Thursday, December 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South"

First seen in GRITS: the Musical a while back, Adrian Lee Borden, Desirae Lewis, Kim Mason, and Cindy Veasey are reprising their roles at the Wetumpka Depot in Erica McGree's Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South. "Girls Raised In The South" explains the acronym of the title, and director Kristy Meanor takes audiences on a two-hour jaunt into the sometimes outrageous Christmas reminiscences of these four redoubtable women.

Staged on several holiday-decorated area platforms and an open space, the GRITS narrate several humorous situations that are familiar to us all, interspersed with traditional songs and carols, some of them given updated or inventively comic lyrics.

We know these women and their stories, and you don't have to be from the South to appreciate many of them...the predicament or challenge of "Re-gifting" is given an outrageous twist or two; "The Crazy Aunt Blues" capitalized on the women's abilities to impersonate all the cliche-ridden characteristics of eccentric relatives decked out in garish costumes; and "The Twelve Yummy Days of Christmas", featuring "five bourbon balls"  to a predictable drunken end, is a show-stopper.

There are touching sentimental reminiscences as well with such numbers as "I Never Knew Life Without You" and a few readings from Scripture, along with a medley of traditional carols to signal the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble actors have individual shining moments, but the key to this show is the feeling that they are good friends having a good time to celebrate their friendships. It's contagious. There is such a warmth coming from the stage, that audiences can't help but respond in kind....a fine way to usher-in the Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Each time director Geoffrey Sherman stages his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, he tweaks the script a bit, adding or removing portions of the plot, elaborating characters and their relationships, while remaining true to the spirit of the original source. So, while the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's reclamation from miserly and mean-spirited to generous and gregarious holds no real surprises, there is always something in Sherman's bag of tricks to  grab the attention of repeat audience members.

There is still magic in the air -- both actual magic tricks and terrific special effects,  and the magic of ghosts who teach Scrooge the value of charity and the true meaning of Christmas -- on Paul Wonsek's idyllic Victorian set and with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes; and Sherman moves the action quickly to punctuate the key moments in Scrooge's magical night with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come.

Paul Hebron assumes the role of Dickens, an amateur magician and narrator of this rendition of Christmas Carol, who also takes on the roles of good-hearted Fezziwig, Scrooge's one-time employer, and Old Joe, a dealer in stolen or ill-gotten goods and properties. -- Mr. Hebron makes each one a distinct and memorable creation, and when he shares a scene with Rodney Clark's Scrooge, there's a bit more magic in watching two artists at their best.

Attention is focussed on Scrooge for virtually the whole two-plus hours playing time. From the moment we first see him -- so dismissive of Christmas and so rude to everyone (street urchins and businessmen, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit [Billy Sharpe] and his nephew Fred [Jackson Thompson], are all treated alike) -- Mr. Clark commands the stage. Until, that is, he meets the first Ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes] who astounds him and sends him on a journey that restores him to the brotherhood of humankind. Mr. Berkes is a frightening specter whose pain in his condition of bridging the worlds between life and death has never been better realized.

A luminous Ghost of Christmas Past [Ann Flanigan] takes the reluctant Scrooge into his own past where he is shown his former self as a boy and youth, his delight in Fezziwig's generosity [Mr. Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as Mrs. Fezziwig are a delight in their dancing at Christmas], his first love Belle [Alice Sherman] and the break-up of their relationship as Scrooge becomes more enamored with money than with her -- though it does seem a strange choice to have Mr. Clark actually participate in the various goings-on, when the novel and this production's second act take great pains to state that Scrooge is an invisible spectator to all the events of the past, present, and future.

James Bowen's version of the Ghost of Christmas Present has never been so jovial as in this year's show. A scene at Fred's Christmas party, with Mr.Berkes as a flustered Topper and Alice Sherman sharing a comical "meow-duet" with Megan Woodley, keeps a light tone. Yet, he shows Scrooge the impact of his miserliness on the Cratchit family, a group of optimists in a world that does them no favors. Mr. Sharp and Greta Lambert as Mrs. Cratchit are the ideal couple who raise their children to live good lives even in miserable financial straits in some of the most touching scenes in this production as they anticipate the end for their crippled child, Tiny Tim [Gavin Campbell].

As the final act's Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come [Joe O'Malley] frightens Scrooge (and us) with its silent gestures, Scrooge comes face to face with the reality of his life choices, especially in a scene where Old Joe and Mrs. Dlilber [Diana Van Fossen] haggle over the goods she has pilfered from Scrooge.

And when he awakens on Christmas morning, the magic of the previous night comes full circle. He is a changed man who keeps Christmas as it ought to be. The delight we see in Mr. Clark's transformation is infectious, and the audience cheers the outcome along with Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us...Everyone".

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "My Three Angels"

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

In an anniversary tribute to a production 40 years ago at the Montgomery Little Theatre, Eleanor K. Davis is directing a charming family-friendly staging of Samuel and Bella Spewack's 1953 My Three Angels at The Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Her ensemble of ten actors includes four who are new to the Playhouse, though they are no strangers to the stage; they represent an ever expanding number of River Region artists who ensure a healthy theatre community.

With Ed Fieder's detailed set and Danny Davidson's exquisite period costumes, audiences are transported to Christmas 1910 on a tropical island where the temperature is 105 degrees, and where shop owner Felix Ducotel's [Scot Purkeypile] generosity is exploited by just about everyone as he extends credit to the pretentious Mrs. Parole [Rachael Dotson], and rarely even checks his books. His wife Emilie [Mariah Reilly] tolerates his good nature, and daughter Marie Louise [Cathy Ranieri] is more intent on seeing her fiance who is set to return to the island.

When they discover that Felix's cousin Henri Trochard [Adam Shephard] and nephew, Marie Louise's intended, Paul [Bo Jinright] intend to bilk Felix of home and property, no one knows what to do.

Enter the "three angels" of the title -- convicts from the local Devil's Island penal colony who are on work-release repairing Felix's roof -- who, having overheard their predicament, descend from above and determine to help set things aright. After all, these modern Magi might  have committed crimes, but have a sense of justice and altruism.

Joseph [Mark Hunter] is an adept forger and adroit con-man, while Jules [Scott Page] and Alfred [Tate Pollock] are both murderers; yet, their good-humored sense of honor and compassion for good people who might be hurt by the nefarious dealings of greedy relatives get audiences on their side immediately. They make no bones about the crimes that put them in prison, but as Jules says at one point: "Our world is just like yours, except we got caught" -- a refrain that could be applied to much of what is going on in the world today.

The play's fairly long exposition is handled well by Mr. Purkepyle, his lack of business acumen is matched by a distracted air that one can't help but to feel sorry for Felix and his predicament; and the clear affection he shows for his wife and daughter makes us wish him to succeed. -- In contrast, Mr. Shephard's Henri is so arrogant and ruthless from the start, getting us to root against him and even more for Felix.

As it becomes clear that Paul is no longer interested in Marie Louise [and convict Alfred is], the convicts become even more dedicated to helping the Ducotel family. -- This wily threesome are a delight to watch as they cleverly insinuate themselves into Felix's shop and family affairs, all the while taking no credit for anything. Mr. Page and Mr. Pollock are understated in their performances, and there are some sweetly innocent romantic scenes between Alfred and Marie Louise and between Jules and Emilie. The wholesomeness of these scenes is touching.

Mr. Hunter's depiction of Joseph's many skills in "salesmanship", presented with a self-assured posture and off-the-cuff delivery of his character's witticisms, take focus for much of the plot contrivances and humor. One of them many highlights of this delightful production.

Of course, the bad guys get their comeuppances [with the help of the three angels and a pet snake named Adolph]; and Mr. Jinright almost steals the show with his lengthy and physically impressive death-scene. -- With Henri and Paul out of the way, and Felix's business seeming to gain a foothold under Joseph's guidance, all that is left is to find a suitable mate for Marie Louise. Though this is not assured, the unexpected deus ex machina entrance of a handsome Lieutenant [Michael Buchanan] wearing a dress white uniform signals an instant spark of interest from Marie Louise.

Ms. Davis directs this determinedly heart-felt script with an affection that is contagious. Whether we believe that the ends justify the means, the unabashed good nature of the story and of the actors who perform in it under her guidance have audiences laughing and cheering the results.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Red Door: "In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot)"

Director Tom Salter has a mix of Union Springs newcomers and veteran actors in the Red Door Theatre's production of Steve Franco's comedy In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot). And this is good for the development of an already vibrant company as it encourages new talent on stage.

Franco's large cast of characters calls for a wide range of ages for both men and women, and while most of them are on stage a lot, there are several minor roles to provide experience and exposure as they contribute to the whole picture.

The play is set on a snowy Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, NY [Southern accents abound in this production] where a dysfunctional family gather for dinner, only to be held hostage by a pair of inept criminals whose frustrations build as the assorted family air long-held complaints and engage in verbal barbs with one another and with nosy neighbors.

Though much of the script stretches credibility to the extreme [everyone seems to accept the hostage taking with barely a flinch while they continue their idiosyncratic behavior as if nothing had happened; and there are several opportunities for individuals to either escape or to call the police while they are not being watched], Salter's actors achieve notable characterizations and keep audiences engaged for the play's short two acts.

While the ensemble display each of their characters' specific quirks clearly, there are some standouts: as Beth, Caroline Gables captures the sullen sarcasm of a young teenager who barely tolerates adults, but whose common sense clears the air several times;; Charlotte Phillips plays neighbor Mrs. Draper with absolute confidence, her matter-of-fact pronouncements are refreshing reminders that some people don't need to disguise their feelings to be politically correct.

What carries the day in this production are the combined efforts of the two criminals -- Tony [Alonzo Russell] and Vinny [Eric Arvidson] -- as they take over the household and are increasingly frustrated by the antics of the family. Mr. Russell is the one in charge [he has the gun, after all], and Mr. Arvidson is the "second banana" who follows orders and takes things literally, and whose vegetarianism ingratiates himself to similarly inclined Beth.

In the spirit of the Christmas season, the family come to the aid of their captors when the police arrive, as they have learned that Tony had lost his job and had stolen the money to provide Christmas for his family. -- Forgiveness, after all, is an important message at any time of year, and helping those in need is generally more pronounced at Christmas.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

AUM: "Tartuffe"

When Moliere's [Jean-Baptiste Poquelin] comic masterpiece -- Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite -- made its debut in 1664, it met with immediate censorship for its unfeigned criticism of a corrupt government and legal system, dubious morality in the Church, and the credulity of some members of the upper class.  But, it takes a sophisticated society to laugh at satire, and the play soon became immensely popular, establishing itself as a staple of world drama.

Much of what goes on in Moliere's robust comedy -- its catalogue of characters and situations might just as well be reported in 21st Century media: rebellious children and their autocratic parents meet up with the 17th Century versions of social media gossip where telling falsehoods often enough and loud enough pass for the truth when a quick fact-check on could settle the matter for those who value verifiable evidence -- sounds all-too-familiar.

Theatre AUM's 90-minute production, using Richard Wilbur's gold-standard verse translation [with significant editing and a few linguistic modifications] is staged on April Taylor's simple and finely rendered set that focuses audience attention on plot and character.

Director Mike Winkelman urges his twelve ensemble actors to speak the verse as rapidly as possible and retain as much as possible of the playwright's intent. There is a good variety of pace in the scenes, so we are engaged in their antics from beginning to end, and though we might miss an occasional word or two because of rapid-fire dialogue or raucous audience laughter at the predicaments the characters find themselves in, the story, characters, and social commentary do not go unnoticed.

Everyone but Orgon [Cushing Phillips] and his mother Madame Pernelle [Amy May] are convinced that Tartuffe, a guest in Orgon's house, has feigned a virtuous moral stance in order to inveigle his way into Orgon's fortune and family; underneath this guise, he appears to have exercised control over everything in his grasp.

And they are all frustrated that their pleas for common sense fall on Orgon's deaf ears. Neither his wife Elmire [Haeley DePace] nor his brother Cleante [David Wilson], his son Damis [Chris Mascia] nor his daughter Mariane [Kate Saylor] and her fiance Valere [Kodi Robertson], not even the outspoken maid Dorine [Amber Baldwin], can penetrate Orgon's stubborn defense of his favorite Tartuffe,

Moliere cleverly keeps Tartuffe off-stage for an extended period of time, leaving his duplicitous reputation to Orgon's family and servants. By the time Tartuffe [La'Brandon Tyre] shows up, Orgon has alienated everyone else, determined that Mariane will marry Tartuffe instead of Valere, and told them that Tartuffe will be favored with just about any privilege he desires, we are well prepared for the smoothest operator imaginable, and Mr. Tyre does not disappoint. He oozes duplicity with obvious pretense, leering faces, sensuous posturing, and melodramatic declarations of guilt when caught in the act. -- [So, how could anyone be duped so easily? Look around you. Empty promises to those who are desperate ring truthfully today.]

The acting company paint their characters with bold strokes verging on caricature at times; yet there are stand-out performances and memorable scenes. -- Ms. Baldwin's artful depiction of Dorine and her unabashedly direct truth-telling, no matter how out of place for a servant, makes the most of Moliere's masterful roles, one that has a long history from Roman comedies to today. She is a force of will and irony that allows her to speak without a filter, and always to audience delight. -- Mr. Phillips imbues Orgon with an authority that will not allow a challenge mixed with such ignorance of the truth that it takes first-hand observation to convince him. The famous scene where Orgon hides under a table to witness Tartuffe seduce Elmire is an outrageous stretch of credibility that all three participants handle well.

Mr. Mascia goes over-the-top in a son's frenzied frustration in not being believed by his father, resulting in Orgon disowning Damis. And Mr. Wilson's Cleante displays so many ticks and giggles that obscure the character's role in the play as the serious voice of reason.

Ms. Saylor and Mr. Robertson are nicely matched as the young lovers: she has a fine sense of comic possibilities in portraying an adolescent petulance and the romanticized notions of love that teenagers revel in, and he bounces in with such energy and commitment to please, only to be tested when he is told the marriage contract is off and he is to be replaced by Tartuffe as husband to Mariane. They bring a youthful vibrancy to their roles that enliven each scene they are in.

Lest anyone should be disappointed, the bad are punished and the good rewarded by the end. Moliere introduces Monsieur Loyal [Jonathan Meinsler] to arrest Orgon at Tartuffe's revenge for kicking him out of the house, but a Police Officer [Brady Walker] rescues him al the last moment and arrests Tartuffe instead.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dead Man's Cell Phone"

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

To the bemusement of some and the frustration of many, the constant interruptions made by cell phone ring-tones has become a part of everyday life; in the words of Mrs. Gottlieb in Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, "there are only three sacred places where cell phones are not tolerated: the theatre, church, and the toilet", but even these are no longer sacrosanct, much to the ire of many people both in the play and in our own experiences.

To say society is obsessed with technology is an understatement at best; people burying their heads over cell phone screens to constantly connect with others while ignoring people sitting with them can be witnessed every day: the more we seem to connect, the more we actually disconnect.

Sarah Ruhl is a multi-award-winning playwright, whose quirky and provocative plays have secured her name among the most highly regarded contemporary writers. The Clean House ran at the Cloverdale Playhouse a few seasons ago, and now Dead Man's Cell Phone takes the boards in director Maureen Costello's solid production.

With a mix of comic moments and serious social insights, the episodic structure of Ms. Ruhl's play, and her forays into magical-realism [the eponymous dead man speaks to us from the dead, and are some of the scenes meant to be dreams or not?], keep audiences simultaneously entertained and puzzled at how she combines the ordinary and familiar with the extraordinary and unexpected.

The plot revolves around eternal optimist Jean [Danielle Phillips], who answers a persistently ringing cell phone of a stranger at the next table in a diner, only to discover that he is dead, and heading her on a journey that connects her with his mother Mrs. Gottlieb [Fiona Macleod], his widow Hermia [Sarah Worley], his brother Dwight [Michael Buchanan], 'the other woman' [Tara Fenn], and inevitably Gordon [Paul Neace], the dead man himself.

A bit of a loner herself, Jean knows nothing about Gordon, but in her attempts to assuage an expected grief from his family, she invents loving relationships and Gordon's last words and his attempts to connect with them just before he died. -- These are so out of kilter with the reality of Gordon's life and relationships, but Jean persists and the complications grow as she tries to extricate herself from the scenarios she created. In fact, her inventions seem to have positive effects on them. And when Gordon speaks at the top of Act II, and we learn the extent of his real life occupation, we understand his family's initial hesitation at accepting Jean's version of his wishes for them.

Ms. Costello's ensemble actors deliver the sometimes bizarre dialogue with conviction in the increasingly strange scenarios. She directs them at a steady pace that sometimes allows indulgent pauses in lengthy monologues, though there is a variety of pacing that sustains interest. -- Her choice to add a Narrator [Rachael Dotson] to punctuate scenes with quotes from Charles Dickens and John Donne, and references to painter Edward Hopper that Ms. Ruhl places at the front of her script, adds another layer to the script's complexity.

How Jean responds to situations that test her assumptions, and how she changes through the education she receives from Gordon and those he left behind, are credibly managed by Ms. Phillips: her vivacity in the role allows us to share her frustrations so we are on her side. And her interactions with the eccentricities of the other characters is so matter-of-fact that we never doubt her sincerity.

Ms. Fenn's seductress 'other woman' and her second role as one of Gordon's  'business associates' are delivered with an archness and acumen that keep us in suspense about her real motives. -- Ms. Worley's estranged wife who loosens up with cocktails, provides insights into an unhappy marriage. -- Mr. Buchanan underplays Dwight's position of second-fiddle to his brother, but emerges as a confident lover for Jean.

Ms. Macleod seems to relish the role of Mrs. Gottlieb, a fiercely independent and in-charge woman who tolerates no fools; her outlandish and shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements will bear no opposition. In Ms. Macleod's capable portrayal, Ms. Ruhl's comic dialogue is at its best, and she emerges as perhaps the most memorable character in this fine ensemble.

In the complex role of the dead man, Mr. Neace shines as he slowly and methodically tells the truth from beyond the grave: he has nothing to lose in admitting his flaws; and while his attitudes may not be of the highest moral order, we see how he is moulded by the society we all live in. "There are no errors in the afterlife", he tells us, though we all tell lies to help one another.

The collaborative set design uses simple furniture and large signs to effectively signify the play's various locations, but the opening night scene changes needed to be faster and more efficient in order to sustain audience attention to Ms. Ruhl's quirky plotting. This, and lighting that sometimes left actors in shadow, will likely be remedied for future performances.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Faulkner: "Black Coffee"

When she penned her first play Black Coffee in 1930, Agatha Christie thought of it as "a conventional spy thriller...full of cliches, it was, I think, not at all bad". It set the tone for such later stage masterpieces as The Mousetrap, Ten Little Indians, and Witness for the Prosecution, and contains many of Christie's signature conventions of the murder-mystery 'whodunnit' genre: a mysterious death, suspicious characters, misleading clues, and a skillful detective who sorts things out at the end.

In Black Coffee, now playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, the detective is the famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot, whose 'little grey cells' work overtime to unravel the machinations of Christie's plot.

Eminent physicist Sir Claud Amory [Morgan Baker] has summoned Poirot to his country estate to unmask the person in his household who stole a valuable formula for a powerful explosive that could kill countless thousands at a time. -- Having locked all the doors to prevent escape, Sir Claud dies before Poirot [Ben Cardiff] and his companion Hastings [Hunter Smith] arrive, setting in motion a complicated series of events that cast suspicion on virtually everyone there.

Someone in the house must have put the poison in his coffee, and each one has at least some reason to be suspected: his son Richard [Blake Williams] needs money; his daughter-in-law Lucia [Amber Rigby] is clearly distraught and probably hiding some secret; his sister Caroline [Emily Woodring] is in denial about a lot of things; his niece Barbara [Alex Rikerd] seems indifferent to his death; his confidential secretary Edwina Raynor [ Mattie Earls] drinks heavily and skulks around a lot; and Dr. Carelli [Ian Bruce] is a foreigner from Italy who showed up out of nowhere and obviously frightens Lucia.

With housemaid Tredwell [Catherine Allbritton] running errands and filling in a few gaps for Poirot's benefit, Dr. Graham [Hannah Darrough] to verify a murder by poisoning, and Scotland Yard's Inspector Japp [Colby Smith] and Constable Johnson [Emily McAliley] to arrest the culprit at the end, Christie fans will have a field day with director Jason Clark South's production.

There is a lot of exposition in the play that the acting ensemble do their best to make dramatically interesting, and once that is accomplished, attention is firmly on Poirot's ability to furrow out and bring the guilty party to justice. [No revelations here; half the fun for the audience is to try to figure out the identity of the murderer by sifting through the numerous 'red herrings' Christie puts in their way.]

Mr. Cardiff, with several nods to mannerisms of actor David Suchet in Masterpiece Theatre's Poirot, holds things in reserve till appropriate revelatory moments, furthering the suspense for audience enjoyment; and Mr. Smith's sidekick Hastings is a good foil to Mr. Cardiff's prissy neatness.

The rest of the cast turn in credible characterizations with acceptable English accents, and manage to bring suspicion on themselves. Of special note: Ms. Rigby's nervous anxiety is always truthful, and Mr. Williams' contradictory behavior is spot-on. Mr. Bruce's arrogance as Dr. Carelli reeks of self-assurance. And Ms. Rikerd's depiction of Barbara is perhaps the most comfortable and nuanced performance in this production.

Staged on a finely detailed set by Mr. South and Matt Dickson [one that would benefit from higher walls to accentuate the stateliness of Sir Claud's mansion], and with Tatyana Thompson's character-driven period-looking costumes, Black Coffee will keep audiences guessing till almost the last minute, so the two-hour and fifteen-minute running time passes very quickly.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Young Frankenstein" [musical]

Ending its successful three weekend run at the Wetumpka Depot, Mel Brooks' outrageous musical adaptation of his iconic film masterpiece Young Frankenstein is a laugh riot that has audiences anticipating its key moments and memorable lines...and cheering at the end.

As a parody of the Frankenstein horror films of the 1930s, this musical's book, done in collaboration with Thomas Meehan, who also collaborated with Brooks on The Producers, emphasizes the comedic elements with numerous double entendres, sexual innuendo, and groan-worthy jokes, all in good fun and delivered by director Kristy Meanor's energetic and enthusiastic ensemble actors. Musical Director Marilyn Swears and Choreographer Darren Eastwold provide the necessary gusto to punctuate the musical numbers so that the actors' energy is always high.

The story of Frederick Frankenstein [a sincere and ebullient Tate Pollock] -- he insists for a long time that the pronunciation is "Fronkensteen" so he won't be associated with his grandfather Victor who infamously created the monster that wreaked  havoc on Transylvania many years ago -- a notable brain surgeon who travels to Transylvania to collect the inheritance left by his grandfather and his inevitable seduction into following his ancestor's footsteps, is well known to film buffs. But even those uninitiated into Brooks' movie version will find it easy to follow the machinations of the plot and its hilarious comic characters.

As Frederick's fiancee Elizabeth, an alluring but reluctant bombshell, Kim Mason teases Frederick with a vibrant rendition of "Please Don't Touch Me", leaving him wanting her even more. -- So when he arrives in Transylvania and meets Inga [Jenny Whisenhunt's naivete is delightful], a vacuous laboratory assistant who invites him to an innocent "Roll in the Hay" that turns into a sexually charged romp, Frederick is hooked.

Also on hand is Igor [David Rowland in the most accomplished performance here] -- pronounced "Eyegore" -- a hunchback who tells Frederick that "my grandfather worked for your grandfather" and therefore I will work for you, celebrates this union in "Together Again for the First Time".

But the townspeople are not at all pleased with Frederick's arrival, anticipating a return to his grandfather's past disasters. With Kemp [a Teutonic Joe Collins] as their leader, an official with one wooden arm and one wooden leg, these folks are eager to get rid of the newcomer. [As an ensemble, they also play an assortment of ghosts, hangers-on, and other chorus members as needed in the bigger production numbers. Special notice for Reese Lynch as Ziggy, the village idiot.]

When Frederick determines to "Join the Family Business" with the help of Victor [Brad Moon] his grandfather's ghost, he discovers the hidden laboratory as he follows the sound of violin music provided by Frau Blucher [Chantel Oakley in a remarkably controlled characterization], the sinister-looking housekeeper and lover of Victor as she explains in "He Vas My Boyfriend".

After grave-robbing a seven-foot corpse, Igor substitutes a brain from a jar labeled, as he puts it, "Abby Normal", in place of the brain from a genius that he dropped, the Monster [Scott Page lives up to all the hype associated with the Monster, and seems to relish this role] then created by this team of misfits is more than a handful to control [he is huge and afraid of fire, and not at all a pleasant sort]; so when the Monster escapes, much must be done to set things aright. Things get complicated when Elizabeth shows up unexpectedly. -- In a show-stealing scene, an old blind Hermit [Bill Nowell], bereft of human company for a long time, sings "Please Send Me Someone", only to have the Monster appear with hilarious results in communication and physical missteps.

Victor convinces the Monster that he is "good" and shows him off to the public as a trained monkey in the outrageous "Puttin' On the Ritz"; but he is off again when fire intervenes...oh, and the Monster is attracted to Elizabeth.

With the townspeople and Victor & Company on the hunt, the Monster is captured and a brain transfer operation changes the Monster from a grunting violent creature to a brilliant articulate sophisticate, all will turn out for the best.

With just a couple of performances left, the Depot's production of Young Frankenstein is a fine way to end their 36th Season.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

ASF: "The Mousetrap"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley is a local actress.

Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap", the longest running play in London's West End from one of the world's most beloved mystery writers, combines suspense and humor; either one alone is a winner for audiences, but together they make for an easy evening of entertainment.

Young marrieds Giles and Mollie Ralston (a well-matched Jackson Thompson and Jenny Strassburg) have recently purchased Monkswell Manor and turned it into a guesthouse. While preparing for their first guests to arrive, Mollie listens to a radio report about a vicious murder in London, related to a crime years ago at a farm near the Manor, the chief suspect a man in a dark coat, light scarf, and felt hat.

As their guests arrive, Giles is most concerned that these strangers will abscond with the valuables. Mollie, much more trusting, is looking forward to an adventure, but worries that the house isn't ready and the snowstorm outside will keep the guests away. But they do come.

The first to arrive is Christopher Wren (an exuberant Loren Dunn), an excitable young man who adores architecture and fine things. He instantly falls for Mollie, and she for him; their intensity initiates a bristling between Giles and Christopher.

Soon, Mrs. Boyle (very nicely played by Diana Van Fossen), the quintessential tough customer, arrives, having begrudgingly shared one of the last cabs before the storm hits with Major Metcalf (the ways committed and enjoyable Rodney Clark), jaunty and likable to all but Mrs. Boyle, a veteran who appears game for anything.

The last of the guests on the register, Miss Casewell, arrives chilled from the storm. Her queer  appearance and aloofness make her instantly mysterious. Alice Sherman's physicality and attitude transform a character described as "mannish" into an intriguing figure that might have rivaled even Vesta Tilley (a famous English music hall entertainer known as a male impersonator).

But another guest arrives, one who is not on the Ralston's register: Mr. Paravacini (Brik Berkes), an altogether u known quantity, a man of indeterminate accent and origin. Stranded when his Rolls Royce plowed into a snow bank (the drifts are getting high), he seeks shelter at Monkswell Manor, and Berkes shifts smoothly from fumbling foreigner to sage and back.

Everyone soon hears or reads about the murder. What they don't know, until a phone call from a Siuperintendent Hogben, is that the London murderer is expected to strike again, this time at Monkswell Manor. 

Meanwhile, the storm has closed all roads. Mollie, Giles and their guests -- one of them possibly the intended victim...or a murderer -- are trapped together for the night.

Enter Detective Sergeant Trotter (the very athletic Lowell Byers), who fights his way to the Manor on skis and announces that he's been sent by Hogben to provide protection

Murder and intrigue ensue, and we ask ourselves, as everyone on stage asks: What do we really know about each other? Does likability equate to trustworthiness? Can you really measure a person's integrity by the size and weight of their luggage?

Director James Bowen, in addition to a heavy emphasis on the laughs, puts his actors in an expansive playing space, and the blocking to fill it requires actors to often play at great distances from one another, resulting in a lack of intimacy that otherwise might allow audiences to pick up on some characters' suspicious body language or deliver the archness of tone and behavior a script like this one loves. 

In that expans, however, scenic designer Peter Hicks' set is a perfect mash-up of cold and inviting, accented perfectly by Travis McHale's lighting design. The actors are mostly in tweed and will, designed by Jeffrey Todhunter It is worth the price of admission just to get your hands on the program notes by ASF's resident dramaturg, Susan Willis: "The Joy of Being Toyed With". She perfectly describes just what buttons Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap", and murder mysteries in general,push in audiences to make an entertaining outing. She even offers notes about the origin and history of this play that will almost certainly send some audience members on a post-show Googling spree. There is no doubt that audiences are committed to the journey on the Shakespeare Festival stage by a stellar cast.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

ASF Interns: "Charlotte's Web"

Take it from the children in the audience: the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Acting Intern Company's delightful production of Charlotte's Web is a hit. From the questions the children asked at the talk-back session following the 1-hour and 15-minute play, they clearly demonstrated their enthusiastic engagement with story, character, and theme, and might just become the next generation of appreciative supporters of live theatre in Montgomery.

Dramatized by Joseph Robinette from E. B. White's classic 1952 novel, Charlotte's Web is deftly directed by Nancy Rominger in this encore production first presented at ASF in 2008, and comes complete with re-purposed storybook set and costume designs by Peter Hicks and Jennifer Ables respectively.

The story of a little pig, a runt named Wilbur, who is rescued from the slaughterhouse by a young girl named Fern, and taken to a farm where he is befriended by other animals who look after him -- especially spider Charlotte who weaves words onto her web to highlight Wilbur's good qualities and leads him to celebrity, and whose sacrifice for him is the strongest demonstration of selfless friendship.

Ms. Rominger and her eight ensemble actors retain White's charm while gently emphasizing his themes of the power of friendship, the need for loving relationships in all of us, and the significance of simple words and actions that have a power of their own. All this told with a light sense of humor through anthropomorphized characters...Wilbur the pig [Tirosh Schneider], Templeton the rat [Andre Revels], Goose [Kate Owens], Gander [Javon Q. Minter], Sheep [Justy Kosek], and the title character spider Charlotte [Ann Flanigan]...most of whom play other characters; they are abetted by actors portraying several of the humans of the story [Joshua Sottile and Joe O'Malley].

All but Mr. Revels and Mr. Schneider play multiple roles, both human and animal, with so many quick costume changes that one would think there is a much larger acting company on stage. There is no mention of "dressers" in the program, but they deserve a congratulatory note for a job well done. [When one child asked where one character was in the talk-back, the actor playing the role was in another disguise; part of the magic of theatre for the young audience member who believed completely in the actor's taking on the role so believably.]

The characters are so very likable through the actors' combined energies, their human characteristics recognizable to even the smallest child in the audience; and the genuine sincerity of the script is given full attention so that the play's messages are unmistakable: true friendship is a gift we can all both give and receive, and truly "a good life [may be] more important than a long one".

Monday, August 29, 2016

WOBT: "Barefoot in the Park"

Third time's a charm for director Blair Dyson at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre. With two previous productions under his belt, this one has a strong and capable 5-actor ensemble who bring Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park to charm local audiences during its three-weekend run.

One of contemporary American theatre's most prolific playwrights, Simon's urban romantic comedy features his signature witty dialogue and screwball situations that somehow seem familiar and ordinary, allowing audiences to quickly relate to his characters.

In Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds -- free-spirited Corie [Lolly White] and her conservative up-and-coming-lawyer husband Paul Bratter [Brady Walker] -- are moving into their five-storey walk-up first apartment [six flights if you count the front stoop] in a building that houses several odd neighbors; not the least of them is Victor Velasco [Adam Shephard], a worldly middle-aged bon vivant whose sophisticated manner enthralls Corie's mother Ethel [Janie Allred].

The apartment is tiny, a kind of extended studio that accentuates the physical and emotional closeness that might be ideal for the lovebirds, but which challenges everyone's ability to cope with the changes coming into their lives. -- Corie wants her mother's approval on most things, and sees an opportunity for a friendship in introducing her to Velasco; Paul has his first court case to prepare for overnight, but is coerced into going out to an Albanian restaurant that Velasco recommends; and Ethel reluctantly agrees to go where both she and Paul tentatively sample exotic foods while Corie relishes the new experience that Velasco offers.

Corie and Paul are the proverbial meant-for-each-other opposites-attract couple: she enthusiastically tries new things without a thought to consequences, and he is "always proper and dignified" to the extent of being labeled a "stuffed shirt". So, even when a crisis threatens to wreck their marriage, there is never any doubt that they will patch things up. And Ms. White and Mr. Walker  are so sincere in their characterizations that even her petulance and demand for a divorce after a seemingly trivial disagreement, and his sometimes over-the-top  drunkenness after walking barefoot in the park in the dead of winter to prove to her that he can take risks, come across as credible in their excesses.

Ms. Allred's passive-aggressive Ethel knows how to get what she wants, but her guard is down under Velasco; and Ms. Allred's transformation from taking prescription drugs and sleeping with a bed-board to a much healthier and live-in-the-moment woman under Velasco's tutelage is expertly drawn.

Mr. Shephard's Victor -- "the Bluebeard of 48th Street" -- is disarming from the start: oozing a confidence that disguises his con-man tactics that get others to pay for food and drink, he relies on his reputation as a connoisseur that gives him a dangerous appeal, especially to the women. Deep down, though, he is a good sort whose intentions with Ethel are always above board. Mr. Shephard makes him a character we admire.

With a running gag about the long flights of stairs that exhaust Paul and Ethel but seem to have no effect on either Corie or Velasco, and with two appearances by Mike Proper as a phone company worker who serves to add a reasonable tone to an otherwise madcap plot, Mr. Dyson keeps the action moving briskly; and his ensemble are in top form, providing a pleasant entertainment for the River Region.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Red Door: "Last Train to Nibroc"

Arguably one of its most polished productions, Arlene Hutton's charming Last Train to Nibroc is ending its all too short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a cast of two excellent actors, the simplest of set designs (a series of benches that suggest the play's three locations), an evocative musical and sound underscoring, and sensitive direction by Fiona Macleod, Last Train to Nibroc is one part of a trilogy exploring the relationship between May [Eve Harmon] and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] -- this one recounting their first chance meeting on a cross-country train and its aftermath against a backdrop of World War II and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans at home.

May, an aspiring missionary, is on her way home to Corbin, KY after breaking up with her fiance in Los Angeles. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book with significant Christian themes. Raleigh, a soldier honorably discharged after being diagnosed with epilepsy, is an aspiring writer on his way to New York to fulfill his dreams, though filled with self-doubt and guilt for "deserting" his fellow soldiers. When Raleigh takes the only seat available next to her, he tells her that the bodies of two recently deceased writers he admires [F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West -- of rather different leanings than Douglas], are traveling in the baggage car on their train. Quick to judge others on perceived moral lapses, May is uncomfortable with Raleigh's progressive ideas.

Two unlikely souls, one might think, but as their conversations gradually reveal a lot more than the biographical details of their lives [he is also a Kentuckian who lives in a nearby town to hers], each one's defenses drop and the awkward beginning peels away layers of beliefs, doubts, and fears that most people can identify with, creating an intimacy between them and with the audience.

In their three meetings over a three-year period, we witness the growing comfort that May and Raleigh experience. In performance, Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford, guided by Ms. Macleod's assured direction, depict May's and Raleigh's journey, demonstrate confidence, show subtle and natural vocal shifts and inflections, deliver well-crafted overlapping dialogue, exhibit physical comfort and varied pacing without sentimentalizing a simple boy-meets-girl scenario. They simply let the audience into their lives.

It helps that Ms. Hutton's script doesn't pander to eccentric Southern stereotypes, but shows two real characters as they discover the joys, frustrations, humor, and compromise of being in love with the right person.

Two quibbles with an otherwise flawless production: 1) having an intermission in a tightly crafted 90-minute play breaks the audience's connection with the characters whose lives they have invested in, and 2) though there are a few times in the play when May and Raleigh almost kiss, at the end it doesn't happen and though they anticipate a kiss at the end, the audience justifiably feels cheated.

Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford have played these characters in See Rock City at the Red Door; if they choose to produce the third in the trilogy -- Gulf View Drive -- it would be a feather in their cap to get these two fine actors to reprise the roles once again.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

ASF: Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

With temperatures in the high 90s, and the school year about to start, what better way to spend an afternoon or evening than at the final performances of Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its extended run has been selling out, and audiences have been cheering during curtain calls...with good reason: it is a charming lavish production suitable for all ages.

First performed at ASF ten years ago, Disney's Beauty and the Beast has lost none of its appeal; and with several actors reprising their roles, there is also a bit of nostalgia in the air.

Based on a 1740 tale by French novelist Villeneuve, the story has been revised, updated, set to music and dance, made into several films, and has variant stage versions, the Disney product being arguably the most successful. -- With a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and with ASF's production design team transforming the Festival stage into a fairy tale kingdom, this is a show that is bound to please.

A spell being cast on a haughty Prince, turning him into a Beast (and all his domestic servants into household objects and cutlery) until a woman comes along who can love him before a single rose loses all its petals, sets the action going. -- With the Beast [Alexander Mendoza] holed up in his castle and getting increasingly cruel, we are introduced to Belle [Stephanie Rothenberg], the local "beauty" who is perceived as odd by the townfolk because she reads books and isn't interested in the strapping narcissistic heartthrob Gaston [Bryant Martin]. She and her eccentric inventor father Maurice [a sympathetic James Bowen] become objects of derision in the town, and when Maurice takes refuge in the Beast's castle after being attacked by wolves, Belle frees him by exchanging her own captivity for his, setting in motion a relationship that grows from mistrust to understanding -- and eventually love -- between Beauty and the Beast.

Featured servants have a lot to do with softening the Beast's behavior and bringing the couple together, as their fate is linked to his. Head butler, now clock Cogsworth [Rodney Clark], along with candelabra Lumiere [Billy Sharpe], teapot Mrs. Potts [Barbara Broughton] and her teacup son Chip [Gavin Campbell], feather duster Babette [Erin Chupinsky] and wardrobe Madame de la Grand Bouche [Fredena J. Williams], join forces to bring this about. Together, this ensemble keeps the show's magic alive.

Director Geoffrey Sherman and Musical Director Joel Jones keep the action moving on Paul Wonsek's stunning magical set, as the company of additional ensemble actors in Susan Branch Towne's inventive fairy tale costumes play an assortment of townspeople, wolves, kitchen utensils, gargoyles, and flowers. Paul Hebron makes his mark, both as the compassionate Bookseller and the contrastingly sinister Monsieur D'Arque who plots with Gaston to declare Maurice insane. -- Production numbers in praise of "Gaston", led by his comic foil Le Fou [Henry Hodges is a delightful clown], and welcoming Belle to the castle in "Be Our Guest", led by Lumiere, and the optimistic "Human Again" as the servants anticipate the spell's being broken, are show stoppers.

But, it is the relationship between Belle and the Beast that takes center stage. Ms. Rothenberg's portrayal makes Belle a modern woman who is devoted to her father, has a mind of her own and won't tolerate rude behavior either from Mr. Martin's swaggering Gaston or Mr. Mendoza's rough and demanding Beast. -- Though the Beast has been under a spell for a long time, Belle casts her own spell on him through her goodness and ability to see beyond the surface of his ugliness to the inherent goodness within.

The singing is uniformly excellent from the company, as well as from the principal actors, whether Mr. Martin's baritone that matches Gaston's powerful characterization, or Mr. Mendoza's gruff Beast whose inner temperament is displayed in the introspective "How Long Must This Go On?" and "If I Can't Have Her", or Ms. Rothenberg's clear soprano in virtually all her numbers. And, Ms. Broughton's title number "Beauty and the Beast" is confident and touching.

In all, the ASF production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has audiences in its thrall; thoroughly entertaining, it is an enchanting Summertime delight.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Millbrook: "Anne of Green Gables"

Anne of Green Gables, a play based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved 1908 novel about an orphaned girl whose intelligence, independence, and imagination help transform a small rural portion of Canada's Prince Edward Island, has finished its run by the Millbrook Community Players.

John Chain directed seventeen actors through the play's numerous scenes over two acts that recount Anne Shirley's [Lily Hillman] arrival at the farmstead of middle-aged brother and sister Mathew (sic) [Michael Snead] and Marilla [Sarah Missildine] who were expecting to adopt a boy from a Nova Scotia orphanage to help them on their farm. Through a mix-up, the orphanage sent a girl, and they reluctantly agree to let Anne stay on a trial basis that somehow lasts for years.

There is an instant kinship between Anne and Mathew, as he responds to her spunkiness and allows himself to indulge her whims, whereas Marilla's insistence on a kind of Puritan upbringing is tested at all turns by Anne's unpredictable personality and behavior.

These relationships develop over time, and Marilla gradually softens her stance; and along with an instant friendship between Anne and schoolmate Diana [Amber Gay], these are some of the strongest scenes in the Millbrook production.

A litany of familiar character types is present as well, among them a gossiping neighbor Rachel [Emily Burdick] whose constant refrain, "If you want my opinion, which I'm sure you don't", prefaces most of her appearances and garners expected laughs; a stern school teacher Mr. Phillips [Greg Fanning] is contrasted with a compassionate teacher Miss Stacy [Jennifer Gay] who mentors Anne to excel at her studies and win a place for further education; and a local school boy Gilbert [Micah Holley] who is both a scholarly rival and a reluctant romantic interest for Anne.

Ms. Hillman and Ms. Amber Gay give credibility to the bond between young girls; Mr. Holley's adolescent teasing of Anne for her red hair and freckles mostly disguises the respect he has for her that comes out only towards the end of the play; Ms. Jennifer Gay's portrayal of the encouragement for Anne's development is sincere; Ms. Missildine's gradual adapting to Anne's challenges and her acceptance and love of the young girl in her charge are subtle and truthful; and the comfort between Ms. Hillman and Mr. Snead is evidenced from the start of their relationship and is the most convincing in this show.

Though the play runs long due to constant blackouts between every scene, and due to a steady but slow pace, Anne of Green Gables remains a heart-warming story that tells of the better nature of humankind from which we can all take example.

Faulkner: "Oklahoma"

"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", the opening number of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 multi-award winning musical Oklahoma!, establishes Blake Mitchell as a rising talent in the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre production.

With his boyish good looks, an engaging smile, an aw-shucks attitude matching his strong singing voice, an ability to deliver old-fashioned dialogue credibly, and to connect truthfully with virtually all the ensemble actors and generously share the stage with them, keeps audiences riveted to his character Curly in his innocent attempts to woo the beautiful but aloof Laurey [Hanah Darrough] away from rival suitor Judd [Joshua S. Fullman] against a 1906 backdrop of the Oklahoma Territory on the brink of Statehood.

Statehood is brought up a few times in the script, but doesn't hold a prominent position for our interests; rather, a lighthearted (everything's up to date in) "Kansas City" shows the advances of a growing urban era against the unsophisticated rural landscape; and a perennial feud between "The Farmer and the Cowman" insists in an upbeat way that they actually can be friends. Even the Persian (cf. Iranian) peddler Ali Hakem [Tony Davison] is accepted by the community, if only as an intriguing outsider and not a threat to the community.

So, it is the love stories that are projected front and center. Curly and Laurey are the "innocents" here, as they deny their obvious attraction to each other in "People Will Say We're in Love", Mr. Mitchell's braggadocio countered by Ms. Darrough's naive posturing. Laurey's Aunt Eller [Rhonda Cattley] is the stalwart voice of reason here, as she gently advises them to come to grips with their romance.

In contrast, Will Parker [Hunter Lee Smith] and Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd] are more comic and worldly, though similarly confused by their emotions. Mr. Smith shows Will's ineptitude in holding on to the $50 that he needs to win the hand of Ado Annie and get the approval of her gun-toting father Andrew [Michael DiLaura], and Ms. Rikerd delights in the contradictions of commitment in "I Cain't Say No"; but together, the ultimatum of "All Er Nuthin" sets them on the right track.

The love stories come to a head at the local picnic where the men bid on picnic hampers to win a date with the women who made them. When Judd outbids Curly -- after their rivalry is made more potent when Curly visits Judd's room and attempts to change him in "Poor Judd is Daid" -- the fight is on to the finish, with catastrophic results that are saved in a quick "trial" that clears Curly of murder and allows his marriage to Laurey to bring a happy ending.

As one of the earliest American musicals to fully integrate song lyrics into plot and character development, and to fuse dance as another integral element of the overall design, director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears guide their 31-member ensemble through their paces. Ever cognizant of serving the community, and offering opportunities to many of its constituencies, it is a mixed-bag of talent on stage, with principal roles going to veteran actors, and minor roles in the ensemble filled out be younger less-experienced players.

For an old fashioned plot, delightful characters, iconic music, and a touch of nostalgia, Oklahoma! is a fine Summer offering from Faulkner.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Calendar Girls"

Calendar Girls (2008), Tim Firth's comedy based on actual events in the small town of Knapely in Yorkshire, England in 1999, is ending its sold-out run at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre.

Stephen Dubberley directs his twelve ensemble actors -- a mix of Depot veterans and newcomers -- who tell the story of a group of W.I. [Women's Institute] ladies who try to raise money for a new settee for the waiting room at the local cancer ward following the death of one of their members' husbands. -- While they are accustomed to traditional fund-raising scenarios, this time they agree to pose nude (but tastefully topless) for a calendar, a guise that signals hesitation from some, rejection from others, a few misunderstandings and jealousies, and plenty of good natured laughs from the audience.

Annie [Teri Sweeney] and Chris [Eleanor Davis] are best friends, and their husbands John [Bill Nowell] and Rod [Lee Bridges] are attentive in the women's W. I. activities; Marie [Gayle Lees Sandlin] is the overbearing president of the group who insists on continuing a series of banal and uninteresting monthly presentations that the others are eager to postpone or cancel, never forgetting their mantra "enlightenment, fun, and friendship" that s supposed to keep the bond among them strong.

The rest of the group -- Jesse [Hazel Jones], Cora [Brooke Killen Poague], Celia [Cindy Smith], Elaine [Katie Therkelsen], Ruth [Marcella Willis], Brenda and Lady Cravenshire [MariahRiley] -- comprise an eclectic mix of familiar character types.

When John dies and Chris suggests the calendar, the women's bravery as well as friendships are tested, but they go on with the photo shoot with an embarrassed photographer named Lawrence [Tate Pollock] on hand to ensure the photos will look good and not offend even the most staid members of the community. Some of the play's finer comic moments are in this section as the calendar months' decorative touches that hide the women's breasts get increasingly more bizarre; and the women take it in stride and play up the silliness of their escapades in front of the camera. -- Later on, Mr. Pollock plays an outrageously camp television commercial  producer/director who assumes the women will pose completely nude for his camera.

When the calendar becomes more successful than they ever dreamed, it seems to Annie that Chris is more concerned with the fame they receive than the purpose of raising money in tribute to John's memory. -- All things will be sorted out by the end, as friendships are strengthened, misunderstandings are set aright, and there is enough money to build a new wing at the cancer hospital.

The Depot's production runs a long two-hours-and-twenty-minutes, partly due to overlong stretches of exposition that could do with judicious cutting, and also by a rather slow pace for much of the action. And some of the "Britishness" surrounding the W.I. might be lost on an American audience. -- But the characters are of such familiar types that they travel well across the Atlantic, and the acting company are comfortable inhabiting them. -- There are plenty of laughs and a lot of compassion in the lives in front of us on the Depot stage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

WOBT: "The Curious Savage"

John Patrick's The Curious Savage (1950) at Prattville's "Way Off Broadway Theatre" is an old-fashioned comedy with a serious message or two that still resonate after more than half a century, due largely to director Sam Wallace's talented ensemble's ability to delineate credibly eccentric characters and speak Patrick's witty dialogue with perhaps the best vocal clarity heard recently from the Prattville stage.

Set in "the common room of The Cloisters rest home" [a polite euphemism for an insane asylum], the play is long on exposition but has its pay-offs. -- Wealthy eccentric title character Ethel Savage had lived the traditionally dutiful life of a wife who sacrificed her own wishes to support her husband's, but who always wanted more bohemian experiences. Recently widowed with a $10-million inheritance, she intends to distribute the funds to people who might use it for harmless artistic or altruistic enterprises, much to the dismay of her three greedy and unscrupulous adult stepchildren who do everything in their power to claim the fortune for themselves; and their first step is to have her "committed" [a task much easier in the 1950s than today].

Mrs. Savage [Michon R. Givens] fits right in with the other "guests" at 'The Cloisters' by treating them politely as if their individual foibles are normal; none of them is violent. Clutching a stuffed Teddy Bear, her own idiosyncrasies are accepted by them in turn. -- It is to their credit that all of the actors treat their characters' erratic behavior as if it was the most common thing in the world...and audiences tend to like them. Florence [Abby Brasel] treats a doll as if it was human, being the substitute child she had lost and now grieves; Hannibal [Matthew A. Givens] plays the violin badly, but has an encyclopedic knowledge; Jeffrey [T. J. Maddox] hides an imagined facial scar that represents the guilt he feels for surviving a war which took the lives of many friends; Fairy May [Meghan Yapana Ducote] needs constant confirmation of love from others to give meaning to her life; and Mrs. Paddy [Rae Ann Collier] recites litanies of all the things she hates but is otherwise silent.

When the Savage stepchildren scheme to wrest the millions from Mrs. Savage, they find that she has put all the money into negotiable bonds that she has hidden, but she refuses to say where. As they gang up on her, Titus [Eric Arvidson], a corrupt Senator, Lily Belle [Letha Moore], a spoiled and often married social-climber, and Samuel [John Collier], a ne'er-do-well petulant sort, stoop to threats that the kindly Dr. Emmett [Mike DeLaura] and sympathetic nurse Miss Wilhemina [Tracey Maggard] try their best to keep under professional control.

It seems there is only a small difference between madness and sanity. Patrick's script makes ample use of metaphors that clearly cast these opposites against each other, and moralizes a bit on themes of justice vs. the law, regimented behavior vs. freedom to be foolish, and the distinctions between monetary worth and individual value. The greedy stepchildren vs. the altruistic "guests" at 'The Cloisters'. -- How we treat others is the mark of our own worth.

And the WOBT Players invest such honesty in their portrayals, provide audiences with plenty of laughs at the expense of the greedy characters, and earn the applause they receive.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "I Hate Hamlet"

I Hate Hamlet, Paul Rudnick's 1991 comedy, is on the boards at the Wetumpka Depot. Director Tom Salter guides a top-notch veteran acting ensemble who garner abundant laughs through clever characterizations and adept delivery of Rudnick's witty dialogue, and while Thespian cognoscenti might enjoy the numerous theatre and film references, there is a lot in it for everyone to enjoy.

West Coast television star Andrew Rally [Clint Evans] moves to New York to star in a "Shakespeare-in-the-Park" production of Hamlet; his real estate broker and sometime "medium" Felicia Dantine [Kristy Meanor] secures a lease for him in the one-time apartment of iconic 1920s American Shakespearean actor John Barrymore; it is a Gothic pile that still contains much of the furnishings of its former resident.

Though Andrew has misgivings about playing the most challenging role [he is, after all, a mere TV personality, and claims to "hate Hamlet"], his long-time girlfriend Dierdre McDavey [Elizabeth Bowles] is there to urge him on; a would-be actress herself, she is infatuated with the apartment's connection to "the perfect...American tragedian", whose reputation for womanizing and boozing add to his dangerous appeal -- this in spite of the fact that Dierdre has been holding off on a sexual relationship with Andrew until she is sure that everything is right in their relationship.

Joining them is Andrew's agent Lillian Troy [Janie Allred], a Teutonic force to be reckoned with, who claims to have had a romantic fling with Barrymore many years ago.

As Andrew's self-doubt escalates, Felicia conducts a seance, after which the ghost of Barrymore [Stephen Dubberley] arrives to coach Andrew and prepare him to play the Prince of Denmark, and simultaneously to get Deirdre to relent to having sex with Andrew.

When self-obsessed L.A. producer Gary Peter Lefkowits [Lee Bridges] shows up with a "green light" multi-million dollar offer of a television series for Andrew, the plot thickens, and decisions must be made: artistic integrity and little money vs. celebrity stature for doing mediocre TV fare and lots of cash.

Mr. Bridges oozes with a huckster's assurance that can't comprehend that anyone would choose art over money; but he won't be deterred from convincing Andrew to take the TV offer by any means necessary.

Ms. Allred imbues the role of Lillian with sardonic acceptance that signs and omens are everywhere, and that Andrew must pay attention to his fate in playing the role of a lifetime. -- Ms. Meanor again demonstrates a pitch-perfect ability to deliver comic dialogue, and displays a myriad of subtle shifts of vocal energy and timing and movement; she is always surprising us with unexpected but character driven choices.

Ms. Bowles is a revelation in the role of Dierdre, a role so unlike her rendition of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. The vivacity with which she inhabits the absurdity of Dierdre's insistence of maintaining her "virtue", and the uninhibited breathless enthusiasm and excessive gestures she uses in playing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, are so joyfully ridiculous (and credible) that make it a break-out performance.

The key to the plot's resolution depends on Barrymore's ability to convince Andrew to meet the challenge of the role he is about to play with just six weeks' rehearsal time -- and what an uphill battle that proves to be. -- Mr. Evans pulls out all the comic stops as he renders a version of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy with ridiculous preparatory exercises to "get into the part", absurd histrionic flourishes, and "modernizing" the Bard's language to make it accessible to a contemporary audience [Rudnick wrote the play long before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned 36 playwrights to translate Shakespeare for ostensibly the same reason]. -- But Barrymore won't be put off; and Mr. Dubberley is also up to the challenge. Though he can "posture" and "pose" with the best of them, Mr. Dubberley commands each scene with the assurance of Barrymore's talent and ego. He pushes Mr. Evans to engage with Shakespeare's poetry, and in a finely staged sword-fight choreographed by Parke Fech, to acquire the confidence necessary to both play the role and secure Dierdre's favor in his bed.

The Depot has a first-class entertainment here: a witty script matched by a gifted acting ensemble. But greater attention ought to have been paid to a couple of production values: putting a cheap supermarket brand of champagne on stage next to high end bottles of Scotch and bourbon is glaring; and John Barrymore's Hamlet costume is so well known from vintage photos, that the substantial changes for both Mr. Dubberley's and Mr. Evans' Hamlet costumes won't go unnoticed.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Red Door: "Doublewide, Texas"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs' production of Doublewide, Texas is one of several comedies from the cottage industry trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten. -- Director Kim Mason has a lot of veterans and one Red Door debut performer at her disposal in this formulaic comedy, who seem to delight in the assorted character antics that they deliver with straight-faced conviction despite the outlandish costumes they often wear and the bizarre behavior they display.

Many of the one-liners are groan worthy jokes that crack up audiences because the actors' timing and self-awareness are genuinely charming.

Just outside Tugaloo, Texas is a tiny trailer park whose residents form an eccentric family of sorts who band together to thwart the attempt of the town to annex them, with predictably rib-tickling results. -- There are bad guys: Lomax [Steve McCary], a local Lothario in collusion with Sloggett [Ellis Ingram], a neighbor to the trailer park who hates their trashy ways, whose ulterior motives get them to try to annex the park and/or force them out.

But they are up against a gaggle of trailer folks who want to preserve their way of life: Big Ethel [Kim Graham], who encourages everyone to stop making bad choices, the family Crumpler -- Caprice [Janet Wilkerson], the matriarch whose auditions for a commercial are wildly funny as she dresses up in outlandish costumes of famous actresses in order to make an impression and get the job; and her children Joveeta [Elizabeth Roughton] who desperately wants a change in her life when she is passed over for a job advancement, and Norwayne "Baby" [Craig Stricklin] a good-old-boy septic tank cleaner, who competes in a no-woman-beauty contest and gets more and more accustomed to high-heels and skirts.

The action of the two acts is largely in the doublewide trailer of often married Georgia Dean [Leigh Moorer] who has taken in a pregnant stranger named Lark [Lauren White] out of the kindness of her heart. And it is here where the combined efforts of this unlikely tribe make plans, shift gears, wait for "signs" to guide them, gradually become a unified group with a cause, and through sheer determination and a bit of luck with the arrival of the Mayor's wife Starla [Denise Padgett], manage to get the better of the men who want to oust them.

We're in the company of a talented ensemble whose good-natured portrayals help lift the slightness of the script to provide a fun-filled entertaining evening at the theatre.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years"

Disclosure: The reviewer serves on the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Oral histories -- especially of people from humble origins who had instilled in them a high regard for family, hard work, and moral values -- often are told repeatedly and with such simplicity as to obscure the profound ideas at their core.

And so it is in Having Our Say: the Delany Sisters' First 100 Years that is currently playing at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Adapted from the 1993 book by Sarah L. (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, the play is deceptively simple: Sadie [Yvette Jones-Smedley], the elder sister at 103 years of age, and the 101 year old Bessie [Cynthia Harris], invite us the audience into their home as they prepare a birthday dinner in honor of the father they admired, and regale us with memories and stories that show their achievements that "contradict the false stereotypes which fuel much of the prejudice against African Americans".

The descendants of slaves, but "brought up to 'reach high'", each earned academic degrees through sacrifice and tenacity: Sadie became a respected teacher and Bessie a highly regarded dentist. They never married, and lived together all their lives, becoming so close that they often complete one another's sentences while retaining individual personalities. They balance one another. Sadie is a self described "Mama's child", while Bessie is more independent; Sadie is shy, while Bessie is outspoken; Sadie is the molasses and Bessie the vinegar in their complimentary roles.

They participated in and survived the most important events in recent American history, from early Jim Crow laws, through seeing Haley's Comet twice, to two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam, to the Harlem Renaissance and Negro activism in the 1920s, to advocating for women's right to vote, to the beginnings of the NAACP, to the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and into the 1990s. In short, their history is our history, though unlike most of us, they knew so many of the leaders of the last 100 years: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Eleanor Roosevelt are among the many dignitaries we see through their eyes.

And what eyes they are. As centenarians, they assume some prerogatives of old age: speaking their minds without fear of recriminations. At their age "everyone we know is either dead or they're boring us to death", and they know full well that "oppressed people have a sense of humor". Whether they chase away the "rebby boys" who antagonize them, or consider the list of hurtful words that dehumanize them ["auntie", "boy", "coon", "jigaboo", "pickaninny", and the n-word] -- but don't call them "African American" or "Black" when "Negro" or "colored" or just plain "American" are more to their liking -- or proclaim the value of healthy food, regular Yoga exercise, listening to the Macneil/Lehrer Newshour, and prayer, Ms. Jones-Smedley and Ms. Harris are as warm and comfortable in their characterizations they they become everyone's great-grandmothers: the ones we come to for instruction, for solace, for wisdom.

Directed by Georgette Norman with a sensitivity to the complexities of the Delany sisters' lives, the play's two acts engage audience attention and connection to these two iconic women. Audiences go away refreshed and challenged to consider their own participation in the world around them, and to face up to the important issues of the 21st Century.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

AUM: "The Inspector General"

Never shy about adding contemporary popular culture references to the canon of dramatic literature, director Mike Winkelman is at it again in Theatre AUM's production of Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, a Nineteenth Century satire. And for satire to hit its mark, the audience should see itself reflected on stage; so, not a bad choice considering an almost 200 year gap in time, and cultural distance as well.

What could aggravate some might delight others, and Mr. Winkelman's insertion of songs ("Those Were the Days", "Something's Coming", etc.), gender-switching some roles, Marx Brothers and Monty Python "silly walks", exaggerated make-up and wigs to match Val Winkelman's clownish costumes, adolescent suggestive punning of locations and character names, and numerous modern references to "update and enliven the audience's understanding of the piece", make his point.

Whereas Gogol focused his satire on individuals' greed, political corruption in 1830s Russia, and the stupidity of people in their everyday lives, these targets can certainly be applied across time and country; so Mr. Winkelman's assertion that contemporary American culture is not immune to the same criticism is fair game.

In a small town where everyone from the Mayor [David Wilson] to the least public servant is corrupt, word reaches them that an Inspector General is coming incognito to investigate them. Fearful of being found out, they plan a course of action that is tested when they hear that a stranger has been staying in a local inn for the past two weeks, and that his behavior suggests he might be the dreaded inspector. Concluding that he is the man in question, a delegation goes to the inn where they find Ivan Alexandrovitch Hlestakov [Kodi Robertson] has been running up hotel bills. Mistaking him for the inspector, they fawn on him and give him money, and the Mayor invites him to his own home, where the clever Hlestakov takes advantage of their error by pretending to be the inspector and flirts with both the Mayor's wife [Tara Fenn] and daughter [Amber Baldwin], going so far as to propose marriage to the daughter before skipping town when he fears being found out as a fraud. -- When word arrives that Hlestakov is not the man they thought him to be, and that the real Inspector General has arrived and wants an immediate meeting with the Mayor, chaos ensues and everyone realizes they will pay the price for their corruption.

Mr. Winkelman's 21-member ensemble of actors give full vigor to his concept; and there are several moments of sheer comic madness. A scene when the Mayor's wife and daughter are rivals in their attempt to seduce Hlestakov is made into a burlesque of two voluptuous women almost smothering the diminutive Hlestakov with their heaving breasts; and Ms. Fenn, Ms. Baldwin, and Mr. Robertson are delightfully unrestrained in their performances.

Mr. Wilson's Mayor is both a buffoon and a charlatan whose comeuppance is anticipated from the start, and he blunders in ways reminiscent of Will Ferrell. Yet, the impact of the satire hinges on Mr. Robertson's depiction of Hlestakov: his ability to switch gears in mid-sentence, his agility in many of the play's more slapstick moments, his combining of a superficial innocence with a quick-witted and devious bent to bilk the town's rubes of cash and property, are the components of a sophisticated portrayal of an inherently unlikable petty crook.

Perhaps this is the key to The Inspector General: there are no sympathetic characters, no good-guys among the group; so audiences can focus their attention on the satire and perhaps see themselves and contemporary culture with a critical eye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

A magical moment happened in 1985: Winton "Red" and Carolyn Blount brought the Alabama Shakespeare Festival from its Summer home in Anniston to establish a professional year-round theatre in their backyard in Montgomery. -- Under the brilliant guidance of Founding Artistic Director Martin Platt, the initial "Cinderella Season" opened with a lavish production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with acting luminaries Olivia de Havilland and Tony Randall in attendance, along with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The cast featured two of ASF's most respected and celebrated actors -- Greta Lambert and Philip Pleasants -- in its inaugural repertory company.

So, it is fitting that the 30th Anniversary 2015-2016 season includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, this time directed by Diana Van Fossen; and there is still magic in the air.

Composer James Conely opens the show with a romantic flourish and continues to punctuate scenes and characters with motifs and a light-hearted sense of humor that carries much of the production's magic; James Wolk's deceptively simple set shifts to reveal a variety of locations, and is abetted by Brenda Van Der Weil's effective costumes to distinguish the play's three worlds: a severe aristocratic Athens of an indeterminate time, a diaphanous Classical Greek-oriented magical fairyland, and rustic patchwork clowns for the "rude mechanicals", working-class actors who [with intentional "coarse acting"] entertain the aristocrats with their amateurish version of "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby".

An uneasy alliance between Duke Theseus [Bjorn Thorstad] and Hippolyta [Vanessa Morosco], the Queen of the Amazons, is to be secured by their upcoming marriage, but is interrupted when Egeus [Rodney Clark] brings his daughter Hermia [Becca Ballenger] to the court, insisting she marry Demetrius [Jackson Thompson] as he had arranged; however, she prefers Lysander [Matthew Goodrich] while her friend Helena [Alice Sherman] loves Demetrius. -- To thwart her father's demands, the young lovers escape to the woods outside of Athens where most of the remaining action takes place, and where the feuding fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania [also played by Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco], get caught up in the love affairs of the two young couples.

Meanwhile, the clownish acting troupe meet in the woods to rehearse the play they hope to perform at Theseus' nuptials. Led by Peter Quince [Paul Hebron], the company's self-important leading actor Bottom [Brik Berkes], attempts to steal all the attention for himself.

Well, "the course of true love never did run smooth", and much of the play serves to connect these three worlds and secure the several happy marriages. With the assistance of the mischievous Puck [Alexis Camins], Theseus bewitches Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees on awakening; Puck places the head of an ass on Bottom, so Titania instantly falls in love with him. And the lovers are similarly tricked, so there is much confusion in the woods, and lots to resolve by the end.

Ms. Van Fossen's two-hour and forty-minute production insistently drives home the exposition details so one can't mistake the complexities of Shakespeare's plot, allowing audiences to engage with the Bard's vibrant characters and enjoy the comic diversions he provides.

Chief among them are the frenetic fights among the four youthful lovers, matching extraordinary timing of Shakespeare's witty dialogue with full athletic commitment to Parke Fetch's inventive fight choreography. Well done Ms. Ballenger, Mr. Goodrich, Mr. Thompson, and Ms. Sherman.

Titania "in love with an ass" plays on audience sympathies and gets Oberon to relent on his treatment of her; and the sequences building up to it between the sensually amorous Ms. Morosco and Mr. Berkes' bewildered Bottom tickled the audience.

The downright silliness of the "Pyramus and Thisby" performance depends on the clownish depictions of the entire troupe [Andrew Dahreddine, Parke Fetch, Christopher Lemieux, and Michael Quattrone] made even more comical by Mr. Berkes outrageous characterization of Pyramus; and Mr. Hebron's sincerity and desperation in wanting to please the courtiers adds a much needed truthfulness to their attempts.

Double-casting Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania is a device seen frequently in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco are ably cast here to show the similarities between the real world characters and those of the fairy kingdom.

Shakespeare's magic is always at the center of this production: masterful storytelling, outrageous situations, foolish behavior, remarkable poetry, and the transforming power of true love all meet on the ASF stage.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Faulkner: "She Loves Me"

She Loves Me, the sweet 1963 Joe Masterhoff-Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's Parfumerie [perhaps best known for the 1940 Ernest Lubitch film "The Shop Around the Corner" starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan] is the last production of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's 2015-2016 season.

Opening night played to an almost full house who clearly appreciated the vocal strengths of director Jason Clark South's ensemble of Faulkner students, alumni, and local actors.

Staged on Matt Dickson's colorful flexible set, the action takes place mostly in a 1930s Budapest parfumerie, where George [George Scrushy] and Amalia [Brittney Johnston] -- whose clash of personalities on their first meeting is a clear signal that they must fall in love by the end of the second act -- display old-fashioned storytelling at its best that is matched by a lyrical score, played here in a recorded sound-track that, with over-amplified and frequent static-riddled microphones for the actors, unfortunately muddies the sound.

This notwithstanding, the acting and singing are uniformly strong, from Hunter Lee Smith's naive and bright-eyed delivery boy Arpad singing "Try Me" in his effort to become a salesman in the shop, to Morgan Baker's credible good-guy Sipos whose "Perspective" adds a bit of reason to the lovers' dilemma, to Chris Kelly's subtly sleazy playboy Kodaly who enlivens things even as he is caught out in a sarcastic rendition of "Grand Knowing You", to Tony Davison's impressive shop owner Mr. Maraczek, who suspects that George is having an affair with Mrs. Maraczek, and whose controlled nostalgic delivery of "Days Gone By" is touching.

Special notice is due to three of the principal actors. Mattie Earls is always on target as Miss Ritter, the sometime lover of Kodaly; her vocal delivery is flawless, and is delivered with remarkable stage presence that earns audience connection, especially in Act II's "A Trip to the Library" where she asserts her independence from Kodaly.

Together, Mr. Scrushy and Ms. Johnston engage us with their story: each has a secret pen-pal in answer to a lonely hearts advertisement, writing letters to "Dear Friend" and oblivious to the fact they are writing to one another while continuing their workplace feud. -- When they agree to meet their "Dear Friend" and eventually fall in love in earnest, all ends happily for them as it must.

On the way, audiences are treated to some fine singing. Mr. Scrushy's youthful voice is developing well and his interpretation of the lyrics is excellent. His unabashed delight in the title song, "She Loves Me" is infectious. Ms. Johnston's clear soprano has hardly been better than here as she asserts herself in "No More Candy", breaks your heart in "Dear Friend", and effortlessly reaches into her high register in "Vanilla Ice Cream".

She Loves Me is a delightful way to end Faulkner's current season -- a tribute to Springtime and young love.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

WOBT: "On Golden Pond"

Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, best known for its multi-award winning 1981 film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman, is currently playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Featuring a strong acting ensemble, the play takes us to a lake cottage in a remote corner of rural Maine, where Norman and Ethel Thayer [Roger Humber and Teri Sweeney] have spent the last forty-eight Summers. As is clear from the start, Norman and Ethel are devoted to one another, have grown to tolerate the eccentricities that developed over time, and recognize with varying degrees of acceptance that life for them is growing short, and the ease with which Mr. Humber and Ms. Sweeney inhabit their roles is a gently reassuring reminder that long-term marriages are not a thing of the past.

But all is not sweetness and light on Golden Pond. At eighty years of age, Norman's dementia and heart palpitations are a matter of concern [as is punctuated early on in his distracted conversations with Janie Allred's officious telephone Operator], and when semi-estranged daughter Chelsea [Lauren Morgan] arrives with her current beau Bill Ray [Douglas Mitchell] and his son Billy [Will Chieves] in tow, many of the family's skeletons come out of the closet. Additionally, local mailman Charlie [Joey B. Fine], a childhood sweetheart of Chelsea's who has never lost his feelings for her, is an occasional distraction and source of much of the play's humor.

There is a lot to accomplish in the production's almost two-and-a-half-hour running time to set things aright. -- Jason Morgan is growing more assured as a director: he crafts a clear story with his actors, but allows lengthy scene changes with a lot of dead time to slow the pace and let audiences disconnect. Plus, he rushes through a few key moments -- Chelsea's reconciliation with her deliberately cantankerous father is over in a flash, and curmudgeonly Norman's developing connection with the willful Billy [Mr. Chieves's attitude and posturing speaks a lot] over fishing and literature is often so quiet and restrained that it is hardly noticed.

The focus is most certainly on Norman and Ethel. Mr. Humber delves into Norman's purposefully difficult personality, a man slowly coming to terms with his growing dementia and heart condition while holding on to his position as head of household. His interrogation of Bill as an acceptable suitor for his daughter is one of his better scenes, and Mr. Mitchell [a most welcome newcomer to the local community theatre stage] gives a credible and truthful depiction of a man in love who must make nice with his prospective in-laws, and who relies on honesty to get him by. He is a good match for Norman's testiness.

Ms. Sweeney, one of the River Region's most accomplished actors, gives simply the most natural and believable characterizations in this production. She is a model of physical comfort and vocal honesty for her fellow actors, and her generosity in sharing the stage and supporting them makes everyone better. Her Ethel looks after Norman with an eagle eye and an understanding of his health and well-being, while her affectionate appelation of him as an "old poop" serves to lessen his fears. As a go-between for Chelsea and Bill and Billy, she unobtrusively is the strength of all the relationships. And her final scene with Mr. Humber as Ethel and Norman say good-bye to Golden Pond's loons is comforting to both them and us that simple things have value. (For tis final weekend, the role of Ethel will be played by Angie Mitchell; she's got big shoes to fill.)

Though not without its flaws, the WOBT production of On Golden Pond is a gentle confirmation of family and long-term relationships.

ASF: "White Lightning"

"Gentlemen, start your engines." Award-winning Gee's Bend playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's latest offering is having its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, strategically or coincidentally scheduled during this year's "Sprint Cup Series". Directed by Geoffrey Sherman, White Lightning -- a mixed-bag of a play combining "racing, moonshine, and revenuers" with a few doses of romance -- features Ms. Wilder's gift for naturalistic dialogue that captures the colloquial speech patterns that delineate her characters and skillfully evoke time and place: the time here being the late 1940s, and the place mostly in rural Georgia.

Whether the scope of her subject (a feel-good fictionalized account of the often anonymous participants of the rustic racing circuit and the beginnings of NASCAR) will have wide appeal is yet to be determined, but White Lightning's two-hour running time on ASF's Festival Stage provides some engaging performances and background to what has become one of America's most established and profitable institutions. How times have changed since then.

The plot centers on Avery McCallister [Matthew Goodrich in his ASF debut], an Army veteran fresh from World War II, whose less than perfect past is made up for by his eagerness to change and to pursue his version of the American Dream by becoming a champion race car driver. He ingratiates himself to Hank Taylor [Rodney Clark], the scheming owner of a local garage and purveyor of gum-ball machines that make him a "legit businessman", but whose profitable side-business is running bootleg moonshine using fast cars on the back roads of Georgia. In exchange for improvements on his $50 junkheap, Avery agrees to work for Hank, but predictably has second thoughts after meeting Dixie James [Becca Ballenger, also new to ASF], whose first appearance looking like Rosie the Riveter establishes her as a challenge to Avery to live up to his potential.

Larry Tobias returns to ASF after his memorable role as Ike  in Twentyseven a few seasons back, this time as Mutt, a former driver and ace mechanic who can work his magic on any car, and whose one-word humorous comments and seeming unconcern make him an intriguing character who leaves audiences wanting more. As the numerous short episodes accumulate, and with Mutt's unerring guidance, the on-stage car gradually becomes race-worthy as stage crew dressed in garage overalls add the assorted bits and pieces to it.

A smarmy revenuer named Chester Pike [Brik Berkes], has a long-term "arrangement" to turn a blind eye on Hank's business for their mutual profit; and it should come as no surprise when Mr. Berkes (who cleverly seems to always lead with his paunch) reneges on their "arrangement". For both men, profit is the driving force.

There aren't many surprises or revelations in store in White Lightning, and the uninitiated might need a few more details about NASCAR's history, but the acting ensemble are all solid in their characterizations. -- There is a sweetly youthful romantic discovery between Mr. Goodrich and Ms. Ballenger, and the inevitable face-off between Mr. Clark's conniving Hank and Mr. Goodrich's newly discovered decency as Avery has a palpable tension.

The pursuit of the American Dream, whether through education, business, or pick-yourself-up-by the bootstraps philosophy (as it is in White Lightning) shows that although a lot has changed since early days, America's persistent optimism never falters.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

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

In the true spirit of community theatre at its best, the Cloverdale Playhouse opened its Fifth Season with Christopher Durang's uproarious 2013 Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. -- At the eleventh hour, Maureen Costello stepped in to play the role of Masha, glancing at her hand-held script but otherwise fully realizing the role, and being graciously supported by the rest of the cast; and the control booth suddenly crashed shortly before the start, leaving Stage Manager James Treadway to work miracles so the audience was hardly aware of any technical difficulties. -- And so, the "show went on" to the delight of the almost full house.

Directed by the Playhouse's new Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton, the pace occasionally slowed down as a consequence, its two acts coming in just short of three hours; but that should be remedied once Ms. Costello is more confidently off-book and the light and sound cues are restored.

In rural Bucks County, PA, middle-aged Vanya [George Jacobsen] and his sister Sonia [Katie Pearson] bemoan their economic and social condition -- unemployed and unemployable and steadfastly resigned to doing nothing about it but complain, and supported by their successful movie-star sister Masha [Ms. Costello], who pays the bills since the deaths of their parents -- and spend their time bickering and wistfully awaiting the appearance of a blue heron at the nearby lake.

Their maid Cassandra [Danielle Phillips], true to her classical mythology namesake, predicts doom and leavens the plot with dire warnings that no one believes, until of course, they begin to come true, especially on the arrival of Masha with her handsome, sexy, and obtuse boy-toy Spike [James MacFarlane] in tow. Masha plans to sell the house, with seemingly no concern for what happens to Vanya and Sonia.

Add to this mix a naive local beauty and aspiring actress named Nina [Sarah Worley], who Spike brings back with him from a swim in the lake, and who serves as a distraction from his attention to Masha, and the ensemble is complete.

With a debt to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov [theatre cognoscenti will catch the numerous references to The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull among others, as well as to several other theatre nods], knowledge of these is not necessary for an appreciation of Durang's masterful plotting and acerbic wit. -- For example, though a rare occurrence on local stages, several actors here received deserved applause on their exit lines.

There is a fine sense of ensemble acting in this production, each individualized character contributing to the others in serving Durang's text. -- Ms. Phillips plays Cassandra as a Caribbean "psychic" who can revert to in-your-face street-wise patois in a split second. And she saved the day a few times with references to her "psychic powers" to cover for missing sound cues. Ms. Worley's naivete as Nina is a delightful contrast to some other characters' more overbearing demeanors; her ability to sustain innocence is laudable, and her attachment to "uncle" Vanya marks the sweetest moments of the production.

Mr. MacFarlane's Spike is reminiscent of Chance Wayne from Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth -- a callous gigolo companion to fading movie-star Alexandra Del Lago; but here, Spike is a more likable sort due to Mr. MacFarlane's winning smile, relaxed attitude, and ability to accept whatever comes his way. And he seems as comfortable wearing only underpants or fully dressed.

Durang focuses attention on the siblings, their idiosyncrasies, and long-held rivalries. Since Masha holds the purse-strings, and is used to getting her way on everything, she assumes that others will submit to her every whim; but when Ms. Costello starts giving orders about attending a local costume party as the Disney version of Snow White [Danny Davidson's costumes are a treat], assuming that the others will compliment her persona by dressing as Dwarfs, or in Spike's case as Prince Charming, she is in for unexpected resistance. Vanya insists on portraying Doc instead of Masha's choice of Grumpy; Nina willingly goes along with anything her idol Masha wants, so dresses as Dopey; but it is Ms. Pearson's insistence on playing the Evil Queen ["as played by Maggie Smith going to the Oscars", complete with sequined gown and shining tiara] that takes center stage away from Masha and allows Sonia to bathe in the limelight for a while. -- Ms. Pearson not only puts the attention on Sonia, but relishes the fact and earns audience sympathy.

There's a lot more in the two acts for actors to sink their teeth into, not least is Vanya's tirade against today's obsession with electronic media which Mr. Jacobsen delivers with an intensity that has the audience firmly on his side despite the slow pacing of a long speech.

With its many laugh-out-loud moments, controlled direction, brilliantly realized costumes, Mike Winkelman's evocative set, and ensemble acting by some of the area's finest Thespians, the Cloverdale Playhouse's season is off to a solid start.