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.