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 arrives...to 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.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Faulkner: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde's brilliantly witty The Importance of Being Earnest is Matt Dickson's first directing project at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Mr. Dickson also serves as Faulkner's Technical Director and is the Scenic Designer for this production -- quite a few hats that he wears with distinction. His impressive resume as an actor and designer (along with a stint behind the scenes at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival) gives him ample credibility to venture into directing, and the choice of Earnest allows him to create three detailed evocative sets for each of the play's three acts, and to guide a small ensemble of experienced and relatively new actors through the charm and silliness of Wilde's plot.

Two bachelor friends -- witty and supercilious city-dweller Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff [Joe Vasquez] and steadier John (Jack) Worthing [Blake Williams] -- each lead double lives. Algy has invented a chronically sick friend named Bunbury so he can escape family and city responsibilities, and Jack escapes the country pretending to be Ernest in town where he plans to propose marriage to Algy's sophisticated cousin Gwendolyn [Jesse Alston]. -- When Algy discovers Jack's ruse, he learns that his friend is the guardian of a pretty young girl named Cecily [Brittney Johnston]; he determines to meet her, and he maneuvers Gwendolyn's formidable mother Lady Bracknell [Angela Dickson] out of the way so Jack can propose.

Lady Bracknell refuses the match between Ernest and Gwendolyn when in her interview she finds out that Ernest has no social connections, and that he was a foundling left in a handbag at Victoria train station. But, enamored by the name of "Ernest" Gwendolyn secretly determines to visit her Ernest in the country, a plan that Algy overhears and which sets his own plan in motion to meet with Cecily pretending to be Ernest before Jack returns.

Cecily is being tutored by Miss Prism [Alicia Ruth Jackson], a very prim and proper spinster who is infatuated by the Rev. Dr. Chasuble [Brandtley McDonald]. Cecily has romanticized views of marriage, and has been "in love" with her Uncle Jack's rapscallion brother Ernest for some time, so when Algy shows up as Ernest, they instantly agree to get married.

On Gwendolyn's arrival in the country, she meets Cecily and both women claim to be engaged to Ernest; their tea party manners are tested to the fullest until Jack arrives in mourning, telling them that his brother Ernest died from a severe chill, only to find Algy there pretending to be Ernest.

Much confusion, of course, that the ensemble actors handle with considerable aplomb; and when Lady Bracknell storms in to rescue Gwendolyn and sees Miss Prism, everything comes to a head. Miss Prism, it seems, was once a servant to Algy's parents and had absentmindedly deposited an infant she was caring for in a handbag and left it in the cloakroom of Victoria Station -- and the mystery of Jack's parentage is solved, and it turns out his name is actually Ernest John...a very happy ending for all.

Only a few minor quibbles with this production. The Faulkner actors turn in creditable work in interpreting Wilde's witty script, notwithstanding a few projection inconsistencies and imprecise diction so necessary in such a mannered play. And the contemporary sound of their voices and modern postures and movement belie the otherwise detailed period look and feel of this show.