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.