Friday, March 29, 2013

ASF Interns: "Twelfth Night"

For three years in a row, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Intern Acting Company has been presenting abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays in its "Bringing the Bard to Your School" touring program. -- This year's staging of Twelfth Night continues the successful formula:
  • One romantic comedy; plus
  • One inspired and inspiring director; plus
  • Four gifted designers; plus
  • Eight energetic, enthusiastic, talented ensemble actors; equals
  • One hour and ten minutes of charming, accessible, rambunctious theatrical fun!!! 
Deserving its standing ovation, and followed by an informative "talk-back" session and a "workshop" with audience volunteers, the Intern Actors are making a mark on the local theatre scene that keeps live theatre a memorable experience and makes the Bard easy and enjoyable to watch. Director Greta Lambert has this year's company showcase their many skills -- vocal dexterity, clear characters and storytelling, inventive staging, physical flexibility, respect for the script and its language -- to demonstrate Shakespeare's comic genius in Twelfth Night that speaks to audiences some 400+ years since it was first performed in London's Middle Temple in 1602 when Shakespeare was in mid-career as a playwright.

Many of the Elizabethan Period's comic conventions are found in Twelfth Night: an assortment of outlandish behaviors by people in the thralls of love, disguises/mistaken identity resulting in ambiguous gender confusion, drunken revelers, fools, practical jokes, all of which are intertwined with some pretty serious issues like madness, the folly of ambition, and the social roles of men and women. In Shakespeare's time, the end of the Christmas season -- the "Twelfth Night" of the title -- marked a time of "licensed disorder" overseen by the Lord of Misrule, and Ms. Lambert's production does just that, bridging time with occasional anachronistic gestures, rap and Gangnam-style versions of Shakespeare's lyrics, and contemporary attitudes struck by the actors...and it all works!

Ms. Lambert's script preserves all the major plot devices and includes its famous quotable lines so each of the characters and their relationships come across vividly. And she has added a clever prologue and an effective "shipwreck ballet" to show how twins Viola [Jillian Walker] and Sebastian [David Umansky] each believe the other has drowned and then segues into Scene One with Viola cast ashore on Illyria where she will disguise herself as a young man and serve Count Orsino [Seth Andrew Bridges] as his go-between in courting Olivia [Michelle Geisler] who refuses Orsino's attention and falls in love with "Cesario" (the name of the disguised Viola), while Viola falls in love with Orsino who appears to have feelings for "Cesario" (i.e. Viola) -- talk about confusion and comic possibilities!

If that wasn't enough, Olivia's drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch [Logan James Hall] helps his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [Chris Pappas] to pursue his love for Olivia; and Olivia's pretentious steward Malvolio [Jason Martin] tries to advance his social position by marrying Olivia. Malvolio is ripe for a plot hatched by Sir Toby and cohorts to make a fool out of him.

In the middle of all this is Olivia's fool Feste [Jim Staudt] who moves easily in all three "worlds" of the play: Olivia's household, Orsino's court, and the group who plot against Malvolio. Mr. Staudt's antics are infectious and his physical flexibility is admirable; and he is matched by the rest of the cast whose commitment and passion contribute to the success of the production. Mr. Bridges' excessively romanticized behavior as a love-sick suitor more in love with being in love than with Olivia is close to perfection; Ms. Geisler's change from haughty rejection of Orsino to adolescent yearning for the young man "Cesario" is subtle and engaging; Mr. Umansky is earnest as Sebastian and the unexpected attention from Olivia who confuses him with "Cesario" is received with immediate acceptance; Mr. Hall and Mr. Pappas make an exceptional double-act as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew; Mr. Martin's comeuppance as Malvolio is one of extraordinary invention (the famous "letter scene" followed by his wearing yellow stockings and cross-garters to win Olivia is a highlight of this production); and Viola's dilemma in maintaining her disguise while falling in love with Orsino, holding Olivia at bay, and almost fighting a duel with Sir Andrew, is achieved with simplicity and absolute credibility.

Of course, Sebastian and Viola can't appear on-stage together till the end, though there are several complications that bring them inexorably together in time to save most everyone except Malvolio from embarrassment or physical harm.

Tara Houston's clever scenic design [several surprising and simple shifts of the set] is flexible for the touring company; Tom Rodman's lighting and Jacob Sullivan's sound serve the play and punctuate the action; and Elizabeth Novak's stunning Victorian-era costumes are both appropriate to the period and vividly help in creating characters that are simultaneously silly and grounded in reality.

Under Ms. Lambert's expert direction, the Intern Acting Company's ensemble performances make this Twelfth Night one of the most entertaining and enjoyable productions of Shakespeare in recent memory.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ASF: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Fifty-three years after Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning and only published novel To Kill a Mockingbird introduced the world to its Depression Era hero Atticus Finch, a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel is playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Local audiences have had ample opportunities to see one or another version over the years, but this one's approach adds a freshness to the familiar story. Several other plays focus on the coming-of-age story of Scout [Abbie Salter], Jem [Reese Lynch], and Dill [Tapley Cronier], yet both Sergel's script and Diana Van Fossen's even handed direction of her excellent ensemble of actors gives a balanced interpretation. While many of the play's serious themes -- racism, class distinctions, courage -- are seen through the lens of curious children eagerly seeking answers to grown-up issues confronting them, the adult world's complexities and contradictions are truly the heart of the matter.

The quasi-autobiographical story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama (cf. Monroeville) in 1936, and hinges on the trial of Tom Robinson [Jordan Barbour], a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell [Michelle Geisler], the white teenaged daughter of the town's most vicious racist, Bob Ewell [Ian Bedford]. Though clearly innocent of the crime, Tom doesn't stand a chance of acquittal by an all white jury in a town and time that presume that all black people lie and that Tom broke the "code of separation" between blacks and whites by doing odd jobs for Mayella for free and feeling sorry for her. Both race and class distinctions elevate the Ewell's crude white-trash existence over Tom's place at the bottom of the social stratum simply because he is black. Even Judge Taylor [Tom Lawson] can't change that.

Atticus [Kurt Rhoads in his impressive first appearance at ASF] defends Tom in court despite the predictable outcome and despite the mean-spirited taunting of his children by their schoolmates because, as he tells them, sometimes a person just has to do what is right. -- Mr Rhoads' decidedly understated performance demonstrates Atticus' unflappable demeanor when confronted by a lynch mob headed by Walter Cunningham: Paul Hebron subtly shifts from a subservient man who can't afford legal fees and so pays Atticus in turnip greens, to a hard-nosed aggressor, to a reluctant and recalcitrant man when Scout diffuses the lynch mob. -- As Atticus is known to be a gentleman, Mr. Rhoads treats everyone with the same diffidence, regardless of race or social status; and while this is taken at first as weakness by the children, they gradually learn through his gentle approach and firm standards so that he changes in their estimation from a man who is "not interested in anything" to a hero.

The children's world of innocent games and inherent grasp of right and wrong is tested as the trial puts things in a new perspective for them. As Scout, Ms. Salter's persistence in asking why things happen or why people behave in ways she knows are wrong can be annoying, but she clearly idolizes Atticus and regularly sits in his lap to absorb his sage advice. When Jem is made to read to grumpy neighbor Mrs. Dubose [Janelle Cochrane] as punishment for destroying her flowers, Mr. Lynch's resistance to his father's disciplinary action is honestly rendered; his performance is the most credibly natural of the children here and in his creating Gothic stories about their mysterious neighbor Boo Radley [Brik Berkes], and in his sister's defense against Bon Ewell's attack. As Dill, Mr. Cronier affords some lighthearted humor as the bespectacled instigator of tests of courage and his appeal to Atticus when he runs away is met with Mr. Rhoads' gentle compliance. -- Keeping the children in check is Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel as their housekeeper Calpurnia; her outspoken discipline of the children is met with well earned applause.

Maudie Atkinson [Greta Lambert] and Stephanie Crawford [Jennifer Barnhart] are two of the local women who help connect the various plots & subplots with their contrasting views of the town, its inhabitants, and its events. They see things differently, but add texture to the proceedings -- Ms. Barnhart with her gossip's tongue and haute demeanor; and Ms. Lambert with her compassionate bearing serves also as a narrator and motherly guide to the children, an occasional impishness or kindly understanding makes her stand out to them and to us.

Mr. Barbour's portrayal of Tom is rendered simply and convincingly. When he finally takes the stand in  his own defense, we feel his difficulty in telling the truth that must be told; he doesn't want to hurt anyone and knows the consequences of testifying against a white woman. And, as the audience is complicit in serving as the jury in the trial, we are challenged to confront our own moral obligations.

Atticus has said that all men are created equal only in a court of justice, but that it all depends on the strength of the jury. Perhaps they have been swayed by prosecutor Mr. Gilmer [Anthony Marble] and his clever intimations of Tom's guilt. When the verdict is announced, the children are devastated, but what are we to think? The Ewells get off scott free and swear revenge, an attack on Jem and Scout that is thwarted by Boo Radley. Mr. Berkes has this small pivotal role that he distinguishes by his combination of violent retributive justice against Bob Ewell and his gentle treatment of Scout and Jem; as he returns to his reclusive existence, Atticus can only say "Thank you for my children."

Justice will prevail through Sheriff Heck Tate [Rodney Clark's solid performance] who insists that Bob Ewell "fell on his knife"; rather than put Boo Radley on trial for ridding the town of the miscreant, and commanding the situation despite Atticus' regard for the law, he states definitively: It's my decision.

Like it or not, the whole town looks up to Atticus -- a private man who surprises his children with his sharp-shooting in killing a mad dog, and who is so persuasive in defending Tom that, although the verdict is a foregone conclusion, he is "the only man who could make a jury take so long", and who deserves the respect of one and all as the preacher tells the children: "Stand up...your father is passing".

If society has not completely changed, this might indicate a small shift towards equality. Something to think about.