Thursday, December 19, 2019

Millbrook: "The Christmas Carol"

The long holiday season would not be complete without at least one production of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, so the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. have stepped up with their staging of a 1977 modest adaptation by Brian Way entitled The Christmas Carol, one that often quotes directly from the book, and yet diverges from it here and there.

Of course, Ebenezer Scrooge's [Kevin Morton] Christmas Eve reclamation from a rich but miserable miserly sort to a man who "will honor Christmas" for the rest of his life is brought about by several ghostly visitors, starting with his former business partner, Jacob Marley [Eric Arvidson] who announces that Scrooge's change can only be brought about through the efforts of the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Rae Ann Collier], Present [Michael Snead] and Future [Rachel Stephenson].

Reluctant at first, and convinced that he is beyond help, Scrooge takes the visions the ghosts show him to heart, and by baby steps comes to the full realization of hue errant ways and the means to change by accepting responsibility for past mistakes and a desire to help others in need.

His loveless youth and growth in the business world turn him away from romance with Belle [Hannah Moore], his self-centered life consuming every hour of the day; but as he is reminded of the kindness of Mr. Fezziwig [Mark McGuire], he begins to regret the life he has lived for so long, and is on the way towards redemption. And at regular intervals, some episode brings him ultimately to his salvation.

His persistently cheerful nephew Fred [Pat VanCor] is a constant reminder of the death of his fragile sister Fan [Sara Morton], as he shows up every year to invite his Uncle Scrooge to dinner and wish him  a "Merry Christmas", only to hear Scrooge retort with "Bah, Humbug!"

And the Cratchit family headed by Scrooge's clerk Bob [Greg Fanning] and the pitiably crippled  and sickly youngest son, Tiny Tim [Gabe Maggard], eke out a living with Bob's meager salary, but keep a positive disposition regardless. -- With an uncertainty about Tiny Tim's survival, Scrooge asks "Are these things that will be, or might be?"

When he awakes on Christmas morning, having assured the Ghost of Christmas Future that "I'm not the man I was", Scroode sets out to make amends for the past he now regrets...and Tiny Tim [who did not die] repeats his famous declaration: "God bless us, every one".

And, while the Millbrook production directed by A. John Collier struggles at times with its staging and sometimes perfunctory performances, the message that Dickens presents has retained its resonance with today's audiences, and satisfies our annual appreciation of A Christmas Carol.

Wetumpka Depot: "Little House Christmas"

The Wetumpka Depot's production of Little House Christmas has one more weekend in its almost-sold-out run. Kristy Meanor directs two separate casts of local actors in this rotating rep of James DeVita's family-friendly version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters overcoming a Christmas challenged by bad weather and snobbish neighbors by choosing compassion and understanding; the spirit of this Pioneer family sees them through even the most dire circumstances, and sets a fine example for us to follow.

Wilder's best-selling books and the popular television series have become so much a part of American experience, that what transpires on stage in this one-hour production isn't at all unexpected; however, the cast's commitment to a script that stays true to the books' intentions delivers the simple messages with a mix of humor and pathos in charming ways.

As Christmas approaches, Laura [Olivia Harbin] and Mary [Laineykaye McCord] anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus with ever-growing excitement. Ma [Laura Johstono] and Pa [Ricky Higby] do their best to calm them down, even with their hosting dinner in their remote house for people who had helped them with their new home: snobbish Mrs. Olsen [Sakia Dixon] and her spoiled daughter Nellie [Kai Dixon], war-worn Uncle George [Dean Miller], and fun-loving Mr. Edwards [Jimmy Fuller] and his tribe of cousins [Clay Edwards, Malory Glass, and Joseph Law].

Though life is hard on the Prairie, and a bad storm leaves them stranded when the bridge collapses, they manage to get through it with simple diversions: entertaining "tall stories", dancing, and sharing a meal. The cast I saw were thoroughly engaging as they told this sweet story; their ensemble performances were top notch. 

And while Santa might not make it to their humble home, the hand-made gifts they share let us know that giving is often better than receiving, and the strength of family is all important. -- Ma says at one point that "as long as we have each other, we have Christmas"...a good message for us all at this holiday season.

ASF: "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914"

As a must-see complement to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever that is playing on the Festival Stage, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre production of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 will leave you breathless after its one-hour running time.

Peter Rothstein's profoundly moving play is sung a capella by a gifted ensemble of ten actors who each play several roles: soldiers of various ranks in the World War I armies of the Allies led by Britain and the Central Powers led by Germany. They introduce themselves via recitations from actual letters and journals, and we come to know them as representatives of the masses of young men who volunteered or were conscripted. And we also hear laments and warnings from the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose words remind us of the human cost of war.

It is based on historic events on Christmas Eve 1914 when these opposing armies temporarily put down their arms and joined one another in the "no man's land" between the trenches to share gifts, stories, a game of football, and a lot of songs that expressed the universal language shared by all of humanity.

What was later to be called "the war to end all wars" is set at the Western Front in the early stages of the war when the men were singing "God Save the King" full of robust patriotic vigor, believing the war would be over before Christmas and they would all return home as heroes. Soon, the reality of war sets in with the death of a close pal, and they sing a plaintive "I Want to Go Home". -- Audiences are drawn into their plight.

The trenches along the Front were only about 80 yards apart in places, and history notes that they could hear their enemies cough when fighting stopped at night, and called each other "Fritz" or "Tommy" in a kind of good-natured taunting.

But the fighting was real, and the men's disillusionment was palpable. And it took common soldiers from both sides to accomplish what even the Pope could not: a temporary truce that started with the Germans placing a Christmas tree atop their trenches and singing "O Tannenbaum"; a lone German soldier stepped into the "no man's land" singing "Stille Nacht", inspiring the British to tentatively join in with "Silent Night", their differences forgotten for a short while as they continued several other Christmas carols.

A commanding officer brings the unsanctioned truce to end and orders the men back to their respective trenches, though they are allowed to bury their dead comrades. -- The war continued for four years, and the carnage and loss of life enormous. Later battles at Verdun and the Somme are indelibly etched in our collective memory as testament to the horrors of "The Great War" and the cost to human dignity.

As a lament to this loss of life and dignity, this production directed by Melissa Rain Anderson stuns her audiences with its simple messages and warnings. The richness of four-part men's harmonies, and the quality of individual voices ["O Holy Night", for example], stress the senselessness of war, a potent theme of All is Calm that leaves a lasting memory.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

ASF: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"

Barbara Robinson's novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a holiday staple since it first hit bookstores in 1971, and its longevity was ensured by her 1988 stage version, played regularly across the country each year. -- Now, thanks to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rick Dildine's intention to sustain links with the local community, the current cast of actors on the Festival Stage is comprised mostly of River Region students from public, private, and home-schools; the remainder of the roles go to local adults and this year's ASF Interns.

And what a troupe they are! Under ASF Associate Director Greta Lambert's expert direction, this is as lively, fast-paced, and energetic a show as one could get, and one whose family-friendly messages mixed with some hilarious antics signal the Christmas Season with the ensemble's good-natured performances.

Young Beth [Gerrisyn Shipman] narrates the story of the time when her Mom [Sarah Adkins] was conscripted to direct the local church's annual Christmas Pageant after Mrs. Armstrong [John Cencio Burgos] became wheelchair-bound after an accident. Mrs. Armstrong's version was predictably the same year after year, one in which all the backstage jobs and on-stage roles were predetermined. -- But not so this year: Beth's brother Charlie [Lannon Bowman], in an attempt to avoid bullying from the notorious Herdman tribe of troublemakers, tells them that Sunday School offers free treats...and they show up to commandeer all the pivotal roles in the pageant, much to everyone's dismay.

Not to be deterred by the Herdman's cussing, drinking, smoking, and shoplifting exploits, Mom is determined to make this year's effort "the best Christmas pageant ever"...and does she have her job cut out for her! In her ASF debut, local actress/director Ms. Adkins, doing more than just herding cats, summons everything at her disposal to give the Herdmans a chance by using their ignorance as teaching moments. And we are witness to their honest responses to the Bible story they had never heard, and watch as they learn the true meaning of Christmas.

Running just under an hour, the young actors in this ensemble demonstrate a level of sophisticated performance disciplines that many mature thespians struggle with: their vocal strength, character focus, and dexterity of movement are laudable. -- Ms. Shipman's straightforwardly practical demeanor and Mr, Bowman's frantic need to escape bullying at all costs show how dissimilar siblings can be. Faith Gatson's powerful solo singing also centers the assorted choral numbers.

But it is the Herdman siblings whose journey from being "the worst kids in the history of the world" to the most compassionate messengers of the Christmas Season that centers the play. -- J'Kai Foster, Jason Grinstead, and William Miller take on the roles of the Wise Men, having forced themselves into the production, but bring a canned ham as a gift to the Christ child: a more practical present than gold/frankincense/myrrh to poor refugees living in a stable, and we find that the ham was from their own welfare Christmas basket. -- Timothy Brannon and Ann Welch Hilyer as Joseph and Mary shift from arrogance to protective parents in such a truthful manner that garnered gasps of appreciation from the audience. And spunky Eva Kate Mason relishes her role as the Angel to bring the good news to the shepherds [and all of us] with uninhibited naivete and absolute commitment to getting the message across to one and all.

Yes, the Herdman kids have learned a lot, and the rest of the company of characters have also found connections to people they formerly judged, that the goodness in all of us may just need a bit of coaxing to emerge, and that the gifts of acceptance and understanding are priceless.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dancing at Lughnasa"

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), Irish playwright Brian Friel's semi-autobiographical award-winning play. quietly and brilliantly signals the end of the 2019 "Ensemble Season" at the Cloverdale Playhouse.

At its conclusion after two-and-a-half-hours, the opening night's full house erupted into applause after a moment that renowned English director Peter Brook describes as "the curious sort of silence you get from a large number of people being quiet": testimony that director Sarah Walker Thornton and her ensemble of actors and designers succeeded in their interpretation of a remarkable play.

J. Scott Grinstead's evocative minimalist scenic design -- arena staging where the audience surrounds the playing area -- enhances the intimacy of this "memory play", whose narrator Michael Evans [Daniel Ryan Teehan] looks back to 1936 when he was seven years old, and the influences of his mother and her four sisters [all five are  unmarried] as they navigate poverty, an impending war, industrialization, family and patriarchal conflicts, and the contrasting of pagan rituals with traditional Catholic ones.

This is not a romanticized Irish "shamrock and leprechauns" play by any means; rather, it conjures the spirit of the Irish people's ability to come together in times of crisis, relying on the bonds of family love to get them through even the worst of times.

Michael's reminiscences transport us to the fictitious town of Ballybeg, where the five Mundy sisters eke out a living and fight to keep body and soul together. -- Kate [Maureen Costello] is the eldest, the breadwinner, and the prim defender of traditional Catholicism; Maggie [Angela Dickson] is the earthy jokester whose riddles entertain herself more than others; Agnes [Katie Schmidt] and mentally slow Rose [Emily Burke] knit gloves to bring in a bit of extra money; and Michael's mother Christina [Katie Wu], the youngest of the housekeepers awaits the annual visit of Michael's father Gerry Evans [Ari Hagler], a charming Welsh ne'er do well whose promises are never kept. -- And their brother Father Jack [Adam Shephard] is back with them after many years as a missionary priest in Africa, suffering from malaria and memory loss as well as the scandal of having "gone native" in Africa and bringing disrepute to the family.

It is also set during the feast of Lughnasa, signaling the start of the harvest with music and dancing to appease the Celtic god Lugh.  -- An unreliable radio nicknamed "Marconi" periodically provides music that encourages singing and of course dancing: ballroom, folk, and one remarkably spirited improvisation when all five sisters drop their inhibitions in celebration of their humanity.

On the surface, not much happens in the play; yet, beneath the paucity of action, Michael's remembrances peel back the many layers of each character's personalities, their work and their beliefs, their repressions and passions, their stalwart support of one another, and the love they cherish despite their differences. -- It is to the strong ensemble's credit that each character is so fully developed through their interpretations and interactions that we invest in their lives and allow the final moment to sink in before the applause.

Michael tells us the unfortunate fate of each of the characters, yet we are left with a final tableau before that happens, still during the feast of Lughnasa: their final dance, embracing one another and swaying gently to the music that reinforces what matters most to them -- family.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Theatre AUM: "The Seagull"

Theatre AUM has an established history of programming a wide variety of productions from World Theatre, so it is not surprising that director Mike Winkelman is staging Christopher Hampton's robust 2008 translation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 The Seagull, one of the seminal plays of modern theatre.

Set in a rural Russian country house in the late 19th Century, The Seagull is no nostalgic reminiscence of a romantic past; in fact -- as with most great literature -- its universal human subject matter showing family relationships, complications of unrequited love, career challenges, financial obligations, individuals who are so self-absorbed that they ignore the needs of others, suicide, idolizing celebrities, attempts at finding new methods of artistic expression, and avoidance of facing our demons, are as resonant today as Chekhov shows in his play.

With an ensemble of fifteen veteran and unseasoned actors, and played on an effectively minimalist set designed by Karen Licari, Mr. Winkelman addresses the many topics listed above, doing so through clear delineation of plot complications and characterizations. And so much of the action depends on things that are not directly stated, that the actors must depend on the "subtext" underlying the dialogue that determines their behavior and their fraught relationships.

The plot is complicated: a wealthy yet stingy famous actress Irina [Kate Saylor] returns to her brother's estate with her lover Trigorin [Tony George], a popular writer; the aging brother Sorin [David Wilson] suffers from ill health, and is looked after by Dr. Dorn [Jay Russell]. Irina's son Konstantin [Josh Williams] has written an avant-garde symbolist play for her to be performed by Nina [Savannah Brown], a young neighbor he adores and who idolizes Irina.

The performance turns disastrous when Irina laughs at its seeming pretentiousness; Konstantin is mortified, but Nina is infatuated with Trigorin and idol-worships Irina, confessing her desire to be an actress.

Additionally, Masha [Faith Roberts], dressed all in black and "mourning for her life", pines for Konstantin's affection despite romantic overtures from the poor teacher Medvedenko [Jared Jones]; Masha's mother Polina [Emily Aveldanez] is in love with Dr. Dorn, and her father Shamrayev [Sam Penn] tries to ignore his wife's behavior. -- No spoilers as to how it all turns out.

So, lots to unravel in the play's four acts [presented here with one intermission]; and keeping track of who's who is further encumbered by the facts that several characters' names are not spoken for a long time and that the convention that Russians use a variety of names for each individual [patronymics, diminutives/nicknames, surnames, first names that reveal formal or familiar relationships that Russians would instantly recognize -- thank goodness Mr. Winkelman has minimalized their uses in his production].

Audiences must still pay special attention, as the action and overlapping stories come at them rapid-fire; Mr. Winkelman's fine acting company are up the mark through their thorough commitment to as naturalistic behavior and speech they can muster in dialogue that regularly threatens melodrama. It affords us access to them; they are so much like us.

And it is an excellent ensemble performance. One might identify readily with most any character, but our attention shifts from one to the next with such regularity that we find ourselves shifting allegiance as well...laughing or crying by turns, wanting to shake them out of their self-indulgent behavior or come to their rescue.

The Seagull is another Theatre AUM example of a piece of classic theatre that is all too infrequent on local stages.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Helluva at The Sanctuary: "St. Nicholas"

Award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a masterful storyteller who started out writing monologue plays and later incorporated monologue-stories into his best known works like The Weir [1999] and The Seafarer [2006]. His folk tales and ghost stories always take unexpected turns and rely on both the audience's acceptance of their bizarre plots and of the actor's storytelling skills.

So, with an opportune programming of McPherson's St. Nicholas [1997] over the Halloween-All Saints-All Souls weekend staged at The Sanctuary by the "Helluva Theatre Company", his story of and by a disillusioned theatre critic's dark journey with vampires is a timely choice.

Directed by Alex Dmitriev, and featuring John Martello as the cynical unnamed critic, the two-act monologue -- his version of the truth about his profession, his marriage, his jealousies, his fears, and his willingness to journey with a coven of vampires -- lures the audience bit by bit until they are as trapped as he is in seeking a resolution.

He tells us at the beginning that when he was a boy he was afraid of the dark, and then invites us into his dark journey, his dissatisfaction with his job [even though he relishes the power it gives him over the actors he reviews], his battles with alcohol, his jealousy of playwrights whose words and characters he can't summon in his own attempts at writing plays, his fractured marriage and family, his infatuation with an actress performing in Oscar Wilde's Salome that causes him to stalk her from Dublin to London where he meets William [the leader of the vampires who conscripts him as a kind of pimp for the coven], and the cynicism that infects his every thought.

With a couple of tangential stories that keep audiences wondering where this might lead, it is nonetheless imperative that we understand the dark nature of his tale, the darkness he has feared since childhood, and the darkness that infects him still.

Though drinking is at the center of the character's life, and there are so many references to its effects throughout the play, it is curious that Mr. Martello never takes a drink in his performance. The staging is minimal, with no props and only a single chair and a small rug at center stage, and a few lighting modifications for atmospheric reference; so we rely exclusively on Mr. Martello's abilities as an interpreter of McPherson's words to engage with us for almost two hours; an intimacy he achieves with apparent comfort and a sometimes indiscernible Irish dialect.

In short, we are captivated by McPherson's chilling supernatural script and Martello's shaping of it into a seductive evening's entertainment.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

ASF: "Pipeline"

Friday night's nearly sold-out audience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre cheered at the conclusion of Dominique Morisseau's powerful Pipeline, a robust and muscular 90-minute exploration of the all too prophetic "school to prison pipeline" facing a disproportionate number of young African-American men.

Produced in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, it continues the important conversation about race that EJI's director Bryan Stevenson spurred with the opening a year and a half ago of Montgomery's "Legacy Museum" and "National Memorial for Peace and Justice".

Ms. Morisseau -- a 2018 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" Fellow -- has written a taut and sometimes gut-wrenching drama about public school teacher Nya [Eunice Woods] attempting to do what she thinks is best for her son Omari [Jay Wade] by sending him to a private school where she hopes the environment will shelter him from the violent high school where she teaches.

Good impulses that go horribly wrong when an incident at the new school brought on by a teacher provokes Omari during a class discussion of novelist Richard Wright's Native Son; as the teacher insists that Omari be the spokesman for all Blacks -- and using such trigger words as "tamed", "animal", and "unleashed" -- the young man pushed the teacher out of righteous rage, thereby initiating an investigation and potential jail time for assault.

Early on in the production, Ms. Morisseau introduces poet Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool", a fatalist jazz influenced rif on the macho chest-beating of African-American youth -- outsiders who are resigned to a dead-end existence beyond their control, but who nonetheless continue their posturing. She punctuates the action with repeated fragments of the poem, so we are never far from the dominant theme of her play. And she seems to be inviting her audiences to engage in the conversation that might lead to an understanding of Omari's plight and end the dehumanizing of Black youth. -- Yes, this is a conversation we should be having.

Director Ron OJ Parson keeps the focus clearly on Nya and Omari as each one tries to navigate their ways through to a satisfactory conclusion -- Nya by not giving in to panic in the search for her son and offer help to him and even asking him to teach her: to help her understand, and Omari by temporarily running away to settle himself before admitting responsibility for his actions. -- Ms. Woods and Mr. Wade develop the complexities of their roles so audiences invest in both their conditions. There may be hope for reconciliation.

They are abetted along the way by Omari's girlfriend Jasmine [Toree Alexandre], Nya's outspoken veteran colleague Laurie [Barbara Figgins], dutiful school security guard Dun [Brian Nelson], and Nya's patriarchal ex-husband Xavier [Ethan Henry], whose estrangement from his son plays a major tole in Omari's acting-out. -- Each one in this excellent ensemble is given at least one moment that both furthers the plot and shows the desperation and fear they bring to dealing with an educational system seemingly rigged against them.

There are no easy solutions to the topics Ms. Morisseau proposes in her well-crafted social commentary. But seeing the emotionally charged ASF production of Pipeline could prompt at least a local willingness to talk with one another and move toward fixing a problem that has been with us for far too long.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rumors"

Standing ovations are so routine that they have become meaningless gestures at almost every professional or amateur theatrical performance. -- How refreshing then to have a well-earned  rapturous "seated ovation" greet the company of actors at the curtain call of The Cloverdale Playhouse's hilarious rendition of Neil Simon's Rumors.

As its next to last production of the "2019 Ensemble Season", director Mike Winkelman and his near perfect 10-member acting ensemble deliver an impressively clear and outrageously funny concoction in sumptuous formal black-and-white costumes [Katie Pearson] on a "large, tastefully-appointed" multi-leveled interior set [J. Scott Grinstead], the home of the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife who are hosting their friends at a dinner party to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

The problem is that their first guests -- Ken [Nathan Jacobs] and Chris [Sarah Kay] -- discover that Charlie has shot himself (a flesh wound), his wife Myra is nowhere to be found, there are no servants to prepare and serve the food, and they are left to explain the situation to the other guests when they arrive.

Enter Lenny [Ari Hagler] and Claire [Sara MacNeil], and later Ernie [Marcus Clement] and Cookie [Emily Burke], and finally Glenn [Chris Paulk] and Cassie [Alex Rickerd], who variously hear and re-tell with variations the several versions of what happened -- too much for any of them to remember accurately as so much is invented on the spot.

Of course, every couple has "issues", and so many "rumors" are spread around until pandemonium rears its ugly head. -- No spoilers here, so let it suffice that with everyone arguing and agreeing or disagreeing on the proper course of action in telling the police as well as finding out why Charlie shot himself and where Myra has gone, the result is a well-tuned farce by a troupe of consummate comic actors, abetted at the end by two police officers [Chris Roquemore and Brittany Riki Sankey].

The two hour running time goes by so quickly because of the fully engaged and energetic antics of the ensemble, each one with specific quirks and sophisticated dialogue; their individual performances are specific and nuanced, and their generosity to one another while fully participating in every action demonstrates an across-the-board professionalism that is the hallmark of this production.

Audience laughter from the opening night's almost full house threatened to drown out some dialogue, yet the on-stage ensemble kept the action moving at sometimes galloping speed. Mr. Simon's masterful script has so many comical twists and turns, with plot surprises that stretch credibility, but are so good-natured that they are easily forgiven.

With the world around us causing so much division, what a relief it is to witness a masterfully written, directed, designed, and acted farce so deserving of its resounding "seated ovation.

Monday, September 30, 2019

AUM: "World Tour: scenes, songs, and monologues"

Theatre AUM traditionally opens its season with a showcase of "scenes, songs, and monologues". The latest installment is called World Tour that includes selections from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America that demonstrate the many similarities we humans share regardless of national or cultural distinctions.

Some 33 short pieces are performed in rapid succession by a 23-member ensemble of Theatre AUM veterans and neophytes, giving all the participants an opportunity to demonstrate their acting skills without the burden of an entire play on their shoulders.

Played on an open-space set with minimal props, furniture, and costume, and directed variously by Neil David Seibel, Kyle Shook, Sam Wallace, and Val Winkelman, the company meet most of the challenges inherent in a showcase. -- Selections are presented out of the context of the plays they're in; each piece ought to have a complete "arc"; actors have no time to develop a role, so they must be fully committed the entire time; diction and vocal support are essential for the duration of each piece. -- And, for the most part, the AUM actors succeed.

Some of the selections suffered from either too rapid or unsupported speech, so important words and ideas were not clearly heard; and vocal and physical energy need to be sustained through the last moment of each selection. -- Highlighting a few examples of achievement in this matter are: David Wilson's piece from Amadeus, Josh Williams's presentation from Skylight, Kate Saylor's Saint Joan, and Tony George in both Death and the King's Horseman [with Kate Saylor] and Dialogue of the Gods.

How we communicate the social and political issues of the past and the present rely heavily on the powerful words provided in each script, any yet there are non-verbal expressions that do the job just as well; for example: Karen Licari's expert ballet interpretation of Kate Saylor's recitation from Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman was riveting; and Ms. Saylor's sign language telling of Josh Williams's sensitive presentation of Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore was equally focussed. -- In addition, two selections were presented in their original languages, and showed that good actors overcome language barriers by their understanding and commitment to the texts: note Nodoka Hasegawa's interpretation of No. 0 in Japanese, and Emily Aveldanez's passionate rendition of Blood Wedding in Spanish.

In a little longer than an hour, audiences were engaged in important matters of the heart and mind from around the world, by a talented group of actors. -- This next Theatre AUM season should be one to watch.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

WOBT: "Clue, the Musical"

Clue, the Musical has been seen before in the River Region. Based on the Parker Brothers board game, audiences are challenged to figure out whether it was "Mr. Green, in the Conservatory, with the knife" or any other possible solution to the murder of Mr. Boddy. -- At the start, selected audience members draw cards determining the night's solution; they are placed secretly in an envelope to be opened at the conclusion, and guaranteeing a different result at each performance.

Eleventh-hour casting changes impacted opening night at first-time director Michael Proper's production of Clue, the Musical at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre, necessitating several actors performing "on book" and receiving support and assistance from their fellow actors. Though this slowed down the pace and impacted their energy, the maxim "the show must go on" was reflected in the stalwart company's commitment to adapting to circumstances and providing entertainment to their audiences. -- Expectations are high that the company will get more secure during the run of the show.

With music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci, lyrics by Tom Chiodo, and book by Peter DePietro, Clue, the Musical gives us a narrator in the person of Mr. Boddy [Edward Arrington] who provides "clues" to his murder throughout the two acts. There's an ensemble of six suspects, each of whom has a past relationship and motive to kill him: Mrs. Peacock [Karla McGhee], Professor Plum [Lee Bridges], Miss Scarlett [Desirae Lewis], Col. Mustard [Jordan Berry], Mrs. White [Xandria Hataway], and Mr. Green [David Shelnutt] show us around the rooms in Mr. Boddy's mansion, while handling an array of weapons so there is no mistake about who, where, and with what the murder might happen.

Unfortunately, this exposition takes a very long time, with only a few energetic moments or clever dialogue within its unremarkable musical score. When the murder happens at the end of Act I, we are left with figuring out the solution as the action picks up in Act II with the addition of a female detective to sort things out despite the suspects ganging together for mutual protection.

There are a number of running jokes to enliven the dialogue -- Mr. Bridges is adept at linguistic perfection and shows Professor Plum's growing frustration with other characters' misuse of the English language, and his Act II debate with the Detective [last minute substitute Tammy Lee] as they trade literary references is a delight. -- And Ms. Lewis is a brightly unabashed Miss Scarlett, selling every moment in song and dialogue with such aplomb and vivacity that she is the measure of professionalism exhibited in this show.

Performed on a "crayola" set that replicates the board game, and with vibrant costumes depicting each character, this version of Clue, the Musical ought to find its feet and continue to entertain the WOBT audiences.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Millbrook: "Cheaper by the Dozen"

Amidst all the socio-political goings-on around us, it might be time for an old-fashioned family-friendly comedy. -- Based on an autobiographical 1948 book and the 1950 film following it, Christopher Sergel's 1992 stage adaptation of Cheaper by the Dozen just closed its run at the Millbrook Community Players, Inc.

With sixteen actors and a dog at his disposal, director Joe Nolin, Jr. mounted a pleasant production that, despite 21st Century worldliness, manages to touch the necessary buttons that endear it to many.

Mr. Gilbreth [Steve Phillips] is an efficiency expert at work who insists on running his home and family with the same dictatorial style. [Much like Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Gilbreth summons his expansive family by blowing a whistle, and assigning them tasks with little understanding of the effects on morale.] -- Told via narrative flashbacks to the 1920s by children Frank [Hudson Lee] and Ernestine [Ginny Gunn], their reminiscences piece together an understanding of their father's complicated relationship with them as he deals with financial responsibilities and the imminent impact of his mortality from a heart condition he has kept secret from all but his wife.

Though he calls for a "democratic family counsel", and regularly refers to his wife [Nicole Allen] as the "boss", Gilbreth dismisses any and all of their suggestions or objections as irrelevant or out-of-order, making it abundantly clear that his word is law. -- And there is some rebellion afoot. Eldest daughter Anne's [Shannon Dukes] adolescent desires to go out on dates, and wear silk stockings, are thwarted by her father's uncomprehending restrictions. Yet, there is love in the household, and all the squeaky-clean members support one another without question.

Potential boyfriends [Nate Greenawalt and Connor Carraway] come and go, ever-patient cook [Vicki Moses] tries to keep the peace, disbelieving teacher [Misty Bone] re-tests Anne's high exam scores, and the Doctor [Ken Cochran] warns Gilbreth that his heart condition needs attention -- and there are baby-steps of Gilbreth's capitulation to the family's needs that signal they may be moving into the modern world.

Unfortunately, some of this important information almost goes unheard. Actors need to support their voices, emphasize the operative words in their dialogue, and push vocal energy to the completion of ideas and sentences so audiences are privy to details of plot and character.

But what holds this production together is the strength of its protagonist. Mr. Phillips straddles the edge between an unfeeling dictatorial patriarch and a man  who loves his family but has difficulty expressing it: well done.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "Becky's New Car"

"When a woman says she wants new shoes, what she really wants is a new job. When a woman says she wants a new house, she wants a new husband. And when a woman says she needs a new car, she wants a new life!" -- Prolific playwright Steven Dietz's 2008  Becky's New Car is all about that.

Currently on offer at the Wetumpka Depot, director Tom Salter's dynamic ensemble actors enliven Dietz's script with elan as they interact directly with the audience at times while engaging our interest in Becky Foster's [Chantel Oakley] plight. -- She works long hours in a car dealership and takes little joy in her home life with her devoted hard working roofing-contractor husband Joe [Brad Sinclair] and their live-at-home son Chris [Hunter Lee Smith], a psychology student prone to analyzing everyone in sophomoric psychobabble. -- At work, she is challenged by the needy salesman Steve [Will Webster]. -- In short, Becky "wants a new life!"

When millionaire widower Walter Flood [Eric Arvidson] shows up at the dealership and orders a fleet of cars as gifts, he mistakenly believes that Becky [he insists on calling her Rebecca] is a widow, and thereby both sympathetic to his loneliness and a possible romantic partner.

Walter invites Becky to his island estate, where she meets his spoiled daughter Kenni [Lindsey Justus] and socialite Ginger [Jenny Whisenhunt]. -- Becky has second thoughts about this assignation with Walter, though she finds it hard to tell him or herself the truth.

With fluid staging, Mr. Salter guides his ensemble around a unit set containing Becky's home, the car dealership office, and the dock at Walter's estate; and he has his actors freely moving from one to another while they address the audience and times invite them to participate in the action, thus making everyone feel comfortable in their presence.

And the actors connect with their characters' foibles so naturally that nothing seems forced or false, even in the most extreme moments of comical panic by Mr. Webster, or Ms. Whisenhunt's depiction of an outrageous drunk.

There are plenty of plot twists, and Becky's secret new-found freedom stresses her with guilt; but how she and the others recognize their shortcomings as well as their strengths is done simply and effectively by the talented cast.

Mr. Smith's naivete is countered when he realizes true love; Ms. Justus transforms from a spoiled brat to an understanding young woman; Mr. Arvidson imbues sincerity and pathos to Walter's plight; Mr. Sinclair combines expert comic delivery and timing with a naturalistic devotion to his wandering wife; and Ms. Oakley carries the show on her most capable shoulders as she invites us all to share her journey filled with belly laughs and tears.

Friday, September 20, 2019

ASF--Bedlam Theatre Company: "Hamlet" and "Saint Joan"

"Words, words, words" -- Hamlet
Words matter. In the theatre they tell the plot, characters, conflict, and ideas; and from the pens of preeminent playwrights like William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, the words they write come to full life through skilled actors.

In an astute programming stratagem, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director Rick Dildine scheduled New York City's "Bedlam Theatre Company" to perform Shakespeare's Hamlet and Shaw's Saint Joan in repertory opposite Susan Ferrara's Buzz [closed last weekend, and reviewed earlier on this site] staged in the ASF Scene Shop and recounting the efforts of Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody to stage an unconventional Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "The Other Place" (a tin shed used for experimental stripped-down versions of Shakespeare beginning in the 1970s).

"Bedlam" director Eric Tucker stages the two productions unconventionally, with the same four actors [Dria Brown, Mike Labbadia, Edmund Lewis, Andy Rindlisbach] playing about two-dozen characters in each play, using minimal set and props, and contemporary costumes, thereby allowing audiences to focus on the words that demonstrate the strengths of the texts.

During each show's two intermissions, as well as at the conclusions of Hamlet and Saint Joan, audience members engaged in animated conversations about their experiences with the productions. Overheard comments praising the energetic acting and the contemporary resonances of the plays' themes are clear indications that Montgomery audiences want to engage with more classical productions and their heightened language, emotional intensity, and persuasive arguments.

The productions are not without their challenges: each one runs a little over three-hours [though the time seems to go by quickly], lengthy expository information is not always clear, adjustments to the quick character changes may be confusing [sometimes an actor will play more than one character in a scene with a mere shift of posture or vocal inflection, or a minor costume modification], and the rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally delivered in stage darkness, is hard to follow at times.

Hamlet is likely the more familiar play to local audiences, though there is a bit of a struggle to understand important expository words by playing the first act in darkness or low lighting; the ghost sequences use flashlights to good effect, though. Yet the suggestion of Hamlet's [Mr. Rindlisbach] "feigned madness", so important to the plot, gets lost in stage business. -- Mr. Tucker breaks much of the play's stress with comic elements that are inherent in Shakespeare's script; and while there is a lot of emotional content in it and in the performances, this production comes off more as an intellectual exercise.

Saint Joan succeeds better. With a powerhouse performance by Ms. Brown at the center of the story of Joan's trajectory from farm girl to soldier to conquerer to martyr, Shaw's arguments on opposite sides -- church/state, nationalism of France/England, variant philosophies -- are articulated in words with such sensible assurance that the speaker is correct, that audiences find themselves agreeing at times with each side. The language is precise and persuasive. And that is its strength, especially as we can see the correspondence to our own social and political issues of nationalism, separation of Church and State, political nearsightedness...and perhaps learn from the past.

Monday, September 9, 2019


Montgomery and River Region audiences have only a few opportunities to witness the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's excellent "World Premier" of playwright-actor Susan Ferrara's Buzz, a creative ensemble production staged in the ASF Scene Shop by award-winning director-actor Carrie Preston. -- "Remember me" is a challenge to Hamlet by his father's ghost, and acts as a reminder to us all to re-discover and celebrate the people who have been underserved by history.

In the 1970s, young theatre innovator Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody was the first female director at the Royal Shakespeare Company who transformed a tin-roofed costume storage building into an experimental studio theatre called "The Other Place" where she directed a young Ben Kingsley in an acclaimed ground-breaking production of Hamlet in 1975, and committed suicide at the age of 28 only a few days after it opened. -- And yet, she is not universally known.

Opinionated, troubled, candidly outspoken, ambitious, and passionate to bring theatre to ordinary people, Buzz's ability to help actors discover the emotional truth in Shakespeare's dialogue energized the Stratford company who enthusiastically delved into many Shakespeare texts with a new-found vigor within the Spartan confines of "The Other Place". -- And so at ASF, the Scene Shop mimics it's Stratford origin and rewards local audiences with a stunning production that makes us re-think how we might experience theatre.

Not a traditional biography, Ms. Ferrara's Buzz takes an impressionistic approach that skews time and place to tell Buzz's trajectory from recent university graduate to shattering the glass ceiling of the patriarchal RSC. Her characters play both their roles at the RSC and the roles they play in the Hamlet that Buzz directs. And she imbues Hamlet's gravediggers [Zack Calhoon and Sam McMurray] with archival history of the long-forgotten while they simultaneously dig Buzz's grave and narrate her story.

Ms. Preston has a gifted ensemble of actors and an all-female production team -- lighting: Cat Tate Starmer; scenic and costume: Leslie Taylor; sound: Melanie Chen Cole; stage manager: Victoria Broyles -- as her collaborators. Using the breadth of the Scene Shop using "found" items and with current materials intact, evocative lighting choices, some chilling sound effects that reflect Buzz's state of mind at strategic places in the narrative, and everyday costumes with subtle demonstrations of character, equip her acting ensemble to credibly tell their story in as unaffected a way as has been seen recently at ASF.

While the focus is arguably on Buzz herself [Elizabeth A. Davis] and her unwavering stance to assert her own worth as a director and as a person, she is challenged both by the hierarchy of the RSC [Robert Emmet Lunney, Christopher Gerson, and Spencer Davis Milford particularly] and the resistance of "Hamlet"/Ben Kingsley [Zuhdi Boueri] -- a short, darker skinned actor so completely opposite the tall blonde Hamlets of stage tradition heretofore. So, she has to prove herself to them as well as to herself. -- And while the costumer Ms. Cut [Greta Lambert] transitions from a practical traditionalist to a reluctant friend and advocate, and we witness Ms. Soft [Tarah Flanagan] respond to Buzz's unorthodox approach to directing, ASF audiences begin to see Buzz's startling impact that garners the respect she yearns for.

In 90-minutes mixing humor with seriousness, Ms. Preston's inventive staging and interpretation of Ms. Ferrara's script can't help but make us all think about the many unrecognized people in our own lives, especially women who in Ms. Preston's words: are "striving to be seen, to be heard, and to be remembered".

Friday, August 2, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "'Master Harold'...and the Boys"

"Master Harold"...and the Boys catapulted South African playwright Athol Fugard to international fame in 1982. The semi-autobiographical three-hander received instant acclaim and numerous awards; it has been made into a film and a television special as well.

Set in a white family's tea room in apartheid-era South Africa, Fugard's 90-minute mini-masterpiece is being brought to River Region attention at the Wetumpka Depot under the sensitive direction of Tony Davison.  Its study of "institutionalized racism and bigotry" needs to be seen today, much as "The Legacy Museum" and "The National Memorial to Peace and Justice" encourage us to face issues of the past and present that we would rather not, especially since we see such behavior repeated in daily news reports and social media.

Opening night drew a sparse audience, unfortunately [perhaps word-of-mouth will encourage ticket sales]; nonetheless, the play's themes seemed to resonate as evidenced by their rapt attention.

On a rainy afternoon, two middle-aged Black servants take time off from their work in the tea room to practice ballroom dancing in preparation for an upcoming contest. Sam [Deion Mallard] and Willie [La'Brandon Tyre] welcome 17-year-old Hally [Michael Armstrong] home from school, and it soon becomes clear that the two of them [especially Sam] have mentored Hally most of his life, and that they share a comfortable and respectful relationship. -- They engage in some banter about the dance competition, reminisce with differing perspectives about some events in Hally's childhood, and share ideas to help Hally with a homework assignment: to choose a "man of magnitude" whose greatness "benefited all mankind" as the subject of his essay.

Hally is precocious and entitled, offering condescending comments to Sam and Willie, and occasionally signals his white privilege that the two older men receive with long-practiced patience. But when phone calls from Hally's Mother let the boy know that his tyrannical alcoholic Father is being released from the hospital after treatment for a leg injury, Hally resentfully knows that he will have to care for his Father, and reveals a latent anger against him. Taking out his rage on Sam and Willie, he resorts to vicious adolescent racist attacks against them, causing a rift that will be hard to reconcile. -- What we say in anger often reveals the unpleasant truths that have been smoldering beneath the surface.

Mr. Davison's acting trio, a bit tentative at times on opening night, individually and collectively create memorable characters and conflicts: Mr. Tyre's simple loyalty to "Master Harold" from childhood on, Mr. Mallard's attempts to help Hally mature and to better himself by studying Hally's school curriculum make him a surrogate Father, and Mr. Armstrong's conflicted and changeable emotions, all tell a compelling story that ought to provoke thoughtful discussions among the audiences fortunate enough to be in their company.

Fugard tells his story in real time, making a powerful statement about racism and relationships, and questioning "are we ever going to get it right?" Even if the romanticized ballroom metaphor is a place "without collisions", in the real world "we all bump into each other all the time".

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

WOBT: "Oklahoma

Rodgers and Hammerstein's first hit musical Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944, has had countless productions worldwide since then, recently won a 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and is currently being directed by Sam Wallace at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville...75 years, and it has lost none of its charm and vigor.

Set in the Indian Territory a few years after the turn of the 20th Century, the farmers and cowmen of the soon-to-be State of Oklahoma have their disputes, but eventually set aside their biases and come together in unity [an example we could follow today].

While we are gently and humorously reminded of their feud during the two-hour stage time, the play's focus is on two love-triangles: farm-girl Laurey [Sarah Olguin] is being wooed by cowboy Curly [Gage Leifreid] and his lonely obsessive rival Jud [Josh Williams], who works on Laurey's Aunt Eller's [Ashlee Lassiter] farm; a comic counterpart romance pits cowboy Will [Hunter Lee Smith] against Persian peddler Ali Hakim [Braden Fine] for the attention of Will's flirtatious fiancee Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd].

With its catalogue of now classic songs that are early examples of how lyrics became integral to the storytelling and character development, Mr. Wallace's energetic cast deliver each one with clear understanding. -- Mr. Leifreid opens the show with "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'" that sets the tone for an optimistic future of Statehood, and woos Laurey with "Surrey with the fringe on top"; Mr. Smith's dynamic presentation of "Kansas City" [with the assistance of the ensemble] is a paean to 20th Century progress and his duet with Ms. Rikerd in "All er nothin'" balances her earlier "I cain't say no" -- one of the best renditions in this show.

As everyone prepares for the annual box social, the romantic denials in "People will say we're in love" are beautifully rendered by Mr. Leifreid and Ms. Olguin, whose stage chemistry is palpable. -- As Curly tries to dissuade Jud from dating Laurey in "Pore Jud is daid", their rivalry comes to a head and almost ends in disaster.

Threats of a shotgun wedding for Ali Hakim and Ado Annie, a sympathetic telling of "Lonely Room" by Mr. Williams that provides some complexity to Jud's obsession with Laurey, a knife fight, a wedding, and final wrapping up of the love stories, end with a celebration of Statehood in the rousing title song, "Oklahoma!" and reprise of "Oh, what a beautiful  mornin'".

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The True Adventures of Pinocchio"

J. Scott Grinstead, Technical Director at The Cloverdale Playhouse, continues to impress local audiences with his detailed inventive scenic designs, and his abilities as a director. Now at the helm of The True Adventures of Pinocchio, the supporting evidence of his skills is once again on display. -- The show is about to end its two-weekend run, but its effect will surely last.

Not a Disney-animated version of Carlo Collodi's story of the irrepressible title character, this translation/adaptation by Louis Lippa, stays closer to Collodi's series of stories, adds some contemporary references, includes touches of ironic humor, and clearly targets several life lessons that must be learned by the puppet who wants to be a real boy that could benefit all of us.

Played by an ensemble of youth and adult actors, most of whom play numerous roles throughout the two-hour running time, director/scenic designer Grinstead and his remarkable team have created a stunning and surprisingly complex Puppet Theatre stage, scenic artistry [Sarah Kay and crew], a series of delightful puppets [Summerlinn Clark], evocative and character driven costumes [Beth Shephard and her able team], and minutely detailed props [Rita Pearson Daly] that afford the acting ensemble the best of possible worlds in which to bring the story to life.

At the outset, a group of actors escaping conflict at home one Winter, stumble into an abandoned puppet theatre where they meet the Old Man [George Jacobsen]who tells the children the story of Pinocchio [Jason Grinstead], a story "...more than true; it's real...when I tell it, it happens". The adventures both delight and bewilder young Elena [Hannah Worley] and Silvia [Olive Henninger], who question and comment at every turn; much like a Greek Chorus, they serve as the audience's mouthpiece.

The Pinocchio story has been retold so many times, that today's audiences are familiar with many of its facets: the mischievous wooden puppet who comes to life through the carving of a piece of wood by Geppetto [Mr. Jacobsen], and who wants more than anything to become human. But his lies make his nose grow longer, and he gets into so many scrapes on his journey with flim-flam artists, con-men, and  assorted animal creatures, that one wonders if he will ever succeed.

But we are on his side and we too listen to the sage advice of the Talking Cricket [John Sluis]: be honest and generous, obey your parents, reap the benefits of schooling, don't be greedy or fall for get-rich-quick schemes, don't be afraid to be a fool, and most of all care about others.

In an ideal pairing, George Jacobsen and Jason Grinstead carry the play on their capable shoulders. Mr. Jacobsen is an adept storyteller for both the on-stage and off-stage audiences, taking on other roles to complete the Old Man's story; and young Mr. Grinstead's powerful presence as Pinocchio delivers the character's contradictions and genuine ambitions with clear intentions and a strong voice [he is one to watch for future stage work].

There are a number of surprises in store by the end [but no spoilers here]; you'll have to catch the last performance to find out. -- There is a lot of magic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Wetumpka Depot & High School: "Big Fish"

In a largely successful collaboration between the Wetumpka Depot Players and the Wetumpka High Theatre Guild, the musical version of the fantasy-drama Big Fish has been playing to enthusiastic full houses at Wetumpka High School.

Based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel, it had a short Broadway run in 2013 starring Norbert Leo Butz in the role of Edward Bloom [Chris Kelly here], a man nearing the end of his life whose incredible biographical stories have bewildered his son Will [Michael Armstrong] who needs to resolve an estranged relationship with his father before it is too late.

Best known to local audiences from Tim Burton's 2003 film that was made almost entirely at locations around the River Region, this production of the John August and Andrew Lippa musical does not replicate the movie, though it retains the essences of the novel, and tells the story by switching between the present day and the young-Will's [Shep Grier] childhood.

This is an ambitious undertaking that is a bit uneven at times, though it succeeds on many levels: confident and inventive directing [Kristy Meanor], assured musical direction [Randy Foster], clever choreography [Daniel Grant Harms] that includes a rousing show-stopping tap dance number at the top of Act II, stunning production values (costumes, sets, props) overseen by Technical Director Jeff Glass, and a large cast of veterans and neophytes who tell a clear story and create memorable characters in a family-friendly excursion that celebrates life.

There are several songs that punctuate and comment on the action; among the memorable are the "Witch Sequence" with Desirae Lewis invigorating the eponymous role of the Witch, "Red, White and True" [that tap-dance number], "Stranger" sung by Mr. Armstrong, "Two Men in My Life" and "I Don't Need a Roof" performed with passionate commitment and effortless singing by Patty Holly as Edward's wife Sandra, and Mr. Kelly's omnipresent central character whenever he takes and commands the scene.

And, while the actors in the focus family are on point throughout, among the supporting roles of Karl the Giant [James Rigby], Ringmaster and sometime werewolf Amos [Cushing Phillips], Edward's nemesis Don Price [Damian Bowden], almost-girlfriend Jenny [Kari Kelly], and Will's intelligently patient and pregnant wife Josephine [Lizzy Woodall], there is a consistent and credible foundation to the story. -- And they are backed up by an energetic ensemble.

What holds this production together is the conflicted Father/Son relationship. Mr. Kelly's Edward is genuinely authentic in his commitment to family and love of storytelling [no matter how confusing his bending the truth can be to others], and Mr. Armstrong's passionate longing as Will to understand his Father leads eventually to an acceptance of one another and a celebration of the enduring love of family.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

ASF Fellows: "Winnie-the-Pooh"

On their penultimate day on Saturday, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Fellows Company presented a delightful production of the A. A. Milne classic Winnie-the-Pooh in a musical adaptation (first seen at ASF about a decade ago) by Le Clanche du Rand, with music by Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by Milne, Kristin Sergel, and Ms. du Rand.

Milne's original 1926 stories are telegraphed into a 60-minute entertainment that is a treat for both the intended children's audiences and the adults who accompany them. -- With its coloring-book set by Charles Eddie Moncrief III and inventive costumes by Jeffrey Todhunter, it pleases the eye as it tells the tale of Christopher Robin [Dane McMichael] and his treasured companion Pooh [Tyshon Boone] as they engage in a number of adventures and misadventures with Rabbit [Katrina Clark], Eeyore [Chris Marth], Piglet [Sigrid Wise], Owl [Tony Pellegrino], Kanga [Eduardo Ruiz] and Roo [Toree Alexandre]. Take your pick on a favorite character; there's enough in each one to beguile anyone.

AUM faculty member Neil David Seibel directs this ensemble with keen attention to character, movement, inventive staging, and the thematic lessons that people of all ages can agree on. -- The action moves swiftly from moment to moment interspersed with songs mostly from the original text; accompanied by Mr. McMichael on the guitar, and occasionally half-spoken/half-sung, the simple tunes are in keeping with Milne's simple messages.

Never out of fashion, Milne's overriding theme of getting along with one another couldn't be more important than today. We watch in childlike wonder how the characters learn to accept strangers who are different from themselves, how to rely on friends in times of need, how to admit when we are wrong or fearful and to apologize (and to move forward when apologies are accepted), and how the least among us ought to be respected.

Though some of the intimate connection between actor and audience was challenged by the play's being staged in the large Festival theatre, this Winnie-the-Pooh preserved the author's intentions and charmed the enthusiastically responsive audience.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

WOBT: "Pride and Prejudice"

The Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is playing to enthusiastic full houses with their pleasant  production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Adapted by Jane Kendall from Austen's 1813 romantic novel, this version is true to its major plot elements, and director Pamela Trammell keeps her acting company focused on storytelling and character relationships for the two hours running time.

As one of the world's literary masterpieces, and with many stage and film adaptations to secure its popularity, Pride and Prejudice is familiar territory. We are taken to early Nineteenth Century England, where melodramatic Mrs. Bennet [Catherine Barlow] is most concerned with finding good husbands for her five daughters, especially since Mr. Bennet's [Will Skelton] inheritance can't be passed on to them; his cousin Mr. Collins [Michael Mims] would take over the estate on Bennet's death.

With the arrival of wealthy and charming Charles Bingley [David Shelnutt] and his sister Caroline [Emma Crockett] to the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet schemes to make a match with eldest daughter Jane [Sarah Staton]. Accompanying Bingley is the moody and aloof Mr. Darcy [Josh Williams], who immediately seems to insult the Bennets, much to the ire of second daughter, feisty Elizabeth [Lauren Norris]. -- And the younger daughters: bookish Mary [Kenna Shields] remains aloof, and giddy Catherine [Rebecca Schannep] and Lydia [Cadence Potter] are more concerned with parties and soldiers in uniform, particularly the dashing Mr. Wickham [Josiah Lamb] who isn't what he seems.

When Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins's marriage proposal, he turns to Charlotte Lucas [Ameila Robbins] whose mother Lady Lucas [Diane Garfield] is a social climbing gossip.

Many misunderstandings and confusions about people's intentions ensue, and messages are delivered by household servant Hill [Abigail Bonebrake]; but the result is well known, and as "opposites attract", it is clear that Elizabeth and Darcy will be together by the end, despite the interference of Lady Catherine de Bourgh [Pamela Barnes],  as will Bingley and Jane.

The ensemble handle their roles with conviction and admirable English accents; lovely period costumes by Dani Porter and her team enhance their behaviors and provide an appropriate look to the surroundings. And though some blocking upstaged important action and the pace needed some variety, and it sugar-coated the relationship between Lydia and Mr. Wickham, this production of Pride and Prejudice is an endearing romantic foray into the Nineteenth Century. Well done.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Millbrook: "Independence Day at Happy Meadows"

Laura King's sillier-by-the-moment Independence Day at Happy Meadows is playing in Millbrook, garnering plenty of laughs for its six character ensemble in a 90-minute romp. Though it could benefit from additional energetic movement, the posturing of the four geriatric women living in Happy Meadows retirement home manage to keep the action moving at a good pace.

Beset by the tedium of the retirement home, and face to face daily with recognizable personality syndromes marking advanced age, Holly [Angie Mitchell] gets a message from her ten-year-old grandson asking her to visit him on the Fourth of July; though it seems impossible, Holly and her cohorts -- spunky and outspoken Betty [Carol Majors], wheelchair bound "forgetful" Shirley [Ginger Collum], and overly polite Mary [Nancy Power] -- plan to breakout of the "home", basing their plan on the movie "The Great Escape".

Of course, there are obstacles to their plan, the most difficult is in the person of Nancy [Rae Ann Collier], the nasty and devious nurse/director of Happy Meadows, who is expecting an inspector that day who she is out to impress with the perfection of her establishment, no matter how it is actually run.

When delivery man and Nancy's sometime lover Gus [John Collier] arrives with food for a picnic Nancy has planned to influence the inspector, he gets caught up in the ladies' escape plot.

Well, there is a lot of confusion, fireworks, a can of corn, a length of rope, and other incredible comic bits that punctuate the on-stage antics; and the time passes quickly. -- The acting company [their various eccentricities and personality quirks notwithstanding] are both familiar and sympathetic. We recognize them and enjoy being in their company.

Scene changes need to be quicker to keep audience attention, but as a happy ending guarantees a temporary independence for the women, and the dialogue and characterizations so spot on, the evening spent in their company is a good one.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "Bright Star"

In a busy week for River Region theatres, the Wetumpka Depot opened a buoyant Bluegrass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; under the direction of Kristy Meanor and musical direction of Randy Foster, Bright Star has a cast of 19 and a terrific 7-piece orchestra (some of whom are in the cast) who transport audiences to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1945, and with flashback sequences to 1923.

Alice Murphy [Adrian Lee Borden] intrigues us at the start with "If You Knew My Story", leading to a saga of love and loss, forgiveness and reconciliation.

It's 1945 when Billy Cane [Brandtley McDonald] returns from serving in World War II to his home in the mountains where his childhood friend and would-be sweetheart Margo Crawford [Brittney Johnston] has edited several stories he has sent her and encourages him to publish them ("Bright Star"). -- He goes to Asheville where he meets Alice, the editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, who eventually gives him a chance to find his own voice as a writer. -- Reminiscing on her younger days, the play flashes back to 1923, where a budding romance between her younger self and Jimmy Ray [Alex Freeman] is thwarted by his tyrannical father Mayor Dobbs [Scott Page] who will do anything to stop their romance ("A Man's Gotta Do"), especially when Alice becomes pregnant and the Mayor forbids their marriage and insists she put her baby up for adoption.

Complications ensue as the two stories get more and more intertwined. Over the two acts, secrets are kept for good or ill, loyalties are tested, atrocities are revealed; yet love will ultimately reconcile the central characters.

Production values are all top notch:  Ms. Meanor's composite rustic set,  Cherry Jones's lovely period costumes, and Matthew Oliver's striking wigs are enhanced by Tom Salter's effectively atmospheric lighting and Jackson Dean's evocative sound design.

But it is the acting and music that carries the day. Each of the likable principal and supporting actors is gifted with a strong singing voice that interprets the lyrics and carries without amplification; and they make us care about their individual concerns. The ensemble actors in supporting roles embellish the story with important plot details and help develop the major characters' relationships. And even Mr. Page's portrayal of the heinous Mayor is admirable as the one man we are supposed to despise.

Mr. Foster's admirable on-stage orchestra playing an assortment of traditional Bluegrass instruments carries the action from moment to moment with ballads, rousing dance numbers effectively choreographed by Daniel Harms, anthems, plaintive reminiscences, and hopeful winsomeness with instrumentation that supports the actors and augments their behavior and relationships.

This production of Bright Star has all the markings of yet another hit for the Wetumpka Depot.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Flyin' West"

The shelf-life of any play is at best uncertain, but it is no surprise that Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's popular 1994 Flyin' West is marking its 25th Anniversary with several productions around the country, the latest of which opened Thursday night at The Cloverdale Playhouse; it was the country's "most produced play" shortly after its composition, and from the resounding reception it received this week, its staying power is secure.

Based on actual events during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, when thousands of former slaves fled the South to settle in Nicodemus, Kansas, Ms. Cleage's play is both a history lesson and an anthem to the stalwart women whose identity and strength of character reflect the Biblical Nicodemus as a model of their rebirth in casting off the bonds of slavery to secure their new-found freedom.

Flyin' West shows four Homesteading women who join forces in their attempts to overcome the social stigma of being both Black and female, with unseen whites buying up the land around them, and racial prejudices within their own family. -- Miss Leah [Georgette Norman] is a feisty matriarchal ex-slave who birthed 15 children who were all sold into slavery, and whose yarns both entertain and instruct. She is in company with three sisters: the eldest, Sophie [Kourtney Ellis] is a determined rifle-toting activist in the movement to keep her family's land secure; middle sister Fannie [Jamila Turner] tries her best to hold the family together despite inner strife, while being courted by the mild-mannered Will [La'Brandon Milbry-Tyer]; and on the arrival of pregnant youngest sister Minnie [Amy May], who makes excuses for her abusively loathsome mulatto husband Frank [Clyde Hancock], family conflicts intertwine with the challenges of surviving in the 1898 Kansas plains.

Mike Winkelman designed a minimalist multi-leveled set surrounded by a painted panorama of the Great Plains that evokes the endless possibilities awaiting a people eager to fulfill the American Dream of "freedom, equality, and opportunity" to be secured through land ownership.

Directed by local actress and director Sarah Adkins, Flyin' West takes on a profound significance for contemporary audiences. Ms. Adkins offers a slow and deliberate pace to target Ms. Cleage's themes with humor and poignancy, and effortlessly skewers the danger and hypocrisy of racist ideas and behavior both within and without the African American community.

The ensemble actors grapple with these themes in consistently nuanced performances that delineate their roles without resorting to stereotype. And there are moments that rivet audience attention because of the actors' credible connections to one another, their respect for Ms. Cleage's words and the powerful ideas they communicate about self-determination, human dignity against the odds, and even some wicked fun at resolving their problems.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

ASF Fellows Touring Company: "As You Like It"

On April 23rd, a balmy evening and the 455th Birthday of William Shakespeare, audience members lounged on blankets and chairs, sipped cool drinks, and nibbled on snacks in the Garden at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival while being entertained by the ASF Fellows Touring Company's abridged version of As You Like It, one of the Bard's most popular plays.

Honed down to a mere 75-minutes, the 8-member acting ensemble gave an energetic and sometimes rambunctious entertainment that is geared to make Shakespeare accessible to young student audiences on their tour; make no mistake, this shortened version appeals to the adults and purists as well because Associate Artistic Director Greta Lambert's assured hand is fully in charge.

Ms. Lambert has been directing these shortened versions for several years, and her signature is all over this production: creative casting of eight actors to cover all the roles, adroit staging, inventive humor, the ability to connect a 400-year-old play to contemporary audiences, and most of all a respect for Shakespeare's words in her finely edited script..

After a brief purposefully written Prologue that introduces the company and the various roles they play, this As You Like It dives right in to a story about love, forgiveness, and justice. Central to the plot is Rosalind [Katrina Clark], who falls in love with Orlando [Tyshon Boone] after he defeats the wrestler Charles [Tony Pelligrino] in front of Duke Frederick [Chris Marth], and his daughter (who is also Rosalind's best friend) Celia [Sigrid Wise]. -- The Duke had usurped and banished his own brother; Orlando's brother Oliver [Eduardo Ruiz] tried to have him killed; the Duke banishes Rosalind, so she disguises herself as a man called Ganymede and together with Celia in the guise of a simple maid Aliena, and the fool Touchstone [Dane McMichael] decides to go to the Forest of Arden, where Orlando has also fled on the advice of LeBeau [Toreee Alexandre], and by coincidence the wronged Duke Senior [also Mr. Marth] also lives in pastoral comfort in company with the melancholy Jaques [Mr. Pellegrino again].

Pretty much everyone winds up in the forest, and when Orlando is caught pinning love poems to Rosalind on the trees for everyone to see, Ganymede offers to cure Orlando of his lovesickness by "impersonating" Rosalind and having him practice wooing her; and when local shepherd Silvius [Mr. Marth] is rejected by Phebe [Ms. Alexandre], and she falls desperately for Ganymede, and Touchstone falls for the lusty Audrey [Mr. Ruiz in outrageous drag], "Ganymede" tutors them all in the appropriate ways of love and courtship.

A lot to sort out in just 75 minutes, but this extraordinary ensemble of actors is up to the task, keeping plots and subplots clear, delineating each of their several roles so well that audiences could imagine a much larger cast than eight actors, maintaining Shakespeare's wit, while affording the more serious themes to come to the fore, especially Jaques' "Seven ages of man" speech. -- This talented company create a palpable chemistry on stage that infects the audience with a joyful spirit.

It is a comedy, so most everyone is happy at the end: brothers are reunited in harmony, forgiveness is given with dignity, all the couples are united in marriages, and the play ends with singing and dancing.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

ASF: "Into the Breeches"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival just added George Brant's infectiously delightful comedy-drama Into the Breeches into its repertory season. -- Our Town and Romeo and Juliet have been playing for a while, with Steel Magnolias a recent addition. -- Into the Breeches, directed assuredly by Shana Gozansky, has the six "steel magnolias" joined by two men from the Our Town cast, taking the Octagon Stage by storm and earning laugh-out-loud moments, exit applause, tearfully moving episodes, bristling indignation, and a long spontaneous standing ovation.

Set during World War II in Montgomery, AL [the location changes depending on where the play is produced] at the fictitious Oberon Theatre [Scott C. Neale created the evocative set], where Ellsworth Snow [James Judy] threatens to cancel their season of Shakespeare's Henry plays because the men are away at the war. -- Undaunted, Maggie Dalton [Greta Lambert], the wife of the absent artistic director, is determined that "the show must go on" with an all-female cast she promises to recruit and direct. When she conscripts Ellsworth's wife Winifred [Marcy McGuigan], the first battle is won; but there are a lot more obstacles in her way.

Winifred wants to help but is a terrible actor; middle-aged diva Celeste [Allison Briner Dardenne] assumes she will play the lead role of Prince Hal, though she is clearly too-long-in-the-tooth for the part; auditions day supplies only two inexperienced young women -- eager Grace [Sarah Walker Thornton] and timid June [Gracie Winchester], whose husbands are also away fighting; and the group's African American costume designer Ida [Tracy Conyer Lee] and gay stage manager Stuart [Grant Chapman] will eventually complete the rag-tag performance troupe.

The challenges of learning lines and impersonating men, and interpolating Groucho Marx into a characterization of Falstaff [a couple of hilariously funny moments that threatened to stop the show], are balanced by the pathos of the women's concern for their men in battle, and their bonds of inclusiveness in the face of racism and homophobia.

With famous English actress Glenda Jackson currently playing King Lear on Broadway at the age of 82 as a model, there should be no doubt that the women of Into the Breeches are up to the challenge. -- Brant's script affords each character specific moments of attention at which these actors shine, yet no one is the show's star; as the script dictates, we watch them develop acting skills and the self-confidence to make Shakespeare's words resonate both for the 1940s and today.

They are an ensemble of the first order, becoming the "band of brothers" made famous in Henry V's "St. Crispin's Day speech" that was used by Laurence Olivier to raise the spirits of the British during World War II, and rendered here most powerfully. We laugh with them as they learn to trust themselves and one another, we cry with them in their distressful separation from their spouses, we support them in overcoming social prejudices -- in short, we invest in their lives. And they emerge triumphant.

Into the Breeches, with its aforementioned set, stunning costumes by Olivera Gajic, effective wigs by Matthew Reeves Oliver, glorious soundscape of period songs from Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, inspired lighting by Annie Wiegand, and flawless acting, is bright and witty, often boisterously funny, and an ultimately moving piece of theatre that ought to be seen.

Theatre AUM: "Arcadia"

When Tom Stoppard wrote Arcadia in 1993, he had garnered a reputation for audacious intellectual wordplay, an amusing playfulness, and a penchant for including esoteric subjects in his comedies. Starting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) that made him an overnight success, he continues to this day to impress theatregoers with verbal dexterity and complicated plots.

Arcadia not only has two interconnected stories alternately playing on the same set in two different time periods, it is concerned with such subjects as thermodynamics, chaos theory, landscape gardening, history, and literary scholarship. All in pursuit of figuring out how the past and the present serve to bring order out of disorder.

An ambitious undertaking for Theatre AUM. Director Mike Winkelman has a fine ensemble of actors at his disposal (AUM undergraduates, alumni, and faculty) in a production that opened on Thursday night to a large responsive audience.

The setting is a garden room in an English country estate called Sidley Park, and the time alternates between 1809 and 1995; and Stoppard centers a large table that serves both time periods where most of the action occurs.

In 1809, precocious young Thomasina Coverly [Grace Moore] is being tutored by Septimus Hodge [Jacob Holmberg], and though her insights into algebra, physics, and the natural world are far more sophisticated than her years, she is also curious about the sexual goings-on at the estate among the adults: especially Septimus and family guests -- the unsuccessful poet Ezra Chater [Tony George], his cuckolding never on-stage wife, and also unseen Lord Byron. Thomasina's stern yet flirtatious  mother Lady Croom [Alex Ricard] and her officious brother Captain Brice [Jay Russell] rule the roost so-to-speak, while bumbling gardener Richard Noakes [Cushing Phillips] convinces Lady Croom to allow him to transform the old-fashioned estate from the classical Arcadian to the then popular Gothic style. Thomasina's younger brother Augustus [Sam Penn] is a bit of a troublemaker, while manservant Jellaby [Sam Wallace] importantly is a go-between, delivering letters among the various sets of lovers.

In 1995, descendants of the 1809 Coverlys -- math student Valentine [Kodi Robertson], his younger sister Chloe [Karisn Warrington], and young brother Gus [Sam Penn again, who Stoppard has passing important props from oner time period to the next] -- host Hannah Jarvis [Brittany Vallely], a best-selling author of a book about Byron's mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, and is researching a book about the "hermit" of Sidley Park. When university professor Bernard Nightingale [Michael Krek] shows up hoping to collaborate with her, but with his own agenda; he has letters found in books that give evidence of the earlier times' characters' relationships: those letters seen earlier as delivered by Jellaby.

Lots of plot elements to keep straight, especially as so much of it hinges on the sexual relationships among the characters both past and present. No further spoilers here; there are a lot of plot twists and revelations that connect the time periods. -- And Mr. Winkelman keeps all the balls in the air with a fast paced comic delivery from his actors. This is a tight ensemble, and while the audience may be perplexed at first from Stoppard's multi-layered script, and the challenges of following his themes, the actors inform each character with precise traits that are both entertaining and impressively truthful. There are some articulation issues, but for the most part, the company tell a complex story clearly.

At two and a half hours, Arcadia makes the audience work, but the rewards are worth it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Millbrook: "An Evening of 10 Minute Plays"

Last weekend, a one-night-only fundraising performance of An Evening of 10 Minute Plays entertained an almost capacity crowd in Millbrook.

Eleven short plays were directed by eleven veteran and first-time directors, several of whom are members of the Millbrook Community Players' Board of Directors. -- Using minimal furniture and props, and with musical interludes during blackouts to make the changes, the eleven short plays kept audiences entertained by the mostly comical vignettes.

Whether the subject was, for instance, a different take on the Abbot and Costello "Who's on First" duologue, or families disagreeing on what to get rid of in "The Garage Sale", or studying the afterlife of "sinfully challenged" people in "Better Living Through Reincarnation", or analyzing our dependence on cell phones in "Status Update", each piece took off in a new direction and kept the audience with them all the way.

Highlights were: "Marriage...After Death" in which the ghosts of a man [Lee Bridges] and his two former wives [Misty Bone and Donna Young] dissect their relationships with building animosity and unexpected comic results; "What's in the Box", in which a man [Kevin Morton] escalates the frustration of a woman [Carol Majors] who wants to know the contents of a box he's holding, only to be repeatedly told "Nothing"; the excessive absurdity of "1-800..." in which a customer [Michael Snead] tries to pay a bill but is confronted by an off-stage disembodied voice prompt [Shea Jackson] that takes on very human emotions in her responses to his agitation.

By far the most entertaining and clever "The History of Television, Condensed" is both a hilarious mock-history that starts in "caveman days" and continues to the present; a father son duo -- Kevin and Jesse Morton -- are spot on in comic timing, adept at physical pratfalls, and conscript the audience in their antics. Well done.

An enjoyable evening that hopefully raised some money for upgrades to the Millbrook theatre.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

ASF: "Steel Magnolias"

Alabama Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rick Dildine dishes out a production of Steel Magnolias as familiar as fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea, with a side order of collards and hot sauce. He sets the tone with an on-stage instrumental trio of local musicians who create a backyard barbeque atmosphere and facilitate scene changes that advance the passage of time.

Robert Harling's 1987 comedy-drama was written after the untimely death of his sister, made into a successful film two years later, and has hardly been off the boards since. Its popularity, no doubt, is due in part to his unwavering commitment to depicting the women of fictitious Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana as the eponymous title characters, the "steel magnolias" who are delicate as a flower and tough as steel when confronted by life's challenges.

Infused with acerbic wit and gentle humor to help deflect the seriousness of personal tragedy and a consciousness of one's own mortality, Dildine's production is staged "in the round" in the Octagon Theatre to enhance its intimacy with the audience. -- Scenic designer Scott C. Neale invites the audience into a comfortable wicker-furnished beauty salon, and Olivera Gajic's character driven costumes and Matthew Reeves Oliver's complimentary wigs show how the characters change over the 3-year time-span of the action.

Ostensibly the plot that revolves around the prettiest girl in town's wedding, ill-advised pregnancy, and unfortunate death, and her conflicted relationship with her mother; in fact it affords deeper insights into the lives of small-town Southern women whose life-long friendships are strengthened by catastrophic events.

As they gather in outspoken Truvy's [Marcy McGuigan] beauty shop for their standing Saturday hair appointments on the day of Shelby's [Gracie Winchester] wedding, Truvy hires newcomer to the community woman with a suspected past Annelle [Sarah Walker Thornton]; then we meet Shelby's successful psychologist mother M'Lynn [Alison Briner Dardenne], former First Lady of the town Clairee [Tracy Conyer Lee], and wealthy eccentric Ouiser [Greta Lambert]. -- And for the next two hours, they banter and talk trash about one another as only long-term friends can do, at the same time as they secure their bonds of friendship with compassion, support, and love expressed through Harling's masterful dialogue and the genuine talents of the ensemble cast.

Each of Harling's characters could have come from almost any community -- big or small, Southern or not; they are instantly recognizable, yet each is given a distinction that the ASF actors bring to individual life beyond archetype or caricature. -- Ms. McGuigan's tough speaking Truvy also has a soft side for Ms. Thornton's confused Annelle who changes from a timid newcomer to a spunky self-assured woman. Both Ms. Lee and Ms. Lambert seem to relish in their characters' continual sparring, yet they are quick to forgive one another: as world-traveler Clairee says "I love you more than luggage", and Ouiser explains her demeanor with "I'm not crazy; I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years." In typical mother-daughter disagreements, Ms. Dardenne's M'Lynn's concern for her daughter's well-being is countered by Ms. Winchester's Shelby standing up for making her own decisions; though they argue, there is never a doubt that they love one another.

While there is no room for them in this estrogen filled play, the men who never appear on stage wouldn't dare to intrude on the women's domain in the beauty shop because they can only relate to things they can "shoot...stuff...or marry", and prove to be helpless in tragic times, leaving the women to live up to the eponymous title "Steel Magnolias".

When Ms. Dardenne's grief-stricken M'Lynn had the courage to stay with Shelby till the end and was proud to have been able to give her daughter life a second time, her breakdown is shattering, and the other women are her only resource for healing.

The actors in this tight ensemble appear so comfortable in their individual skins and with one another that they emerge as much as if they had known one another all their lives...a flawless ensemble. -- Though Truvy's beauty shop slogan -- "There's no such thing as natural beauty" -- might bring in her customers, in this production of Steel Magnolias the most natural beauty of true and resolute friendship overshadows any cosmetic enhancements.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "The Music Man, Jr."

The Wetumpka Depot Players have a lot on their plate: their production of The Diviners is on its way to compete in the National meeting of the American Association of Community Theatres; they're in rehearsals for the musical Bright Star; and the "Encore Players" production of The Music Man, Jr. is the first group in a pilot program sponsored by Music Theatre International affording Seniors opportunities to perform versions of plays that have been abridged for performances by Youth Theatre companies. The Music Man, Jr. closed after a short run this weekend at the Depot.

The "Encore" company is comprised of some 15 women who doubled many of the roles in Meredith Wilson's hugely popular musical that tells the exploits of flimflam man "Professor" Harold Hill [Sally Blackwell] who comes to River City, Iowa to scam the town's naive citizens into investing in a boys band, complete with fancy uniforms and instruments, intending to skips town before they realize they have been bilked. -- While there, he meets and falls in love with spinster librarian Marian Paroo [Jean Webb]. Assorted townsfolk fall under his spell, though some including Mayor Shin [Charlotte Whetsone] demand to see his credentials.

There is a lot of confusion and many complications along the way, and audiences are treated to the play's many well-known songs, among them: "76 Trombones", "Trouble", "Goodnight My Someone", "Wells Fargo Wagon", "Shipoopi", "Gary, Indiana", and "Till There Was You".

With an average age of 70, the "Encore Players" strut their collective stuff with grace and style, impersonating men in admirable costumes and makeup [they are recruiting Senior men to join the Company], and creating an infectious good-natured atmosphere that had the audience laughing, cheering, and occasionally singing along.

Let's hope this will be the first of many such theatrical excursions for the "Encore Players".

ASF: "Romeo and Juliet"

Romeo and Juliet, Artistic Director Rick Dildine's first Shakespeare production since taking the helm at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, showcases his minimalist approach to this season and affirms his willingness to re-energize classics for 21st Century audiences.

Although purists might miss the customary Elizabethan costumes and elaborate scenery, Dildine's production in fact leans on the theatrical conventions of Shakespeare's own time: actors dressed in contemporary costumes performing on a mostly bare stage. So, Theresa Ham's mid-20th Century costumes and Josh Smith's scenic design that opens the Festival Stage to the walls and supplies scaffolding to accommodate the script [those balcony scenes, for example], allow audiences to concentrate on plot, character, and theme. -- While it might take a little getting used to, this energetic ensemble production makes a late 16th Century play resonate strongly for both experienced Shakespeareans as well as the casual theatre-going public.

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction; it's on virtually everyone's required reading list, and has an impressive performance history on stage and in film...and we know how it ends -- so, why do this play now? Well, great playwrights and their plays remain popular in part because they explore universal subjects, and it is up to each production to find in them what touches the hearts and minds of their intended audiences.

Dildine interprets Shakespeare's story of the "star-crossed lovers" and the long-forgotten reason for family feuds that result in continual street brawls between their families as the vehicles that highlight an out-of-fashion patriarchy that assumes to know what is best but often does more harm than good, and pits parental authority against the younger generation's normal adolescent rebelliousness. Extremes of passion and untempered energy mark the ASF production; melodramatic histrionics of the young lovers and their peers are contrasted by the unswerving dictatorial positions of the adults. -- Much of what we see on stage at ASF could have been excerpted from today's headlines.

As the thralls of teenage romance and the high-testosterone posturing of Verona's youth [all swagger without thinking of the consequences] are brought to the fore, the fate of the young couple is determined by ill-advised authoritarian privilege, both secular and religious.

Matt Lytle [Romeo] and Cassia Thompson [Juliet] are an appealing couple, whose stage chemistry is admirable; they make it easy for us to approve of their love with all its contradictions and emotional excesses. -- Christopher Gerson's [Capulet] turn as Juliet's father commanding her to marry another man under threat of disinheritance is frighteningly absolute in his parental right to be obeyed.

Ann Arvia [Nurse] is a complicated mix: a substitute-mother to Juliet who also knows her place in the social hierarchy, giving encouragement to the match with Romeo on the one hand, and offering less-than-sage advice to marry Paris later. Ms. Arvia's performance delves into the nuances of a character who is also a go-between and a comic foil to the young men.

As Romeo's friend Mercutio, Billy Finn takes advantage of a role that is regularly given a lot of attention: he is the volatile leader of the pack, the cock-f-the-walk who instigates bravura altercations that turn deadly, the alpha-male who can ridicule his friends with good-natured banter, the speaker of the famous "Queen Mab speech" that warns Romeo of the obstacles to romance and marriage inherent in their society, and the dreamer who is devastated by his surroundings. A tour de force performance that comes full circle in one of the best sword fights in this production [Paul Dennhardt is the fight choreographer].

The energy of the ensemble is laudable, and the interpolation of several songs gives the production a contemporary appeal. The anachronistic use of swords in a modern setting stretches credibility at first, yet it becomes an acceptable convention as the play progresses. And while  Dildine's modernization has a lot going for it, the beauty of Shakespeare's language is often obscured  by amplified music or energetic stage business.

This Romeo and Juliet deserves to be seen. It engages from start to finish; its high-energy ensemble of actors is impressive; its themes resonate to our society; and it tells us to listen to one another and act to benefit us all.

Monday, February 25, 2019

ASF: "Our Town"

When Thornton Wilder penned his revolutionary Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town in 1938, he wanted it to be "performed without sentimentality or ponderousness -- simply, dryly, and sincerely". Set "in the theatre where it is being performed" on a mostly bare stage, and using minimal props, his story of the ordinary lives of the residents of Grover's Corners offers profound insights into our lives as well.

The current powerfully simple and profound production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival enlightens audiences in its three acts titled "Daily Life", "Love and Marriage", and "Death and Eternity", all guided by the Stage Manager [Douglas Rees, last seen at ASF in 2005], whose comfortably casual narration helps us understand the extraordinary within the ordinary, inviting us to assess our own lives and beliefs. He is both narrator and chorus who manipulates time, and offers provocative insights on life and death, family and social values, dreams and personal goals, and the nature of the temporal and the eternal.

Grover's Corners, from 1901-1913, is an average American town where very little of note happens: doors are seldom locked, neighbors look out for one another, secrets are few, and the large ensemble of actors playing assortment of eccentrics and gossips, occasional sibling rivalries and the inevitability of death are marked for us to see and respond with affection and a touch of nostalgia.

The plot tracks the love between neighbors George Gibbs [Michael Williams] and Emily Webb [Cassia Thompson] from teenage crushes through marriage and Emily's death in the birth of their second child. The innocence they bring to the roles and the heartfelt attraction and devotion to one another is admirable.

Their parents -- Dr. Gibbs [Christopher Gerson] and Mrs. Gibbs [Nehassaiu deGannes]; newspaper editor Mr. Webb [Chauncy Thomas] and Mrs. Webb [Michelle Shupe] -- are solid and respected citizens whose concerns for the world at large reflect the ideals of family, and whose values are impressed upon their children.

Directed by Bruce Longworth, and complimented by the neutral color pallet in both Josh Smith's set and Theresa Ham's costumes [this changes briefly in Act III where vibrant color accentuates Emily's brief return to the land of the living], this version of Our Town comes full circle in the closing scenes in the graveyard at Emily's funeral, where the dead speak and comment on eternity.

When Emily asks the Stage Manager "Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?", he responds: "No -- the saints and poets, maybe -- they do some." And we are left in the audience to consider our own involvement in the simple things in life that matter most.