Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza"

The Wetumpka Depot Players are ringing in the Christmas Season with their comic (mostly) pastiche called Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza, and those tacky sweaters we've all come to cringe and laugh at are much in evidence both on stage and in the audience.

In about an hour and a half, the cast of seven mix traditional Christmas Carols with holiday novelty songs, children's letters to Santa, bits of witty banter concerning that eponymous fruitcake, comments about the commercialization of Christmas, little-known historical facts [Did you know, for example, that in 1836 Alabama was the first State to make Christmas a legal holiday?], Christmas traditions around the world, touching personal reminiscences, Southern versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before  Christmas", and several needful reminders of the true focus and significance of Christ's birth...a lot to pack into ninety minutes.

Written and directed by Tom Salter, and with seasoned Depot regulars sharing his stage, the informality of this production is so comfortable it's as if we've been invited into someone's home for -- well, fruitcake and eggnog...and healthy doses of Christmas cheer.

The ensemble -- Jennifer Habercorn, Cheryl Jones, Kim Mason, Cindy Veasey, Jeff Langham, David Woodall, and Mr. Salter -- are gracious and talented folks so much like all of us that we willingly go along for the ride. They clearly enjoy one another's company, and we do too; and so we willingly forgive the occasional missed cue, static moment, or vocal hiccup. In fact, these make it even more fun.

At a time when the calendar is getting more and more hectic and stressful as it gets us closer to December 25th, the infectious good spirits of the Depot Company provide a welcome relaxed atmosphere, a warmth of heart, and a celebration of family and good will of the Christmas Season.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play"

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

Christmas Eve 1946; Studio-A of radio station WTCP in Manhattan, NY -- and time for the "Playhouse of the Air" presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play. The actors gather on a cold night, the Stage Manager is in his booth, and the Foley artist [Sound Effects man] has his props all set. Add a pianist and a vocal trio, and The Cloverdale Playhouse's hour-and-forty-minute presentation is underway.

Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 classic film, a favorite of multitudes, re-tells the familiar story of George Bailey, a man whose dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls to accomplish "something big -- something important" are continually being thwarted or put aside as he helps others in need till he gets to a point of despair and considers suicide, believing that an insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive". -- His reclamation is aided by an Angel Second-Class named Clarence, who shows him how different the world would be had George never been born, and that the regard that others have for him demonstrates that he "really had a wonderful life", and emerges through love of family, sticking to his principles, and generosity towards his neighbors as "the richest man in town".

Director Greg Thornton's complement of five actors (many of them seasoned theatre artists, and almost all of whom are gracing The Cloverdale Playhouse stage for the first time) each play multiple roles, bringing to life the citizenry of Bedford Falls by assuming individualized voices for each one; to their credit and versatility, each character emerges fully recognizable. -- Even the WTCP Radio Singers [Sarah McWilliams, Kat Taylor, Toni Wood] are given personalities that help get us in the Christmas spirit as they sing carols to Marilyn Swears's expert piano accompaniment; and the "commercials" they sing for hair cream and soap are done with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

The central characters -- George [Morgan Baker], his wife Mary [Alicia Ruth Jackson], the nasty money-grubbing Mr. Potter [Paul Nease], small town girl Violet [Barbara Smith], and of course the Angel Clarence [Patrick Hale] -- give appropriate nods to their film counterparts without attempting strict imitations.

Layne Holley's neutral scenic design replicates a 1940s radio station studio's details, one that puts us as the "On the Air" audience who are meant to respond to a flashing "Applause" sign on cue. -- Using period-looking stand microphones (equipped with an echo device for the "heavenly" sequences), a scattering of chairs, a piano, and tables in full view loaded with sound effects devices that invite our full participation in the story as Foley Artist Joe Collins deftly anticipates the sounds needed, with Stage Manager Jonathan Adam Davilla's assistance. Though we might want to watch their every move, if we close our eyes on occasion, the effect is excellent.

Eleanor K. Davis's period costumes (and the women's hair styles) lend authenticity to the proceedings, and add a bit of humor to the visual impact.

It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play is a pretty straightforward re-telling of the film, with little attempt to develop relationships among the actors in the radio station studio playing the roles, even though each one has a distinct personality. -- So, while we are impressed by the versatility of the ensemble's talents, the story's timeless messages are the main focus, and come through loud and clear: ordinary people's lives have value far beyond the reaches of mere economic worth, dreams and goals are sometimes fulfilled in unexpected ways, kindness and generosity to others are often their own reward. Things to keep in mind throughout the year. -- And, oh yes, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faulkner: "I Love a Piano"

What's not to like? In a play (more like a revue, in fact) that showcases sixty of America's foremost songwriters' tunes [he composed about 1500 of them in a musical career covering over half a century] audiences are invited to sing along to their favorites in Faulkner University's witty and tuneful production of Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano.

With a three-piece pit band that sometimes sounds like a lot more instruments or allows a simple piano accompaniment, director Angela Dickson fluidly guides her multi-talented eight-member ensemble through this catalogue of Berlin's repertoire from 1910 Tin Pan Alley through the late 1950s, dazzling us with multiple costume changes for each period.

The conceit of saving an old piano from the junk heap links the two acts' ten scenes through the Twentieth Century via Berlin's iconic music.

Matt Dickson's black-and-white Art Deco set is complimented by simple tracking set pieces and a large upstage screen with period looking black and white projections including a grainy video featuring Blake Williams as a Simon Legree villain. -- Though the lighting often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, the result is mostly bright and cheerful, with occasional detours to more serious matters.

But the play, devised by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley is, after all, about the music, and Ms. Dickson never loses track of it as the songs evoke simpler past times at signal moments in American history.

Mr. Berlin could be sentimental and romantic ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"), comical ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Anything You Can Do"), showy ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"), and unabashedly patriotic ("God Bless America") as he celebrated his adopted country over a lifetime that spanned a century.

So many of his songs have become a part of America's shared experience through the many films and Broadway musicals he composed, for example: Top Hat, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas; and some of their most familiar song and dance numbers are replicated here.

And the ensemble -- Jesse Alston, Courtney Curenton, Matt Dickson, Brittney Johnston, Brandtley McDonald, Blake Mitchell, Trey Ousley, Emily Woodring -- come through with charm and finesse, clearly enjoying themselves and delivering Berlin's lyrics with verve and understanding. Each is afforded individual moments to shine, and the ensemble comfort and support for one another is top notch. Solid performances by all.

Red Door: "Always, Patsy Cline"

There's another weekend to see Always, Patsy Cline at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs -- if tickets are available, that is. It has been playing to packed houses.

Director William Harper's lively production of Ted Swindley's 1990 play has audiences applauding in recognition of many of Ms. Cline's hit tunes -- "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Crazy" among them -- and enthusiastically cheering Lisa Norton in the title role (double-cast with Tina Hosey on alternate nights), and Janet Wilkerson as Louise Seger, her unlikely friend and narrator of the story who met her at a Texas honky tonk and struck up an instant friendship.

The on-stage six-piece "Bodacious Bobcats Band" is, in a word terrific, providing both authentic renditions of the production's twenty-seven songs, and excellent support for Ms. Norton's ample voice. They overpower her at times when she sings in her lower register, but the balance is much better when she opens up in full voice.

Ray Thornton's set: an iconic replication of the Grand Ole Opry that houses the band, a simple kitchen, the suggestion of a nightclub, and an open space, allows for smooth location shifts as the story progresses.

Ms. Wilkerson -- adept as always with comic timing and direct engagement with the audience -- not only narrates the arc of Patsy Cline's career and the two women's friendship, but she also voices several other characters, delightfully characterizing them with broad descriptive gestures.

Between them. Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Norton establish a comfortable rapport, and when the focus is on Patsy's songs (as it is for most of the play's running time), Ms. Norton gathered momentum after a tentative start to ultimately charm us all.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's magic time again at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Geoffrey Sherman's recently revised adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol comes replete with Paul Wonsek's stunning Victorian Era sets, Elizabeth Novak's lush period costumes, numerous special effects and actual magic tricks on stage, and of course the magic of Dickens's novella showing the reclamation of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge [Rodney Clark reprising the role] from a mean-spirited miser to a man who "keeps Christmas in his heart" all year long.

Narrated by Charles Dickens himself [Wynn Harmon, who plays two other roles as well], Mr. Sherman's text preserves much of the book's familiar descriptions and plot elements that transition to dramatized scenes explicating Scrooge's magical overnight journey into his past, present, and future that lead to his final salvation.

Compressed into a mere two hours, director Diana Van Fossen's production never seems rushed, though several entertaining diversions in the script -- Dickens's magic tricks done with aplomb by Mr. Harmon (an accomplished prestidigitator), a "Cat Duet" cunningly executed by Alice Sherman and Betsey Helmer, an extended haggling over Scrooge's belongings by pawnbroker Old Joe [Paul Hopper] and housekeeper Mrs. Dilber [Toni DiBuono] -- leave less time to absorb the strategic moments in Scrooge's life that are presented so quickly that they are hardly noticed.

Yet the magic remains. -- From the onset, it is clear that Mr. Clark's Scrooge is nastier than ever at the beginning ( "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" who dismisses Christmas to one and all as "humbug") and in need of drastic change; and his seven-years dead business partner Jacob Marley pays him a ghostly visit on Christmas Eve. Inexplicably, Marley's voice is heard early on, and a key moment when his face magically appears on Scrooge's door-knocker is so quick that it barely registers; but when he magically arrives in the person of Brik Berkes, the story begins in earnest. Mr. Berkes appears to relish the part as he offers Scrooge a way out through the visitations of three more ghosts.

Together, the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Metushaleme Dary is even-headed and firm] and Christmas Present [James Bowen is grandiloquent and mischievous] help Scrooge in tracking his life from boyhood on: his lonely school days saved through a visit from his sister Fan [Jessica G. Smith] who is the mother of his only nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], to his youthful love for Belle [Alice Sherman] that is doomed by his greed, to the unappreciated beneficence of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig [spirited performances by Mr. Hopper and Ms. DiBuono], and the indomitable spirit of the Cratchit family.

Central to the plot, the Cratchits show by example that generosity of spirit and love of family make them richer than even the wealthiest of men. Scrooge's office clerk Bob [a sensitive Billy Sharpe] and Mrs. Cratchit [Jennifer Barnhart as his no nonsense practical help-mate] are raising a family on Bob's meagre wages. The older children -- Peter [Reese Lynch] and Martha [MaryKathryn Samelson] work to help pay the bills, while the younger ones  -- Belinda [Asia Watson] and crippled Tiny Tim [Charlie Hill] help around the house. And their devotion to one another and their belief in the essential goodness of mankind transcends their poverty and Tiny Tim's deteriorating health.

When the huge and sinister presence of the Ghost of Christmas Future [S. Lewis Feemster's non-speaking part] allows Scrooge to conclude that without a change of heart and behavior his legacy will be worthless, the story comes full circle.

Emerging on Christmas morning a changed man, Mr. Clark's transformation is complete. He has been struggling all the way and now makes amends for years of meanness: he gives money to the poor, accepts at last Fred's dinner invitation, and makes peace with his clerk Bob Cratchit.

It's all over before you know it. Dickens, Mr. Sherman, Ms. Van Fossen and her magical company have brought us magically along to Scrooge's infectious merriment, and to Tiny Tim's innocently perfect "God bless us, every one."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Theatre AUM: "Galileo"

Change is difficult. With thousands of years' acceptance of a belief that the earth was the center of the universe and that all the stars and planets revolved around it, and with the support of governments and the Church, anyone who dared to challenge this creed was sure to be in for a tough time.

Enter Galileo Galilei in Seventeenth Century Italy who concluded via scientific method that indeed the sun was the center of our cosmos with all other heavenly bodies circling it; this was in direct conflict with the "certainties" that kings and prelates had relied on to keep their jobs intact. -- Scientific evidence did not matter; after all, "people in power monopolize truth...and put down all objections" through sheer might and influence.

Sound familiar? -- Just check today's news reports on several subjects where an intractable egocentric majority voice often thwarts level-headed evidence-based proposals that might just improve the conditions of countless citizens. -- And what better reason for Theatre AUM to produce Bertolt Brecht's Galileo as part of their educational theatre mission.

Written in 1943 while Brecht was living in America, the impact of World War II was very strong. Brecht's was a theatre of ideas that intended to break from the Nineteenth Century's fashionable romantic-realism by emphasizing the theatricality of his plays in order to alienate the audience's emotional connection with his characters. This Verfremdungseffekt provided constant reminders that they were in the theatre rather than experiencing a slice of real life; Brecht's plays often incorporate song-commentaries, narration, characters directly addressing the audience, projections, and other conventions that disengage the audience from emotions and force a consideration of his ideas. [And Theatre AUM has wisely provided ample program notes and a glossary of "things to know" to help audiences understand the many scientific, religious, and historical references scattered throughout the script.]

Under Mike Winkelman's inventive direction, Brecht's "alienation" is brought into play with Michael Krek's open-plan set and vivid screen projections and Val Winkelman's modern dress black-and-white geometric patterned costumes that suggest both the certainties of place and character as well as the grey-areas in between. -- Relying on the ensemble playing of actors, most of whom play multiple (and often gender-switched) roles, overlapping and repetitive speech, and incorporation of Twenty-first Century songs and dances, this distancing of audience and actor is strong, though it is confusing when dialogue is at times delivered at such a rapid pace to be almost unintelligible.

The central idea of the first of the play's fourteen scenes positions Galileo's [Michael Krek] scientific doubt against the scientifically unsupported astronomical certainties mentioned above, and continues this throughout. -- As it covers many years in Galileo's life -- from the discovery of Jupiter's moons and the doubt of an earth-centered universe, through charges of heresy and a trial by the Inquisition that forced hum to recant his discovery, to imprisonment and blindness -- the one constant is Galileo's need for empirical evidence brought about by healthy doubt of anything that could not be proved with evidence. -- When challenged with the question "Where is God?" in his findings, Galileo counters with his "belief in the human race and its possibilities." --- A lot for audiences to consider.

The AUM company's performances [a large ensemble cast of experienced and neophyte actors] keep the audience on edge as they assume different roles and follow the script's demands to alienate their viewers. And we go in-and-out of connecting with them because of these theatrical conventions.

But it is equally challenging for us to disengage completely from Brecht's well-drawn characters when they are depicted truthfully. -- Tina Neese, as Galileo's daughter Virginia, ranges from a naive young girl to a much wiser woman convincingly. La'Brandon Tyre's portrayal of the Cardinal Inquisitor is confidently sinister in his approach, and unflinching in wielding his power through ironic interpretations of dialogue and an utterly unflappable manner. Sam Wallace plays Andrea Sarti, Galileo's protege, also from a credible idealist youth to a disappointed and enraged adult. -- And we engage with them.

As the central character, Michael Krek depicts Galileo's frustrations and passion for scientific and rational pursuits with comfort, and tracks Galileo's ageing with subtle shifts of posture and vocal nuances. -- Above all, however, he ably gets Brecht's points across so audiences leave the theatre ready to discuss these matters at more length. Good work.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Millbrook: "The Seven Little Foys"

The opening night's performance of The Seven Little Foys by the Millbrook Community Players was fraught with actors' illnesses, yet in the grand tradition of theatre everywhere, "the show went on".

Audiences of a certain age might remember the 1955 film starring Bob Hope, with an exuberant cameo by James Cagney reprising his role as George M. Cohan from "Yankee Doodle Dandy". -- Later turned into a play (2007) by Chip Deffaa, it tells the fictionalized account of Eddie Foy [Steve A. Shuemake], one of America's great vaudevillians, as he confronts his many inner demons after the death of his long-suffering wife, in bringing up their seven children and ultimately realizing the importance of family over career.

Set in the early days of the 20th Century, this family-friendly entertainment as directed by Pamela Trammell adds a bit of warmth to these chilly nights as it showcases numerous nostalgic songs of the period. -- Yet, at 2-hours and 45-minutes playing time (slow pace, over-long scene changes, lagging energy from sick actors, and tentative dancing in what ought to be show-stopping numbers), the production drags for much of the time.

Kudos to Mr. Shuemake for making it through what must have been a grueling evening for him due to his illness. He is in virtually every scene, and the struggle was evident; he was even "miked" in Act II to help with vocal projection. -- And he does share a lovely moment with Tracey Quates as Mrs. Foy in their sensitive rendition of "On Moonlight Bay."

As narrated by eldest daughter Mary [Kaitlin LeMaster is strong and confident], the ups and downs of Foy's career and family are interspersed with songs, many by the children who each has a showcase moment that highlights personality over talent [according to the script, the kids are a mixed bag of precocious mischief-makers with little performing ability who are reluctantly conscripted to go on the road with their father to help pay the bills and restore the family unit that Foy neglected while he pursued his various addictions]. Abetted by George M. Cohan [Brandon Gonzalez], Foy and his clan avoid the existing Child Labor Laws for a time before the law catches up with them.

The rest of the children -- Andre Bordlee, Seth Bordlee, Caleb Campbell, Gavin Campbell, Braden Fine, and M. Eizabeth Grace Shuemake -- hoof-it through the two acts with varying degrees of success. -- At 5-years-of-age, Gavin Campbell plays youngest son Irving with such stage presence for one so young, and could melt your heart by his genuine smile alone.

But it is Miss Shuemake's Madeline , a no-nonsense rebel who threatens to quit the family, and who belts out two memorable songs with the best of them: Sophie Tucker's signature 1910 "Some of These Days" and Fanny Brice's "Second Hand Rose" from the Zeigfeld Follies of 1921. -- Her credible performance, confident stage presence, and strong singing voice make her the standout in this production.

Katy Gerlach provided excellent piano accompaniment throughout, and Daniel Harms' choreography was kept simple and period specific.

Let's hope the actors' health improved for the very few performances in the run this weekend only.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Crimes of the Heart"

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

"...this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."
                           -- Julia Sugarbaker: "Designing Women"

Score another hit for The Cloverdale Playhouse. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart got its start at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979 and has been on the boards ever since --  with good reason: this perceptive comedy-drama is set in Hazelhurst, MS five years after Hurricane Camille, and recounts the domestic saga of the three MaGrath sisters, members of a Southern family who don't hide their eccentricities and foibles -- they "bring 'em down to the [kitchen in this case] and show 'em off".

Director Maureen Costello has assembled a tight-knit ensemble of Playhouse veterans and newcomers whose complex characterizations, bizarre behavior, and utter commitment to the truthfulness of these somewhat disturbed souls shape Ms. Henley's script in ever surprising revelations that keep audiences alternately laughing and crying for a full two-and-a-half hours.

The play is set in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy's house where spinster eldest sister Lenny [Deborah Robertson] has been living as his caretaker; middle sister Meg [Jaymee Vowell] answers Lenny's summons to return from her failed Hollywood singing career in order to lend support to youngest sister Babe [Sarah Adkins] who has just shot her big-wig lawyer husband Zachery because she "didn't like his looks".

Their cousin Chick [Rhonda Crim] antagonizes them with her haughty condescension while the sisters hire Barnette Lloyd [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], a young and seemingly meek attorney who just happens to have a "personal vendetta" against Babe's husband. -- Meg's former boyfriend Doc [Bill-e Cobb] brings word that Lenny's horse has been struck by lightning on this, her 30th Birthday which only Chick remembered by bringing her a box of almost year-old chocolates.

Hanging over the action is the specter of their Mother's bizarre suicide, their Father's desertion of the family, Old Granddaddy's physical ailments and domineering ways, Zachery's history of abusing Babe, Lenny's inability to have children due to her "shrunken ovaries", an incident during Hurricane Camille that almost crippled Doc, and Babe's "secret" that could prejudice a jury against her.

Yes, that's a lot to "bring down and show off", but Ms. Costello's ensemble inhabit their characters with complete truthfulness, that no matter how fantastic their behavior or attitudes, they are completely credible. We recognize them (and might just have relatives like them). -- To a person, these actors handle even the most far-fetched incidents as commonplace with such grace and charm that their surface quirks have us liking them even with their faults, and in true Southern fashion, "we're proud of our crazy people" on the Cloverdale stage.

Mr. Dasinger's Barnette at first appears to be naively innocent and unsure of his surroundings, especially in the boisterous MaGrath household, but he quickly falls under the spell of the sisters, Babe in particular, and there is a hint of possible romance that Ms. Adkins can switch on with a shrug or a pout, all the while admitting her guilt and accepting Barnette's suggestions and interpretations of the law.

Mr. Cobb's physical and vocal comfort in the role of Doc is admirable, and a far cry from his star-turn as the flamboyant Emcee in 2012's Cabaret. Totally natural as the humble happily-married Doc who seems to genuinely like the MaGraths, and wants no more than an evening spent with Meg without recriminations for her deserting him during the hurricane five years ago. A rock-solid performance.

In a powerhouse portrayal as Chick, Ms. Crim claims attention every time she hits the stage. Here is a woman one can "love to hate" -- a superficially charming young matron whose studied manners and social position are given a sharp edge with virtually every line of dialogue that she spews with criticism and holier-than-thou assurance. Yet, she is the one realist in the group; she may be right most of the time, though her attitude works against her. -- Postures, facial expressions, and comic timing are delivered with no inhibitions; excellent.

Each of the three MaGrath sisters has issues, ones they avoid by resorting to mundane daily tasks that provide a sense of security. -- Ms. Robertson imbues the introverted Lenny with flustered and fastidious gestures; she won't risk loving a man because she doesn't want any man to know she can't have children; so she throws herself into helping others as the seeming rock of the family. -- Ms. Vowell's depiction of the headstrong worldly Meg who pretends that her career is in good shape rather than admit failure, nonetheless goes with Doc for a "ride in his truck to look at the moon" as an attempt to relive a romanticized past. -- And Ms. Adkins plays the self-contradictory (perhaps schizophrenic) Babe with elements of innocence and sophistication, seduction and childlike wonder; and she can turn on a dime with complete conviction.

Together, their denial can make light of Babe's criminal act and switch attention to Lenny's forgotten Birthday, making lemonade, or other diversions...anything but admit the reality of their situation by believing "it'll work out". Family trumps the rest of the world, and these Southern women rely on that more than anything.

Playwright Henley and the Playhouse actors handle serious big issues so candidly that we are very comfortable in their company, and we don't mind at all that their craziness is in full view for us to enjoy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Man of LaMancha"

The multiple award-winning musical Man of La Mancha (1965) is being given a solid production at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre under Jason Clark South's direction.

Using Matt Dickson's flexible cave-like prison set's assorted playing levels, ramps, steps, openings, and drawbridge to good advantage, Mr. South's talented ensemble of 17 actors fill the stage portraying some 42 characters among them with simple costume adjustments and mannerisms to differentiate each role.

Add Marilyn Swears on piano and Mark Benson on percussion to expertly accompany the high quality singing voices of the ensemble, and the tale of Miguel de Cervantes' iconic "Don Quixote" comes to life for two-and-a-half hours on the Faulkner stage.

While Dale Wasserman's script, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, does not pretend to be utterly faithful to the complexities of Cervantes' 17th Century picaresque novel, it does capture its source's essential spirit, if not the full bite of its satire. -- Wasserman's conceit is to have Cervantes [Terry Brown] brought to prison facing charges of the Spanish Inquisition, where, as an entertainment to plead his case among the prisoners as a kind of warm-up to the actual trial, he conscripts the inmates to play the roles of his tale, while he himself inhabits the central character of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his quest as a knight errant to change the harshness of the real world and restore chivalry and goodness to "Impossible Dream", perhaps.

Accompanied by his ever faithful servant Sancho Panza [Brandtley McDonald], and instantly besotted by a kitchen-wench/whore Aldonza [Jesse Alston] -- a woman he idealizes as Dulcinea, in his mind the fair lady to whom the knight offers service -- Quixote's vivid imagination that borders madness at times, transforms the banal and ugly world into a romanticized idealization of it. -- His confusion of truth and fiction is questioned by the Governor/Innkeeper [Blake Williams] among others, much to his consternation.

Man of La Mancha is enhanced by its musical score, with a number of now famous songs: the entire Ensemble shines in a few of them, but it is in individual voices that both the music and lyrics both punctuate or comment on the action and demonstrate the many talents in Faulkner's cast. Antonia [Emily Woodring], the Housekeeper [Rhonda Cattley], and the Padre [Morgan Baker] compliment one another in "I'm Only thinking of Him"; and Mr. Baker's solo "To Each His Dulcinea" showcases his supple voice. Mr. McDonald's strong voice and fully committed characterizations make him one to watch whenever he holds forth in such numbers as "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip".

Ms. Alston's Aldonza/Dulcinea is thoroughly convincing, as she reluctantly portrays the difficult transition from kitchen wench to heroine; we feel her frustrations in her attempts to understand Quixote's fixations that are so contrary to the reality: "It's All the Same", "What Does He Want of Me?", "Aldonza", and her eloquently simple acceptance of his esteem in "Dulcinea" carry the audience on her journey with complete credibility.

And, fittingly, Mr. Brown's engagement in the roles of Cervantes/Quixote are served up with aplomb. His powerful baritone is in good form in the taxing songs "Dulcinea" and "The Impossible Dream", but more importantly, his credibility as both the confident author and the naively idealistic knight and his generosity in sharing the stage with other actors, garners him well-deserved "bravos" from the audience.

There are some hard lessons to be learned here: Quixote's "impossible dream" affords some hope despite the incessant cruelty of the real world around him -- and us. If as Cervantes/Quixote claims that "good always triumphs", the path to goodness has a lot of obstacles along the way. Seeing and experiencing the world as it is -- the polar opposite of Quixote's fantasy -- can drive a person to madness, or perhaps to redemption.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Millbrook: "Harvey"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley, River Region theatre artist.

The Millbrook Community Players are currently staging Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a congenial, well-to-do gentleman who happens to have a six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch rabbit as a best friend. The play's excitement surrounds the fact that Harvey, the anthropomorphic rabbit friend, is invisible to all but Elwood P. Dowd (Roger Humber).

Elwood takes every opportunity to introduce Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing sister, Veta Louise, and niece Myrtle Mae (Lavonne Hart and Christina Harvell), who live in Elwood's house and rely on his generosity. In fact, the play opens on Veta Louise using Elwood's stately home to host a lavish society luncheon with the intent of introducing Myrtle Mae as an eligible bachelorette to local society's mothers of eligible sons. When Elwood unexpectedly shows up and begins to introduce Harvey to all Veta Louise's guests, it is the last straw: Veta Louise decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium.

When Elwood and Veta Louise (and, of course, Harvey) arrive at the sanitarium, a comedy of errors ensues. While the orderly Wilson (one of the more natural comedic performances from Greg Fanning) takes Elwood to a treatment room, Dr. Sanderson (Mark McGuire) interviews Veta Louise -- and determines that she is the one who needs help. Now freed, Elwood quickly befriends Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly (Heather Allen) and offers to come back later and take them out for drinks. Elwood departs, leaving his sister in the hands of the sanitarium staff, and Harvey somehow unaccounted for and loose in the hospital.

Fortunately for Veta Louise, the truth comes out and she is released. Meanwhile, Harvey -- who it turns out isn't entirely imaginary, but is an Irish ghost called a pooka -- befriends the hospital's elusive director, who is quite shaken by the encounter. When Elwood shows up to take his new friends out and to look for Harvey, Dr. Sanderson knows exactly how to treat him. He wants to give Elwood an injection that will rid him of the delusion everyone believes him to be under. Veta Louise's cab driver (Randy Burdick brings a delightful deadpan to the role) interrupts and, overhearing, assures Elwood's sister that the treatment will work -- he has driven lots of troubled people to the sanitarium, only to take them back home after treatment has made them a "perfectly normal human being, and you know how awful they are". It's up to Veta Louise to decide whether Elwood should get the treatment or if she'd rather have Elwood as-is, eccentricities and all.

This production features several budding comic character actors: misters Burdick and Fanning, as well as Emily Burdick and Mike DeLaura.

Also among the highlights of the production is the exceptionally well designed and dressed set. Its functional design is well situated within the space and allows the audience to transition quickly and easily between Elwood's home and the doctor's office at the hospital.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "A Higher Place in Heaven"

Georgia playwright Pamela Parker has a small cottage industry surrounding the fictional town of Second Samuel, GA -- Second Samuel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas, and now showing on the Wetumpka Depot stage: a prequel to the other two called A Higher Place in Heaven, showing the boyhood of characters Frisky and U.S., who feature prominently as adults in the other two plays.

Set in the Summer of 1925, it is a gentle coming-of-age story as well as a serious contemplation on race relations told through complex family relationships. Blacks and Whites who grew up together for generations have fixed social "places" that no one seems to question -- they appear to get along, and it is these assumptions that have kept Blacks back with little hope for advancement and allowed Whites to feel superior.

Teenagers: Frisky [Reese Lynch] and Ulysses (known as U.S.) [Matthew Mitchell] are best friends who spend their time fishing or otherwise lazing about, while their Mothers: Miss Madison [Hazel Jones] and her confidante-servant Miss Simpson [Anne-Marie Mitchell] gossip on the porch of "New Hope", the Madison family's old plantation mansion. Their two families have lived there for generations, and Miss Simpson helped bring up the Madison children.

Everything seems normal until Frisky's older lawyer brother, Son [Clint Evans], shows up to give a speech at the dedication of a monument to their grandfather who fought in the Civil War; Son wants to emphasize the "glory" of the war, and his wife Billie Augusta [Madyson Greenwood] tempers his enthusiasm with practical comments.

When Son discovers his Mother's new will which leaves the family home to Miss Simpson, he is outraged that the property will belong to a Black family at Miss Madison's death, and does everything he can to thwart her plan.

The boys -- inseparable playmates on the verge of growing up, and wanting to make something of themselves -- have some plans of their own to both attend Tuskegee Institute (since U.S. can't attend a White university); and when each is faced with decisions, their inner biases come to the fore, and the racial divide and all the assumptions that come along with it demonstrate how complicated an issue it is.

Confronted with Son's question: "Why does the will leave the house to Miss Simpson?", Miss Madison's clear response is that "It's the right thing to do." And her family aren't to be left out; they'll all be taken care of.

Director Kim Mason's excellent ensemble cast respect the script's comfortable style, imbuing their characters so naturally that they are completely credible. There is hardly a false note from any of them. (Though Son's capitulation happens a bit too quickly, by that time we are so ensconced in all their lives, that it hardly matters.)

The example of grandfather is the crux of the matter: he treated everyone the same, without regard to race or age or gender or wealth. -- As Billie Augusta says at one point: while good deeds alone will get people into heaven, "...people who take care of our ugly business just because it needs to be done, because its the right thing to do, they're going to get a higher place in heaven." -- And that is what Miss Madison is about, though it takes a long while for her secret motives to be explained.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WOBT: "Bargains"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently performing a 1992 comedy -- Bargains, by Jack Heifner -- that showcases the talents of local actors and is directed by Tina Abate. Best known for his 1976 play Vanities, and also the author of WOBT's 2012 production of Patio/Porch, Heifner gives audiences some clever dialogue and familiar situations, though here its predictable plot, just out-of-date cultural references, and indirect treatment of the topic of homosexuality, make it appear old fashioned. Nonetheless, some strong characterizations enliven Bargains' two acts.

Set somewhere in rural Texas, Bargains opens in a struggling bargain-basement department store on one of its several sidewalk sale days. Three sales clerks bemoan their condition and the store's depleted and out-of-style stock, but receive little sympathy from manager Michael Mead [Adam Hunt], whose brusque and authoritarian manner do little to endear him. -- Each clerk has her issues: Tish [Curtia Torbert] is due to give birth any day and has an out of work husband who may or may not be cheating on her; spinster Sally [Zyna Captain] still lives at home and caters to every whim of her elderly and demanding mother; outspoken and perennially late for work Mildred [Hollie Pursifull] shares a trailer with her gay brother Lothar [Adam Hunt again -- this character appears only in Act II], a color-blind hairdresser who has failed at every career attempt, and whose boyfriend Dennis [Kehinde Batife] is a florist who is allergic to flowers. -- A lot of contrivances that appear forced, and with the sole intent of garnering a few laughs.

Much of their private lives and secret vices are revealed as the store is about to be closed, putting the women out of work with the departure of Mr. Mead. -- Tish goes off to try to save her marriage, and does not appear in Act II; a shame that audiences are not given the pleasure of Ms. Torbert's talents, as she gives the most solid and truthful characterization in this production.

So, Act II picks up a month later outside Mildred's trailer, where Lothar has barricaded himself in after his sister has gone to another hair salon and not to him. -- It is here where Mildred and Sally comfort one another, challenge one another, and become close (if not very credible) allies as plot contrivances mount up to enable a convenient happy ending.

An overlong game of charades, and slow pacing throughout the two acts bring Bargains in at about two hours and twenty minutes. But there are moments that bring giggles and belly laughs. Ms. Pursifull particularly brings conviction to her character's droll pronouncements and sly looks, and has a fine sense of comic timing. And Ms. Captain gets well earned sympathy through honest depictions of her role.

WOBT continues to develop new talents, mixing them with veteran actors whose skills will hopefully rub off.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Red Door: "Promises"

Troy University alumnus Joel Williams's 2010 play Promises is showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Directed by his Troy classmate, Tom Salter, and with a featured role played by their mentor, former Chair of Theatre at Troy, David Dye, it is a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Williams.

Set in Fontana Lake, North Carolina in 1993 -- with flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) displaced many of the rural inhabitants to build a dam -- Williams invites his audiences into the lives of the local families as they observe "Decoration Day" by visiting the graves of their ancestors and re-telling their stories to keep their memories alive.

Joseph Thompson [Craig Stricklin] attends for his first time to honor a promise made to his mother: one of the many "promises" of the play's title. -- Through the prodding of Liz Andrews [Kim Graham], who befriends the stranger in their midst, Joseph's heritage is gradually revealed in a kind of detective story that slowly discloses details of his life, details that become increasingly more intriguing as we learn the secrets of his birth and upbringing, and the promises of his parents, siblings, and friends.

While Joseph and Liz serve as narrators and commentators (Mr. Stricklin and Ms. Graham give their best to make it dramatically interesting), the flashback sequences provide the dramatic interest and impact. -- Jacob Thompson [Joseph Crawford] fell in love with Leah [Eve Harmon] in high school, and his adolescent promise to love her forever was gently rebuffed by Leah who wanted only to remain friends as she needed to see more of the world and build a career away from the small community that Jacob preferred.

Some time after Leah's departure, Jacob inherited land from Virgil Jenkins [David Dye] and married Rachel [Sarah Smith]. Happy at first, two still-born children strained their relationship; though committed to his marriage, cash-strapped Jacob left town to work for the TVA where by chance he re-met Leah and rekindled their relationship.

With its meandering style and sometimes slow pace, the script could benefit from judicious editing to enhance character relationships and omit lengthy exposition and extraneous characters, thereby giving more focus to the central plot. -- No spoilers here; there are several unexpected events that are not revealed till close to the end.

Mr. Crawford creates a sympathetic character in Jacob. We believe in his essential goodness and the conflicted decisions he makes throughout; and his truthful depiction is simple and straightforward. Ms. Smith's role of Rachel is also an honest portrayal. Ms. Harmon is so natural in the role of Leah, that one is hardly aware of her acting.

Mark Moore in the role of Quill Hopkins -- a perennially drunk aggressor, and a key to the surprise ending -- seems to relish the role; his unsubtle nastiness verges on caricature. And Lonnie Crawford as Jacob's brother Aaron draws our sympathies in a solid performance.

In one of the play's strongest scenes, when Virgil promises his land to Jacob both as a reward for the young man's hard work and for his innate goodness, Mr. Dye provides the most natural performances on stage. The connection between him and Mr. Crawford is so complete and truthful, that the scene and the character of Virgil remain with us till the end.

Promises continues this weekend only at the Red Door.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ASF: "Mary Poppins"

"Look past what you see" is an admonition everyone might benefit from; what is on the surface is only a small portion of what lies beneath -- and Montgomery is being treated to a glorious heart-warming production of Mary Poppins, a musical that charms and transforms its audiences young and old. As Mary Poppins sings of herself in Act I, Director Geoffrey Sherman's production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is "Practically Perfect".

With top-notch production numbers choreographed by Karen Azenberg, an excellent eight-member pit orchestra conducted by Tom Griffin, dazzling sets by Peter Hicks, and exquisite costumes by Brenda Van Der Weil, Mr. Sherman's ensemble cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers energetically take the Festival stage for two-and-a-half hours of non stop family entertainment.

This is "what we see", but there is a lot more to it. -- The play's pedigree begins with P. L. Travers' stories and continues to the beloved Walt Disney film and the Cameron Macintosh stage musical with a book by Julian Fellowes (of "Downton Abbey" fame); the original musical score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe complete the collaboration that is currently playing an extended run at ASF.

Below the surface shine of this production are a host of elements that might not receive the attention they deserve. -- The aforementioned production qualities [sets and costumes especially] are so integrated into the magic that they seamlessly enhance the story and characters in witty and colorful ways by paying attention to details. Some of the stage transformations are downright stunning, and with an ensemble cast who play gypsies, chimney-sweeps, bank managers, and other Londoners, one might think there are hundreds of them...more magic.

The story s a familiar one: George [David Schmittou] and Winifred [Jean McCormick] Banks -- he a stolid bank manager and she a dutiful Edwardian housewife -- have two children, Jane and Michael [Katie Cobb and Will Chieves on Tuesday night] who have run off several nannies through their pranks; they crave more affection from their parents -- particularly Mr. Banks who is oblivious to their needs -- and when they write a job description for a nanny who will be kind and "fun", Mary Poppins [Alice Sherman] magically shows up and effects the needed changes. -- Yet, not everything is what it seems; you have to look past what you see, and Mary Poppins makes the changes happen with the help of chimney sweep Bert [Bret Shuford] and an assortment of other characters she seems to conjure up with ease.

The ASF company have taken full advantage of the strong script to develop truthful characterizations. Though many of them have the stamp of stereotype, the actors provide subtle details that give credibility to them. -- Barbara Tirrell plays both the gypsy Mrs. Corry and the stentorian nanny Miss Andrew (known to everyone as "The Holy Terror") with gusto; both powerful performances, and her rendition of "Brimstone and Treacle" is frighteningly good. Billy Sharpe as Robertson Ay, the meek household servant, and Northbrook, an unassuming man who gets a bank loan because of his good will -- as opposed to the aggressive Von Hussler (Lenny Daniel) -- is underplayed to very subtle effect. Christian Castro as Neleus (the statue that comes to life to the children's delight) keeps the magic intact. Rodney Clark doubles as the Admiral and the tough-minded Bank Manager with clever nuances. And Barbara Broughton shines as Bird Woman who sells crumbs to feed the birds in a touching interpretation of "Tuppence a Bag" makes a powerful statement about simple kindness that is so often trumped by selfishness.

Mr. Shmittou and Ms. McCormick, in roles that have been developed from the original, create convincing characters -- conflicted by their call to duty as parents while staying true to the social norms expected of them -- and emerge as fully realized and sympathetic individuals. And Ms. Cobb and Mr. Chieves are impressive as their children who never flag from being truthful in their roles; well done.

Mr. Shuford's chimney-sweep "Bert" is so genuinely honest and endearing that we instantly feel comfortable with him as our guide to the proceedings. And Ms. Sherman's portrayal of the title character Mary Poppins is "practically perfect" in every sense. She commands the stage with effortless charm, conducts the action at every turn, and sings beautifully. A standout performance.

The big numbers are all dazzling. Whatever your preference, "Chim Chim Cheree", "Let's Go Fly a Kite", "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Anything Can Happen", or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", are bound to enthrall.

And, while Mary Poppins can only stay "as long as necessary", when she does leave after resolving the  family's problems and ensuring that young Michael received his father's love, and we are ensured that other families need her now, we watch her (with a little regret that she can't stay with us any longer) fly out over the audience and on to another challenge.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Millbrook: "Grease"

The closing night's performance of the Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical, Grease, by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc., was a sold-out success.

Much to the credit of director John Collier and his 21-member ensemble cast, and to a terrific 6-piece band, the 1950s era musical set in fictional Rydell High School kept its nostalgic focus intact, taking us back to more innocent days of slumber parties, hot rods, and high school dances.

The long running, award winning Broadway production has been a staple on high school and community theatre stages for decades; it is probably most familiar through the film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. So it is not surprising that many audience members were softly singing along to "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee", "Shake It/High School Hop", "Greased Lightning", and "Hand Jive" among others.

On the first day of school, newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski [Lauren Norris] tells the "Pink Ladies" about her summer romance, while Danny Zuko [Joe Taylor] recounts his romantic conquest to the guys. Of course, each is singing about the other in "Summer Lovin' " without knowing they are at the same school, and when they meet, Danny takes a "cool/tough" stance that bewilders Sandy -- and there is much to follow before they and several other couples can be reunited by the end.

Other key players are tough-girl Rizzo [Emily Grace Pose], matched with Kenickie [Myles Wolf], each of whom brings a confidence and strong singing voice to their roles. -- Kenzi Meyer is delightful in the role of Frenchie, the "Beauty School Drop-Out", and Joshua Cuevas as Doody, the guitar-playing roustabout has a laid-back comfort in the part.

As Marty, Kaitlin LeMaster uses her impressive singing voice well in "Freddy My Love", and Joshua Bullard as Sonny is easily the most comfortable and easy-to-watch member of the ensemble.

Taylor Trucks is utterly convincing as good-girl Patty, as is Corey Jackson playing the nerdy Eugene. -- And Jody Dow as Teen Angel brings down the house.

Pamela Trammell's schoolmistress Miss Lynch is as uptight as you can get; and Roger Humber as Vince Fontaine is a suitably "dirty old man" making a play for the young high school girls at the dance.

Though there was some occasionally clumsy staging and line delivery, the evening was entertaining and a good antidote to the Summer's heat.

Faulkner: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

On last Friday night, the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre not only presented their pleasant production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also paid tribute to its founder, Philip Sprayberry, who thirty years ago created what has become a Montgomery institution that has entertained thousands. Former Faulkner student actors, faculty, friends, and several from the local community helped celebrate Sprayberry's birthday on the night, his first visit to Faulkner's new performance space.

In Shakespeare's delightful romantic comedy, three worlds intertwine with sometimes hilarious results: the Athenian nobility and upper class, the Faerie Kingdom, and the "rude mechanicals" (a troupe of itinerant actors)...and director Angela Dickson invented a prologue without dialogue that introduced her audience to the various plot lines and complicated relationships.

Oberon [Matt Dickson] and Titania [Kari Kelly] -- the King and Queen of the Faeries -- have argued about which of them gets to keep a little changeling boy, and their magic impacts all the others. Oberon's assistant, the mischievous Puck [Daniel Harms who also choreographed the show] does his bidding but sometimes makes errors that must be fixed.

Athenian King Theseus [newcomer Trey Ousley] and bride-to-be Hippolyta [Courtney Curenton] -- an Amazon warrior princess he defeated and then wooed -- are planning their wedding celebrations when Egeus [Morgan Baker] asks the king to settle a dispute with his daughter Hermia [Emily Woodring]. Egeus has chosen Demetrius [Blake Williams] as Hermia's husband, but she loves Lysander [Brandtley McDonald], and the two young people elope, letting their friend Helena [Jesse Alston] in on thier plan to meet in the woods that night; Helena loves Demetrius, who also follows them, so many complications arise in the woods.

Meanwhile, the rustic actors meet in the woods to rehearse their play -- Pyramus and Thisbe -- to be performed at the king's wedding. Chief among them is Bottom [Chris Kelly is terrific in the role, especially as Pyramus who edits his lines as he speaks and demonstrates some fine acting skills along the way], whose overblown self-importance is soon thwarted by Oberon and Puck, who charm Titania to fall in love with the first person she sees on awakening, ensuring that it will be Bottom whose head is exchanged with an asses head. --- Also while sleeping, Lysander is similarly charmed by mistake and awakens to instantly fall in love with Helena.

Lots of hilarity as these various entanglements get unravelled. "The course of true love never did run smooth", after all.

Ms. Dickson keeps the action moving at a steady pace, and inserts a few modern songs into the mix.
The ensemble actors manage Shakespeare's verse pretty well, though there is a long learning curve before they will be proficient. They do better in the prose sections and the broader comedy. And the strong singing voices (a mainstay in many of Faulkner's musical productions) are given significant attention.

And on a hot Summer night, this A Midsummer Night's Dream is a most pleasant entertainment.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"

Now playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot, the 1978 musical by Carol Hall, Larry King, and Peter Masterson -- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas -- is based on the real life Chicken Ranch bordello in La Grange, Texas that was closed after many years through the efforts of a crusading media reporter.

The play features Miss Mona [Kim Mason is effervescent here], the archetypal "prostitute with a heart of gold", who has managed to keep a flourishing business by placating the local authorities (Sheriff, Senator, Governor, et al.), paying heavy taxes, and supporting various community projects. Everyone, it seems, is willing to turn a blind eye to her "business" until Melvin Thorpe [Scott Page's over-the-top portrayal is exceptional] determines to rid the area of Mona's sinful Chicken Ranch, by harnessing the morally upright citizens to demonstrate against it via live-feed television.

Director Kristy Meanor and Musical Director Marilyn Swears guide their cast of some thirty-four veteran and neophyte actors through the two-and-a-half hour risque romp, that has the Depot's audiences laughing at the play's outrageousness and sympathizing with the sensitive depictions of any number of its characters. Jonathan Yarboro serves as the play's narrator and also is Edsel, the local newspaperman who keeps a solid footing throughout; and Cindy Veasey's role of Doatsey Mae, the cafe owner with several unfulfilled dreams is a sensitive depiction.

Mona runs a "nice country house" with very strict rules for her girls; and when new recruits Angel [Adrian Lee Borden] and Shy [Emma Colson] are hired on a trial run, Mona shows her concern for Angel's surface-tough demeanor and Shy's school-marm appearance. And Mona's business partner Jewel [Shaina Pierce] comes into her own with "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'".

Though it takes a while to get to the central conflict, we are treated to infectious production numbers like "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" that sets Mona's welcoming tone that is then counterbalanced by Melvin's in-your-face "Texas Has a Whorehouse In It". Both numbers have an energetic verve that showcases the large ensemble in ever inventive staging and characterizations enhanced by Mary Katherine Moore's inventive choreography. -- Especially noteworthy are Madyson Greenwood as Ginger, Reese Lynch as the youngest Aggie with a couple of scene-stealing moments that he handles with aplomb, and Matthew Walter as the Aggie to watch, as Mr. Walter is fully committed to every on-stage moment.

Mona's love interest is in the person of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd [a solid Stephen Dubberley] who ultimately and reluctantly has to close down the Chicken Ranch when "watchdog" Melvin has pressured the Governor [Patrick Hale's caricature depiction is close to perfection], influential businessman C. J. Scruggs [Michael DiLaura], and Senator [David Woodall] (who is literally caught with his pants down when Melvin brings the television crew on a raid while the Texas A&M "Aggies" are there celebrating a recent football win).

There is a bitter-sweet ending at the closing of the Chicken Ranch -- we have come to like Mona and her girls -- yet we leave the Depot theatre with smiles on our faces.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Clybourne Park"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley -- River Region Theatre Artist

Is post-racial America a reality? Audiences at the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park" may find themselves grappling with this and many similar questions regarding how well we have or haven't accepted the "other" in our society.

Norris's script, awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" (staged recently at the Playhouse), about a Black family's struggle to brake out of the confines of poverty and the racism they encounter in their efforts. -- The play is a witty, often scathing examination of racism and other "isms" that still exist and may even be made worse by people's attempts to make themselves and others believe that they don't.

"Clybourne Park" opens in 1959, just two hours after the conclusion of the action in "A Raisin in the Sun", in the home of Russ and Bev (Michael Krek and Maureen Costello). -- Danny Davidson's costumes are a solid success in establishing the period. -- Russ and Bev, a white couple in an all-white neighborhood, are grieving over the loss of their son who was taunted by neighbors when the returned from the Korean War, and have just completed the sale of their Clybourne Park home to a Black family: the Younger family from "Raisin". -- Neighbor, friend and fellow Rotarian, Karl (Mark Hunter, continuing his willingness and honing his ability to portray "the man we love to hate"), is the one character who also appears in Hansberry's play, where he represented the "Welcoming Committee" in trying to convince the Youngers to back out of their plan; here he barges in to inform Russ and Bev that this Black family will destroy the neighborhood and drive down property values. But, as Bev asks: shouldn't Black people have the right to live in better neighborhoods?

Although Bev seems sympathetic to Black people's endeavors to improve their circumstances, her patronizing behavior towards her housekeeper Francine (Christina Okolo) and her husband Albert (William Allen, III, who has natural comic timing), as well as toward Karl's deaf wife Betsey (Sarah Adkins), reveals that she has her own prejudices, even if she is unaware of them. Ms. Costello handily balances both the silliness and gravity of Bev's blithe un-awareness of her flawed perspective.

Karl is relentless in his argument. He threatens to reveal Russ and Bev's family tragedy that took place in the house as a way of driving the Black family to back out of the sale. Russ is disgusted by Karl's blatant racism, but even more so by Karl's attempts to control him.

Matters are not helped by the presence of Jim, the local minister (Cushing Phillips, III) who would of course offer to help with moving day activities if only his back wasn't injured; Jim's physical impotence mirrors his inability to offer spiritual guidance in the argument between Karl and Russ.

Act II opens fifty years later when the now all-Black neighborhood is re-gentrifying. -- Ed Fieder's simple, warm, functional set undergoes a transformation that captures well the passage of time and condition. -- The same actors return as a new crop of characters, arguing now about the same house and how the new homebuyers (white yuppies Steve and Lindsey, played by Mr. Hunter and Ms. Adkins) will ruin the historic value of the neighborhood.

Homeowners Association members a Black couple (Lena and Kevin, played by Ms. Okolo and Mr. Allen) and a gay man (Tom, played by Mr. Phillips) are trying to reach an agreement with Steve and Lindsey about their planned house renovations. --Lena, it seems, is related to the Youngers from "Raisin", and is actually named after Mrs. Lena Younger from that play, so she has a critical stance in the proceedings. -- Seemingly friendly negotiations about setbacks, easements, and elevations among a racially and socially diverse group, whose members appear to be forward thinkers when it comes to acceptance and equality, slowly devolve into accusations and downright actions of prejudice and stereotyping, complete with crude jokes that run from insidious to blatant in their offensiveness to various groups of people. As might be expected, negotiations break down, leaving everyone somewhere between enmity and actual hatred toward one another.

The play ends with a flashback to the 1950s, just before Russ and Bev's family tragedy. Their son Kenneth (Braxton McDonald) is composing a suicide note when Bev interrupts him and with worried optimism tells him that she feels that things are about to change. -- This brief scene captures the irony that runs throughoUt the play; yes, things are changing, but not perhaps in the way we hope or expect.

This production of "Clybourne Park" makes audiences both laugh and cringe, even at themselves. Director Greg Thornton has thoughtfully led this ensemble to a victory in showing us a mirror of out successes and failures as a "unified" society. -- It deserves the audience ovations and praise it has received in its opening weekend.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

ASF Interns: "Romeo and Juliet"

Director Greta Lambert's abridged version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with this year's ASF Acting Intern Company lives up to the high standards she has been setting for the last few seasons in productions that tour to many cities and schools.

With intelligent editing that preserves plot and theme which gives actors all the tools to develop their characters, and matched with Tara Houston's flexible multi-level grid-like set and Elizabeth Novak's effectively romantic period costumes, the focus is on the beauty and humanity of Shakespeare's text.

The Bard's "star-crossed lovers" are arguably the best known romantic duo in Western literature, and their tragic end has been depicted with endless variety around the world on stage and screen since the 1590s. -- Ms. Lambert's production trusts the script's universality to resonate today without fussy concepts to distract us. Bravo!

Though they are the teenage offspring of two feuding families, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall instantly in love, and marry secretly; when one of many street fights results in the deaths of two young men, Romeo is exiled to a "life worse than death" away from Juliet. -- Meanwhile, Juliet's parents arrange a wedding which she refuses despite threats of being disowned; and the Friar who married them convinces Juliet to take a drug that will replicate death for a short time, allowing Romeo to return to Verona to take her away; on arrival at the tomb, Romeo believes Juliet to be dead and commits suicide at her grave. When Juliet awakes and sees her husband dead, she stabs herself. Their families agree to a peaceful coexistence as a result of their loss.

Most of the ensemble play more than one role requiring either complete costume changes or as simple an adjustment as donning a pair of spectacles and assuming a different posture. The choices are clear and demonstrate the flexibility of these talented actors. -- We never for a moment doubt who they are portraying whether they capture their characters' youthful energy and adolescent excesses or the authoritarian steadfastness of parents, servants, priests, or royalty.

Brennan Gallagher is convincing both as the compassionate Friar and as Juliet's commanding intractable father Lord Capulet; he is matched by Lea McKenna-Garcia's Lady Capulet who shifts from maternal concern to complicity with her husband's demands that Juliet obeys him.

Daniel Solomon portrays Tybalt, the "prince of cats", with effective swagger that is counterbalanced by his role as a servant. -- Christian Castro is a bundle of energy as Romeo's friend Benvolio and a more contained and elegant Paris who is set to marry Juliet as her father arranged.

Rivka Borek is a powerhouse Princess whose judgments are not to be questioned, and as Juliet's Nurse, a woman who is both a substitute Mother-figure and confidante, and a go-between for Juliet's marriage to Romeo.

Joshua Marx plays Romeo's father, Lord Montague, with stolid composure that is contrasted by his aggressively excitable Mercutio. His masterly swordplay (thanks to Seth Andrew Bridges for staging the believably dangerous fight sequences) and "Queen Mab" speech make him an endearing character whose accidental death is all the more hurtful, and his "curse on both your houses" a reminder to us that petty arguments too often result in needless violence and death.

The focus is on Romeo and Juliet throughout, and Morgan Auld and Christina King deliver with conviction all the contradictions and fickleness of adolescence. We watch them grow up before our eyes from naive teenagers caught up in the throes of first love to serious adults who make decisions with full realization of their consequences. -- And we like them because they touch some impulses in all of us.

There is hardly a moment in this production for audiences to catch their collective breath as Ms. Lambert's vigorous direction sweeps us up in the conflicts, and has us -- regardless of knowing the outcome -- fully participating in the lives depicted on the intimate Octagon Stage.

While there are moments of humor that elicit well-earned laughs inherent in Shakespeare's verse, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is a hushed silence from an audience thoroughly engaged in the tragedy to come. Well done!

Monday, May 5, 2014

WOBT: "Nunsense"

Playwright Dan Goggin has created a veritable cottage industry with his nine plays about the "Little Sisters of Hoboken", a rag-tag group of nuns whose misadventures have been entertaining audiences since the mid-1980s. -- The first of these is Nunsense, now playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre in a frequently revised and updated version under the direction of Sam Wallace.

In this one, the nuns are preparing a benefit performance of a musical revue featuring their assorted and sometimes surprising talents in an effort to keep the Health Inspectors at bay after an incident when their cook, Sister Julia Child of God (get it?) accidentally killed off 52 of the nuns with a batch of deadly vichyssoise; they managed to bury 48 of them, the remaining 4 are being kept on ice in the freezer. So much for subtlety.

It is clear from the outset that there is a pecking order in the convent, and there are innumerable stereotypical nun jokes and other references to Catholicism that only the initiated can fully appreciate; nonetheless, there is enough here to tickle most people's funny-bones regardless of religious affiliation.

The Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina [Margaret White] runs a strict house with unquestioned (almost) authority; second in command is the Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert [Tara Fenn], who only thinly disguises her desire to one day become a Mother Superior herself. Sister Robert Ann [Michon Givens] is the rebel of the group who wants to be a star, but whose attempts to secure a place in the revue are thwarted by Mother Superior. Sister Mary Leo [Mary Givens] is a novice in the convent who expresses herself in dance ("Dancing is the way I pray", she says.). And Sister Mary Amnesia [Alison Mykes] can't remember her actual name -- or much else, at times -- but who can belt out a country song or an operatic aria with the best of them.

The ensemble's good intentions and attempts to engage the audience with witty repartee and parlor games work some of the time, but seem forced at others. Yet their combined individual efforts warm the audience who engage in the silliness on stage. -- With a script full of strained puns and risque double-entendre comments unbefitting nuns (though keeping an innocent demeanor), and with continual references to musical theatre history and now out-of-date or esoteric social commentary, many of the jokes fall a bit flat. And the energy level often wanes between the twenty or so musical numbers.

Each of the cast members brings some strength to the entertainment. We can laugh scornfully at Mother Superior's haughtiness, but Ms. White redeems her character in a delightfully uninhibited sequence when she gets high and prances around like Carmen Miranda. Ms. Fenn's self-control as the second-fiddle is redeemed in a rousing Gospel number. Ms. Michon Givens' frankness is disarming, and she is most successful in sharing with the audience, making us complicit in her every action. Ms. Mary Givens is so sincere in the novice's tentative questioning of her vocation and brings a truthful human touch to the proceedings. And Ms. Mykes, in fine singing voice and comic hand-puppetry with a nun-puppet that seems to have "tourette syndrome", is so refreshingly animated as the bewildered Sister Mary Amnesia, that out collective hearts go out to her and stay with her for the duration of the play.

While individual moments shine in this production, picking up the pace and energy levels would make for an even more enticing evening's entertainment.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Millbrook: "The Nerd"

Larry Shue's untimely death in a plane crash at age 39 cut short a career that had already achieved some notoriety. The Nerd and The Foreigner have become staples in contemporary theatre; each one a farce that takes a simple situation and builds its comic potential with witty dialogue and eccentric characters.

The Millbrook Community Players have aired a production of The Nerd (1981) recently, under the direction of Stephanie McGuire. -- A 44th birthday party for Willum Cubbert [Joe Nolin, Jr.] is thrown into chaos on the arrival of the eponymous "nerd" of the title, one Rick Steadman [Michael Snead], who had saved Willum's life in Viet Nam; but there's a catch: while Willum was unconscious at the time, and Rick left before they could actually meet, their only connection since then has been through long-term correspondence.

The party is hosted by friends -- caustically witty drama critic Axel Hammond [Marshall Simpson], and long-suffering girlfriend Tansy McGinnis [Tracy Algrove] -- who both wish that milquetoast Willum would develop some gumption in both his professional and personal lives instead of trying so hard to be nice to people. -- Willum's architectural designs are continuously being questioned by Warnock Waldgrave [Sean Wallace], the man with the money for the project; and Tansy wishes Willum would be more demonstrative in his affection for her. Waldgrave brings his ditzy wife Clelia (sp) [Tracey Quates] and obnoxious son Thor [Micah Tyler] to the party, where they and the others are horrified by Rick's behavior.

Though uneven in places, with a lot of the clever dialogue and groan-inducing puns spoken too softly or with little energy, and in need of a more sprightly pace and commitment to character relationships, this production of The Nerd has one outstanding performance that carries the show. -- Mr. Snead is so fully engaged in his character that he often causes others on stage to almost collapse with laughter. He is so thoroughly obnoxious in his seeming ignorance of all the social norms, and speaks with an irritating high-pitched voice that could cut through steel, and shows no awareness of his character's foibles. So, when he moves in as Willum's roommate, bringing all his household goods with him, he becomes the nightmare guest-from-hell who shows no desire to leave, and there is a concerted effort to get rid of him.

And it takes a predictable sit-com plot to make it happen, with Willum ultimately getting the gumption he so needs to stand up to Mr. Waldgrave, and to free himself of the obligation he owes to Rick for saving his life; enough is enough.

There is a twist at the end that makes it all worthwhile, with Mr. Snead again demonstrating a command of character.

Wetumpka Depot: "Boeing Boeing"

The Wetumpka Depot Theatre has hit magic again with its hilarious production of Marc Camoletti's farce Boeing Boeing. -- If there is a recipe for success, the Depot has concocted a gourmet dinner: one brilliantly witty script, a sure-handed director, an inventive design team, and a multi-talented veteran acting ensemble who collaborate to make Boeing Boeing a laugh filled riot.

The 1962 hit has been revived in recent years in London and New York, where it received several awards, and has been making the rounds since then at university, professional, and community theatres across the country.

Director Ed Drozdowski works the play's magic with his actors, whose physical and vocal energy, split-second timing, and spot-on delivery of dialogue keeps audiences laughing throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time.

It is the "swinging sixties" in bachelor architect Bernard's [Lee Bridges] Paris apartment. Bernard is 'engaged' to three stewardesses who fly for different airlines: Gloria [Jaymee Vowell] for TWA, Gabriella [Leanna Wallace] for Alitalia, and Gretchen [Madyson Greenwood] for Lufthansa. By his pure mathematical calculations, "Lothario" Bernard plans his time with each woman around their various itineraries, keeping each one ignorant of the others existence.  -- Until, of course, flight delays and new and faster Boeing-jet engines disrupt his plan, bringing all three women to the apartment at the same time.

Complicit in Bernard's design is his housekeeper-cook Berthe [Erika Wilson], who has to think on her feet to accommodate every turn of events. -- And the unexpected arrival of Bernard's long-time friend Robert [Brad Sinclair] a nerdy rube from Wisconsin and the polar opposite of Bernard's sophistication, complicates matters as he gets involved in and is eventually transformed by Bernard's scheme and its allure.

Kristy Meanor's scenic design -- a sleek '60s-modern room with seven doors so necessary for quick hiding places and escapes that heighten the farcical elements -- accommodates the action. Bill Nowell's lighting, with specific colors and intensity to match the personalities of the three women and the colors of their uniforms, adds to the comedy. And the costume team has created a period look, taking both characterizations and professions into consideration; the stewardesses uniforms and accessories are particularly vivid red, blue, and yellow reminders of a time when air travel still had some glamor.

But everything comes together through the efforts of the actors, who create clear characters who never flinch from their individual concerns while being generous to one another on stage. Mr. Bridges' Bernard is arrogantly convinced that his plan will endure forever, so his eventual melt-down when things are falling apart is extremely funny. Ms. Wilson's Berthe, seemingly unflappable in the midst of mayhem, punctuates the action with barbs and forewarnings that go unheeded until she threatens to leave and negotiates terms for staying; her tongue-in-cheek delivery is exquisite.

In addition to physical attractiveness, each of Bernard's "fiancees" has a distinct personality that appeals  in some measure to him...and to we never doubt the attraction. Ms. Vowell portrays Gloria as a practical no-nonsense woman who is after her man, but who will leave him if another more suitable offer comes along; Ms. Wallace embues Gabriella with a Mediterranean passion that is seductive; and Ms. Greenwood depicts Gretchen as a Teutonic force who can switch on a dime from charm to threat -- in combination, they are simply wonderful, and the chemistry between each of them and Mr. Bridges is most credible.

The men are a comic double-act that keeps the action and the laughs rolling at a rapid pace. Mr. Bridges and Mr. Sinclair have a different kind of chemistry, a re-discovered friendship and an instant male-bonding that doesn't require explanations for acting the way they do. And yet, Mr. Sinclair has the responsibility for most of the farcical pratfalls and turns of events. His initial befuddlement and gradual seduction into Bernard's hedonistic world are masterful as he throws himself into the role with an innocence that makes his multiple discoveries about the world and about himself, and his change from introvert to extrovert, the comic delight of this production.

Mr. Drozdowski and his team of collaborators have put together an exceptionally brilliant production that should remain a highlight of this River Region season.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ASF: "Timon of Athens"

One of William Shakespeare's least performed works, Timon of Athens completes the canon of the Bard's plays to be produced by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Likely a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon is one of the Bard's later plays that combines satire with the tragic.

Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kenneth Cavander's "transcription for contemporary voices" retains some of the original's words while re-writing much of it to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. Cavander and director Geoffrey Sherman also move the setting to modern day Wall Street, where people manipulate one another as well as their financial investments. -- And, though Wall Street itself is rarely if ever referenced here, it works, once your ear becomes accustomed to it.

Timon [Anthony Cochrane in a powerful performance] is an overly generous sort who gives away fortunes, assists people in financial distress, and -- though he assumes that his generosity will be repaid if needed, claiming "I am rich in my friends" -- he "learns doubt and suspicion too late" when everything collapses around him. Not heeding several warnings, Timon gets so far into debt that he has to rely on the very people he had helped to now come to his aid. As they refuse him with weak excuses as in the medieval morality play Everyman, Timon leaves town for the wild place where he will feel free "to hate Man and all humanity"; and like King Lear upon the heath, he is free to rail against the elements until word gets out that he has found another fortune and the sycophants return.

Cavander respects the stylistic inconsistencies in the Shalespeare/Middleton text in his own modernized script, and there lies at least some of this production's challenges. Whereas Shakespeare's elevated verse [the early-on formal, patterned gregarious speeches and later the high emotional drive of Timon's epithets against his "pseudo-friends" who desert him in his need, for example], are given with passionate conviction by Mr. Cochrane; and the scenes between Timon and his three loyal countrymen -- the aggressively straightforward conscience of Apemantus [Rodney Clark is solid in the role]. the honest and trustworthy soldier Alcibiades [Brik Berkes turns in a stalwart rendition] and the ever faithful steward Flavius [Paul Hebron's understated frustration with his master is finally recognized as the "one good man" in Timon's world] -- are provided appropriate gravitas that makes these sections resonate with universal appeal regardless of setting.

By contrast, Middleton's satiric scenes with the various hangers-on and fawning artists and public officials, Senators and creditors, are more prosaic and thereby have less weight; and Cavander's modern vocabulary, which is only sporadically spoken in thick Brooklynese misses out on an opportunity to create and capitalize on a potentially devastating world of familiar caricatures that could have made the satire more convincing.

Messrs. Clark, Berkes, and Hebron -- each touching on a different aspect of Timon's nature -- give sympathetic treatment and a humanizing element to a man whose stature has fallen to tragic dimensions.

And it is Mr. Cochrane who carries the weight of the play on his able shoulders; his performance is impressive, and he never falters in his depiction of a man who learns the seductive power and lure of gold that can transform mankind's behavior. As Apemantus says: "Show me a man who has spent all his money and I'll show you a man without friends." Not an appealing point; however, in today's greedy consumer-driven world, where money and possessions often blind us to see the value in honesty and loyalty and compassion for those in need, and where appearances trump reality, we might do well to take heed to the lessons in Timon of Athens.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red Door: "Cotton Patch Gospel"

The narrative of Cotton Patch Gospel tells the New Testament stories in a rural Southern accent that speaks from the heart with sincerity and good humor, much like the medieval Mystery Plays that infused local dialect to make the Bible's characters more accessible. The delightfully modernized script is by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, and the clever musical score by Harry Chapin.

Mixed with numerous songs to help narrate, analyze, and inspire as it recounts the life of Jesus, the show has audiences clapping hands and tapping toes in time to the music at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

Director Fiona Macleod (no stranger to Cotton Patch Gospel with several previous productions in her extensive resume) has gathered an impressive ensemble of actors and musicians who tell the story with enthusiasm and commitment on Ray Thornton's simple rustic set of platforms and benches that helps focus attention on the play's messages.

As the actors [William Harper, Jordan Allen, Belinda Barto, Elizabeth Bowles, David Carter, Joseph Crawford, Beth Egan, Ellis Ingram, Craig Stricklin, and Janet Wilkerson] each play several characters, we witness Jesus' birth, early life being "about my Father's business" in the Temple, turning water into wine at Cana, meeting "Joan" the Baptizer, rejecting the Devil's temptations, recruiting the twelve Apostles, and performing several miracles that raise suspicions and target him as a criminal.

Act II continues with Jesus entering Jerusalem [Atlanta], through to the Last Supper, his betrayal by "Jud", and on to his suffering, death, and resurrection, all told with sincerity through the play's most commonplace language and rustic simplicity.

It is a true ensemble performance, complete with a remarkable seven member band of accomplished musicians who enliven the story with "a joyful noise", and accompanying the actors in memorable moments: some like "Somethin's Brewin' in Gainesville" and "Goin' to Atlanta" give an upbeat energy that is infectious; some like "When I Look Up" and "You Are Still My Boy" are quiet pieces that keep the audience in hushed reverence.

The Red Door continues its mission of presenting plays with a Southern flavor, and Cotton Patch Gospel hits the mark, and garners newcomers into their often sold-out houses. One of them was heard to say that she would definitely be returning for such high quality productions as this one. Excellent!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Raisin in the Sun"

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

Well-earned cheers resounded at the curtain call of The Cloverdale Playhouse's opening night performance of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 play that reminds us of the racial divide that unfortunately is still too much in evidence via the hateful diatribes in today's news and social media.

But director Greg Thornton and his remarkable ensemble actors know that there is a lot more to it than race. Yes, the Younger family have struggled and are near the end of their endurance; yet, their attempts to break out of the control of the white man, and to do so with dignity, is perhaps their greatest achievement.

Ms. Hansberry's title is inspired by the Langston Hughes poem: "Harlem" or "A Dream Deferred":

"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore --
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

And each of the play's major characters has a dream of some sort that has been put on hold because of their circumstances: they are Black, hardworking people living together in a cramped apartment and locked into menial jobs with little hope of advancement; and their dreams might have a chance if the $10,000 insurance check due to Lena [Yvette Jones-Smedley] on the death of her husband is put to good use.

Lena's son Walter Lee [William Allen III] is a chauffeur who dreams of making it big by investing in a liquor business with some no-account friends; his wife Ruth [Christina Okolo] takes in laundry to help support their growing family -- young Travis [Marlo Pickett], and another child on the way -- and dreams of better days with a family free from discord.

Lena's daughter Beneatha [Jasmine Gatewood], a university student who dreams of becoming a doctor, is enthusiastically pursuing her African roots with the help of Nigerian fellow student and admirer Joseph Asagai [Christopher M. Lindsay], and is also being courted by rich George Murchison [Bruce S. Toney]; each of her suitors' chauvinistic attitudes seek to keep her in a subservient status, one which she, like her brother Walter Lee, cannot abide.

All the action takes place in the Younger's apartment, where close family ties are tested each day. It is clear that they love one another, but with five people sharing the space [Travis sleeps on the living room sofa] and sharing a bathroom with other tenants in their building, privacy is non-existent, misunderstandings occur, tempers flare up, and the scrutiny of family members is ever present. 

There is more at risk when the money marriage and to family. So when Lena uses some of the money to put a down-payment on a house in Clybourne Park, an all white neighborhood, to start a new life and save her family, Walter Lee is devastated and feels emasculated by his mother's determination. -- And it is up to Lena to restore his manhood through trusting him with the rest of the cash, a test that is made more significant when Walter Lee has to decide in front of his young son whether to accept a buy-out offer from Karl Lindner [John McWilliams], the spokesman for the Clybourne Park Improvement Association's "Welcoming Committee", to keep Blacks out of their neighborhood.

Mike Winkelman's detailed set provides a stultifying atmosphere that seems to entrap the family within its worn and stained walls, the lone window shedding only dim light onto Lena's small plant, the only other living thing beyond family that she ministers to, and which reflects their position: under Lena's caring hands, the plant and her family manage to survive.

Lena is the strength of the family, and under Ms. Jones-Smedley's carefully nuanced portrayal, she nurtures, cajoles, and deeply loves her family, taking time to treat each one with special attention honestly and with controlled passion. She imbues the part with such finesse that appears so natural, that audiences are never in doubt that this is a real woman who others rely on, though sometimes reluctantly.

Beneatha's complexity, her adolescent fickleness, is infuriating to others, but Ms. Gatewood throws herself into the role -- sometimes angrily, sometimes petulantly, sometimes naively, and always persuasively. 

Mr. Allen depicts Walter Lee's frustrations with conviction; these are made even more compelling through the scenes in which his defenses are down and he is able to express his love for each of the other family members with exuberant freedom and laughter and playfulness.

Perhaps Walter Lee's most complex relationship is with Ruth, and Ms. Okolo is a study in understatement. Desperately wanting to restore the closeness in their marriage, and even contemplating an abortion to avoid more financial demands on an already stretched budget, Ms. Okolo often remains in the background, but contributes to every scene by listening and reacting in subtle ways that communicate volumes more than mere words. Admirable work here.

The supporting players, including Derek S. Franklin as Walter Lee's friend Bobo who reluctantly brings news that their "business partner" absconded with the money, bring the outside world into the little apartment; but what happens to the family within it is of the utmost significance.

The Younger family actors seem so comfortable with one another, that it seems that audiences are eavesdropping on their private conversations and conflicts. -- Mr. Thornton's strong directorial hand allows a deliberately slow pace to add credence to their dilemmas, and by gradually illuminating them, we are able to go along for the ride. A ride towards redemption. A ride that offers possibilities. A ride of laughter and tears, of frustrations and joy, of hope and of love. And it is more than worth it.


The next production at The Cloverdale Playhouse was chosen as a companion piece to A Raisin in the Sun. Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Clybourne Park takes place in the house the Younger family move to at the end of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, and again fifty years later as the neighborhood is once again undergoing change. -- It will be performed from June 19-29.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

AUM: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

David Wilson's directing project at Theatre AUM -- the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams -- has a lot going for it: challenging roles for his ensemble actors, Michael Krek's open-plan evocative set that is enhanced by La'Brandon Tyre's sensitive lighting and Val Winkelman's period costumes. With such collaborations aligned, Williams' script comes alive in some interesting ways.

It is Big Daddy's [Mike Winkelman] 65th birthday on his Mississippi Delta plantation -- "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile" -- and his family have gathered ostensibly to celebrate his birthday, but also to lay claim to inheriting the property. To complicate matters, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and everyone but he and Big Mama [Blaire Casey] know it.

Successful lawyer son Gooper [Jordan Lewandowski] and his fertile wife Mae [Tina Neese] and their brood of "no neck monster" children intend to wrest the fortune from favorite son, alcoholic ex-football hero Brick [Chris Howard] and his childless wife Margaret [Sarah Worley]...Maggie: "the Cat" of the title".

Brick has been brooding with disgust and sinking deeper into drunkenness after the death of his best friend Skipper, whose homosexual advances he had rejected; Brick insists that it is possible for two men to have a "clean and decent" friendship, one that is "too rare to be normal" in other people's eyes. But he has also not made love with Maggie since Skipper died, which brings his own sexuality into question, and gives Gooper and Mae more ammunition against them. Even Big Mama intuits early in the play that "marriage problems start in bed".

In the 1950s, homosexuality was rarely broached on stage, and though today it is far more common, Williams' script that talks around this and several other issues, makes plain how hard it still is to talk about sensitive topics, especially with close relations and those we love. -- Much is made about truth telling and lies -- "mendacity" is the key word here -- and how we damage ourselves and one another by skirting around the truth, innuendo, avoidance, and denial: all forms of mendacity.

Though Big Daddy is clearly the man in charge -- all public bluster and arrogance -- in his softer moments of fatherly concern for Brick and genuine affection for Maggie, Mr. Winkelman adds a necessary dimension to the role that all too frequently is rendered hard to hear with rapid speech and high volume. While he complains about mendacity, he too keeps things hidden.

Ms. Neese is frighteningly accurate in her depiction of Mae as an ever-present annoyance, but Gooper only shows his true colors in Act III; Mr. Lewandowski's petulance and sibling rivalry emerges with a resounding nastiness.

Big Mama is a steadfast defender of her husband, and tolerates his insults and infidelities, choosing to deny that he means what he says; but Ms. Casey is devastated on hearing the truth about Big Daddy's terminal illness by Dr. Baugh [Garrett Wilson], and rejects the solace offered by Rev. Tooker [Tony Atkins].

Mr. Howard is so solemn in his portrayal of Brick, that it is hard to imagine him as a one-time sports hero, but his commitment to this manner creates a vulnerability that both Big Daddy and Maggie can pounce upon, and which gives a glimmer of hope for his reclamation and for Maggie's potential triumph.

In Ms. Worley's capable hands, Maggie is the one realist in the house. It is clear from the start that she is a practical woman who acknowledges the truth, a woman who loves her husband and will do most anything to get him back -- including telling a big lie that for the moment no one can either prove or disprove. Mendacity indeed.

Mr. Wilson has given Montgomery audiences a lot to consider in this fine production of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece.