Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WOBT: "Uh-Oh! Here Comes Christmas"

Twelve independent stories over two acts comprise Uh-Oh! Here Comes Christmas, on offer at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville. Not a play exactly, but thematically connected to the Christmas Season, six storytellers/actors -- individually, in small groups, or as an ensemble -- take the stage to entertain with a diverse selection of stories and songs.

Written by Robert Fulgham of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten fame, and directed by William Harper (who sometimes joins the other cast members), the stories range from familiar childhood memories to downright silliness to heartwarming reminders of the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble -- Elizabeth Bowles, Ed Drozdowski, Stephen Dubberley, Reese Lynch, Kim Mason, Curtia Torbert -- is engaging, and demonstrates worthy stagecraft as they shift from serious to comical selections; and there is significant variety to appeal to most any theatregoer.

For example, Ms. Mason hits the right notes as she shifts from cynical to compassionate observer of an Asian refugee who goes "Trick or Treating" in a Santa mask, but captures the essence of Christmas. The company bemoan yet another "Christmas Pageant" in a humorous assessment of the universal dread that accompanies each annual event. A "Holiday Wedding" between a Jew and a Catholic provides plenty of gentle laughs at the idiosyncrasies of clashing cultures. And "Ponder" suggests a radical reinterpretation of the Nativity story with Ms. Torbert's spot-on ironic tone.

Mr. Dubberley shines in his telling of "The Good Stuff" as he recalls a gift from his young daughter that becomes more and more meaningful over the years; a consummate storyteller, Mr. Dubberley rivets attention through understatement. He is joined by Mr. Drozdowski and Mr. Lynch in a story of the "Salvation Army" family of bell-ringers.

In "The Refrigerator and Confessions", we learn that the best leftovers are memories; and in "The Juggler" the clearest message of Christmas as a time for belief and wonder and a capacity to make things real, encourages us all at the end to join in a chorus of "Silent Night" by candlelight and send us out of the theatre with a full heart.

Faulkner: "The Game's Afoot"

Ken Ludwig, best known for the hilarious farce Lend Me a Tenor, only last year penned The Game's Afoot: or, Holmes for the Holidays, a witty, sophisticated, comedy-thriller-whodunnit now on the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre stage, directed by Jason Clark South.

In it, actor William Gillette [Brandtley McDonald] invites members of his acting company to a Christmas Eve party, but with an ulterior motive: to find out the identity of the person who shot him at the end of a recent performance. (The actual Gillette wrote the play Sherlock Holmes and starred in it on Broadway for several years in the last century, amassing a fortune that he used to build a stone fortress in Connecticut that he equipped with secret passageways, hidden rooms, an early intercom system, remote controls, and many other devices that have become the stock-in-trade of murder mysteries.)

The house is the perfect place for a murder, so when the guests -- including an acerbic theatre critic who has written scathing reviews of most of the actors in the company -- arrive, and with actors engaging in histrionic one-upmanship by quoting Shakespeare, the scene is conveniently set.

Filled as it is with red-herrings typical of the murder mystery genre, there are numerous plot twists and unexpected revelations right to the end of the play's two acts.

Characters are broadly drawn, their stereotypes necessitating a fast-paced flair in comic timing and line-delivery, clear speech, and absolute confidence in presenting them without affectation; and while there is significant effort evidenced on stage, there is much unevenness in the company who often resort to cacophonous shouting matches, self-indulgent posing, and a slow pace.

Most successful, however, are the aforementioned Mr. McDonald as Gillette, whose rich voice and commanding presence are on show; Jesse Alston as Daria Chase, the "critic you love to hate" who oozes contempt for all others around her; Brittney Johnston as Aggie Wheeler continually surprises us with her changes in demeanor, so that we can hardly pin her character down; and Madyson Greenwood as Gillette's mother Martha, whose welcome return to the Faulkner stage exhibits confidence, comfort in her role, and an ability to sustain interest by intelligent and subtle shifts of tone and manner -- a sophisticated portrayal.

There is a certain amount of audience involvement, as we are meant to try to figure out the identity of the murderer along with Gillette, so we are kept on our toes throughout...with a few good laughs along the way.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Red Door: "Papa's Angels"

The holiday season continues at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs with its production of Papa's Angels by Collin Wilcox Paxton, in which a Depression Era family from rural Appalachia is challenged by the death of Momma Jenkins [Valerie Sandlin] caused by "the consumption" (tuberculosis) to learn how to survive in the face of tragedy and rely on love and family to discover that the true meaning of Christmas lasts throughout the year.

Paxton's unabashedly sentimental script and John Roman's repetitive musical score are managed most credibly by Doug Stroup as Papa Jenkins, an idealized devoted husband and father brought to the edge of despair by his wife's death. Mr. Stroup's physical transformation from a shining iconic man to a distraught slovenly figure (and back again) is thoroughly believable; Mr. Stroup commands the stage with a strong singing voice and expert guitar playing. We believe him every step of his journey.

Peopled by experienced and neophyte actors, there is some unevenness in character portrayals and clarity of speech, but this does not detract from the appeal of the script's seasonal messages.

Ms. Sandlin's Momma is sympathetically drawn and her devotion to family so strong that we understand the universal grief over her early demise in Act I. Yet, her children -- with the gentle help of Grammy [Bonnie Paulk] -- are resilient and determined to celebrate Christmas with their father whose self-destructive behavior spurs them on to reclaim him and restore family harmony.

Chief among them is tomboy Hannah Rose; Emily Roughton is so matter-of-fact in her portrayal of this spunky kid, that we side with her unquestionably as she defends her brother Alvin [Thomas Dyer] from a schoolyard bully.

But it is mute daughter Becca [Charity Smith] who is the real rock of the siblings. She narrates the story in voiceovers [though this is not always clear, and ought to have been accorded more specific attention in staging]. Clearly the favorite child, she compensates her inability to speak by writing down questions and thoughts that Momma records in a book; Becca turns this into a diary, including entries under the heading "What happened since Momma died": loss of school, loss of church, loss of Christmas, and loss of Papa; things that to her "just don't seem right". When Papa reads these entries, he finally understands the predicament he has placed his children in and determines to reunite with his family.

Bob Wood's rustic set evokes the time period convincingly, and though director Kathryn Adams Wood's staging often verges on pageantry with its predictable tableau moments that tug on our collective heartstrings, Papa's Angels emerges as a thoughtful reminder of what ought to matter most at Christmas and all the year through.

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Tradition continues at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with this year's re-mounting of Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, complete with its author Charles Dickens as narrator, occasional character, and magician to conduct the two hour proceedings.

The action is fast-paced, and while sometimes sacrificing some of the novel's plot details and thematic nuances in favor of magic tricks and diverting novelty songs, Mr. Sherman's version remains true to Dickens' demonstration of Ebeneezer Scrooge's [Rodney Clark] magical reclamation from miserly grump to a man who will "honor Christmas with all my heart".

To be fair, Wynn Harmon handles the sleight-of-hand magic tricks expertly, and is an engaging narrator as Dickens who seamlessly transforms into other characters and back again as if by magic. -- And the "song of the cat", a clever comic duet by Alice Sherman and Lea McKenna-Garcia, is enriched by their fine voices.

In this classic tale, a familiar staple of the Christmas Season ever since Dickens penned it in 1843 and the source of countless stage and film versions, the story of Scrooge's visitations by assorted ghosts who help turn the recalcitrant penny-pincher into a generous benefactor is bound to warm the hearts of even the most reluctant of us.

Many in the acting ensemble [including some local children] are reprising the roles they played in last year's inaugural production: Mr. Harmon conducts the play with a masterly hand...Brik Berkes returns as the ghost of Scrooge's seven-years-dead business partner Jacob Marley who sets the action in motion; he seems to relish the other-worldliness of the role with a fervor that initiates Scrooge's journey... Billy Sharpe and Greta Lambert once again give the utmost credibility to the downtrodden Cratchits whose devotion to one another and their brood of children -- Tiny Tim [Liam South on opening night was nigh on to perfect in the role, and whose "God bless us, every one" garnered appropriate sighs and cheers] among them -- is so gentle and honest that it transcends sentimentality... James Bowen's depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present is a jolly sort who relishes his ability to change people's demeanor by sprinkling magic dust on them, but who can also address the unpleasant realities of poverty and ignorance that infected Victorian London as much as they do now in America... Ms. Sherman again is secure in singing as she is in depicting Belle, Young Scrooge's [Joshua Marx] love-interest (a newly extended scene of their breakup helps in our appreciation of the older Scrooge's loss)... and Paul Hebron and Dianna Van Fossen double as the generous and life-loving Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, and later as Old Joe and Mrs. Dilber who greedily bargain over Scrooge's property... Seth Rettberg's ever optimistic Fred, Scrooge's nephew, is affable and good-humored... and the South brothers [Liam, Duncan, and Crispin] have been sharpening their collective talents with confidence and professionalism in multiple children's roles. ASF newcomer Rivka Borek inhabits the Ghost of Christmas Past with authority.

Mr. Clark's Scrooge has developed over time into a complex character whose reclamation is revealed in subtle degrees that suggest the difficulty of change, the devastating loss forever of his fiancee, and a desire to make things right with the world he has often rejected, when faced with his own mortality. So, his exuberance in realizing that the ghosts had worked their magic in one night and that he has not missed Christmas Day, is so naturally infectious that the audience can not help but get caught up in it with him.

Paul Wonsek's scenic evocation of Victorian London, and Elizabeth Novak's stunning costumes complete the picture. -- When the enormous and sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come appeared from a trap door spewing smoke, an audible "awesome" from a nearby child in the audience summed up the experience. Magic indeed!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Holiday Memories"

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Artistic Director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Holiday Memories [Russell Vandenbroucke's resolute adaptation of two Truman Capote stories: "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory"] features a solid ensemble of actors dressed in Danny Davidson's character-driven period costumes on Layne Holley's evocative theatre-in-the-round set, and is sustained by a haunting original musical score by Mr. Thornton, his son Michael Thornton, and Kim Wolfe.

The challenges of performing in-the-round are largely successful, with only occasional difficulty with vocal projection and deep shadows that obscure the actors faces. -- But the fine thing is the achievement of a natural and close relationship between actors and audience in this delicate celebration of the best aspects of human nature.

The two acts -- Thanksgiving and Christmas -- provide an intimate look into the lives of an unlikely pair of best friends: a young boy named Buddy [Max Zink] and his childlike elderly distant cousin Miss Sook [Fiona Macleod], whose poignant tales of love and friendship in the rural Depression Era South are narrated by the adult Truman [Cushing Phillips]. As they come to life in Truman's memory, Capote's elegiac prose is contrasted by the ordinary speech of his characters and their relationship with each other and the simple world around them, peopled by an assortment of relatives and neighbors all played by Sarah Looney and Michael Dilaura. The result is a sublime mixture that celebrates honesty, friendship, innocence, and morality in a poignant tale so befitting the holiday season.

As Truman ruminates, Mr. Phillips captures the subtle nuances of Capote's text and imbues them with a compassionate understanding of the love and loneliness of both Sook and Buddy, two outsiders from the greater world. His insightful interpretation brings them to life for us as he assesses his youthful frustrations with being called a sissy and taking revenge on schoolmate Odd Henderson on Thanksgiving Day, only to be gently reprimanded by Sook who, despite her "simplicity", instructs him that "deliberate cruelty is the only unpardonable sin". -- As in other episodes in this production, Capote's message is rescued from potentially overdone sentimentality by the honest performances of Ms. Macleod and Mr. Zink. There is hardly a moment that lacks credibility, so much that we feel these are real people who have known each other and lived together for a long time.

When, at the beginning of Act II, Sook announced that it is "fruitcake weather", we follow her and Buddy preparing fruitcakes for casual friends and some strangers [even President Roosevelt is sent one], bargaining with Mr. HaHa Jones for whiskey for their cakes, and getting drunk together on the remainder of the whiskey, only to be scolded by the older relatives they live with. -- As a grown-up, Sook is blamed for this outrage, and tries to come to terms with her own condition, calling herself "tired and funny"; but Buddy defends her saying "not" thereby securing their bond.

Their quest for a Christmas tree, accompanied by a little dog named Queenie, and making homemade gifts to exchange are accomplished with unaffected efficiency; their excitement over these heart-given presents allows them to comprehend that "God is in everyday things and everyday people".

Soon after, Buddy is sent away to school. He reminisces about this last Christmas they shared, and as word reaches him that Sook has died, he realizes that she is "an irreplaceable part of myself". -- Capote's message is loud and clear, and a fine way to usher in the Christmas Season.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Millbrook: "A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol"

The Christmas Season is being ushered in across the River Region's theatres, the latest being the Millbrook Community Players' A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol that just ended its two-week run in a packed schedule that includes Frankly Scarlett, You're Dead on the Harriott II riverboat, and a one show only performance of Christmas in Oz planned for December 13.

Walton Jones, David Wohl, and Faye Greenberg collaborated on this nostalgic comedy with music as a sequel to their popular A 1940s Radio Hour, transporting audiences to Christmas Eve 1943 in a radio station in Newark, NJ where a group of actors create their version of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, and where we become the live radio station audience who respond to "applause" signs illuminated on cue by a sound-effects Foley artist.

This is a mixed-bag of characters, played by Millbrook's veteran and neophyte actors, and we see them both as the actors and the characters they play in the radio play. And, while the script assumes we are familiar with Dickens, the play can be enjoyed without it. -- There is a snowstorm that keeps the company captive for a while, and some improvising has to be done. We see the connections between the characters and their roles: for example, the grouchy William St. Claire [John Chain] who plays Scrooge changes his demeanor as Dickens' messages strike close to home. -- So it is with others; nothing surprising, but nonetheless entertaining.

Replete with the aforementioned sound-effects [Daniel Harms almost steals the show with his antics in providing them with imaginative "props" -- a folding ironing board that sounds like a squeaking door, for example -- and spot-on timing], and with several on-air advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes, BVDs, and Nash-Kelvinator products, we are taken back to another time period. -- And it is at the height of World War II, so there are promos for War Bonds and messages for "our boys overseas" that bring a connection to today's concerns for service men and women in foreign lands.

In keeping with A Christmas Carol, there are several sentimental episodes that touch the heart. Tracy Allgrove as Judith adds her lovely singing voice to a couple of songs that comment on the action. And the rest of the ensemble do valiant work in committing to their roles.

Hindered a bit by the theatre's acoustics and the physical distance between the stage and the audience, these actors must do double duty to keep us engaged.

Still, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol captures just the right tone for the season, and directors Susan Chain and Stephanie McGuire invite the audience to join in and have a good time in reminiscing.