Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "A Christmas Story"

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" -- Everyone from his Mother, to his teacher, to schoolyard friends, and yes -- even to Santa Claus, has this rejoinder to Ralphie's passionate request for a BB-gun at Christmas: not an ordinary BB-gun, but a "Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time". Sound familiar?

Jean Shepherd's story, made into a popular film in 1983 and a stage version by Philip Grecian in 2000, is now on stage at the Wetumpka Depot, directed by Kristy Meanor. A Christmas Story has become a staple for the Christmas Season, appealing to audiences with its nostalgia for a simpler time and its cast of characters who live out the reminiscences of an adult Ralph fondly remembering his childhood.

Except for Lee Bridges who plays the grown up Ralph, the Depot has two sets of actors playing alternately the other 10 named roles and 5 ensemble members. And it is he who holds the production together, serving as narrator, commentator, and occasional participant in minor roles throughout the two hour evening's entertainment. -- Mr. Bridges is an excellent guide through the telling of his childhood self's quest for the aforementioned BB-gun, and he delivers his lines with a wry sense of humor in his assessments both of himself and of his family, schoolmates, teacher, and the local bully; even the unseen Santa and next door neighbors, the Bumpus family and their 785 dogs who target Ralphie's father -- the "Old Man" -- yet bother no one else.

Yes, they're all there (in Cast A on opening night): Mother [Samantha Inman] who in Ralph's memory serves meat loaf and red cabbage every dinnertime, has a wealth of knowledge of trivia, and who can be stubborn and protective of her children when it matters most; younger brother Randy [Clay Edwards] who plays with his food, hides in unlikely places, and "has to go wee-wee" at the most inconvenient times; and, of course the "Old Man" [Brad Sinclair] an inept household handyman whose "vast catalogue of invective" is demonstrated frequently with cleverly disguised would-be obscenities, and is obsessed with mail-in contests and thrilled to win "a major prize" -- a garish leg lamp.

There's Miss Shields [Susan Montgomery], the disciplinary teacher; school friends Schwartz [Adien (sp?) Glass] and Flick [Jackson Moscona] whose tongue gets frozen to a flagpole when he is triple-dog-dared to do so; and the town bully Scut Farcus [Jackson Dean], who will get his deserved comeuppance at the hands of Ralphie; and brainy Helen [Zoe Zink] and flirty Esther Jane [Abigail Roark].

Noah Henninger plays Ralphie. This young actor turns in an effective characterization that shows Ralphie's frustrations with every thwarted attempt to get the BB-gun as his one and only wished for Christmas present. He shines especially in Ralphie's frequent fantasies where he defends his family from desperadoes, or melodramatically pretends to be blind, or anticipates a rapturous response to his teacher's writing assignment, or expects Santa to grant his wish. -- Ralphie is persistent, and it ultimately pays off. Well done, Mr. Henninger.

There are a lot of laughs in store for the Depot's audiences here; and yet, there is an important message as well. While we reminisce with the grown up Ralph about a gentler time, we also get caught up in the familiar domestic catastrophes and can identify with most any of the cast of characters. Perhaps it is good to remember that we get through these things because "we have each other and love" -- Not a bad message for the Christmas Season.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's official. The Christmas theatre season is underway with the opening of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's perennial treat: A Christmas Carol. [There are several others underway at community and university theatres across the River Region...stay tuned.]

The Charles Dickens classic stars Rodney Clark as miserly Ebenezer Scrooge whose miraculous transformation happens over the course of one enchanted night in the company of the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Lilly Wilton], Present [James Bowen], and Future [Woodrow Proctor]. Instigated by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes], Scrooge goes on a journey that allows him to reflect on the mistakes of his past, the reality of his present situation, and the indeterminate future which he alone can redeem through compassion and generosity.

The story is narrated by Charles Dickens himself [David Schmittou], an amateur magician with several sleight if hand tricks on display, who also takes on a number of supporting roles in the story. In fact, virtually every actor other than Mr. Clark plays a number of roles, so that the 25-strong ensemble appears to be much larger.

Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation has been featured a number of times at ASF, each iteration with its own stamp. Nancy Rominger directs this year, and has re-distributed some of the actors' roles, tweaked several moments, and scaled down the text to play in under two hours including an intermission. The deliberate exposition in Act I is important to establish plot, theme, and character; but later on, much of the action seems rushed, important moments flashing by so quickly they barely register. Yet, it is still a visual delight with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes and Paul Wonsek's Victorian inspired sets, complete with their own magic -- pyrotechnics, moving parts, trap doors and smoke -- all in the service of Scrooge's reclamation from self-imposed isolation from the rest of mankind to a man who intends to keep Christmas in his heart every day of the year. Audiences get caught up in ASF's adroit mixture of story and spectacle, novelty songs and traditional Christmas carols under Joel Jones's musical direction.

When we first see him, Mr. Clarks' Scrooge is so earnestly nasty that we see he has a long way to go. He berates his hard-working clerk Bob Cratchitt [Billy Sharpe] and threatens to fire him on Christmas Eve; dismisses the Charity Man's [James Bowen] request for a donation to help the poor, suggesting that the prisons and workhouses meet their needs and that "if they would rather die" than go there they should do it and "decrease the surplus population"; and derides his nephew Fred's [Seth Andrew Bridges] undaunted good humor and well intentioned Christmas greetings with a resounding "Bah, humbug!" on the Christmas Season. -- His words will come back on him with a vengeance later.

Once Marley sets things in motion with a warning that without the intervention of the other three ghosts he has no chance of avoiding Marley's fate of wandering the world in pain, Scrooge is on his way, unwillingly at first. -- Some events in his past can not be remedied. While his love for Belle [Noelia Antweiler] has been replaced by his love of money, and the generosity of his first employer Mr. Fezziwig [Mr. Schmittou] and Mrs. Fezziwig [Fredena J. Williams] can never be repaid, Scrooge's guilt weighs heavily.

But two persistent issues cry out for resolution: to be reconciled with his nephew, and to help Bob Cratchitt with a living wage to support Mrs. Cratchitt [Jacqueline Petroccia] and their family and provide the means to find a cure for Cratchitt's crippled son Tiny Tim [Matthew Cramer on opening night].

The ghosts have shown Scrooge his past and present, and he has been moved to change but does not know how. He fears the Ghost of Christmas Future more than the others; when he is shown the results of his behavior, and receives no answer to whether these are things that "will be or might be", he awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. -- Mr. Clark's irrepressible giddiness and delight in a world of new possibilities is infectious. He makes good on his desire to help the Cratchitt family and is reunited with Fred.

With a full heart shared with the ASF audience, Scrooge is a reclaimed man carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders; as the boy exclaims "God bless us, every one!" we can't help but leave the theatre with our own full hearts and concern for our fellows.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Woyzeck"

Each performance of German playwright Georg Buchner's Woyzeck at Theatre AUM was unique. -- Left unfinished at his death in 1837 at age 24, Buchner's episodic fragments have since then been arranged and re-arranged and "finished" by a long catalogue of admirers.

In an adaptation by Nicholas Rudall, who encourages directors to arrange the scenes in any way so as "to make their own dramatic coherence", director Val Winkelman has her audiences draw numbers out of a hat to determine that performance's randomly arranged sequence of scenes. -- This arbitrary choice removes any director's guiding principle and with mixed results; so actors must signal the essential plot and thematic issues on the fly, and audiences are left to their own devices to piece together the story as best they can. -- Combining this with Elise Sottile's first-rate circus-themed set, costumes, and make-up designs reminiscent of German expressionism and Fellini-esque baroque manipulation of the political and social worlds, there's a lot to suss out in this version of Woyzeck. -- Everyone has to pay strict attention. There are rewards for doing so.

More concerned with social conditions, the financial and moral divide between the rich and poor, exploitation of the less fortunate members of society that leads to suffering and madness, than with character development and human relationships, Ms. Winkelman's twelve ensemble actors serve Buchner's ideas well.

Led by Kodi Robertson in the title role of a poor young soldier who lives with Marie [Brittany Vallely]  and their illegitimate child, who earns extra cash doing menial jobs for the exploitative Captain [Michael Breen], and is a guinea pig participant in medical/psychological experiments run by the Doctor [Kate Saylor] who puts him on a diet solely of peas that causes him much dismay, the cards are stacked against him. -- When Marie has an affair with the Drum Major [Tony George], and Woyzeck is on the brink of a mental breakdown after experiencing several apocalyptic visions, he stabs Marie to death near a pond and tries to clean the blood from his hands.

Woyzeck has been thoroughly dehumanized by his social superiors; but Buchner never finished the play, so there is no satisfying resolution. Despite this, Woyzeck has never been out of fashion, allowing virtually any culture to view it as a reflection of the world they live in. The play has been lauded for close to 200 years and has influenced many playwrights since its composition.

Theatre AUM's production is challenging, frustrating, entertaining, and provocative, all in the best traditions of educational theatre that exposes AUM students and their audiences alike to some of the most important plays in world theatre.