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.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Peacock Tract: "Contribution" and "Happy Ending"

There's a new community theatre on the West Side of Montgomery. The Peacock Tract Cultural Arts Alliance, in cooperation with the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe and Helping Our People Excel [H.O.P.E.], have mounted their first theatrical production at 142 West Jeff Davis Avenue -- two one-act satirical comedies from the 1960s' African American repertoire: Ted Shine's Contribution and Douglas Turner Ward's Happy Ending.

This fledgling organization has a lot going for it: a committed group of talented individuals, experienced theatre veterans, and a desire to make a difference in the local community. And they have chosen these two plays for both their entertainment value and their social consciousness with themes that still resonate today.

Bill Ford and Jay Crawford have designed a unit kitchen set that serves both plays with a minimal amount of cosmetic changes of furniture and set-dressings, and affords ample playing space on the small stage.

Shine's Contributions, directed by Ronald McCall, takes us back to the early days of "sit-in" demonstrations in Greensboro, NC when students from North Carolina A&T (The Greensboro Four) sat peacefully at Woolworth's lunch counter in an attempt to be served, leading to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], and preceding the Freedom Rides and the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] -- a pivotal action in the Civil Rights Movement. --- In the play, Mrs. Love [Cynthia Ashley] tries to put her grandson Eugene [Dre "Pro Status" Wingate] at ease as he gets ready to participate in a sit-in. As she prepares her sought-after cornbread for the local white Sheriff, neighbor Katie [Jessica Renee Carpenter] warns of potential trouble on the streets where a lot of "mean white folks" are just waiting for something to happen. Eugene resents his grandmother's constant Gospel singing and perceived "Uncle Tom, grin-and-shuffle" attitude, but she tells him "You'd be surprised at my contributions" to the movement over many years. With several twists, and at the risk of spoiling the outcome, let it just be said that Mrs. Love is a kind of avenging angel. In Ms. Ashley's capable hands, she becomes a force to contend with, though a bit more attention could be paid to her softer side; the public face she shows, if a bit sweeter, would make the grandness of her design even more shocking than it is here. Both Ms. Carpenter and Mr. Wingate are natural and convincing in their roles, making the most of the comic implications of the script.

Ward's award-winning Happy Ending, when he was Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company, is lighter in tone, and directed by Yvette Jones-Smedley [who also plays one of its characters]. In it, sisters Ellie [Ms. Jones-Smedley] and Vi [Jacqueline Allen Trimble], domestic employees of the white well-to-do Harrisons, are found bemoaning the "end of the line"; in answer to their nephew Junie's [Vydreon Moon] query, the Harrisons are getting divorced, and they'll be out of work. Though Junie says good riddance and is humiliated by the women's "lack of pride", there is a lot more to it than the surface reveals. Their gravy train will come to a stop, and a promised lifetime pension too. Their litany of "God helps those who help themselves" is recited on such a grand scale, and when Uncle Arthur [Claude McDonald, Jr.] and the rest of the off-stage family are effected, Arthur's "What are we gonna do?!" anticipates the upcoming disaster...and we also feel their distress. True to its title, there is a "happy ending", but not before a lot of hilarity ensues through the capable ensemble acting and Ward's very clever dialogue.

A talk-back session at the end of the evening got audience members and actors to address the very real issues of racial inequality that persist today. Through the comedy on stage, and whether one can absolve the characters of their "sins", there is a kind of retributive justice at hand that can't go unnoticed. Both plays have characters [Mrs. Love, Ellie, and Vi] who are tricksters, ones who use their seemingly inferior status to their advantage; and we always root for the underdog. Their triumphs are greeted with laughter and cheers.

The Peacock Tract Cultural Arts Alliance is off to a fine start, anticipating future successes. For further information, contact