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."