Sunday, December 16, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "A Tuna Christmas"

Bookending their 2018 Season that started with Greater Tuna, the Wetumpka Depot is ending it with A Tuna Christmas with the same director and actors. Penned by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, audiences are taken to the tiny town of Tuna, TX (population 24), and introduced to most if not all of its eccentric citizens, all of whom are played by two actors: David and Brooke Brown. Under Kristy Meanor's direction, they are able to display their ample talents.

It most certainly helps to have some exposure to the first play of a series, as character backgrounds and events of Greater Tuna are given short attention if any at all, and some of the character traits of these social misfits have been softened without explanation.

Arles and Thurston, the hosts at "Radio O.K.A.Y.", start things off by telling that the annual Christmas yard display contest winner will be announced shortly, and the fierce competition is threatened by a mysterious phantom; that and the annual community theatre performance of A Christmas Carol is also under threat of having the power turned off for non-payment of bills. -- How these two things impact the town is the play's central concern.

So, we see the townsfolk in all their bizarre behavior trying to out-do one another. Mr. and Mrs. Brown are to be commended for creating clever and specific characters through the manipulation of a series of quick costume changes, along with wigs, false teeth, prosthetics, props, vocal and physical dexterity that clearly distinguish each one. Hats off too to the team of backstage "dressers" who make the smooth transitions happen, and to a sweet dachshund disguised as an iguana who almost steals the show.

This is a gentler version of the town of Tuna, perhaps because it is a Christmas show that purports to having a kinder message, delivered sincerely by Petey Fisk [Mr. Brown] in his version of the first Christmas story, but the play overall has lost a lot of its satiric bite. Though we are entertained by these rogues and their familiar homespun philosophies, it takes over two hours to get to the point, and some scenes are belabored beyond their sell by date.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Millbrook: "It's a Wonderful Life"

The film It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra in 1946, and starring James Stewart, has become a beloved staple of the Christmas Season and is listed as one of the top films ever made. There are several musical and non-musical adaptations available. The non-musical stage version now playing in Millbrook is a two-act fantasy drama by James W. Rodgers.

Faithful to the film's plot while narrating some episodes rather than staging them, and sensitively directed by A. John Collier, the cast of twenty-seven actors moves the story efficiently to come in at under two hours.

On a neutral open stage that becomes the numerous locations in and around the fictional town of  Bedford Falls with simple adjustments of scenery and minimal props, the familiar story of George Bailey [Brady Walker] unfolds. -- From the opening moment when Angel Second-Class Clarence Odbody [Wes Meyer] intervenes in George's attempted suicide we are treated to a nostalgic feel-good celebration of his truly "wonderful life".

Brought to despair by debt, and believing himself to be worth more dead than alive, George is shown the many good deeds he did throughout his life, and horrifyingly sees what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born; he is willing to face the consequences and is saved by the townspeople whose lives he impacted.

From his childhood, George dreamed of seeing the world and making a financial success for himself. Brought up to respect others and help them whenever he could, the rapid-fire episodes tell how he saved his brother from drowning, intervened in a mistaken medical prescription, puts his dreams on hold to take over the family's "Savings and Loan" business, marries his sweetheart Mary [Sarah Olguin], stands up to the nasty richest man in town  Mr. Potter [John Chain] during the Depression's financial crash, and pretty much has a positive impact on the entire populace.

Though George is not an astute businessman, he is a man of principle and though he doesn't realize it, a role model par excellence. It is only when he reaches the depths of despair that he is shown his own worth.

The Millbrook company make the story and characters their own, without any attempt at mimicking the film, and without any unnecessary saccharined overlaying.  This adds a freshness to the experience, allowing audiences to get caught up in the suspense and twists of plot.

And yes, there are lessons to be learned here, appropriate to Christmas or any other season: material wealth is not the complete measure of success, kindness to one another and sacrificing oneself for their betterment delivers a truly "wonderful life".

Saturday, December 8, 2018

ASF: "The Gospel of Luke"

For a limited engagement in the Octagon theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, actor Bruce Kuhn is presenting an evocative telling of The Gospel of Luke: King James Version, a recounting aimed at the Gentiles that emphasizes prayer and action.

Dressed in casual boots and jeans on an almost bare stage -- a chair and a lectern only -- and equipped with a versatile imagination and vocal dexterity in lieu of props, Mr. Kuhn performs Luke's Gospel that continues the "oral tradition" common before the Gospels were written down to recount the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Audiences don't have to be Biblical scholars, though it was clear during the talk-back that followed the opening night performance that many who were present had more than a passing acquaintance with Scripture, and that there were references in The Gospel of Luke to the Book of Genesis, Acts, and the other three Gospel accounts.

Indeed, the complete Gospel isn't spoken here; Mr. Kuhn, who has been performing this for over twenty years, selects from the lengthy narrative per performance, guaranteeing that each audience receives a unique telling, though he insists that the ending of the narrative never changes.

On opening night, the content remained chronologically faithful, recounting a litany of moments in the life of Jesus, his behavior, several miracles, and a lot of his teaching through parables; included in Mr. Kuhn's narrative were familiar stories of the woman at the well, the curing of cripples, the loaves and fishes, the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the mustard seed, the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son, the adulterous woman, and the road to Emmaus.

And all with the same purpose, to emphasize two things: (1) "Fear not" [a frequent refrain to assure listeners that they are in good hands], and (2) to not simply to hear the Word, but to act upon it. "Love your enemies," "Do good," "Treat others as you would be treated," "Don't expect anything in return for your good deeds," "Be merciful," "Don't judge."

Mr. Kuhn has no intention of converting anyone, and the success of his performance wherein he narrates and portrays the numerous characters and their stories with sincerity and humor, is that the lessons in it resonate today in a world driven by tribal divisions and intolerance as in the time they were written.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Private Lives"

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

With a trusting director at the helm of a witty script from an internationally renowned playwright, a gifted ensemble acting company who inhabit their characters and interpret the dialogue brilliantly, impressive period and character-driven costumes, and a stunning art deco inspired set [be sure to watch it transform during the intermission], the result is a high caliber collaborative production of Noel Coward's comedy of manners, Private Lives, at the Cloverdale Playhouse.

There's a lot to get right for Coward aficionados: the mis-en-scene that scenic designer J. Scott Grinstead delivers in restrained period detail; costumes by Danny Davidson-Cline that define characters in both their sophisticated social moments and their more pedestrian everyday lives; and age-appropriate actors who appear comfortable in the physical trappings while delivering witty epigrammatic badinage that helps create characters whose narcissism and surface charm disguises their emptiness and insecurities yet manages somehow to endear them to us.

Act I provides a clever set-up for what is to come. Unbeknownst to one another, divorced couple Elyot and Amanda are honeymooning with their new spouses Sibyl and Victor at the same hotel in adjoining rooms, and each of the new spouses is fixated on the uncomplimentary behavior of the former spouses of their new partners; there's a lot of truth in Elyot's and Amanda's reputations, as will be discovered later. -- Inevitably, Elyot and Amanda meet on their adjacent balconies and rekindle the passion that both attracted them and caused their breakup; so they leave their new spouses in the lurch for an assignation in Amanda's Paris apartment.

Written in 1930 as a vehicle for himself and frequent co-star Gertrude Lawrence [and with a young Lawrence Olivier in the cast], Coward professed to have written his "intimate comedy" in only four days. -- Having already penned Fallen Angels, The Vortex, Hay Fever, and Easy Virtue, Coward was no stranger to threats of censorship; and Coward was able to soothe the censor's reservations about a still married couple's adulterous relationship by showing them how it could all be managed "in good taste".

Mr. Winkelman's able cast are up to the task. From the 17th Century onwards, comedy of manners assumes that one can get away with almost anything as long as it is done with style; so here in Private Lives the style and wit -- and the assuredness of the Playhouse actors -- allows audiences to root for them despite disapproval of their actions and motives.

There is no denying the chemistry between Nathan Jacobs [Elyot] and Alison Beach [Amanda], both making debut appearances at the Playhouse. Their repartee is infectious; their commitment to conflict and resolution is convincing; their manipulation of each other and their new spouses is confident; they seem so comfortable in one another's company that carries audiences along for the ride. -- When they agree to have safe words in order to diffuse predictable fault-finding and aggressive arguments, audiences are prepared for some wildness to come in the final two acts.

Sarah Housley [Sibyl] and Chris Paulk [Victor] are admirable foils to Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Beach. Both are back on the stage after a long hiatus, but have not lost the stage-cred of the past. Sibyl and Victor both attempt to control or "manage" Elyot and Amanda, a scheme that is bound to fail. Each is convinced of their position to impose restrictions on people who resist any attempt to be harnessed, but when push comes to shove a triumph is unsure, and one can't help but believe that they are a better match with each other than with their legal partners.

We delight in the various maneuverings and try to second-guess the end result. And we are carried along by the actors' collective abilities to engage and surprise us. -- Even the secondary servant roles [Bailey Johnson's French maid Louise, and Greg Loggins as the concierge Francois] make indelible marks in this production.

All is not resolved at the end; we may never know how these two mismatched couples wind up; but we have been charmed by their company and leave the theatre with smiles on our faces.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

ASF: "The Sound of Music"

Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved The Sound of Music -- their last collaboration in 1959 -- is currently on the boards at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Artistic Director Rick Dildine's inventively stunning production.

Eschewing elaborate stage scenery and a grand orchestral score -- Mr. Dildine's production substitutes strikingly minimalist set pieces and a pair of baby grand pianos placed strategically at center stage -- the story of the Von Trapp family on the brink of the Nazi takeover of Austria, is both a heartwarming family musical drama that celebrates the courage of individuals who stand up for their principles, and a prescient warning against the dangers of complacent people among us who even today compromise principle for the empty promises of dictators.

The multi-award winning musical has been revived several times, and of course is well known from the 1965 film. It has given us so many familiar songs: "Do-Re-Mi", "My Favorite Things", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "Climb Every Mountain", and Edelweiss" among them. And the story of Maria (a young woman preparing to be a nun who is sent to be a governess to the seven children of a wealthy widower) as she navigates between her world of devotion to God and the calling of the secular roles of marriage and family, has become a part of musical theatre's indelible legacy.

Maria [Courtney Bassett] struggles with her vocation and is given common-sense advice from the Mother Abbess [Ann Arvia] to experience the world before making her final vows. And when she meets Captain Von Trapp [Gil Brady] it quickly becomes evident that they are a good match, garnering the approval of his children. -- She is the tonic the family needs to soothe them from the loss of their wife and mother, and they are transformed before our eyes.

But things are complicated by the intrusion of the Nazis whose sense of German nationalism led them to annex Austria in what is known as the Anschluss. The insidious presence of Nazi uniforms and insignia grows by degrees as the play progresses [one unexpected image toward the end drew audible gasps from the audience], and several characters in The Sound of Music walk the thin line between acceptance and rejection of a regime that appears benign but turns malignant. -- Friend and concert organizer Max Detweiller [Kevin Ligon] tries to ingratiate himself with the powers in Berlin and argues that Nazi rule is inevitable; and Captain Von Trapp's elegant fiancee Elsa Schraeder [Sandra DeNise] is afraid of the consequences of going against the Nazis, so she gives up on their marriage. Even Von Trapp's eldest daughter Liesl [AnnEliza Canning-Skinner] gets a rude awakening when her boyfriend Rolf [Cameron Edris] joins the ranks of the Nazi guard.

Make no mistake, it is the music that is the center of this production. In the hands of pianists Michael Rice and Joel Jones, the score of The Sound of Music is precise, colorful, and dramatic; there is no need for a full orchestra here.

Mr. Dildine brings many new faces to the Festival stage, whose professional credits are impressive; their combined talents carry us through the two acts, balancing credible characterizations and storytelling with impressive singing voices. Ms. Arvia's rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" brings Act I to a powerful conclusion; Ms. Canning-Skinner and Mr. Edris are pleasantly adolescent in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", Joy Lynn Jacobs as Sister Margaretta produces the most striking voice in the Chorus of nuns, and Mr. Brady's "Edelweiss" is delivered as a heartfelt anthem to his Austrian patriotism.

Yet, much of the play's focus is on Maria and her impact on the family. Ms. Bassett is so likable as a young novice nun who is still attracted to the world around her, and she stands up to the regimented life that Mr. Brady's Captain imposes on his household, played here by two separate casts of local children. What all of them need is love, and Ms. Bassett is the perfect means to that end. The children respond to her gentle manner that changes them all. -- "My Favorite Things" breaks the ice, and is followed by rousing versions of "Do-Re-Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd", and the children's own singing of "So Long, Farewell". -- Ms. Bassett's charming demeanor and fine lyric soprano captivate the audience at every turn.

Jeffrey Toddhunter's period and character driven costumes (and there are several quick costume changes) enhance John Coyne's inventive set pieces: a series of huge French doors and a "rolling floor", along with judicious use of items that fly in to depict specific locations, and allow the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.

Two and a half hours go be quickly as Mr. Dildine's production is kept at a pace that keeps us engaged in every moment, in admiration of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, the ample talents of the acting ensemble, and the provocative book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse that draws attention to mankind's ability to courageously hold on to principles in the face of losing everything.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Child's Play"

In Kevin D. Ferguson's powerful and provocative Child's Play at Theatre AUM, young Cindy Stillman [Piper Mann alternates with Sophia Kessler] has stopped talking. The reason is a mystery, but as in real life any drastic change of behavior is often the result of some traumatic event, Cindy is sent to therapist Vera Heigl [Amy May] to discover the cause and help her to "find her voice". Suspicions of abuse [a topic that is too often reported in the news] arise quickly; and as the perpetrators are likely to be authority figures or family members the victim trusts, Vera must secure Cindy's confidence in her in order to accomplish her goal. -- As a kind of TED Talk narrator of the drama, Vera too needs to find her own voice, as she is suffering from burn-out, and is helped along the way by her colleague Roger [Tony George], whose romantic inclinations she resists at first.

Director Neil David Seibel continues Theatre AUM's relationship with the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia that incubates new plays via its MFA program and where award winning playwright Ferguson is the resident dramaturg.

Mr. Seibel guides his mostly veteran ensemble actors through the contrasting naturalistic and fantasy episodes of this two-act drama; and with an inventive student design team [set and props: Olivia Tippett, costumes: Kate Saylor, lighting: Emily Aveldanez, sound: Marcus Godbee, make-up: Olivia Crutchfield] keeps audiences engaged in Cindy's suspenseful journey.

Ms. May plays Vera as a compassionate therapist whose refrain "In this part of our time together, you can do almost anything" gently secures Cindy's trust, and Ms. Mann engages in "play therapy" -- drawings that audiences see as projections, and sandbox toys that come to life -- showing her nightmares that give progressive clues to the events that triggered her silence.

These dreams particularly shed light on Cindy and her family's dynamics: when a Dragon [Sam Penn] threatens and almost shatters the idyllic fairy-tale life of the Princess [Faith Roberts], the King [Ryan Gerrells], and the Queen [Olivia Crutchfield], and a Ninja Girl [Kate Saylor] attempts to rescue the Princess, we can't help but notice the correlation as Cindy is projecting her own family in her nightmares.

Her compassionate and loving stepfather Peter [Kodi Robertson in a sensitive and understated performance] and her perfection-driven mother Julia [Brittany Vallely] both want things to go back to normal, but their own relationship is fraught with divergent versions of the truth.

Fear, secrecy, and safety with the loved ones who ought to be trusted are gradually revealed to be the crux of Cindy's affliction that bring the play to its shattering climax. -- Mr. Seibel and his company address the subject of child abuse with a sensitivity and honesty that are to be commended. And Theatre AUM sheds light on a topic that encourages audiences to address uncomfortable matters that are unfortunately too much in evidence in our own community.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

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

An instant hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is now showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Director Sarah Walker Thornton's ensemble of actors is in top form, turning Shakespeare's Hamlet on its head in delivering Stoppard's witty dialogue with split-second comic timing; and the themes are as resonant today as they were more than 50 years after the play's debut..

Stoppard's conceit is to make two minor characters in Hamlet the focus of his inventive study of the universal existential considerations we all share: our purpose in this life as well as contemplations on our inevitable death.

While this might appear as pretty heady stuff, Stoppard employs many comic devices as Rosencrantz [Jacob Holmberg] and Guildenstern [Marcus Clement] question their condition: they've been summoned to the Danish court, but why? Awaiting answers, they pass the time playing games [much as Vladimir and Estragon do in Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot], and are distracted by the appearance of the Player [Mike Winkelman] and his troupe of itinerant actors.

Oh yes, Shakespeare isn't forgotten here. In fact, Stoppard includes a number of verbatim scenes from Hamlet in R&G to flesh out his story and further frustrate his protagonists, much to audience delight. It doesn't hurt to have some knowledge of Shakespeare's original [there is a brief synopsis in the program], but Stoppard's play stands on its own.

Playing on J. Scott Grinstead's evocative "backstage theatre" set, and dressed in Danny Davidson-Cline's fine-tuned comically interpreted "Elizabethan" costumes, Ms. Thornton's acting troupe at the Playhouse take audiences on a two-plus hour romp that makes them exercise both their intellectual and laugh muscles, and invest in the lives of the hapless duo at the center of the action.

Mr. Holmberg and Mr. Clement are on-stage virtually the entire running time. Adept at finding the nuances of Stoppard's linguistic genius, and demonstrating enviable comfort with the plot twists and turns the author throws at them, they are one of the best "double-acts" Montgomery is likely to witness. When Mr. Winkelman's expert portrayal of the bombastic Player threatens to steal the show [in a good way as Stoppard intended], they somehow manage to retrieve the audience's attention and support.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are insignificant pawns in the political intrigues in Hamlet, but here there stature -- Everyman figures out of their element trying to figure out their place in society and, indeed, in the universe -- becomes the stuff we can all recognize in ourselves. Though their deaths are inevitable [no spoilers here; the title of the play is straightforward], these two fellows make us invest in their predicaments, care about their welfare, and cheer them on till the end.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and so much enjoyment in the visual and linguistic delights on display, that we wish to stay in their company long after the final bows.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

WOBT: "Blithe Spirit"

A staple on stage for decades, English playwright Noel Coward's brilliant 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit has made the rounds at several local theatres, the latest being done at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

In it, novelist Charles Condomine [Brady Walker] and his second wife Ruth [Cathy Ranieri] invite eccentric psychic Madame Arcati [Michon Givens] to conduct a seance at a small dinner party. What she doesn't know is that the skeptical Condomines and their other guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman [Matthew Givens and Zyna Captain] merely want to find out from her some "tricks of the trade" for a new novel about the occult that Charles is writing.

When she accidentally conjures the ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira [Jillian Rabb], the comic situations abound, especially as Charles is the only one who can see or hear her. Despite their many attempts to exorcise her, and Mme. Arcati goes into a number of trances to effect the outcome, Elvira has no intention of leaving.

Without giving away the many plot complications, or Coward's clever way of resolving the dilemma, there are plenty of uncomfortable events and hilarious three-way conversations where the two wives vie for Charles's affection; and the inept maid Edith [Lindsay Sellers] plays an important role in the unravelling.

Coward's urbane wit is present on every page in the mouths of all his characters, and actors must speak his glittering fast-paced dialogue with the utmost confidence, making every bon mot seem easy and natural no matter how outrageous the situation.

Though there are some strong performances that elevate Coward's wit, there was a lot of hesitance delivering the lines and struggling to pick up cues; and some lines were spoken so softly that they could not have been heard distinctly beyond the first row of the audience. -- The result unfortunately muddled much of the plot, character relationships, and clever turns of phrase, so much of the comedy fell flat. Too bad, since this company appeared to be committed to their roles.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

ASF: "Every Brilliant Thing"

"If you've never been depressed, you weren't paying attention": so says the narrator/actor of Every Brilliant Thing currently playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. -- Devised by playwright Duncan MacMillan and actor Jonny Donahoe in 2013, it was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, made into an HBO special in 2016, and has had several successful stage productions in this country and abroad.

ASF's new Artistic Director Rick Dildine's first directing credit here brings MFA Class of 2002 alumnus David Lee Nelson to play the role of a young man who, remembering his childhood at seven years old, was told by his father that his mother had done "something stupid". The boy doesn't comprehend depression or suicidal tendencies; he just knows that his mother is in the hospital, so he sets out to compile a list of things to cheer her up for her to read: ice cream, water fights, Kung Fu movies, hammocks, staying up late... The list grows over the years, reaching countless thousands, becoming as much an antidote for him as for his mother; and for us.

The action takes place with the 150 audience members seated on the Festival stage where they become participants in his story, calling out pre-arranged "brilliant things" on the list, or being gently conscripted into playing characters in the young man's life and memory.

Mr. Nelson is an ideal narrator, making audiences instantly comfortable with his self-deprecating and genial manner that takes a difficult topic and subjects it to scrutiny with a seriousness edged with humor. He energetically moves around and through the audience, calling out numbers to which they respond with items on his list; or they become his father, teacher, and others who flesh out the story.

In just over an hour, we travel some 30 years through his and his mother's ups and downs, never forgetting his mission to give hope to her and to any one of us who suffers or knows someone who suffers as she does. The close proximity of actor and audience gives no escape from the issue at hand; we forget that we are at a performance and willingly get involved, becoming a kind of support group for him.

Though the topic is serious, there is a lot of laughter on the Festival stage, laughter that provides a cathartic psychological relief from all-too-familiar connections we all have with depression. -- And, as he says, there's always hope.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Female Voices"

A tradition at Theatre AUM is its annual showcase of theatre students' talents in the form of selected monologues and scenes. -- This year's theme is Female Voices featuring 21 student actors in almost 40 selections that highlight the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as well as the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and show that the concerns of women [and men] today have been unresolved for centuries.

Performed on an open stage with minimal furniture and props, each of the pieces is announced by the actors, all of whom are dressed mostly in black that varies from concert attire to cocktail party outfits and more casual dress to achieve neutrality or social commentary to punctuate the pieces' intentions and words.

Female playwrights range from 17th Century Englishwoman Aphra Behn to contemporaries that include among others Sarah Ruhl, Caryl Churchill, Lorraine Hansberry, Pearl Cleage, Wendy Wasserstein, and Paula Vogel, all of whom confront issues that need attention. -- The mistreatment of women based on gender, social position, race, and sexuality are brought to the fore with selections that address such topics as violence, guns in schools, the Holocaust, abortion, locker room talk, fear, and the consequences of past actions -- the still unresolved issues that are covered everyday in both mainstream and social media.

Whether in a serious or humorous mode, the performances in this 1 hour 40 minute program focus on the historical perception of women as submissive to men's demands, and to women's resistance to being ignored, underrated, and abused.

Often delivered as in-yer-face address to the audience, we are made to reflect on their rage, accept our own discomfort in their condition, and resolve to make things better.

The varied strengths of the AUM actors are given attention, and audience members might remember or connect with any one piece. -- The thing that ties it all together by the end is an affirmation of the value of women in a society that still relegates them too often to second-class status, and the hope that in future there will be greater equity.

Monday, September 24, 2018

ASF: "Sometimes...Patsy Cline"

Sometimes...Patsy Cline had an all-too-short three-performance run last weekend at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Showcasing the impressive vocal talents of Jacqueline Petroccia [seen previously at ASF in Because of Winn Dixie, A Christmas Carol, and Always...Patsy Cline], this intermissionless songfest entertained its appreciative audiences.

Ms. Petroccia traced her journey from New Jersey girl to Country Western star, abetted by a few photo projections and bits of narrative linking songs to her story.

Some 24 cover-songs by Patsy Cline and others who influenced her [Bette Midler, Rosemary Clooney, Karen Carpenter, Hank Williams, among them] highlighted both her vocal range from alto to operatic soprano, as well as her command of Country Western, Blues, Broadway, Gospel, and novelty numbers that accented her refusal to be pigeonholed into one style.

Ms. Petroccia's versions of songs from Broadway's Gypsy, Clooney's "Mambo Italiano", excursions into operatic heights, as well as renditions of Cline's "Crazy", "I Fall to Pieces", and "Sweet Dreams of You" highlighted the entertainment.

Backed by a fabulous five-member on-stage band led by her husband, Ms. Petroccia instantly connected with her audience and kept them engaged for the entire 75-minute program.

Her powerful and expressive voice didn't need the excessive amplification provided her, but her vocal precision, clear diction, and sensitive interpretation of lyrics made for a delightful afternoon in her presence.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"

When the 'Disciples of James Dean' meet in a small Texas emporium in 1975 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their film idol's tragic death, their reunion takes several unexpected turns. -- They reminisce about their teenage years, often romanticizing the past as people are wont to do, and along the way are confronted by truths they would prefer to be kept secret.

Ed Graczyk's 1976 play Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Thursday for a three-week run at the Wetumpka Depot. There are roles for both the "then" and "now" of some of the characters, with a number of scenes when they are on stage at the same time; not as confusing as it may seem. Director Tom Salter emphasizes its "you can't go home again" theme in a series of scenes set in 1955 and 1975, seamlessly suggesting the time changes with lighting shifts; Costume designer Carol Heier dresses them in complimentary costumes that suit their characters; and Kristy Meanor's detailed period set shows how time has not changed the Kressmont Five and Dime, much like the characters haven't changed much in the intervening years.

Juanita [Janie Allred] still runs the Five and Dime with an autocratic hand that doesn't tolerate crude language or alcohol; Sissy [Leslie Blackwell] still flaunts her bosoms; now wealthy Stella May [Cindy Smith] continues to ridicule the shy and ever-pregnant Edna Louise [Venna Everett], who it turns out is the most normal and happiest member of the bunch; and Mona [Chantel Oakley] continues her fantasy that James Dean fathered her illegitimate child during the film-shoot at "Reata", now just a shell-in-ruin of a film set for "Giant", Dean's last movie on which she was an "extra".

The "Jimmy Dean" of the title is Mona's son, named for his alleged father; though he never appears in stage, Mona is obsessed with protecting him at all costs -- from the instant celebrity status she foisted on him in his infancy, to the current time when she claims he is retarded and needs her to look after him.

When we meet these characters in the past, it becomes clear how the past informs their present natures, especially as Sissy "Then" [Lauren Norris] and Mona "Then" [Skylar Frye] exhibit so many of the mannerisms and attitudes of their "present" selves depicted by Ms. Blackwell and Ms. Oakley.

The plot hinges on an assault on Joe [Reese Lynch], the only boy admitted to the "Disciples" fan-club, whose sexual identity causes a crisis in all their lives. -- And the arrival of the enigmatic Joanne [Marcella Willis] only adds fuel to the fire that the women are facing. Each has at least one secret that time and faulty memory complicate, and which will be revealed by the end of the play.

Much of the success of Mr. Salter's production is in the fine ensemble work of his actors. Their combined efforts make the plot contrivances more palatable as they in habit their roles with such sensitivity that we feel comfortable with them on their individual and group journeys to discovery and acceptance.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Millbrook: "The Bad Seed"

Maxwell Anderson"s 1954 stage version of The Bad Seed, a novel by William March, is perhaps best famous for the 1956 screen version starring a young Patty McCormack as a murderous child named Rhoda Penmark.

On opening night at the Millbrook Community Players' production, Charlotte Brown took on the role of the seemingly perfect Rhoda, all polite manners and a sweetness that belies a sinister underside. [The role is being played alternately by Lucy Wilson].

The drowning of a classmate at a school picnic, a boy who had won a penmanship medal that Rhoda thought she deserved and for whose death she shows no emotion, makes the girl's mother Christine [Nicole Allen] suspect that her daughter knows more than she divulges. -- Beset by recurring nightmares, Christine wonders if her dreams might be something more: a repressed memory of her own childhood that might impact her daughter's behavior.

Very much a reflection of the 1950s obsession with Freudian psychology and the debate between "nature vs. nurture" as the determining factor of one's behavior, The Bad Seed feels dated in both dialogue and character development, but is redeemed [in part at least] by old-fashioned plotting that keeps audiences guessing from moment to moment.

Rhoda's outward demeanor that manipulates others to give in to her politeness has fooled almost everyone: her father [Corey Jackson], neighbor/landlady [Vicki Moses], school mistress [Karla McGhee], crime novelist [John Chain], all succumb to her manipulations. -- The only one who sees through Rhoda's guise is handyman Leroy [Michael Snead], who taunts her privately.

The drowned boy's parents [Craig Greer and Rae Ann Collier] show their grief in quiet demeanor and drunken outspokenness respectively. -- And Christine's father [John Collier] clears up some of his daughter's past regarding the truth behind her nightmares.

There are several plot twists and revelations about both Rhoda and Christine that drive The Bad Seed to its tragic and unexpected conclusion and keep the audience's attention in director Joe Nolin, Jr.'s production, but some hesitant dialogue, static staging, and over-long scene changes allow audiences to disengage from the important action and themes.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

ASF: "Menopause The Musical"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's sold-out opening night audience's reaction to Menopause The Musical (2001), in its third iteration at ASF, was raucous and infectious, frequently drowning out both dialogue and lyrics of the play's 25 song parodies.

Essentially a one-joke sketch about women going through "the Change", the theme is stretched out over 90 minutes playing time. This GFour Production, with book and lyrics by Jeanie Linders, contrives a plot that brings together four disparate women on a shopping spree at Bloomingdale's where they bond over such free-ranging topics as chocolate cravings, mood swings, failing eyesight, memory lapses, Prozac, night sweats, weight gain, facelifts, hot flashes, lingerie, and sex toys. Familiar territory.

Director Seth Greenleaf's cast -- Teri Adams [an Iowa Housewife], Patti Gardner [a Soap Star], Donna J. Huntley [a Professional Woman], Liz Hyde [Earth Mother] -- seemed a bit tentative at first, but soon adjusted to the audience's enthusiasm.  They delivered the script's hokey dialogue and cheesy punchlines with a lot of winks that conscript the predominantly female audience's recognition and approval.

The songs in Menopause The Musical are parodies of largely 1960s popular songs, "Staying Awake" and "Puff, my God I'm Draggin'" among the ones that tickled Saturday's ASF crowd. -- Unfortunately, the sound balance made hearing the actors' words difficult: an overly loud soundtrack with a dominant bass line rendered many of the words incomprehensible, and the women's fine singing voices all but disappeared except in the quieter and solo moments.

Kudos to the four women on stage for their ability to engage through their individual character's personality, and with even the least clever lyrics. We grow to like them and anticipate each one's quirky take on the subject matter.

Saving perhaps the best till last, parodies of "What's Love Got to Do With It" and "Only You" lead to the inevitable transformation of these four delightful characters into a strong unit who can celebrate with us their making it through "the Change".

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Millbrook: "Mama Won't Fly"

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten have collaborated on several comedies [Dixie Swim Club, Dearly Departed, etc.] that have played on various stages across the River Region; another popular local offering, Mama Won't Fly, is currently on stage in Millbrook.

The premise is simple enough: oft-married Savannah Sprunt Fairchild Honeycutt [Karla McGee] has promised her brother Walker that she will travel with their mother Norleen [Vicki Moses] from Alabama to California for his wedding. The problem is that "Mama won't fly", so Savannah begrudgingly agrees to make a cross-country drive in Norleen's vintage car; yet, before they can get started, Walker's fiancee Hayley [Tracey Quates] shows up to travel with them in order to bond with her soon-to-be family.

It's pretty much a one-situation joke that nonetheless plays out in a sequence of more and more improbable predicaments: Hayley is encumbered with bad luck that is visited on them at almost every turn; Norleen and Savannah are very much alike and have serious Mother-Daughter issues; and the sheer number of eccentric strangers and relatives they meet along the way add to the mayhem.

The wacky trio are supported by an ensemble who play multiple roles each in the many vignettes that comprise the two acts. Misty Bone, John Chain, Rae Ann Collier, Carol Majors, Wes Meyer, Cheryl Phillips, Steve Phillips, Terry Quates, and Michael Snead build the lunacy of the trek across America to outrageous proportions.

And the laughs keep coming with every new impersonation. The ensemble company know how to stretch a joke and are fully committed to the goings on. In the three principal roles, Ms. McGee, Ms. Mosdes, and Ms. Quates show confidence in both speech and character; they carry the show and are a delight to watch and hear.

Ms. Majors is a standout among the ensemble for her uninhibited impersonations of the comedy's most eccentric characters: the owner of a bra museum who models a series of spectacularly bizarre undergarments, and the only Las Vegas showgirl-minister of a wedding chapel. -- You get the picture.

Deftly directed by Stephanie McGuire, Mama Won't Fly doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is: a silly romp of quirky characters in unlikely circumstances who somehow connect with audiences by tickling their funny-bones.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Fences"

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

Coincidence or not, how appropriate it is that The Cloverdale Playhouse opened director Georgette Norman's revelatory production of August Wilson's multi-award winning Fences on the same weekend that Montgomery is making international headlines for the Equal Justice Initiative's eye-opening promotion of serious deliberation of racism through the "Peace and Justice Summit," a "Concert for Peace and Justice," the "Legacy Museum," and the "National Monument for Peace and Justice." -- Visitors to the EJI's sites would be well-advised to add seeing Fences to their itineraries.

The sixth of ten plays in his "Pittsburgh Cycle", each one recounting aspects of the African American experience during a specific decade of the Twentieth Century, Fences, set in the 1950s, focuses on a 53-year old former Negro League baseball player, now working as a garbage man. Troy Maxson [Ronald McCall] resents the many racial injustices visited on him in the past; he is building a fence around his modest back yard [whether to secure the place as his own or to keep others out is debatable], but the figurative wall he constructs around himself that makes him feel he is in charge actually keeps everyone else at a distance. Although his wife Rose [Yvette Jones-Smedley] sticks by him, Troy's stubborn mindset alienates his youngest son Cory [Kendrick Golson].

The decades-long disappointment with a system that kept him from playing in the Major Leagues, and now struggling to provide for his family, causes Troy to "protect" his son from a similar fate when Cory has a chance at playing football by insisting he quit the team and focus on chores and responsibility. A lesson he gives to his son when the boy questions whether Troy likes him is : "Don't you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you," a lesson Troy learned the hard way, and which ultimately gets him a job as the first Black garbage-truck driver in Pittsburgh.

But Troy has other things that haunt him: stories that build his ego he tells to his friend Bono [Joe C. Colvin, Jr.] and anyone else within hearing distance; reluctantly lending money to his elder son Lyons [Naaman Jackson], whose choice of becoming a musician runs counter to Troy's ideas of more practical vocations; tough-love offered to his mentally impaired brother Gabriel [La'Brandon Tyre], the result of a war injury; occasional private confrontations with Death and his stalwart attempts to keep the Grim Reaper away; admitting to an extra-marital affair and the birth of a daughter Raynell [Brooke Bennett on opening night], and its devastating effect on his marriage with Rose.

So much of Fences hinges on an ability to acknowledge the past and accept its often cruel and uncomfortable impact, something its characters struggle with throughout. Their very human flaws, and the genetic traits inherited from generation to generation, are characteristics that make this production's actors so readily available to connect with, especially in today's environment.

The bond of friendship between Bono and Troy is unaffected, yet Mr. Colvin in the role always in Troy's shadow, can either joke with his companion, or ignore his faults, or when it comes to it, tell him straight out to save his marriage. -- As Lyons, Mr. Jackson is intimidated by Troy, yet tries to penetrate his father's stubbornness with an obstinacy of his own. -- Ms. Bennett's Raynell is the innocent new generation whose naivete allows Cory particularly to forgive his father.

Mr. Tyre draws every bit of sympathy in his depiction of the simple-minded Gabriel, an obvious symbolic creation of the Angel Gabriel: he carries a trumpet, chases the "hellhounds", and is ready at Troy's funeral to blow his horn to "tell St. Peter to open the gates" for his brother. A fine sensitive portrayal.

The interactions among Mr. McCall, Ms. Jones-Smedley, and Mr. Golson come across as the most natural and credible; they each appear comfortable in the skins of their characters, and are so convincing in their roles that we believe they are a family made up of individuals who know each other intimately. We never doubt their motives. As a good portion of acting lies in an actor's ability to listen and respond in each moment as if it is happening for the first time, these three are models of the craft. They carry us on their respective journeys, and we laugh and cry and tense up and relax and take sides as they disclose the story of Fences.

When we see Troy strut like a peacock in the comfortable sexual bantering between him and Rose, we sense the deep love they have for one another. -- When Cory tests his adolescent need for independence from the man he idolizes, we understand, and when Troy kicks Cory out of the house for disobedience and confronting him man to man, we understand both sides. -- When Troy excuses his infidelity with a cliche that his pregnant mistress gives him something different from what he has with Rose, excusing his actions by claiming he has been "standing in the same place for eighteen years", Rose is devastated; her rejoinder is "What about me?...You're not the only one with wants and needs." -- And when Rose agrees to be a mother to the innocent love-child Raynell her strength comes to the fore by stating "From right now...this child got a mother. But you a womanless man." -- Powerful stuff on all counts that these three actors' commitment to is mesmerizing.

Ms. Norman's production of such an important play as Fences at The Cloverdale Playhouse reveals so much about the world we live in today; a world with unresolved conflicts around race; a world where -- in Montgomery, at least -- the honest assessment of the past and the conversations being initiated by the EJI give some hope that we might determine a course of action to make things better.

Friday, April 27, 2018

ASF Intern Company: "Much Ado About Nothing"

When was the last time that a Shakespeare play in Montgomery was so clearly spoken, so laugh-out-loud funny, and so incredibly infectious from the enthusiasm of the actors on stage, as last week's opening of Twelfth Night?

Well, director Greta Lambert scores again with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Intern Company's edited-for-time rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, that tours to schools and has a limited run at home. Ms. Lambert's Interns played supporting roles in her Twelfth Night, but in Much Ado... the eight of them do it on their own, doubling roles, and captivating the audience for the full 90-minutes runnung time.

There was a party atmosphere in the Shakespeare Garden on a comfortably cool Wednesday night: food and drink were available, audience members brought folding chairs and blankets to sit in the amphitheater, citronella candles lent a picnic quality to the evening, and the astonishing "Gypsy Cornbread" jazz band set the tone for what was to come; the large audience punctuated the performance with loud appreciative laughs, resounding applause at several moments in the action, and a cheering spontaneous standing ovation at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing [1598/99] is one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, in large part for two memorably witty characters,  Benedick [Woodrow Proctor] and Beatrice [Katie Fanning], who spar in a "merry war" of wit throughout the play, each criticizing the other's faults and denying a romantic attraction that everyone else sees plainly. Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning handle the repartee with articulate confidence, scoring points against one another much to the delight of other characters and the audience. By no means alone in their facility with language, crisp physical antics, adroit posturing and facial expressiveness, Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning set a high bar that their six acting companions reach with equal aplomb.

Leonato [Collin Purcell], the governor of Messina welcomes Don Pedro [Ithamar Francois], the Prince of Aragon and his retinue of soldiers back from the wars, inviting them to stay in Messina for a month. Along with him are his bastard brother Don John [Josh Cahn is significantly oily in his depiction of the villain], the aforementioned Benedick, and the youthful Claudio [Colin Wulff], who is smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero [Lara Treacy].

Mr. Wulff and Ms. Treacy depict an innocent romance in complete contrast to Benedick and Beatrice; both couples are destined to be together, though there will be plenty of obstacles and deceptions in their way. -- Don John plots to prevent the marriage of Claudio and Hero, and is only caught out by the clownish constable Dogberry [Brian Ott is an outrageously comical buffoon] and his partner Verges [Ms. Fanning].

As Benedick rails against marriage, claiming he will be a "professed bachelor" until the perfect woman comes along, one who is "rich, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and hair of what color it please God," and Beatrice will have none of him, the others plot to get them together; the plan is to have Benedick and Beatrice individually overhear conversations that say that each one has confessed love for the other, thus planting seeds for confrontations to wrest admission of love from each.

Don John's devious suggestion that Hero is unfaithful gets Claudio to denounce her at the altar, and it is announced that Hero died as a result; another clever ruse resolves this catastrophe, and all ends happily with singing, dancing, and forthcoming marriages...yes, even between Benedick and Beatrice, who persist in fighting against admitting their love until the end, and receiving generous applause at their capitulation.

Though there are some blatant misogynistic attitudes about women in the script, and characters are too willing to believe the worst in others on flimsy evidence [still too much with us, I fear], the sheer good will of this remarkable ensemble, their effervescent performances, and the air of forgiveness that reclaims the villain, mark this Much Ado About Nothing as a highlight of this season's offerings at ASF.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

ASF: "Twelfth Night"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night opens with a striking balletic prologue -- a storm and a shipwreck -- that segues into Shakespeare's Act I, Scene ii where Viola [Marina Shay] believes her twin-brother is drowned, and with the help of a Sea Captain [Colin Wulff] determines to survive by disguising herself as a young man in clothes just like her brother's and offer her service to the local Duke.

The Festival stage then magically transforms to Illyria's exotic Turkish-inspired palace [James Wolk's scenic designs are atmospherically lush and the draping of Pamela Scofield's romantic costumes exude character-specific relaxed comfort or uptight rigidity], where lovesick Duke Orsino [Charles Pasternak] speaks one of the Bard's most famous opening lines: "If music be the food of love, play on."

Be prepared: there's a lot of music in director Greta Lambert's inspired production. Capitalizing on Shakespeare's frequent references to music in the dialogue, and to the many songs written into the text, Ms. Lambert's able actors accompany themselves on live instruments and sing a range of styles from melancholy ballads to raucous drinking songs, all of which enhance the mood or reveal the inner feelings of the characters.

There's music in the language too: rhythmic iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, extended vowel sounds, colorful images in even the prose sections that enchant the ears of the listeners and carry audiences along for the ride. -- And as Elizabethan audiences went "to hear a play" rather than "to see it" as 21st Century audiences do, Ms. Lambert takes great pains to have her actors deliver the lines with enviable clarity of speech that makes plot, background information, and meaning easy to follow. From audience responses, it is evident that they grasp details as well as the comic intentions of the script.

There's a lot to keep track of in the merry mixed-up world of Illyria. Viola's predicament in falling in love with Orsino that can't be expressed while she is disguised as the youth "Cesario" is further complicated when she becomes Orsino's emissary to woo the Countess Olivia [Ginneh Thomas] in his place [Olivia has rebuffed Orsino's courting because she is in mourning for her brother's untimely death], only to have Olivia fall in love with "Cesario." And when Orsino begins to have feelings for "Cesario", audiences delight in their discomfort brought on by gender confusion; after all, we know the truth that they do not.

In a secondary plot, Olivia's drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch [Timothy Carter] supports his inept friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [Billy Finn] in his pursuit of marriage with Olivia. While they carouse with Olivia's gentlewoman Maria [Toni DiBuono], Olivia's pretentious household steward Malvolio [Jay Russell] calls them to task...and they, along with Fabian [Collin Purcell] and Olivia's jester Feste [Louis Butelli], vow revenge. -- An elaborate scheme tricks Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him, and while we approve of Malvolio being taken down a peg or two, the trick goes too far, and the pranksters  attempt an apology.

And what of Viola's brother Sebastian [Sean Hudock]? Believed to have drowned, he was in fact rescued by Antonio [Rodney Clark], who must keep a low profile in Illyria because of a past altercation there. -- Shakespeare's device is to keep brother and sister separated until the penultimate moment, but the comedy is furthered when Sebastian is occasionally mistaken for "Cesario".

The acting ensemble are in top form. Mr. Carter's Sir Toby is a roguish lovable drunk who goes too far in taking advantage of Sir Andrew and admits his excess in punishing Malvolio; but his good-natured joie de vivre is infectious. The naivete Mr. Finn brings to Sir Andrew, and the willingness of the character to overcome obstacles gain audience sympathy; and Finn's physical dexterity is impressive. Mr. Purcell is a controlled rascal as Fabian. And Ms. DiBuono imbues Maria's cleverness with a confidence touched with coquettishness that breathes life into all the trickery she invents for this rag-tag team to act in harmony.

Mr. Russell creates a Malvolio that audiences enjoy seeing ridiculed. He sneers at just about everyone, and is so pretentiously aloof in his position in Olivia's household, that his pride and desire to rise above his station cry out for a comeuppance. -- This opens the door for him to be duped by the machinations of the pranksters. He interprets a letter he presumes to be from Olivia as an invitation to be her suitor; "Some are born great, some achieve greatness. and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" does the trick, and when he follows the letter's direction to smile and to wear yellow stockings and be "cross-gartered", he is presumed to be mad, and is then further taunted by Feste disguised as Sir Topas. Mr. Russell delivers on every nuance of the role, making us care about him while simultaneously laughing at him; well done.

There's a lot of chemistry at work among the pairs of lovers, as all the right notes are hit. Mr. Pasternak is the epitome of the conventional unrequited lover: barefoot, clothes askew, hair a mess, thoroughly disheveled, he seems to love the exaggerated posture and indulges it for all it's worth. This appeals to Viola; Ms. Shay is so conflicted in her attraction to him, yet must do her duty as "Cesario" and woo Olivia in Orsino's place; so when she speaks her own mind to Olivia's prompting, she is so articulate in defense of love that it is easy to see how Ms. Thomas' Olivia falls for the youth: her demeanor changes in a twinkling from haughtiness to ardent passion; even her clothes change from demure black mourning garments to more revealing and colorful attire. So, when Sebastian arrives on the scene looking every inch like "Cesario", and Olivia proposes marriage, Mr. Hudock's confusion is won over by the attentions of a beautiful stranger;  and we approve the match. -- It is unmistakable that each couple is fated to be together, and all the discords must be resolved.

To make this happen, Shakespeare [and Ms. Lambert] recognize that Feste the Fool is the ideal interlocutor who is able to participate in all manners of conversations, and guide the characters and the audience through the complexities of the plot via direct address. asides, narration, commentary, clever twists of language, and numerous songs. Mr. Butelli is perfectly suited to the role. His voice and body are supple, his manner invites the audience to be co-conspirators, his subtle glances suggest that though he knows Olivia is disguised as a boy, he will keep her secret, and the very fact that as an "allowed" Fool he is permitted to tell the truth makes Mr. Butelli the one person who should always be taken seriously.

As traditional comedies have happy endings featuring marriages, singing, and dancing, Feste leads the company in a rousing finale that concludes the evening with good-spirited celebrations.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is perhaps best known for the 1975 film version that made Jack Nicholson a household name for his portrayal of the rebellious central character, Randle P. McMurphy; but within a year of the book's publication, Dale Wasserman had penned a stage version, the one now playing on the Wetumpka Depot's stage.

The action takes place on Kristy Meanor's impressively antiseptic set -- the day-room of a hospital psychiatric ward -- and is peopled by patients with either acute or chronic illness, all of them under the strict control of Nurse Ratched [Julie Janson] and her coterie of aides and junior nurses.

Director Cory Lawson's guides his effective ensemble of actors who are convincing in showing various aspects of mental illness: Martini [Bill Nowell] is subject to hallucinations; Cheswick [Frank Salvatore Monte] is much talk but little action; Ruckley [Brad Sinclair] imagines himself crucified to any wall available and speaks only with a repetitive vulgarity; Billy Bibbit [Marcus Clement] is a shy virgin who  is dominated by his mother and is afraid of the world outside the hospital; Scanlon [Blake Robertson] fantasizes on blowing things up; Dale Harding [Lee Bridges] is a repressed homosexual and leader of the patients' Council; together, they react and respond to McMurphy's rebellious attempts to help them regain a sense of self. -- The hospital's Dr. Spivey [Will Webster] and assorted nurses and aides all either succumb to Nurse Ratched's influence or behave with sadistic glee when they taunt the inmates. -- And the two whores McMurphy imports for a nighttime party booze-up -- Sandra [Samantha Inman] and particularly Candy Starr [Elizabeth Bowles] who is conscripted to have Billy lose his virginity -- bring evidence of an outside world as corrupt as the world of the hospital.

The story is narrated by Chief Bromden [Emile Mattison in an impressive stage debut], a Native American long-term patient whom everyone believes to be deaf and dumb, a ruse he uses to disguise his feeling of inadequacy; yet, this giant-of-a-man's journey to regaining a sense of himself as a person not defined by the emasculating calculations of Nurse Ratched, and his ability to tell us about his own hallucinations, the inhumane conditions at the hospital, and the impact of McMurphy on everyone's lives, is central to the issues of the drama.

McMurphy's entrance [we hear him before we see him] announces an immediate challenge to Nurse Ratched's rigid control. Scott Page commands attention from the outset; having conned his way into the hospital by feigning insanity, thinking a six month stay in the hospital would be easier than serving that time at a prison work farm [he fights a lot, and gambles, and brags about his sexual conquests], he stands against everything Nurse Ratched designs to emasculate and destroy the self-esteem of the patients under her control; and despite warnings from the inmates not to cross her, McMurphy bets them that he will be able to "get to her" and make her drop her cool and calculating demeanor and show anger. In a series of scenes where Mr. Page dominates the action by gambling at card games, narrating a World Series game on a blank television set, or disrupting Nurse Ratched's control over patients' meetings, the last straw is when he attacks her and accuses her of causing Billy's suicide.

Mr. Page's charisma as the swaggering non-conformist McMurphy who represents the self-determination, freedom, and sexuality that the other inmates lack, creates a perfect foil to Ms. Janson's sterile mechanical Nurse; she has an icy and insinuating demeanor that gives her an air of an angel of mercy, but her patronizing and manipulative facade, and the knowledge that she controls both the inhumane "treatments" [electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy] and the duration of all her patients' time in the hospital, eventually takes its toll: ironically, as McMurphy's influence helps others to find their own voices and get stronger and bigger, his actual and figurative stature gets weaker and smaller.

The only way McMurphy can remain a hero to the inmates after Nurse Ratched orders him to be lobotomized is for Chief Bromden to smother him and escape from the hospital, having regained his sense of self and his ability to tell the story.

Mr. Lawson's sensitive and impactful direction, combined with the clarity of storytelling and the riveting characterizations of his actors, make for a provocative and challenging theatrical event.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

AUM: "Measure for Measure"

Long regarded as one of William Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure is officially classified as a comedy, but is ambiguous in combining raucous comic elements with a darker psychological assessment of morality, justice, and mercy.

Director Mike Winkelman's production at Theatre AUM gives the comic elements a boisterous clownish touch that contrasts with the more somber moments; Val Winkelman's costumes that combine modern clothes with suggestions of indeterminate period attire, along with contemporary musical selections, allow audiences to readily connect with subject matter that resonate some 415 years after Measure for Measure was first performed -- topics such as moral hypocrisy, sexual harassment, and the dichotomy between the letter of the law and clemency, that leap off the front pages of our media.

Recognizing he has been lenient in enforcing the law, Duke Vincentio [David Wilson] purports to leave Vienna on a diplomatic trip to Poland, commissioning the strict enforcement of the city's laws to Angelo [Neil David Seibel], a man of untarnished reputation, and second-in-command Escalus [Teri Sweeney]; but unbeknownst to all but one, the Duke will actually stay in Vienna disguised as a Friar to observe what happens in his absence.

In quick order as the townsfolk carouse noisily, Angelo arrests the drunken pimp Pompey [Sam Wallace], closes the brothels much to the dismay of Pompey and Mistress Overdone [Elizabeth Woodworth], and has Claudio [Chris Mascia] arrested for impregnating his espoused wife Juliet [Cathy Ranieri], a capital crime. -- Claudio enlists his friend Lucio [Kodi Robertson] to ask his sister Isabella [Sarah Walker Thornton] to plead to Angelo for mercy.

Isabella is set to become a nun, and is the most morally upright character; she is appalled at Claudio's sin, but she agrees to intervene with Angelo to save her brother's life. And the play turns rather abruptly in tone to a debate wherein both characters have solid arguments: Angelo responds to Isabella's passionate request for a merciful punishment with "It is the law that condemns your brother, not I", insisting on the letter of the law to be enforced...a topic Shakespeare addressed also in The Merchant of Venice, and which has classical connections to the arguments in Sophocles' Antigone.

Angelo knows he has power, and yet, Isabella seems to make him relent a bit. "A virtuous maid subdues me," he says, attracted also by her beauty, before offering leniency for Claudio in exchange for having sex with Isabella. -- When she threatens to tell the world what Angelo proposes, his "unspoiled reputation...austere life...and place in the state" give him the upper hand as he exclaims: "Who would believe thee?" knowing that "My false o'erweighs your truth."

On telling this to Claudio, he begs her to "let me live", but she will not give up her virtue and risk eternal damnation for both herself and Claudio by doing as Angelo wants.

Meanwhile, the Duke still disguised as a Friar has been observing everything, and comes up with a remedy: have Isabella agree to Angelo's demands, but insist their assignation be at night and with no talking; then switch places with Mariana [Brittany Vallely] who was once engaged to Angelo, though the engagement was broken off, and thereby placing Angelo in the same predicament as Claudio under the law against fornication.

All appears to go as planned until Angelo determines to have Claudio executed no matter what and there is a head-substitution plot to save him. -- And the Duke must return to reveal all.

The comic scenes are played with gusto that often interferes with clear communication of words audiences need to hear about plot and character; but they are entertaining. -- And while we might question the Duke's deceptive disguise, Mr. Wilson clears up much of the plotting.

Audience focus is solidly on Angelo and Isabella. As a credit to Mr. Seibel and Ms. Thornton [both Equity actors], neither of their characters can be seen here as completely evil or completely good. Mr. Seibel lends a truthfulness to his initial attraction to Isabella, and a stoical acceptance of his guilt at the end; we understand his letter of the law stance even as it encumbers him. Ms. Thornton's portrayal of Isabella grows in her convictions while she agonizes on the effects her steadfast beliefs; her deliberation on her choices involve audiences to do the same. -- They are the solid center of this production.

As happy endings are conventions of comedies, Measure for Measure satisfies up to a point. There are several marriages on hand, to be sure -- though it is questionable whether any of them will be particularly happy -- and there is some sense of justice tinged with mercy by the end. But so many issues [or "problems"] remain: how to justify the Duke's deceptive behavior and the pain it inflicts on innocent people; the contradictions within the character of Isabella [her steadfast morality countered by her willingness to deceive Angelo]; the imposition of marriage on unwilling partners; and Isabella's silence at the Duke's marriage proposal makes her decision unclear [though in this production's last moment, Isabella is alone on stage and removes her nun's veil].

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Faulkner: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"

Philip Sprayberry, Stephen Elrod, Sam Wallace, Jason Clark South, Angela Dickson.....Marilyn Swears, Randy Foster.....Matt Dickson, Jason Lee, Tony Davison.....Carolyn McCoy -- The 30-year success of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre is due in large part to the luminaries listed above; and yet, the department is shutting down with its final production: Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's multi-award winning musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A reliable source of family entertainment for a wealth of subscribers and occasional visitors, and a springboard for graduates seeking professional careers in theatre, the departure of Faulkner's theatre department will leave a significant gap in the Montgomery area arts and education communities.

But, they are going out in style in a version that retains the flavor of the 1960s-1970s youth culture. -- Director Angela Dickson guides a rag-tag group of entertainers who recount the Bible story of Joseph, Jacob's favorite of his twelve sons, his gift of a spectacular "coat of many colors", the brothers' jealousy and their getting rid of Joseph, his rescue in Egypt where he becomes Pharaoh's favorite, and the ultimate reunion of Joseph and his family...all of which is done through song [there's hardly a line of dialogue in the 90+ minute production with masterful accompaniment by Randy Foster].

The able cast is comprised of students, alumni, and community guests, who appear to be genuinely engaged in the action. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and the singing is accomplished in solo and group/production numbers [a continuance of quality that is expected in Faulkner musicals].

Narrative lyrics that contain important expository information are sometimes hard to hear because of sound balance issues or stage action that overpower individual voices, but when they are in sync the result is excellent. Strong singing voices and harmonic blends enliven the lyrics and clearly communicate the plot and themes.

Some highlights are "One More Angel in Heaven" featuring Hunter Smith, Matt Dickson's Elvis inspired Pharaoh, Chris Kelly's leadership in "Those Canaan Days",  and Tony Davison's amusing "Benjamin Calypso".

But, central to the production's success is the character of Joseph in the person of Brandtley McDonald.  The vocal clarity he brings to each number, and the credibility he brings to interpreting lyrics, are the bedrock of the play. He bookmarks the evening with "Any Dream Will Do", and shines especially well in "Close Every Door"...and virtually every moment he is on stage.

And by the end of the evening, patrons leave the theatre happy to have been in company with a group of actors who have shared their talents and their passion for theatre, and who celebrate the thirty year Faulkner program with genuine affection.

Friday, April 13, 2018

WOBT: "Crimes of the Heart"

Beth Henley's multi-award winning Crimes of the Heart is a perennial favorite, having had numerous showings across the River Region since its 1979 debut at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently playing at Prattville's "Way Of Broadway Theatre" under Brady Walker's gentle direction, Henley's Southern tragicomedy offers a glimpse into the lives of the Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi on eldest sibling Lenny's [Haeley DePace] 30th Birthday, when boozy middle sister Meg [Ashlee Lassiter] returns from Hollywood at Lenny's request to help out with youngest sister Babe's [Glory Bush] arrest for shooting her high-powered lawyer husband Zachary because she "didn't like his looks".

It seems that almost everyone is having a bad day: the sisters' Old Granddaddy is hospitalized after a stroke, Lenny's horse just died, the sisters are haunted by their mother's suicide years ago, Babe is closed-mouthed about shooting her husband because she is "protecting someone", social-climbing cousin Chick Boyle [Lolly White] is more humiliated than concerned about Babe's indiscretion, Meg's singing career has dried up and she tries to rekindle a one-time relationship with now happily married Doc Porter [Josh Reese]...and Lenny's only birthday present is an out-of-date box of chocolates from Chick.

Into Babe's defense steps eager neophyte lawyer Barnette Lloyd [Sam Elsky]. Smitten with Babe, Barnette also has a "personal vendetta" to settle against Zachary. But when Babe's secret is made known, and incriminating pictures could ruin any case she might have, decisions have to be made.

Mr. Walker keeps his actors moving at a steady pace, giving each character his or her moments to shine. They work as a tight ensemble, and while their interpretations are clear, they should develop greater variety and subtleties as the run of the play continues.

The set by Mike Proper and Brady Walker -- a kitchen in the sisters' grandfather's home -- is rendered with attention to detail, making it a livable and familiar place for the characters to inhabit, and adds to the overall naturalism in this quirky comedy.

We get caught up in the bizarre happenings in Hazlehurst, laughing and crying at the mishaps, confusions, sibling rivalries, romances, and legal twists and turns; but what holds Crimes of the Heart together is the bond of family that can assuage almost any hardship.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

ASF: "Bear Country"

When Michael Vigilant was writing Bear Country, he knew he had to get it right; after all, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant is idolized in Alabama, and there are a lot of people who knew and worked with him and had versions of virtually any episode in Bryant's life that might make it to the stage. And he had to capture the character of the man beyond the football field.

Brought back for a third run in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon Theatre [seen previously in 2009 and 2011], Bear Country again features Rodney Clark in the role, with Matt Clevy as a Young Bryant and a Young Coach Bryant, and Seth Andrew Bridges, and Clinton C. Lowe playing all the other characters.

It opens as Coach Bryant is packing up his office on his retirement from the University of Alabama, looking around and picking up an assortment of footballs, photographs, magazine articles, and other items that trigger memories that become the backbone of Vigilant's narrative. -- There are mixed feelings, of course: fond ones as he remembers coach-mentors who gave him sound advice, football triumphs, humorous episodes galore; and unpleasant recalls of interrogations regarding alleged game-fixing and betting, accusations of racism, and the deaths of parents and athletes who meant the world to him.

Time here is not chronological -- memory is like that; and Peter Hicks' set has strategically placed furniture and props [desks, the famous viewing/coaching tower, a chalkboard showing the famous "wishbone formation", Coca-Cola and Golden Flake, etc.] that allow for fluid staging of these memories.

But it is Vigilant's script and the talented ensemble that give it vigor. Mr. Clevy, Mr. Bridges, and Mr. Lowe create vivid depictions of their assigned characters, stamping each of them with individual traits that credibly impact Coach Bryant.

At the center is Mr. Clark, who has played "the Bear" off and on for almost a decade. He appears so comfortable in Bryant's skin, that one imagines the man himself on the ASF stage. -- Throughout the play, Mr. Clark philosophizes with the confidence of a man who has lived a full life. His reflections on his mentors' significance, the many life lessons he inspired in his athletes, the value of family, the differentiation between "losing" and "loss", and the fact that "It doesn't cost anything to be nice, to be honest, and to be a man of your word", are things that any audience member can take to heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

ASF: "The Miracle Worker"

It would be a disservice to William Gibson's The Miracle Worker to focus exclusively on the relationship between young Irish immigrant Annie Sullivan [Marina Shay] and Helen Keller [Brooklyn Norstedt], and the effort that went into an eventual breakthrough moment for the blind-deaf-mute Helen. It is that, of course, but a lot  more besides.

Set in post-Civil War Tuscumbia, Alabama, Gibson's episodic storytelling has a lot to say about family, patriarchy, behavioral psychology, gender roles, race, social class, bullying, 19th Century medical practices, and disabilities that resonate across time and have audiences reflecting on their own experiences.

At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, director James Bowen gives attention to each of these by placing the action on James Wolk's skeletal minimalist set; and his acting ensemble, dressed in Pamela Scofield's detailed period costumes, enhance the timeliness of these subjects through naturalistic rendering of relationships and dialogue.

From the outset, we learn of the disease that afflicted Helen in infancy, and then fast-forward eight years to a time when the family are resigned to catering to the young girl's tantrums, thereby enabling her to rule the roost. -- When Dr. Anagnos [Louis Butelli], the head of the "Perkins Institute for the Blind", sends the yet untested Annie to be Helen's teacher/governess, the stakes are high and expectations low. But Annie is no pushover, and with her own vision impairment, she uses unconventional tactics that challenge the patriarchy of Captain Keller [Timothy Carter], and the well-intentioned yet destructive enabling of Mrs. Keller [Jenny Strasburg] and Aunt Ev [Toni DiBuono]. -- The only family member who seems to approve of Annie's methods is Keller's son James [Sean Hudock], a youth who is trying desperately to speak up for himself and earn his father's respect. -- Household servant Viney [Ginneh Thomas] observes everything going on around her, and quietly demonstrates a dignity that needs no approval.

Gibson's 1959 script is based on Helen Keller's book The Story of My Life, and the 1962 film that followed it secured its popularity; several iconic scenes are indelibly marked in our collective consciousness: dining room sequences where Helen throws food and steals from others' plates; Annie teaching Helen sign-language words to associate with objects; and the climactic scene at the water pump that has Helen speak for the first time. -- Yet, there are a number of other instances that show the frustrations of the family and their relationships with one another as they deal with the impact of Helen's progress on them: Keller's reluctant capitulation to the wisdom of the women who want to give Annie a chance; James finding an unexpected ally and friend in Mrs. Keller; the powerful bonding between father and son. The actors give credible interpretations that target the most human responses to the challenges they face.

Through persistence and consistency, Annie teaches Helen discipline and earns the approval of the Kellers. The changes that Ms. Norstedt registers -- from the wild feral battles with Annie at the start to the thrill in understanding the meaning of words that will become her salvation -- are impressive; and Ms. Shay is unflinching in showing Annie's determination to do what is right regardless of objections to her methods. Her mantra of "discipline without breaking her spirit" and her determination to get authority for herself for fear that the family might undo Helen's progress ("She's testing you", she says when they return to placating Helen's outbursts by offering sweet-treats and affectionate hugs), center the action and have Annie emerge triumphant in Ms. Shay's capable interpretation of the role.

In the current season's plays, ASF is featuring "some of our native heroes whose triumphs and trials are woven into the fabric of Alabama's history": the Tuskegee Airmen, "Bear" Bryant, and Helen Keller. This iteration of The Miracle Worker is a fitting tribute.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Millbrook: "Sister Act" (musical)

The stalwart cast of Sister Act (the musical) bumped their way through the opening night performance by the Millbrook Community Players; beset with illnesses, and with long scene changes and sound imbalances, they managed to produce a charming and sometimes vigorous show. -- Things ought to settle down soon.

Based on the popular 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, the 2006 musical debuted in London before crossing the Atlantic to  mostly favorable reviews. -- It tells the unlikely story of lounge-singer Deloris Van Cartier [Desirae Lewis] who is put into witness protection custody by policeman Eddie Souther [Dre Massey] after she witnessed a gangland murder by her then boyfriend Curtis [Calvin Johnson]. Deloris is placed where nobody would think to find her -- in a convent, with the reluctant cooperation of the Mother Superior [Lavonne Hart], a rigid disciplinarian, and the well intentioned Monsignor O'Hara [Roger Humber].

Her secret safe for the time being, Deloris is introduced to the resident nuns as Sister Mary Clarence; but, after an assortment of renegade mishaps, Sister Mary Clarence's musical abilities are used to transform the nuns' choir into a solid ensemble.

Curtis has sworn to hunt her down and kill her, so when he gets wind of Deloris' whereabouts, he sends his goons to do her in; Joey [Lee Bridges], TJ [Matthew Mitchell] and Pablo [Michael Mims] are stumblebums of the first degree, and provide a good amount of the play's humor.

Director Angie Mitchell and her cast of 36 keep the focus on Deloris and Mother Superior, opposing forces who learn from one another that they can get along and actually respect one another despite their differences. Warnings are given to Deloris to "be inconspicuous", and hopeful refrains like "God has sent you here for a reason", often frustrate Mother Superior into exclamations for God to "give me a sign" that all will be well.

Subplots of a past relationship between Deloris and Eddie the cop that grows into romance, and of Sister Mary Robert's [Morgan Patrenos] doubts about her vocation and wanting to have some life experiences, are glossed over in this production that seem like an afterthought here.

The musical score runs the gamut of musical styles from disco to Motown to soul, and are given appropriate choreography to match. -- Haeley DePace on keyboard and Mark McGuire on drums accompany the cast and set the scenes, but they often drown out the solo voices and even some chorus numbers; they are more restrained in a few introspective songs, letting the actors and their voices do the work.

Ms. Hart does a fine job interpreting her solo songs, with a good amount of irony and questioning of her position in charge of the welfare of the convent. -- The aforementioned gangster trio have a terrifically upbeat time of it.

But, let's face it, the star of the show is Ms. Lewis. She is vivacious from start to finish, and takes command of the stage on every entrance. Plus, her ability to embody Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence, with all her contradictions, is admirable. And it doesn't hurt that she can belt out a song with the best of them. She is the "real deal" in this production. Hats off to her.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Weightless"

Theatre AUM and the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia have established an on-going working relationship. AUM's Neil David Seibel has mentored students at Hollins for a few Summers, where he and colleagues from around the country nurture emerging talents.

Last year at AUM, Mr. Seibel mounted an imaginative production of  a Hollins product called Coupler, and is following up with another this season. Weightless by Meghan Reimers is a 70-minute fantasy from a playwright who shows much promise, and Mr. Seibel's inventive choreography and clever staging enhance this production's treatment of a young woman who "has no gravity" -- in fact, she "falls up" instead of down -- an interesting premise that goes on to explore real world environmental issues as well as various human relationships to demonstrate the power of compassion, understanding, and love.

It seems that Lucie [Kaylee Baker] has been cursed to live without gravity, and spends all her time in a lake; her mother Marie [Amy May] protects her at all costs, from both Lucie's untrustworthy free-spirited aunt Julie [Faith Roberts] and Caleb [Tony George], a young man who attempts to rescue the young woman from drowning and help reverse the curse so she can fall "down". Searching for a cure, Marie takes Lucie to Tarek [David Moore], a kind of hippie/New Wave "healer" who nonchalantly orders a variety of dangerous treatments.

Mike Winkelman's abstracted set [a large circle on the floor with pie shaped painted elements: fire, air, earth, water], and Val Winkelman's evocatively complimentary costumes, plus active use of fabric to represent the lake, give Mr. Seibel's actors a fluidity of motion to assist in telling the story; and his addition of actors playing the "Elements" uses inventive ways of showing how Lucie "falls".

Ms. Reimers's script keeps audiences guessing about relationships and responsibilities, but demonstrates clearly that people can connect on simple levels of friendship and more complex ones of parental protections for their children. Though we might question Marie's methods in caring for Lucie, and even more the sibling rivalries between Marie and Julie that are complicated by their use of magic, there s no doubt about the sincerity and innocence of the friendship between Lucie and Caleb that grows into love.

This production of Weightless has audiences engaged, though they miss several important lines of dialogue from Mr. Moore and Ms. Roberts, who either speak too softly or mumble words though they seem to be committed to the emotional aspects of their roles.

New voices in theatre are important, and Theatre AUM is again giving an opportunity to an emerging talent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

WOBT: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy is playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre to sold-out audiences. The play has been a popular offering at River Region theatres; it and the 1989 film it inspired make box office success almost guaranteed.

Set in Atlanta, and covering some 25 years from 1948-1973, Driving Miss Daisy is both an affectionate story about companionship and aging, and a study of civil rights and segregation in a changing world that even today has got a long way to go.

As the play opens, wealthy 72-year-old Daisy Wertham [Michon Givens] has just wrecked yet another car, prompting her son Boolie [Eric Arvidson] to hire a "colored" chauffeur in the person of Hoke Coleburn [Tommy King]. -- Daisy is a fiercely independent former teacher who guards her independence, and though she claims she is not prejudiced, she refers to all African Americans as "them" and is suspicious of Hoke's behavior.

In a series of vignettes, Daisy grows from her initial mistrust of Hoke, to reluctant acceptance, and in her old age to an eventual admission to him that "you are my best friend"; this is largely due to Hoke's ability to remain dignified in spite of her whims and insults, and his ability to forge a trust through his honesty and perseverance.

Though an exasperated Boolie often excuses his mother's behavior with an affectionately placating "You're a doodle, Mama", and his excuse for not attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner is that doing so might jeopardize his business with white Atlantans, he understands and accepts both Daisy and Hoke better than either of them expect.

The three-person ensemble give strong and believable performances and are generous to one another on stage. They also age convincingly from scene to scene, with subtle adjustments to movement and voice, supported by gradual age make-up. -- Solid work from all.

Usually performed without a break in order to sustain the story's arc and audience involvement with the characters' developing relationships, here director Sam Wallace has chosen to break the tradition with an intermission; this choice, and the lengthy scene changes during blackouts, challenge audiences to remain engaged, and challenge actors to sustain energy from scene to scene.

This notwithstanding, the WOBT production of Driving Miss Daisy clearly received audience approval and identification with its characters.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Doll's House"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse opened its 7th Season -- "A Season of Game Changers" -- with a provocative production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's classic A Doll's House. Though Ibsen insisted his play was not a feminist tract (rather it was about "humanity") from its 1879 Copenhagen production to today much of the critical focus and stage performances around the world have been on the central character Nora's breaking with tradition in her quest to be regarded on an equal footing with men both in marriage and in the greater society.

The risk Nora takes at the end of the play -- a watershed moment on how women were portrayed on stage -- shocked a patriarchal society who expected the stage to reinforce their standards. Fast forward to 2018 and the power of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and Nora's heartbreakingly courageous decision reflects an understanding that sexual harassment comes in various guises and that there is still a lot to be done to galvanize gender equality.

Director Caroline Reddick Lawson's passion for the play recognizes "that 2018 is the perfect time for as revival of A Doll's House"; and though there have been several memorable productions over time, and contemporary playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Rebecca Gilman have given Ibsen's play a contemporary spin and Lucas Hnath's masterful A Doll's House, Part II continues Ibsen's story some 15-years later, Ms. Lawson has chosen to stage a new version by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, a translation whose language is accessible to contemporary audiences.

Staged on J. Scott Grinstead's detailed "dollhouse" set, and with Danny Davidson-Cline's character driven period costumes, audiences are transported to 19th Century Norway at Christmastime in the seemingly idyllic home of Torvald [John Selden] and Nora Helmer [Sarah Adkins]. -- They are an attractive and loving couple with three children. Torvald is about to get a promotion at the bank and is focused on his reputation, insisting on complete honesty at all times; she is a charming and vivacious spendthrift with a deep secret that ultimately comes to light and pushes their relationship to its catastrophic end.

Complications intrude this dollhouse world, and Nora is not the only one with a secret: Torvald's friend Dr. Rank [Christopher Crockett] secretly loves Nora and is suffering from a disease that will end his life soon; Nils Krogstad [Michael Buchanan] keeps Nora's secret through bribery, and attempts to clear his name of past actions; Nora reveals her secret to her long absent friend Kristine's [Mariah Reilly] and secures her friend's confidence. -- But all these secrets are destined to be exposed.

The ensemble acting is strong and credible. Mr. Crockett is sympathetic in the role of a man misunderstood by both Torvald and Nora, and whose pride keeps him from revealing anything personal. -- Mr. Buchanan's sinister demeanor initially reviles us; yet, his concerns for his family and reputation are more passionately human than Torvald's robotic ones, and his change of heart, brought about by re-invigorating a past relationship with Kristine, saves him from complete villainy. -- The understated complexity that Ms. Reilly brings to Kristine is admirable: she assuredly assumes the role of confidante to Nora, while quietly cajoling her to be honest with Torvald; and her ability to deal with real-world problems as a go-between for Nora and Krogstad is convincingly conflicted.

Ibsen puts Nora at the center of almost every scene, placing great demands on the actress playing this now iconic figure. All the action revolves around her, and Ms. Adkins imbues her portrayal with an honesty and grounding that impresses throughout. She can be flirtatious and coquettish, and yet switch to disarming introspection. Her frustration with the cards dealt to her is matched by her determination to become her own person. Her selfless devotion to husband and children is countered by a selfish need of attention and compliments. We witness Nora's gradual understanding of her position over the play's three acts [with one intermission], as Ms. Adkins subtly adjusts her physical demeanor and vocal range to support the changes in Nora's life: one scene in which she frantically rehearses a tarantella to distract Torvald from finding out her secret contrasts with a later one in which she removes her gypsy costume's corset, symbolically unbinding herself from the lies and deception of the past.

It is important that audiences believe that Torvald loves his wife, no matter how passive-aggressive he is in frequent references to her in diminutive terms ["little songbird", "dove", "doll", "child"], and no matter how condescending Mr. Selden seems with instructing her behavior, his male privilege blinds him to Nora's needs. But she, too late, admits her complicity in bending to his will and subjugating her own desires to his. When Nora demands that they finally have a serious conversation, their first one in an eight-year marriage, the realizations on both of them are devastating. -- Both Ms. Adkins and Mr. Selden achieve the necessary responses to their new-found honesty with one another: his in assessing his responsibility for the break-up of their marriage, hers in the knowledge that her independence, though necessary, comes at a cost.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "Greater Tuna"

Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams began what was to become a cottage industry in 1981 with their creation of Greater Tuna [A Tuna Christmas, Red, White, and Tuna, and Tuna Does Vegas followed in quick succession]. -- Their popularity relies on an affectionate humor, some biting satire, and the fact that the 20+ characters are to be played by two actors.

Director Kristy Meanor opens the Wetumpka Depot Players' 38th Season with an assured production of Greater Tuna by casting a man and a woman in the roles, losing none of the play's bite, and allowing David and Brooke Brown numerous opportunities to display their ample talents impersonating the broadly eccentric men and women who populate the fictitious town of Tuna, Texas, the State's 3rd smallest town with a population of twenty-four.

Though there are some dated references in the script, its strengths are that it skewers many stereotypical characters and situations that are not confined by time, and that the actors continuously keep audiences entertained by their quick-as-lightning costume changes. Most of the characters are broadly drawn rubes who seem content with being insulated from the greater world, and most of these social misfits are instantly recognizable: over-zealous religious fanatics, families with a lot of skeletons in their closets that are actually known by everyone else in this tiny community, dialogue that spouts a lot of homespun philosophy, naive and not-so-innocent individuals who beg for audience understanding and compassion. Just like real life.

A plot device that holds everything together is a radio program hosted by Arles and Thurston, whose sole purpose seems to be informing the locals about the goings-on in town, engaging with various residents in call-ins to the station, and commenting on their odd behavior. -- We see among others: the "Smut Snatchers of the New Order" attempt to censor offensive textbooks and words while remaining oblivious to their hypocrisy; a man who sees UFOs shaped like a giant chalupa; an overweight teenaged girl desperately attempting to become a cheerleader; a woman who poisons dogs; a reform school bully who unrepentantly takes the law into his own hands against the judge who sentenced him; and a sincere young man who leads the "Greater Tuna Humane Society" against the odds stacked against him.

Hats off to the hard working backstage dressers who assist the actors with their many costume changes; but mostly to the actors who create distinct characters that make us laugh and cry, applaud and cringe, and leave the theatre with a bit more understanding of our fellows.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ASF: "Fly"

The heroic World War II African American P-51 Mustang pilots known as the "Tuskegee Airmen" are legendary. Their story Fly is having its Alabama debut at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where a packed opening night audience rose to their feet and cheered at the conclusion of the 90-minute production.

The script by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan [Mr. Khan is also the play's director] celebrates their victorious combat record; yet, there is an equal focus on their tenacity in overcoming racial prejudice in a white America that believed that African Americans were both their genetic and social inferiors. 

This is a story that needs to be told in 2018 [much like the recent film Hidden Figures] as we too often see the very fabric of America fractured by xenophobic tirades against immigrants, minorities, and anyone perceived as "other". -- Had it not been for Eleanor Roosevelt's highly publicized 1941 flight with one of the Airmen, and her subsequent encouraging of her husband FDR to do something for them, it is likely that the "Tuskegee Airmen's" abilities might have gone unrecognized and their participation in the war might never have happened.

The play opens on Beowulf Borrit's minimalist set flanked by screens that almost continually project archival film and still photographs that support the narrative. In a powerfully theatrical opening moment, the Tap Griot [Omar Edwards] embodies the pain and anger of African Americans through tap dancing. Reaching back into the heritage of West Africa where griots were regarded as the keepers of history, the authors have created this character to tell their past, show their sublimated fury, and support their empowerment. Mr. Edwards rarely speaks, but he is always present to observe and comment on the action, communicating so much in an electrifying tour de force performance.

Bookended with scenes at President Obama's inauguration where the Tuskegee Airmen were honored, and narrated by Chet Simpkins [Clinton Roane], we are introduced to a rag-tag set of recruits from various backgrounds, each with a personal agenda that at first interferes with their becoming a combat-ready unit, but who ultimately learn to work together as a team.

With a lot of macho posturing, these men all compete in attempting to be number one: Oscar [James Holloway] has a wife and baby on the way; J. Allen [Edwin Brown III] is of West Indian heritage and doesn't completely understand the others' motives; W. W. [Robert Karma Robinson] is a zoot-suit wearing Chicagoan who feels superior to the others; and the aforementioned Simpkins, the youngest [indeed underaged] recruit from New York with a lot to prove -- to himself above all.

They are pitted against Captain O'Hurley [Christopher Kann], a no-nonsense officer charged with their training, a task he hates at least in part because he considers all his recruits to be incapable of learning how to be combat pilots simply because they are Black. When they do succeed, he reluctantly awards their commissions, and is abetted by Bomber Pilot Reynolds [Casey Predovic] and Bomber Co-Pilot Shaw [Drew Ledbetter], who discover in a cleverly drawn out and humorous scene, that the Black men they denigrated turn out to be both their military equals who save their lives as well as their best comrades.

These is not a single weak link in this tight ensemble of actors, whose efforts combine to not only tell a compelling historical story, but whose truthful characterizations help audiences invest in them as real people.