Saturday, September 23, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Liberty and Justice"

In its first production of their 2017-2018 season, Theatre AUM is offering a compilation of scenes, songs, and monologues entitled Liberty and Justice. The assorted pieces are performed by a talented  25-member student ensemble directed by a coterie of five: Marcus Godbee, Neil David Seibel, Cushing Phillips, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman.

Played on Mike Winkelman's open stage reminiscent of a patriotic rally to which we've grown accustomed (red, white, and blue drapes and a white star painted on the floor), and using minimal furniture, nearly forty vignettes hit their respective marks to remind us of both the ideals of America's founding fathers and the challenges to democracy that continue almost 250 years later.

Quotes from the Declaration of Independence ["all men are created equal"], the Statue of Liberty engraving ["Give me your tired, your poor"] and interpretive renderings of the "Star Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", and "We Shall Overcome" among others are given ironic twists on today's legislative bodies when the First Continental Congress is referred to as a bunch of "knaves and fools".

There is a decidedly political agenda in Liberty and Justice. Audiences are taken backwards and forwards in time, showing how 21st Century concerns with immigration, women's rights, racial inequality, LGBT inequities, and the death penalty, had their roots in the past yet continue to be unresolved.

The voices of marginalized people are brought to the fore by the acting ensemble, all dressed in various iterations of red, white, and blue; the short vignettes are given sometimes sensitively humane and sometimes confrontational in-yer-face interpretations. -- And the gender-fluid assignment of roles help focus attention on the messages on offer.

Selections from plays such as The Laramie Project, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frost/Nixon, Angels in America, All the Way, Stuff Happens, School House Rock, and Hamilton, as well as many others, drive the messages unrelentingly; and while one can not question the commitment of the actors to the seriousness of the issues at hand, the collection of scenes cries out for some comic relief to make the points even more impactful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Millbrook: "The Diary of Anne Frank"

The Diary of a Young Girl was published in 1947, just two years after its author, the teenaged Anne Frank, died in a concentration camp. Her father Otto was the only member of his Jewish family to survive the Nazi Holocaust; when he returned to the Annex above his former office in Amsterdam where his family and others had spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis with the assistance of Meip Gies and Mr. Kraler, he discovered his daughter's diary and determined to have it published both as a tribute to her and a reminder to the world of the horrors of war and the resilience of its victims.

In 1955, The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened on Broadway, receiving a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for "Best Play", as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. -- It is now being presented on stage by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. under the direction of Daniel Harms; and with the current international concern with Neo-Naziism, with aggression against those persons perceived as "other", and with daily newspaper and social media accounts of violent intolerance, its messages are uncomfortably resonant.

The action takes place in the Annex, a claustrophobic space with several levels, all cramped with furniture and made more confining by the eight inhabitants who must step over and around one another and share sleeping quarters that restrict any sense of privacy. They  must be absolutely quiet during the work-day hours, since there are people in the office below them, and any hint of a noise could bring the dreaded soldiers to arrest them and herd them off to a concentration camp. -- They can't cook or use the toilet, must take off their shoes and walk about as little as possible, and talk very little if at all.

So we see them only at night when the all-clear signals have been heard and they can relax a bit and speak and act out their repressed feelings toward the world around them and toward one another. Petty arguments mushroom into full-fledged animosity; territorialism and accusations of perceived preferential treatment are voiced; and the fear of being caught is always at the forefront. -- Yet there is hope, written in Anne's diary, that "in spite of everything, people are truly good at heart". And it is her voice that centers the play: a youthful voice of optimism, a coming of age voice dealing with all the contradictions of adolescence and the discovery of a first-time romance, a kind-hearted voice that can find the means to resolve the issues that confront them in their darkest hours.

Mr. Harms has gathered an ensemble of actors who clearly define their characters and keep audiences concerned for them, though we know from the outset that almost all of them will die. -- Though there are a number of technical items that could be addressed [lighting that casts unfortunate shadows in key locations, late sound and light cues, inconsistency in when everyone should not be wearing shoes, the loud volume of Anne's voice-over readings from her diary that connect the scenes], by and large the production focuses our attention on the characters and themes.

While the ensemble work well together and individually, and Brady Walker as Otto Frank gives a strong and sensitive performance, special notice should be given to Lucy Wilson's credible portrayal of Anne; she nails the character's contradictions and never fails to remain in the moment. Anne's frustrations with her relationship with her mother, her hurt feelings of being compared to her sister, her clear reliance on her father's wisdom and solidity, her refusal to accept the status quo -- all contribute to a fully realized character.

It is through Anne that we learn the horrors of war and Naziism, and through whom we make the connections to our own day.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "I Do! I Do!"

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the team behind the 42-year-long run of The Fantasticks (1960-2002) in New York, had another success in 1966 with a charming musical called I Do! I Do! which is currently on the boards at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre.

Played on a wide set dominated by a large four poster bed, and with some 19 songs in its two acts, I Do! I Do! spins the story of Michael and Agnes from their wedding day and the gift of a pillow embroidered with "God is Love", through the next fifty years; while there are few surprises and a lot of familiar territory in this gentle tale -- awkward first moments, the births of children and the responsibilities that come with them, the "traditional" roles of husbands and wives, events that test a marriage, grandparenthood, and retirement -- director Kristy Meanor and musical director Marilyn Swears have their actors create characters and weave a story as a testament to the bond between people who truly love each other.

Usually played by two actors, Ms. Meanor has chosen to split the roles for the two acts: Morgan Baker and Rebecca Ivey play Michael and Agnes in Act I during the first years of their marriage, while Jeff Langham and Kim Mason take over the roles in Act II from their middle-age to old-age. -- In both Acts, audiences are treated to strong singing and effective aging through modifications of wigs/costumes [well done, Matthew Oliver] and makeup, most of which is done off-stage. Ms. Ivey is particularly impressive in her Act I transformations; and both Mr. Langham's and Ms. Mason's transitions to old age are done in full view allowing us to see them age before our eyes.

Each of the actors is given moments to demonstrate their singing chops. Mr. Baker's rendition of "I Love My Wife" is particularly effective, and Ms. Ivey takes over the stage with "Flaming Agnes" in which she claims her independence; together, their versions of "Love Isn't Everything" and "A Well Known Fact" are delightful.

Probably the best known song from I Do! I Do! is Act II's  "My Cup Runneth Over", and is given a fine interpretation here. Mr. Langham and Ms. Mason relish their independence from their children in the humorous "When the Kids Get Married". His "The Father of the Bride" tells of every father's reticence in letting go of his daughter and suggests the empty-nest syndrome that everyone fears, and her "What is a Woman" questions her worth outside marriage. But all is forgiven with the exchange of gifts and the realization that "Someone Needs Me".

As they prepare to leave the house they lived in for the past fifty years, they leave the "God is Love" pillow and a bottle of champagne for the new young couple moving in, and audiences are left feeling good to have been in their presence.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

WOBT: "Deathtrap"

Ira Levin's Deathtrap -- a staple of the thriller-comedy mold -- is playing at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville under Matthew Givens' direction. His cast of five veterans and newcomers maneuver the intricacies of Levin's script with assurance, keeping audiences engaged with its ever-increasing plot twists.

Having has a successful Broadway run in the late 1970s, and a 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, much of the plot is well-known; so for the sake of those uninitiated, there will be few spoilers here. Suffice it to say that things aren't always what they seem.

Sidney Bruhl [Roy Goldfinger] and his sickly wife Myra [Adria Winlock] live in a comfortable Connecticut retreat where he is trying to re-invigorate a fading career as a writer of smash Broadway thrillers. When a former student sends him a script of a play he calls "Deathtrap", Bruhl is impressed by its quality, and fantasizes that he could steal the script and pass it off as his own, even off-handedly considering killing off the younger man. -- He has an array of weapons hanging on the walls of his study in full view of the audience. And here is the classic Anton Chekhov foreshadowing: "If in the first act you have a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." -- Stay tuned.

Helga ten Dorp [Michon Givens], a psychic who is renting a neighboring house, pays a visit to the Bruhls and instantly senses danger and pain in the house, mentioning specific details that will play out later, and warning them to be careful.

When youthful playwright Clifford Anderson [Woody Joye] arrives on Sidney's invitation ostensibly to fine-tune the play to get it ready for Broadway, they agree to collaborate. -- But murder and deception rule the day with elaborate plot twists that keep us guessing what will happen next.

Bruhl's lawyer Porter Milgrim [West Marcus] voices his suspicions about the close relationship of the two men, and encourages Bruhl to fix his last will and testament before it's too late.

As the men collaborate, they act out various scenes of the script they're working on: the script that replicates the previous action of the very play we are seeing in the theatre, and which bring both plays to their appropriate conclusion.

Suspense is sustained through a tight control on the script by both director and cast. However, there are several lengthy scene breaks that leave the audience in darkness and without any music to underscore and keep them attentive; these lapses make each successive scene a challenge to reconnect. And traditional "stormy night" sequences that depend on dim lights and dark shadows for impact, were so brightly lit that the intended shocking action was disappointing.

Nonetheless, the opening night audience responded with enthusiasm, and the WOBT company should be proud of their accomplishments.