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.