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.