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.