.

The plot revolves around Jean Valjean [Brandtley McDonald] in his attempt to change his life after being released from a 19-year prison sentence for a petty crime, and given a second chance by a benevolent Bishop [Patrick Hale]. Pursued by Inspector Javert [Matt Dickson] for breaking his parole, Valjean (under an assumed name) helps a destitute woman Fantine [Jesse Alston] and rescues her daughter Cosette from the con-artist innkeepers Thenardier [Chris Kelly] and Mme. Thenardier [Mara Woddail]. Ten years later when Cosette grows up [Brittney Johnston], she falls in love with Marius [Blake Williams], one of the revolutionaries under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras [David Rowland].

Valjean's moral dilemma is often tested: "Who am I?" is a refrain frequently heard as he questions whether to save others or himself, keeping secrets or telling the truth, duty to the Revolution or to his promise to Fantine. And he has an impact on other characters, especially Javert, who face similar, if opposite conditions.

There is a paucity of spoken dialogue in Les Miz; more operatic in structure, the bulk of plot action, character development, and social commentary are carried in music and song lyrics.

Quality singing has become a hallmark of Faulkner's productions, and so it is here in most of the featured roles as well as the aforementioned Chorus. -- Musical Director Marilyn Swears and Conductor of the fine nine-member pit orchestra Andrew Cook support the actors without overwhelming them, though only the principal actors are "miked", rendering a lot of the lyrics assigned to supporting roles (lines which contain essential plot details) completely inaudible.

As the inkeepers, Mr.Kelly and Ms. Woddail invest in the disarming comic properties of "Master of the House", making their more greedy elements in Act II more pronounced.

Eponine [Alicia Ruth Jackson], caught between devotion to the Revolution and love for Marius, delivers an exquisite "On My Own", but is otherwise given little emphasis in this production through unfortunate staging and vocal amplification in the second act.

While the romantic chemistry between Cosette and Marius is lessened by Mr. Williams's rigid postures, Ms. Johnston makes the most of her lyrical soprano voice and her absolute emotional commitment to Marius as well as to her protector, Valjean. Long overdue a role of this stature, Ms. Johnston brings you to tears and admiration.

Ms. Alston as Fantine can break hearts with "I Dreamed a Dream", so much that when Fantine dies midway through Act I, her presence is felt long after.

Young Matthew Klinger plays Gavroche, the urchin who proclaims with conviction "I run this town" with impressive maturity.

Mr. Rowland brings to the stage the full-package that sets a high bar in playing Enjolras. He commands every scene he is in without stealing focus, urging the revolutionaries with a passionate swagger that charismatically engages the audience with the on-stage action. Every inch the leader physically and vocally, Mr. Rowland's credibility is never in doubt and is one of the most solid portrayals on Faulkner's stage.

Mr. Dickson's Javert is a powerful antgagonist whose obsession in tracking down Valjean is his sole raison d'etre.  Mr. Dickson's threatening demeanor becomes gradually more introspective as Javert wrestles with Valjean's compassion towards him, finally reducing him to self-doubt and a feeling of worthlessness. -- It is in their scenes together that we feel most strongly the inmpact of the Revolution on individual lives, as both men contend with doubts that take them in opposite directions -- suicide and salvation.

Valjean is Hugo's hero, and the protagonist whose journey is central to everything else as he influences all the other characters. Mr. McDonald takes on the task of carrying the show on his capable shoulders. He has a powerful voice that almost overwhelms in the opening of Act I, that one wonders if he has anything in reserve for later on; but he does, and in the quieter moments ("Valjean's Prayer", for example) exhibits vocal control and emotional credibility. -- This role is a test in a way, and demonstrates that Mr. McDonald is on his way to becoming as fine an actor as he is a singer.

There is a lot of bombast in Les Miserables -- military and patriotic grandstanding, for example, combined with melodramatic romanticism; and while many of the crowd scenes involving French citizens and prostitutes are self-consciously staged with only modest commitment to creating stories of believable characters, the overall impact is achieved. Les Miz aficionados ought to be pleased by the musical presentations, and everyone will feel the impact of the Faulkner production's efforts.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "Blithe Spirit"

With Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit to end their 33rd Season, the Wetumpka Depot Players have mounted their second-in-a-row "improbable farce in three acts" (Michael Frayn's Noises Off was a hit this Summer), much to the delight of local audiences who might need a bit of levity to counterbalance the government shutdown, much as British theatre-goers needed relief in 1941 at the brink of World War II.

With his career in full swing between the Wars (he penned some 140 plays, hundreds of songs, films, and numerous cabaret acts over several decades), Coward often directed and starred in his glittering comedies of manners, many of which have a decidedly dark side underneath the urbane wit and sharp-edged dialogue that were his trademarks.

At the Depot, a few technical glitches and tentative dialogue sometimes slowed down the rapid pace demanded by farce, but with their first weekend under their belts, Director William Harper's multi-talented seven-character ensemble should be settling in to what promises to be a full-out laugh riot.

Charles Condomine [Lee Bridges] and his second wife Ruth [Cheryl Kiser] are hosting a dinner party whose guest of honor is Madame Arcati [Fiona Macleod], a bungling eccentric bohemian mystic who has been asked to conduct a seance for them, not aware that the Condomines and their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman [Michael Dilaura and Sherida Black] are thorough skeptics, and that Charles has invited her merely to learn "a few tricks of the trade" for a book he is writing about the occult. They have all agreed to pretend to be interested believers so as not to upset Madame Arcati.

Before their guests arrive, the Condomines do their best to instruct their new maid Edith [Meghan Ducote] on the polite ways to serve, and their conversation over several martinis turns to Charles's first wife Elvira -- a beautiful young free-spirited woman (and the polar opposite of Ruth) -- who died seven years ago, but who is often on both their minds.

So, it should come as no surprise when Madame Arcati unexpectedly conjures the spirit of Elvira [Leanna Wallace] who only Charles can see or hear, and whose presence creates some of the most outlandishly comical misunderstandings. -- And a major problem: whether or not (and then how) to get rid of Elvira who shows no signs of leaving. -- The scenes with Charles and his two wives are skillfully managed, with Elvira outwitting Ruth and Ruth bewildered by Charles's apparent acceptance of Elvira's ghost into their lives. The women heap verbal abuse on one another, and Charles contributes his own barbs. It seems that neither marriage is complete bliss.

Mr. Harper has some fine veteran actors at his disposal, and some relative newcomers as well. Mr. Dilaura makes a solid acting debut as Dr. Bradman; as he is paired with Ms. Black's flighty Mrs. Bradman, they make a good pair of foils for the more sophisticated Condomines. -- Ms. Ducote's overly eager to please Edith, scurries about and makes more messes than are obvious from the start. Her part in  resolving the play's conflict is cleverly done.

Ms. Wallace makes a return to the Depot after "a 10 year hiatus", appearing here in the ghostly mode of a silver dress and wearing a "reverb" lavaliere microphone to make her voice seem other-worldly. And, for a long-departed wanderer, Elvira has some very worldly desires as she tries to win Charles back by devious means that backfire. (You'll have to see the play to understand.)

Mr. Bridges and Ms. Kiser thoroughly assume their roles; they appear so comfortable with one another, that we believe instantly that they are a married couple; and their completely natural speaking and movement complete the picture.

But it is Ms. Macleod's portrayal of Madame Arcati that is both Coward's focus and the production's most hilarious characterization. -- As she leaps about in preparation of going into a trance for the seance, or intensely intuits that "someone else is psychic in this house", or girlishly celebrates her "success" in conjuring Elvira (the seance scenes are outrageously funny), or refuses to be downhearted when numerous attempts to remove ghosts from the house are unsuccessful, Ms. Macleod uses her long experience in the theatre to communicate with a sly wink or a pause or a giggle or a posture what lesser actors only wish they could do.

The finely detailed set and period appropriate costumes and music complete the picture as we are transported back to the 1940s in the Depot's joyful production of Blithe Spirit.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Wait Until Dark"

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

Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller Wait Until Dark -- best known for the film version starring Audrey Hepburn -- is a follow-up hit to his Dial M for Murder. . . and the genre is being given a tensely enjoyable showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse under the astute direction of Eleanor K. Davis.

Ms. Davis has gathered an ensemble of experienced actors (and a star-in-the-making in the person of young Miette Crim) who, with the collaborative support of the design team's detailed creation of period and character driven set-lights-sound-costumes, deliver a suspenseful evening in the theatre.

There are several twists and turns in the complicated plot revolving around young recently-blind Susy Hendrix [Rhonda Crim] in her attempts to both maneuver through her Greenwich Village basement apartment and thwart the designs of a trio of con-men/thugs who will stop at nothing to retrieve some heroin smuggled into the country inside a doll that Susy's husband Sam [Stephen Dubberly], unaware of its contents, had carried as a favor to a woman at the airport.

The trio, believing that the doll is in Susy's apartment, assume a number of disguises as they insinuate themselves into her life while Sam is kept away from home on a ruse invented by the sinister Harry Roat [Mark Hunter] and his accomplices pretending to be a policeman, Sgt. Carlino [Greg Babb] and a "friend" of Sam's named Mike Talman [Scott Page]. -- While Carlino assumes the role of a detective searching for the murderer of a woman in Susy's neighborhood (the same woman who gave Sam the doll), he is also obsessed with erasing any possible fingerprints. Talman meanwhile ingratiates himself with Susy and appears to be her protector. And Roat assumes two roles -- both father and son -- who claim to be related to the murdered woman, and who variously accuse Sam of having had an affair with her.

Susy's 10-year-old neighbor Gloria [Miette Crim] runs errands for her, often reluctantly, and she has a bit of a temperamental streak; but when Susy conscripts her to help in a serious "adventure" to catch the thugs, she relishes the opportunity and is essential for Susy's success. Well done.

There is a huge amount of exposition in the play that the ensemble make dramatically interesting as they invest thoroughly in their characters and with one another. -- The sinister plotting and the deviousness of the antagonists could in lesser hands be reduced to melodramatic grandstanding, but as Susy begins to put the pieces together and determines to outwit the thugs at their own game, their credibility is never in doubt.

Mr. Babb's "Carlino" is as gruff as they come in his role of detective: a familiar type that he makes his own with confidence and a touch of humor. -- Mr. Page is utterly convincing as "Mike Talman", the kindly friend; we have to be reminded now and then that he is a con-man. No wonder that Susy believes him without a shred of evidence: only his gently supportive manner. -- Mr. Hunter's depictions of "Roat, Senior" and "Roat, Junior" are masterful ruses; but beneath these roles is the ruthless fanatic seething underneath, whose smooth unblinking calm oozes with criminal intent.

Our sympathies lie with Susy from the outset. Her blindness, first seen as a disability that needs to be overcome with gentle prodding by Sam, later becomes her ace-in-the-hole as she turns the tables on the crooks. Ms. Crim takes us on her character's journey as we watch her stumble or grope her way around the apartment in domestic chores. As she discovers her independence through a heightened sense of hearing, she realizes what the con-men have been doing: Carlino wiping fingerprints, sending signals to each other outside the apartment by opening and closing window blinds, the sound of Roat's shoes and identical style of walking of Roat Senior & Junior.

Tension mounts in Ms. Davis's production as the inevitability of the doll's being found in the apartment makes for a life and death show-down, leading to a final scene played in the dark when Susy and Gloria extinguish all the lights while the bad guys descend on them. (Even for those who remember the impact of the film's final moments, audible gasps demonstrate that this scene retains its shock value.)

Wisely, Ms. Davis has kept the 1960s ambiance intact by respecting Knott's script. The coincidences inherent in the thriller genre, Susy's trusting nature, airport security, and such might make us today question the credibility of the script; but as Ms. Davis and her entire company on and off stage approach it with absolute confidence, audiences can't help but accept and get involved with them...and have a good time in the theatre.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Millbrook: "Bell, Book, and Candle"

The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. are currently showing John Van Druten's romantic comedy Bell, Book, and Candle (known to many from the 1958 film starring Kim Novak and James Stewart), and have invited comparisons to the film by borrowing parts of its sound score in their production.

Co-directed by Ginger Collum and Susan Chain, the five actors and one cat tell the story of Gillian Holroyd [Karla McGhee], the leader of a coven of New York City witches, and her bewitching of her book publisher neighbor Shepherd Henderson [Roger Humber] -- partly because she is attracted to him, and partly to take revenge on a long ago college rival who she discovers happens to be engaged to Shep. Using her cat Pyewacket as a "familiar" with which to cast the spell, Shep instantly falls in love with Gillian; but she can't return his ardor in kind because tradition has it that witches can not fall in love.

Abetted by her wacky Aunt Queenie [Tracy Allgrove, reminiscent of Marion Lorne's Aunt Clara in television's Bewitched] and her immature prankster brother Nicky [Michael Hartman in his stage debut] who complicate matters while trying to help, the plot gets further tangled by the entrance of Sidney Redlitch [Charlie Mulcahy's over-the-top drunkard calls out for more variety] who is writing a book about New York's witches.

Shep doesn't believe in witches, but will consider Redlitch's manuscript; Gillian questions Redlitch's credibility, especially when he consults Madame de Passe who Gillian knows to be a second-rate practitioner; but Nicky offers to help Redlitch with his research.

No spoiler alerts here -- it is a romantic comedy, after all -- so the ending is fairly predictable; and Van Druten's 1950s landscape with its naive innocence comes across as a bit dated, no matter how charming. And there is such a lot of exposition in Van Druten's first act, that little else happens to entertain till Act Two.

Mr. Humber plays Shep's very compliant demeanor with ease, and Ms. McGhee occasionally demonstrates Gillian as a real force to contend with; but their sexual chemistry is all too tentative, and her transition from a sexy witch to an ordinary human being needs more distinction. We need to believe in the magic. -- Ms. Allgrove ranges from haughty New York matron to a peculiar bohemian; and Mr. Hartman's behavior is too much in check for one described as a merry prankster.

The production is pleasant enough, and a diverting entertainment for the end of Summer.  With quicker pacing and focus on the larger than life characters Van Druten penned, this Bell, Book, and Candle could attain its magic.

AUM: "Paternity Leave"

Theatre AUM's season opened this week with Paternity Leave, an entertaining World Premier original devised work by AUM faculty member and director Neil David Seibel, his second such offering at AUM, the first being Daughters of Abraham two years ago.

Ever since Joan Littlewood's 1963 landmark Oh, What a Lovely War! initiated "devised" works in a modern format to satirize current socio-political issues, devising scripts and performances has been a part of many university theatre curricula, often utilizing improvizational techniques that range from the Italian Renaissance's commedia dell'arte to Viola Spolin's theatre games, and encouraging directors, actors, playwrights, dramaturgs and designers to emphasize collaboration in reaching a finished product, whether in classroom exercises or in fully mounted productions.

In Paternity Leave, Mr. Seibel has a talented ensemble of five actors: Mark Dasinger, Jr. plays Joe, Samantha Blakely plays Malin, and Amber Baldwin, Chris Howard, and Erica Johnson each plays a variety of roles in a clever story of gender reversal where an American man [Joe] -- who is married to a Swedish wife [Malin] -- becomes pregnant, with all the standard baggage of physical discomfort, unusual bodily functions, and mood swings that traditionally impact women.

The young couple have moved to Sweden; it is there that socialized medicine makes the cost of pregnancy and childbirth far more "affordable" [read: "virtually free"] than the current average American price-tag of somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000. However, the Swedish system is not without its encumbrances of bureaucratic minutiae that Joe and Malin must handle as best they can.

There are some serious matters here regarding health care in the United States, most of which are covered in dinner-time conversations comparing American and European systems, but these pass rather quickly, and there is little time for audiences to assimilate the impact of Obamacare and the passions it arouses.

Mr. Seibel's company have chosen instead to focus most of the production's 80 minutes on the comedic elements of Joe's predicament, with only subtle references to the seriousness of health care. His "Holy shit, I'm pregnant!" sums it up nicely, and we are treated to several telling elements of familiarity: morning sickness, a sweet moment when the baby first moves inside him, his water breaking signaled by the ensemble throwing water balloons.

While they manipulate designer Michael Krek's set pieces that transform locations easily, and handle some clever props [flying a kite and holding a cut-out airplane exterior], and sing and dance in what appear to have been improvised through the rehearsal process, the energetic and committed performances occasionally blur stage focus and vocal clarity.

The production has an intended improvizational feel that combines several theatrical styles: realism, surrealism, music-hall, et al. -- And the ensemble shift gears comfortably throughout. -- Mr. Seibel, dramaturg(e) Christy Hutcheson, and the actors have put so much on the plate that it is difficult at times to digest it all. Jared Peregoy's "text message" projections often contain important commentary and some international "in jokes" about football/soccer, and certainly target current trends in communication; but they pass very quickly and split audience focus from the stage action.

Paternity Leave marks another of Theatre AUM's projects that offer excellent educational theatre exposure to its students and audiences; "devised" theatre deserves a place in contemporary theatre programs, and this project helps cement AUM's commitment to cutting-edge best practices.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

WOBT: "Collected Stories"

In one of its strongest offerings in recent memory, the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is showing Donald Margulies' 1996 Pulitzer nominated two-character play, Collected Stories, directed with confidence by Amanda E. Haldy.

Tracing a six-year relationship between an established writer/professor Ruth [Teri Sweeney] and her young graduate student protege Lisa [Curtia Torbert], Ms. Haldy signals a familiar theme in such relationships by using an on-stage visual projection that quotes Oscar Wilde, in part "Every disciple takes away something from his master"; and it is that "takes away" that reverberates in multiple meanings -- (a) to learn by example, (b) to imitate, (c) to steal -- as we witness their ambitions, conflicts and rivalries as the young woman's confidence grows under her mentor's guidance.

What begins as a tutorial in which Ruth offers sound advice to fledgling writer Lisa's over-eager hero-worship -- "Listen...don't take notes", "Ask the right questions", "Nothing (in writing) is arbitrary", "Art is an exaggeration of the truth", "Don't be autobiographical--we all rummage from others" -- becomes a gradual mutual admiration and trust with each woman confiding in the other to unforseen and disastrous effect. -- At one point, Ruth tells Lisa of her relationship with Beat-generation writer Delmore Schwartz -- her "shining moment" that she has never written about because "some things you don't touch". -- When Lisa's first novel conscripts Ruth's story as a first-person fictional narrative, Ruth feels betrayed while Lisa believes it to be a tribute to her mentor.

Many of us can relate to such a relationship; we've had mentors whom we admire and who tell us the truth for good or ill; and we want to please them while never quite escaping their unintentionally intimidating presences. -- Here, the veteran Ms. Sweeney's thoroughly convincing behavior, her off-handed remarks, her generosity in sharing the stage with Ms. Torbert, her exquisite delivery of dialogue with such natural comfort one would hardly believe she was acting, and the journey she takes in coming to grips with growing older and an unspecified illness, make for one of the most truthful and subtle characterizations seen recently in the River Region.

Ms. Torbert -- an Alabama State University student -- holds the stage with Ms. Sweeney. Though her opening gambits as an over-the-top admirer seem more like a young teenager than a graduate student, they serve as a fine contrast to her development into a more mature woman and a better writer than she was at the beginning. Her transformation in the two hours playing time is so striking that she seems hardly to be the same person, as she has adjusted her voice and posture to accommodate the six year time span of the action.

And together, they produce a convincingly complex relationship that has audiences enthralled.

There are a few things to quibble about in this production: Steven Jay Navarre's excellently rendered set could better reflect the bohemian aspect of Greenwich Village by narrowing the broad expanse of stage and adding more clutter to Ruth's apartment; "projections" that signal each scene contain a lot of unnecessary small print content that is generally covered in the dialogue; scene changes could be more efficient; there are a number of indulgent moments that garner laughs without furthering either plot or character. But none of these detract from its overall strength.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Faulkner: "The Baker's Wife"

The Baker's Wife has an admirable pedigree in its book by Joseph Stein and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and has had a cult following for decades without ever having a Broadway run; and now director Jason Clark South is bringing it to Montgomery audiences at the Faulkner Dinner Theatre, with admirable musical direction by Marilyn Swears and the assorted talents of his cast of Faulkner students and alumni along with members of the local community.

Based on Jean Giono's 1932 novella Jean le Bleu and a 1938 film by Marcel Pagnol titled La Femme du Boulanger, this 2-hour and 40-minute production of The Baker's Wife recounts the tale of an older man and his young wife as he takes up the position of baker in a small town that has been without fresh bread since the departure of its former baker. -- Their December/May marriage will predictably be threatened, first by the townspeople's believing the baker's wife to be his daughter, and then by the persistence of a younger man for her affection.

Several sub-plots involve pairs of locals whose petty arguments disrupt the harmony of the town and afford the authors numerous occasions for social criticism on marriage and adultery, morality and expedience, religion and science. The frankness of the script in these matters is handled tentatively in this production, resulting in sanitizing the darker elements and making the story and its characters more innocent than the text indicates.

The story rambles a lot in analyzing themes of recrimination and forgiveness, and takes far too long to establish every relationship, making it hard to sustain interest; however, what holds it together is Schwartz's haunting musical score -- an array of solos, duets, quartets, and choruses -- and lyrics that both further the plot and provide emotional contexts for the characters.

The production is strongest in its principal roles of Amiable Castagnet [Chris Kelly], his wife Genevieve [Mara Woddail], and her young lover Dominique [Brandtley McDonald]; all are fine singers whose vocal range and clarity serve them well.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Woddail establish the fragility of their relationship with his eagerness to please her and her unwillingness to hurt his feelings. Mr. Kelly's persistent optimism, and his "denial" that his wife has cheated on him, lives up to his name -- "amiable" [though both in the program and in the on-stage pronunciation becomes "Aimable", a more than unfortunate oversight; there are numerous mispronunciations throughout that a dialect coach could rectify].

Their Act I duets, "Merci Madame" and "Gifts of Love" are heartbreaking in counterpoint to Mr. McDonald's powerfully committed declaration of love for her in "Proud Lady". Impressive all.

Ms. Woddail's delivery of "Meadowlark", a climactic plot moment in which she weighs her options of staying with her husband or running off with the younger man, is a high point in the drama as well as in the performance. When she determines to run away, Amiable and the town almost collapse.

The fickle townspeople, more concerned with their bread supply than with the well-being of their new neighbors, provide occasional tidbits of humor, and their choral numbers fill the room vividly.

Amiable meanwhile seems resigned to his fate in "If I Have to Live Alone", a simply delivered, dispassionate declaration that now his life is meaningless. Well done, Mr. Kelly.

There is a bittersweet reconciliation at the end, and almost all the townspeople settle their differences.

The Faulkner stage holds another set with large moveable pieces that are manipulated smoothly during the scene changes so the action runs without interruption or dead-time. Congratulations.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Red Door: "See Rock City"

On a compact unit set depicting the front porch of a rural 1940s Kentucky house complete with a period appropriate green-painted glider and metal chairs, director Tom Salter's sensitive production of See Rock City takes the stage at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With an ensemble of four experienced actors at his disposal, Mr. Salter takes an unremarkable script and imbues it with a sense of urgency that connects the time in American history that changed the country critically with today.

It is 1944 at the start of the play, and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] and May [Eve Harmon] return from their honeymoon in Rock City, TN to live with May's parents while she takes up a job as principal at a local school. Raleigh suffers from epilepsy (though one would never suspect it) and can therefore neither serve in the army during World War II -- a constant source of friction with the local townspeople and with his mother Mrs. Brummett [Beth Egan] who sees him as a slacker and denies there is anything otherwise wrong with him -- nor can he hold a traditional job while writing stories that bring in some money on their occasional publication. May's mother Mrs. Gill [Kim Graham] offers gentle encouragement and homespun wisdom, serving as a kind of mediator when the couple's concerns with jobs, money, the war, and starting a family threaten to split them apart, especially when in Act II, May loses her position so returning war heroes can have jobs.

The story comes with several predictable outcomes, but the acting company does credit to its occasional sentimentalized aspects and rises above the one-note characterizations by breathing substantial credibility to the text, leaving audiences accepting of the relationships and understanding the difficulties confronting them: the unfairness of a society that does not see women as equals, people in various stages of denial, the devastating effects of war on the home front, the fear of personal and professional rejection, traditional roles of men and women in conflict with the realities of life. -- And through it all, the script affords the acting company many opportunities to face these obstacles with humor and acceptance.

Despite some lengthy scene changes and an unwaveringly steady pace (especially in a number of prolonged scenes that cry out for editing), See Rock City's actors touch our hearts with their honest depictions, and make us realize that the simple things that mold us -- home, family, love -- are the universals that give value to our lives.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ASU at The Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Brothers Size"

Since its 2007 debut in New York at the Public Theatre, Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size has gone on to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The still in his 30s playwright's award winning drama was given a resounding Alabama premier recently at The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Under Alabama State University Theatre instructor Anthony Stockard's capable direction, featuring a tight ensemble of ASU alumni, the production took otherwise commonplace themes of the search for manhood, and the meanings of brotherhood, freedom, and friendship to new heights.

As McCraney's script connects the Yoruba culture to modern day America, Mr. Stockard emphasizes it by introducing the play with a stunning dance choreographed by Desmond Holland and authentically costumed by ASU faculty member Ramona Ward, with James Tredway's striking lighting effects. In it, three Yoruba gods -- Ogun [the strong], Ochussi [the wanderer], and Elgeba [the trickster], guided by Egungun [an ancestral shaman] -- establish their interdependence, and are then transformed into the characters of the play who not only share their names, but take on their characteristics.

And we are in an auto repair shop in Louisiana run by Ogun Size [Sayyed Shabazz] as his younger brother Ochussi [Cameron Marcuse] arrives on his release from jail looking to reconnect with the world and experience the freedom he longs for without taking on much in the way of responsibility. Matters are tense from the start, with each brother tip-toeing his way in establishing an adult relationship, with long-term mistrust and animosity just under the surface.

They are joined by Elegba [Aeriel Ventrano], a former inmate with Ochussi; they have a prison-bound kinship that borders on brotherhood, but Elegba's behavior tests all their relationships, and the Yoruba culture that frames the play is ever present.

Freedom for Elegba is symbolized by a car that both Elegba and Ogun are party to providing, and his dreams of driving everywhere to experience all that life has in store, brings about some gritty performances by this ensemble. Family issues, sibling rivalries, honesty, world-weariness, brushes with the law, desire for women, drugs, and music all play their parts in a riveting production that has audiences shifting allegiances throughout. When tough choices must be made for each one's survival, we somehow approve of them, no matter how difficult.

Mr. Stockard keeps the action flowing smoothly throughout the play's many scene changes, all done flawlessly with shifts of furniture, [though the action and themes might have been more effective without an intermission] and affords each of his actors some humanizing moments of sometimes coarse humor that mix well with the ritualistic elements of high seriousness as the brothers come to grips with things that matter most: their own brotherly bond and the realization for both that manhood requires compassion and understanding.

Actors Marcuse, Shabazz, and Ventrano compliment one another so well that the ordinary characters they represent become formidable individuals.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

ASF: "Ring of Fire"

Few singers have as legendary a life and career as Johnny Cash, "the man in black" who bridged country music, rockabilly, and gospel, and whose songs told the several stories of his life and loves, his hard drinking and regrets, his rowdiness and his 'turn to Jesus, his concern for the poor and those who suffer indignities imposed by war and social injustice.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, is a tribute to this icon. Showing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, over 35 signal pieces from the Johnny Cash songbook are performed by four principals -- Trenna Barnes, Allison Briner, Jason Edwards (who also directs), and Johnny Kinnaird -- whose impressive talents are joined by a band whose members -- John England, Walter Hartman, Scott Icenogle, Brantley Kearns, Jeff Lisenby, and Brent Moyer --play an assortment of instruments while doing double duty as characters who help tell the stories.

Their collected talents create a sometimes joyous, sometimes angry, sometimes contemplative, sometimes nostalgic, but consistently engaging and crowd-pleasing evening in the theatre. And because Cash appeals to almost all musical tastes, there is something in it for everyone.

Some time is spent with narrative links to Cash's upbringing and the major public events of his life, this is not an attempt to impersonate the man -- rather to celebrate him and his music. And while the featured actors/singers physically and vocally resemble Cash and June Carter, the focus is on the music and the story-messages in the songs.

So audiences eagerly clap their hands and stomp their feet to an energetic rendering of "Daddy Sang Bass", "Jackson", or the title song "Ring of Fire" that ends the first act, or laugh at the antics of novelty numbers like "Egg Suckin' Dog" or "A Boy Named Sue", or reflect on the import of "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Man in Black", or are touched by the simple declarations of faith in "The Far Side of Jordan", what is ultimately revealed is a man whose complex life is told with compassion and humor, and respect.

A welcome respite from the heat of Summer, Ring of Fire helps restore a sense of worth and allows us to reflect on our own values. Simple things are often the most redemptive; we succeed by struggling; and home and faith give a solid foundation to our lives...and music can make the journey worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "Noises Off"

The Wetumpka Depot Players have another hit on their hands. Director Kim Mason's tight acting ensemble brings the antics of Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off to a rousing laugh-fest in a show that has become an international staple in professional and community theatres since its 1982 debut in London.

As farces go, Noises Off is replete with fast action, slamming doors, sexual dalliances, trousers dropping, and silly props. Frayn complicates this by including a play-within-a-play as an inept theatre company rehearses and then presents an admittedly terrible play called Nothing On, and we view their frustrations with the demands of this convoluted script and their own personal lives reflected in the play they are performing.

Though not essential for general audience appreciation, theatre people might be especially tickled by the all-too-familiar challenges of rehearsing a farce: timing of entrances and exits, eccentricities of actors, timing, manipulation of props, timing, assorted responsibilities of stage managers, timing, the authority of the director, and -- oh, yes -- timing! -- All credit is due the Depot company for keeping the action moving and for excellence in timing the action both as it is rehearsed with mistakes that must be corrected and also in the corrected versions where we witness how it is supposed to be done.

The setting of Nothing On is an old English house that is available to rent while the owners are abroad in Spain; it is being looked after by the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, (played  by an actress named Dotty) [Kristy Meanor], whose phone conversations provide background while she attempts to handle the phone, newspapers, and ever-frustrating plates of sardines. When Roger (actor Garry) [Lee Bridges] brings Vicki (actress Brooke) [Sophia Priolo] to the house for an affair while pretending to be a client to rent the house, and is interrupted by the unexpected return of the owners Phillip (actor Frederick) and Flavia (actress Belinda), hilarity ensues. Add to this mix a Burglar (actor Selsdon) [Bill Nowell] an old absentminded actor who has a drinking problem, and a put-upon stage manager Poppy [Elizabeth Bowles] and harried stagehand Tim [Austin Thompson] -- and the fact that there are numerous secrets within the group -- and predictable mayhem soon dominates the scene.

Act One is a dress rehearsal of the first act of Nothing On that clearly demonstrates how ill-prepared they are to perform in front of an audience with the director Lloyd [Stephen Dubberley] rapidly losing patience with his cast and their constant questions and suggestions for improvement. And we see them both in their roles in Nothing On and the relationships of their off-stage lives.

Act Two brings the action backstage a month into the run of the play while the Act One of Nothing On we saw earlier is being performed onstage, and the relationships deteriorate as the actors attempt to settle their personal disputes while the performance must continue.

And Act Three, near the end of the run of Nothing On, becomes more and more outrageous as the actors sabotage and undermine the performances and try to save some semblance of order by having to ad lib their way through it.

Truly an ensemble piece played by veteran actors who bring all their skills to the fore, the Depot's production of Noises Off deserves the resounding responses it s receiving.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Last Five Years"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley

The Cloverdale Playhouse brings a new show to the region with Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, and audiences are smitten with this emotional roller coaster of an operetta.

In just 85 minutes, we watch five years in the lives of young New Yorkers Cathy and Jamie. Cathy's story is told from end to beginning, while Jamie's is related from beginning to end. We know immediately that the joy will be finite and that the pain will continue to resonate as we hear first Cathy (Jesse Alston) describe the loss of the relationship in "Still Hurting" and then Jamie (Jonathan Connor) on the mountaintop of new love in "Shiska Goddess". Lightning strikes for Jamie, a budding writer whose career takes off just as he and Cathy fall in love. But for Cathy, an aspiring actress, no such stroke of luck occurs, and she feels bound to live in Jamie's shadow; her fear of losing him to his dream becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What puts the backward/forward structure into the category of clever device is that it creates a two-person musical where the characters -- since they are only once sharing the same moment in time -- don't really interact with each other physically. Mr. Connor and Miss Alston handle well the considerable burden to convey their emotional connection without aid of a physical one.

The actors are required to display a wide emotional range with music as the main source of exposition, a challenging demand. Miss Alston particularly shines in "A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me", which manages to be funny, pitiable, and angry at once. Mr. Connor moves easily from silly-sweet and encouraging in the wonderfully executed "The Schmuel Song" to villain in "Nobody Needs to Know". The music itself is difficult. Imagine Stephen Sondheim and Dave Matthews setting up shop in Brown's head and you have a good idea of the vocal dexterity required. And when they are able to master control of the music (which is frequent) and compete with the orchestra in the small space, Miss Alston and Mr. Connor are sublime.

Director/Music Director Randy Foster has guided the two young actors to a successful realization of very difficult material. He must also be applauded for paring down a typically large technical endeavor to fit nicely on the Playhouse's cozy stage. He cleverly replaces cumbersome scene changes with an unobtrusive slide show (made possible by James Treadway's projection design) that provides key points of reference in time and location throughout this gripping odyssey.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Red Door: "The Hallelujah Girls"

Ever since Beth Henley's 1979 debut of Crimes of the Heart at Actors Theatre of Louisville, a cottage industry of plays about eccentric Southern women has run rampant through the American theatre world. Several of them have been penned by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten; this trio's The Hallalujah Girls opened recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Its colorful characters are drawn with bold strokes, affording little availability for character development, so it is up to the actors to create vivid personalities on stage.

Fortunately, director William Harper has an all-veteran seven member acting ensemble at his disposal to deliver the goods and lift the stereotypical characters and predictable plot from being just another study of mostly middle-aged Southern women coming to terms with changes in their lives into a laugh-out-loud romp.

Set in fictional small town Eden Falls, GA where everyone knows everyone else's business, and covering a year in the lives of a number of its residents, the characters' behavior and the twists of plot stretch credibility -- but Mr. Harper's actors somehow make it all work.

After the death of their friend Vonda Joyce, some local women join Sugar Lee Thompkins [Kim Mason] as she tries to turn her life around and fulfill her dreams -- something that Vonda Joyce did not manage to do. Sugar Lee has bought a decaying church and plans to turn it into the Spa-Dee-Dah! day spa...with the help and support of her friends Carlene [Elizabeth Roughton], Nita [Jaymee Vowell], Mavis [Janet Wilkerson], and Crystal [Valerie Sandlin], all of whom are in need of makeovers and new directions in their lives.

Carlene has buried three husbands and thinks of herself as a jinx, and she is being courted by Porter [Mr. Harper] who is the only likely candidate for marriage and an admitted mama's boy; Crystal escapes reality by revising Christmas carols to suit any occasion and dresses in progressively outrageous costumes to suit every annual holiday; Nita is in complete denial of the fact that her son bilks her of money and property, and escapes through romance novel plots; Mavis hardly ever speaks with her husband and is at the brink of divorce, but covers her hurt with comically caustic comments about marriage; and Sugar Lee is reluctant to admit that her broken romance with Bobby Dwayne [Stephen Dubberley] -- a handyman who unexpectedly arrives to help renovate the building -- has turned her into a mistrustful person who avoids confrontation with witty remarks.

Enter Bunny [Leigh Moorer], a wealthy snob whose superior attitude grates on everyone, and who wants to turn the church building into a monument for herself and will do most anything to secure it.

So, these intertwined plot elements will work themselves out for the best: the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished -- but not without a lot of obstacles that must be overcome.

And the acting company work as a fine unit and create some comically memorable characters, with some standouts among them. -- Ms. Wilkerson's sharp-tongued Mavis is done with such confidence that the audience eagerly awaits her every appearance and are rewarded by unexpected comic delivery of the clever dialogue she is blessed to have been given. Ms. Vowell shines in her evocation of over-the-top romance novel prose, and captures Nita's sense of denial with brutal accuracy. Ms. Moorer's spiteful holier-than-thou creation of Bunny makes her a character we love to hate and applaud her defeat.

As so much of the plot centers on the relationship between Sugar Lee and Bobby Dwayne, Ms. Mason and Mr. Dubberley must carry the day. As they thrust and parry for control, we see them gradually accept each other on their own terms, and trust in their mutual love and respect by admitting the wrongs they did to each other in the past. Tentative at first meeting and awkward in several others, the development of this relationship is fated to bring them together, and in the hands of these two experienced actors, we believe them and share their happiness.

All in all, The Hallelujah Girls connects us to characters we can all relate to at some level, and provides a lot of laughs along the way.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

ASF: "God of Carnage"

French playwright Yasmina Reza came to international prominence in 1996 with Christopher Hampton's translation of Art, a play in which three friends argue about the purchase and the artistic value of an all white painting that becomes an excuse for personal attacks and affords Ms. Reza a chance to assess the nature of friendship.

Mr. Hampton, a distinguished playwright himself, is arguably one of today's most accomplished translators, whose adaptations into English capture Ms. Reza'a satiric bite and social commentary in deceptively simple language, giving actors ample ammunition to fire at one another and leave audiences ruminating on her serious issues while they might see themselves reflected on stage and catch themselves laughing at the savage behavior of seemingly civilized characters.

Ms. Reza's multi-award winning God of Carnage -- in Mr. Hampton's astutely acrid translation -- is being performed in an uninterrupted 90 minutes by a quartet of actors whose superficial civility towards one another degenerates into ludicrous comical and vicious attacks. Under Susan Willis' sharp direction in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre, the intimate performance space enhances audience involvement.

As the play opens, two couples are calmly discussing what they should do about a schoolyard fight between their two sons -- who is to blame? should they intervene? should the boys work it out on their own? -- If only their children could act the way their parents do: reasonably, moderately, exercising the "art of coexistence". As if!

In almost the first line of dialogue, with her husband Michael's [Ian Bedford] support, Veronica [Jennifer Barnhart] sets thing rolling by claiming that their son 's injuries were inflicted by the other boy "armed with a stick"; the implications of that language get Alan [Anthony Marble] and Annette [Michelle Shupe] on the defensive for their son, and within a few minutes of holding on to the social niceties, sleeves are rolled up and the fight is on in earnest, each couple defending their son and with small personal revelations, showing their true colors.

Though the children never appear on stage, their parents describe the brief skirmish in increasingly barbed language -- armed, hooligan, savage, etc.; in contrast, the extended passive-aggressive "art of coexistence" expressed in reasonable and moderate terms disintegrates to figurative and actual nausea and metaphorical bloodletting, in essence more damaging than a couple of minor bruises. -- For all of their education, material success and outward sophistication, they are pretty shallow people, types we might come across in real life. -- And we laugh at them because what they do is so familiar; people behaving badly doesn't happen only on reality television.

The acting ensemble on the Octagon Stage is so fine-tuned that it's almost as if the audience was eavesdropping; their speech is completely natural and behavior so nuanced that each discovery emerges credibly at these couples' first meeting: it is a get-to-know-you exercise that changes to a no-holds-barred slugfest leaving everyone wounded and helpless.

Mr. Marble depicts Alan as an obsessive workaholic lawyer whose cellphone conversations interrupt the action so frequently to the consternation of the others; it is easy to see how his impolite behavior and aggressive demeanor with the callers has impacted both his marriage and his son; but we can;t help but laugh at his expense.  -- Ms. Shupe makes a striking debut on the ASF stage as Alan's uptight wife Annette who is in "wealth management" whatever that is; but after more than a few drinks, the gloves come off much to everyone's delight. In vino veritas...for all of them.

As Veronica, Ms. Barnhart exudes a social liberal's confidence: an art lover who is also writing a book about the genocide in Darfur, and whose furniture is upholstered in animal skins reflected in a giant Darwinian "survival of the fittest" painting that dominates the scene and serves as a metaphor for the play's content. Completely befuddled by other people not sharing her passion for social justice, her blindness to the real needs of others and Ms. Barnhart's exquisite comic delivery make these contradictions palpable and outrageously funny. -- Mr. Bedford appears at first to acquiesce to almost anything as Michael, and his vacillation  is contagious as each couple's stance is tested and shifts of allegiance rule the day. A "soft hardware" salesman with a vulnerable side that comes across on occasion to hearty laughter from the audience, his manner catches us off guard.

With each small personal revelation that peels away any protective wall, they find ways of bonding -- husbands and wives switch allegiances, the men bond with each other as do the women, taking sides, playing trump cards, and using tactics to win at all costs -- but have to remind themselves periodically of the purpose of their meeting: their kids.

Alan's claim that "the god of carnage has ruled since the dawn of's kill or be killed" is fulfilled in Ms. Reza's script as this foursome inflict damage to fragile egos, entitlement, greed, and pretentious disregard of the effects of their actions. -- Not a compliment to society as we live in it. Reflecting the "nanny state" of America, these seemingly well-intentioned combatants remain unaware of the effect they have on their children who, left to their own devices, would probably have already moved on from their schoolyard spat.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

ASF: "Around the World in 80 Days"

Sometimes all you need is a family-friendly rollicking good time in the theatre, just what the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is offering up in Mark Brown's lively adaptation of Jules Verne's sweeping adventure-filled "extraordinary voyages" novel, Around the World in 80 Days. -- Seven actors play a total of 34 roles in the ASF production that traces Phileas Fogg's [Kurt Rhoades] fictional 1872 circumnavigation of the globe in what was then a record time in order to win a bet based on his mathematical certainty. "The unforeseen does not exist" he says by anticipating obstacles along the route he takes through Europe, Asia, and America, and back to London.

The successful outcome is hardly in doubt, but much like life itself, the journey -- both around the world and of self-discovery -- by boats, trains, an elephant, and an elaborate sled with sails, and the setbacks along the way sustain the suspense and ensure some surprises, several adventures in exotic lands, and cliff-hanger moments, all done with imaginative staging by director Geoffrey Sherman on Peter Hicks' clever revolving set, and expertly performed by ASF's multi-talented ensemble actors.

Accompanying Fogg on his journey is his newly hired French valet Passepartout [Brik Berkes], whose occasional butchering of the English language belies his ability to adjust to most situations and to get them out of a number of scrapes.

To complicate matters, Detective Fix [Paul Hebron] believes with flimsy evidence that Fogg is the man who recently robbed the Bank of England, and doggedly follows him around the world determined to bring him to justice.

From the start, Mr. Rhoads presents Fogg as a mysterious sort who keeps to himself, has virtually no friends, and is a cipher to the other members of the Reform Club where the wager is made. However, he is generous and well-mannered, and when in India midway through Act I he rescues the lovely Aouda [Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel], a budding romance begins and we see subtle changes in the man.

This foursome is at the center of Verne's delightful plot, but the catalogue of 30 other characters they encounter dazzles with quick costume and personality changes and broadly comical impersonations, so much so that one would think there were a lot more actors than just these seven. But, when we recognize James Bowen, Jordan Barbour, Rodney Clark, and Ms. Vandenheuvel and Mr. Hebron in each new role, these recognitions enhance the hilarity and the audience's approval.

It can't get much better than this. What with broadly drawn caricatures of recognizable English Music Hall character types, bright performances by the acting ensemble, transport breakdowns, run-ins with an assortment of global legal systems, an opium den, a typhoon, a snowstorm, an attack by Apache Indians, and that elephant, the action moves at a rapid pace and we are engaged from start to finish in Around the World in 80 Days.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Millbrook: "The Cemetery Club"

Murray, Henry, and Alec have been dead for some time, but their widows meet once a month at their gravesites to "talk" with their husbands -- a form of grieving that seems to get them through life's tough spots. -- With a combination of humor and pathos, Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club shows the attempts of each of these women to move on with their lives...or they reveal some secrets and behaviors that touch matters many of us face.

The Millbrook Community Players, under the direction of Fred Neighbors, interpret Menchell's predictable and sometimes lackluster script with a degree of comfort that has audiences reflecting on the truths about human nature it depicts: petty jealousies and misunderstandings that can only be accepted and forgiven by long-time friends.

Lucille [Tracey Quates], reminiscent of Blanche Devereaux from television's The Golden Girls, is on the surface a self-centered sexpot bedecked in mink, unabashedly flirting with men and bragging of her conquests, while beneath this fragile veneer is a damaged woman whose husband cheated on her.

Doris [Pamela Trammell] finds solace in her frequent visits to her husband's grave, so much so that the others are concerned about her well being. While Lucille intends to resign from this "cemetery club" where "half the members are dead", and Doris is criticized for overdoing it on the fourth anniversary of her husband's death by grieving "as if it was yesterday", she refuses to move on; and she hides the fact that she is sick.

Ida [Margaret White], on the other hand, wonders if there isn't something more to life than tea parties or being a bridesmaid at her daughter's umpteenth wedding, so when long time friend and local butcher Sam [John Chain] shows up, she is inclined to take a chance with him, only to be thwarted by Doris and Lucille who don't want her to "settle for the first man who comes along".

Sam is a nice guy, and though he doesn't want to hurt Ida and backing off at the other women's insistence, he shows up at the wedding with Mildred [Vicki Moses] whose haughtiness drives the other women to drink.

Mr. Neighbors has his actors tell their stories clearly, and we do get involved in their lives. He wisely chose to not have them attempt New York accents, but a more purposeful and energetic pace, stronger vocal projection, and additional movement in staging the action might add some zing to the proceedings.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "The Fantasticks"

Director Kristy Meanor's tight acting ensemble make the two-plus hours of The Fantasticks fly by. The world's longest running musical [42 years in its first off-Broadway incarnation] by Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (book and lyrics) is playing at the Wetumpka Depot, its charm intact since its 1960 debut.

With its memorable songs -- "Try to Remember", "Soon It's Gonna Rain", "Metaphor", "The Abduction Ballet", "Plant a Radish", "They Were You" among the best -- and spot-on accompaniment by Marilyn Swears (piano) and Trey Hollady (percussion), the tale of Luisa's [Patty Holley] and Matt's [David Brown] guileless romance comes with substantial inspiration from pulp fiction novels, Shakespeare, classical mythology, and Edmund Rostand's "Les Romanesques".

Their story is peppered with reverse psychology, a dashing "bandit" who will for a price stage Luisa's abduction with the help of a couple of inept has-been actors and enable Matt to become a hero in her eyes, and a clear message that moonlit happy endings come only after experiencing the world in the harsh glare of sunlight. -- In short, the naive teenaged Luisa and Matt have to grow up a bit before they can find true happiness.

This theme is signaled at the start by the Narrator [Jimmy Veasey] inviting the audience to "Try to Remember" the innocence of youth with a reminder that rose colored glasses often disguise life's realities, and that "without a hurt, the heart is hollow". Mr. Veasey manipulates the plot as he assumes the role of "El Gallo", the bandit whose escapades and advice to the adolescents and their fathers is central to the outcome; he demonstrates a solid grasp of the character, showing both a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling style and a compassion for the young couple; with a strong singing voice and an ability to engage the audience, his performance holds it all together.

Veteran actors Lee Bridges and Tom Salter are an excellent double-act playing Hucklebee and Bellomy, the fathers of the teenaged couple. They plot to bring their children together by inventing a false feud between their families and building a wall between their properties, expecting rightly that the children will rebel. -- They hire El Gallo to "abduct" Luisa, following which there is a lot of unravelling to do. Both Mr. Bridges and Mr. Salter appear so comfortable in truthfully rendering the dialogue that there is never a moment we don't believe them; they deliver songs with vaudevillian elan; and they have excellent comic timing.

The broader comedy of The Fantasticks is handled by the coarse-acting talents of Ed Drozdowski [Mortimer] and Bill Nowell [Henry]. Mr. Drozdowski's exaggerated death scene and Mr. Nowell's continual confusion of Shakespearean dialogue are given with unabashed gusto and complete ignorance of their ineptitude, contributing to the hilarity of each situation as they "assist" El Gallo in the abduction.

Jeff Langham plays The Mute, a kind of on-stage assistant, props provider, and silent commentator on the proceedings, whose shrugs and glances at the audience make us complicit in the plot; we share in the enjoyment.

But, the romantic story is the center of it all. We can laugh ruefully at the naivete of both Luisa and Matt at the beginning, recognize their frustrations when each one's flaws are revealed, sympathize as they come to terms with burgeoning adulthood, and celebrate their eventual happy ending. Mr. Brown shows an innocence that changes credibly as he grows up before our eyes. Ms. Holley, a high school junior in her first performance at the Depot, is someone to watch...and watch her we do; her radiant smile lights up the stage, she interprets songs with a strong soprano voice, and the subtle shifts from a simple schoolgirl to a young adult make her performance riveting. -- It doesn't hurt that the chemistry between them works from the start.

The set is overly busy for the simple context of the play [a lot of unnecessary stage dressing and time consuming manipulation of scenic drapes], and the lighting, while mostly effective in establishing mood often leaves actors in shadow. --- But a great word of thanks to the Wetumpka Depot for not over amplifying instruments or putting body microphones on the actors, but trusting them to deliver the goods on their own. Would that more theatres would follow suit.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Faulkner: "Pride and Prejudice"

The 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen's celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice is not going unnoticed. Jason Clark South is directing John Jory's stage adaptation at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre with a cast of fifteen actors (some playing multiple roles) on Matt Dickson's flexible set.

Pride and Prejudice has had several stage and film incarnations, and remains a staple on High School and University reading lists, so there are few surprises in tracing the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett [Mara Woddail] and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy [Chase McMichen] to its romantically satisfying conclusion. It is clear from the onset that their conflicting personalities render them made for each other; it is just a matter of time that will set things aright.

These two are the principal roles in the divergent social classes that clash ever-so-politely on the surface while the undercurrent of a rigid English class system -- its snobbery and aloofness at odds with an emerging middle class's claims of equality -- dominates the action.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet [Brandtley McDonald and Rebekah Goldman] and their five unmarried daughters live a relatively simple country life at Longbourn, though when he dies all his estate will pass on to the nearest male relative, Mr. Collins [Allen Young], a clergyman whose haughty patroness Lady Catherine de Borgh (sic) [Abby Roberts] he panders to repeatedly. -- Since at that time women could not inherit, it is to everyone's benefit to find them suitable (i. e. "rich") husbands.

Obsessed with the proposition that "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in need of a wife", Mrs. Bennet, lacking in most social graces, determines to find suitable husbands for her offspring, starting with the eldest, Jane [Jesse Alston], the avowed prettiest of them all, and certainly the kindest.

When young, single, handsome, and wealthy Charles Bingley [Blake Williams] takes up temporary residence in nearby Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet sets things in action at a ball there. Bingley and Jane are instantly attracted to one another; Elizabeth meets the fabulously wealthy Darcy, but his coldness towards her and his blunt judgments of others makes things awkward; and because these men are from the upper class, others in their company try to dissuade and later sabotage any attachments with the Bennet sisters.

When Mr. Collins is rejected by both Jane and Elizabeth, he marries their friend Charlotte [Brittany Johnston] instead -- a marriage of convenience for both, not of love -- the consequence of which might leave the Bennet family destitute when Mr. Bennet dies. -- And, flighty Lydia Bennet [Emily Woodring] runs away with the superficially pleasant Lt. George Wickham [Geoffrey Morris is suitably deceptive in the role]. As an unmarried couple, they would bring shame on the Bennets, virtually cutting them off from any possibility of social advancement; but when Darcy intervenes on the family's behalf, Elizabeth's opinion of him changes.

It takes hundreds of pages in the novel, but two-and-a-half hours on stage to unravel the plot twists and set them right; so much of the plot is here narrated by a number of characters -- not dramatically interesting, but an effective device to hone the action to its key elements.

In the Faulkner production, most of the characters are drawn with such bold strokes that they do little more than serve the plot; and while the student actors target key attitudes or personality traits, they are given few chances to create multi-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, imprecise dialects, generic music choices, and lengthy scene changes break the flow of Mr. Jory's script.

There are some exceptions, however. Mr. Young's obsequious portrayal of Mr. Collins is consistent and confident, and completely unaware that others ridicule him: good work here. As Lady Catherine, Ms. Roberts commands the stage with her entitlements of social rank intact. Ms. Alston's Jane possesses an admirable kindness towards others, emerging as a sympathetic figure who deserves the good fortune of marrying the likewise kindly Mr. Bingley.

Since the arc of Mr. Jory's script focuses so much on Elizabeth and Darcy, they are the only characters whose relationship is developed in any detail. Ms. Woddail and Mr. McMichen allow their characters to subtly shift their opinions in a series of brief encounters that at first have them confused, later sparring partners, and eventually realizing each other's worth. Everything has been building to the marriage proposal that she accepts in a sweet and convincing romantic scene.

They have faced and triumphed over the pride and prejudices that had kept them back from a meaningful relationship and a happy life. Lessons for us all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Theatre AUM: Doubt

In arguably his strongest directing effort at Theatre AUM, Neil David Seibel's production of Doubt has its young actors interpreting John Patrick Shanley's script with a clarity and simplicity that respects the text's nuances, allows humor in its provocative subject matter, and intentionally leaves the audience questioning the outcome.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005 followed by a successful 2008 film, Doubt addresses the persistent issue of abusive Roman Catholic priests with a balance of positions that provokes post-show discussions and analyses that have no easy or conclusive answers.

Cliff Merritt's multi-leveled cruciform platform set is a strong metaphor, though odd staging at its extremes distances the audience at times. And a Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer is out of place in the distinctly Catholic setting.

The action takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, NY, a school run with an iron hand by its principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier [Tina Neese], an ultra-conservative crusader for preserving moral, social, and educational traditions. When Sister James [Erica Johnson], an idealistic young teacher, innocently reveals to her superior that she is concerned about a student's behavior after he visited the rectory with Father Brendan Flynn [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], Sister Aloysius begins a crusade to "bring him down", having not a shred of hard evidence, but only the certainty of her conviction of the priest's sexual misconduct with Donald Muller, the first African-American student at the school who is never seen on stage, but whose presence is felt throughout.

Sister Aloysius's tactics run counter to the more compassionate Sister James, and Ms. Neese is not at all subtle in portraying her character's rigidity, stopping just short of making her a monster; a difficult role to pull off. -- As Sister James, Ms. Johnson finds a credible balance of obedience to the order of nuns, a genuine regret for putting the suspicions against Father Flynn in motion, and the dilemma of doing what is right in her belief that the priest is innocent.

Mr. Dasinger's depiction of Father Flynn as a likable counselor and role model for both students and parishioners makes him easily sympathetic, especially as contrasted with Ms. Neese's portrayal of Sister Aloysius who bullies everyone with an aggressiveness that allows no opposition, and it is clear that his sermons on "doubt" and "the evils of gossip" anticipate and are prompted by Sister Aloysius's strategies.

Even Sister Aloysius's interview with the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller [Allyson Lee] does not change her confrontational behavior, though the woman wants her to drop the issue and admits that her son is "that way" and suffers abuse from his father, relying on Father Flynn as a kind of surrogate.

Despite Father Flynn's claims of innocence, there is a suggestion of past misconduct, and though Sister Aloysius plays every card in her preoccupation with scandal, Shanley's script is inconclusive, and no one emerges intact -- Father Flynn's reputation is blemished, Sister Aloysius admits to falsifying some of her "evidence", Sister James is somewhat disillusioned, and Mrs. Muller leaves not knowing what is to happen to her son.

It would be easy to have a clear answer, to know whether Father Flynn is guilty as charged by Sister Aloysius, so it is a credit to the competent AUM actors that they treat their characters' convictions without budging from full commitment. And Mr. Seibel's even handed treatment, without flash or flourish, makes for a provocative evening at the theatre.

Cloverdale Playhouse: The Clean House

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.
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Though still in her 30s, boldly imaginative playwright Sarah Ruhl is a MacArthur "genius" award winner, and her celebrated plays have been successful staples in New York and in regional theatres, everywhere it seems but Montgomery...till now...and about time.

The Cloverdale Playhouse (Your Community Theatre)  is staging Ms. Ruhl's The Clean House (2004), a play with an implausibly comic plot, a mix of fantasy and reality, linguistic gymnastics, and a study of several social issues, all handled with dexterity by director Greg Thornton and his skillful acting ensemble.

Following the triumphant showing of Cabaret in this, its second season, The Clean House marks another significant production in the Cloverdale Playhouse's challenging and highly entertaining repertoire; and, despite some tentative movement and dialogue on opening night, and a few long silences between scenes that were otherwise punctuated with clever musical choices, Mr. Thornton makes the most of his newcomers and veterans both on-stage and off by doing justice to Ms. Ruhl's quirky and provocative script, leaving the audience belly-laughing at one moment and absorbed in silence the next.

Performed on Ed Fieder's compact and evocative set (a few surprises in store), and with Eleanor K. Davis's tasteful character-driven costumes, The Clean House is a delight to the eye as well as the ear.

In a nutshell: Lane [Maureen Costello], a busy married doctor whose house and costume are an antiseptic white, has hired Brazilian Matilde (pronounced Ma-chil-gee) [Tara Fenn] as her house cleaner, and mistakenly believes that Matilde suffers from depression while mourning the death of her parents, prescribing medicine she does not take. Enter Lane's sister Virginia [Angela Dickson], a married but childless neat-freak who agrees to secretly clean the house and let Matilde alone to pursue her dream of creating the perfect joke as an homage to her parents, a joke that would kill the listener but have them die laughing. As she says: "a good joke cleans your insides."

When it is discovered that Lane's surgeon husband Charles [Stephen Dubberley] has fallen in love with Argentinian Ana [Barbara DeMichels], one of his cancer patients, and when Lane realizes that Virginia is cleaning house in Matilde's place, matters come to a head as the cohort attempt a sophisticated detente.

Replete with an opening lengthy joke by Matilde entirely in Portuguese, several dream sequences, sibling and cultural rivalries, and a trek to Alaska in search of a yew tree to cure Ana's cancer, the outrageousness of Ms. Ruhl's text attains a cohesiveness from Mr. Thornton's confident company of actors.

While individual audience members might favor one character or another, in this production of The Clean House, attention is evenly distributed among them. -- Ms. Fenn, first seen at the Cloverdale Playhouse in The Boys Next Door, demonstrates another aspect of her talents: she knows how to tell a joke in both English and Portuguese [it's all about timing, after all], and her ability to shift attention away from Matilde's reluctance to cleaning by allowing others to speak for her, engages us with an easy smile or a convincing ability to adapt to changing circumstances. She is a survivor without a doubt.

Ms. DeMichels's first Cloverdale Playhouse appearance shows an ease with Ms. Ruhl's eccentric comic elements and garners compassion for Ana's end of life wishes to die with dignity.

A veteran Montgomery actor, Mr. Dubberley inhabits Charles's complexity with apparent ease. One never doubts his having found his "Bashert" (or, soul mate) in Ana, or his unorthodox acceptance of Jewish laws and traditions (though he is not Jewish) in leaving Lane and going away with Ana. These contradictions do not seem to matter, and Mr. Dubberley exudes both a naivete and sophistication in equal measure.

Virginia and Lane are a study in opposites, performed to perfection by Ms. Dickson and Ms. Costello -- each an actor of substance and enviable credentials. And it is through them that Ms. Ruhl's serious subjects get the most attention: sibling rivalry, the sanctity of marriage, compassion for those in need, the healing of physical and psychological deep-set wounds. The rivalry between these two redheads has simmered for many years, but appears on stage in passive-aggressive spurts, full blown eruptions, and ultimate acceptance and reconciliation.

As Virginia, Ms. Dickson's attention to the smallest detail of neatness and her frustrations at self-comparison to her successful sibling give her opportunities to insinuate rather than directly commit, and to demonstrate her knowledge of some rather esoteric information learned from public broadcasting. Plus, her comic timing is admirable.

As comic timing is so much a part of this play's structure, Ms. Costello masters it in all her postures, dead-pan delivery of "zingers", and an aloofness that belies Lane's essential concern for her fellow man. And, her timing is -- wait for it -- (pause) -- impeccable.

Mr. Thornton and his cast seem to relish the gifts of Ms. Ruhl's challenging script, driving the action at a disarmingly easy pace, and allowing its surprising shifts and bizarre elements to appear quite naturally. The confidence exhibited on stage, the quality of the writing, and the artistic excellence of the company, reinforce the Cloverdale Playhouse as a destination for some of the best theatre in town.