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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Theatre AUM: "Matt & Ben"

How did two best-friend actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, with no previous screenwriting experience, skyrocket from popular teen idols to the media darlings of the 1998 Academy Awards for their original screenplay of Good Will Hunting? Was it talent, or persistence, or connections, or propinquity?

In Matt & Ben -- a crafty 75-minute two-hander -- playwrights Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers have the script literally fall from above into a squalid Boston apartment where the two of them are struggling to write an adaptation of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

The bromance between Damon and Affleck is well documented, and Theatre AUM director Val Winkelman makes the most of the post-adolescent contradictions of two bros who tolerate each other's shortcomings, fight over trivialities, and forgive without hesitation.

If the mysterious delivery of the script wasn't enough, Kaling and Withers throw in some knockabout wrestling, and surreal visits from Affleck's one-time girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow, and from the famously reclusive Salinger who refuses them the rights to adapting his novel, thereby emphasizing this play;s debate regarding the value of adaptation vs. original writing. -- Oh yes, and the roles are to be played by women.

Matt [Kate Saylor] is the branier of the two, while Ben [Emily Aveldanez] could be described as thick, and throughout the one-act these actors display appropriate characteristics and behavior and feed off one another comfortably. And they make it fairly easy for audiences to forget they are women playing men.

The pace and energy flag at times, so some of the wordplay, petty childish bickering, and competitive oneupmanship don't have the satirical bite or humorous effect called for in the script. -- In the last all-too-brief moment when their names are announced as the winners for original screenplay, Ms. Saylor and Ms. Aveldanez epitomize the joyful delight that Damon and Affeck exhibited at the Oscars.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

WOBT: "The Amen Corner"

There's a line of dialogue near the beginning of the vivid production of James Baldwin's 1954 play The Amen Corner, now showing at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville -- "Keep your own house in order" -- that signals a lot of the focus of the play, and impacts both its characters and anyone in the audience paying attention.

Set in an Evangelical storefront "corner" church and in the apartment of its determined preacher Sister Margaret [a stellar Crystal Mardis Johnson], Baldwin's first play and director Tara Fenn's remarkable production analyzes the hypocrisy of a religious zealot whose family life runs counter to the fundamentalist pronouncements she offers to her congregation.

In one of WOBT's strongest ensemble productions in recent memory, Ms. Fenn has gathered a fine group of neophyte and veteran actors to bring Baldwin's play to life: from the first moments of a rousing Gospel/Spiritual led by a dynamic Novelette Ward Seroyer as Sister Moore followed by an impassioned sermon by Ms. Johnson's Sister Margaret, we are brought into a place that feels so real that audiences are engaged immediately. -- Two other church stalwarts, Sister Boxer [Jasmine Simone Holland] and Brother Boxer [R. J. Johnson], and a complement of congregants enliven the proceedings of the church, and come with their own sets of issues.

There are jealousies and suspicions hinted at [Sister Margaret's tenure at the church was not a universal choice of the membership and her authoritarian behavior is questioned on occasion], but always disguised as being done in the service of the church. -- So when a new attendee -- Ida Jackson [Crystal Lee] -- asks for help for her sick baby and bitter husband, Sister Margaret at first advises her to leave her husband, and then only offers a seemingly perfunctory prayer, because she has been called away to help out a church in Philadelphia, and a "sacrifice" offering is collected to help pay her way there.

Margaret's son David [Luke Fenn] doesn't want to accompany his mother, and her estranged jazz musician husband Luke [Drey Wingate] shows up unexpectedly after ten years, and wants a reconciliation because he is close to death. -- Margaret had told everyone that Luke had deserted her and David, but the truth is revealed that she left him while grieving over the loss of her baby daughter in order to protect her son from his father's lifestyle. -- Caught in this lie, there will be consequences especially since David wants to follow in Luke's footsteps playing jazz music.

The repercussions during Margaret's absence come to a head as the church elders, led by the insinuating  Boxers, decide to oust Margaret and replace her with Sister Moore. [Everyone appears two-faced, behaving in the most anti-Christian ways while resorting to empty Biblical pronouncements.]

There is a touchingly truthful father-son scene between Mr. Wingate and Mr. Fenn where they connect on the most respectful of terms, and a frustratingly passionate one between Mr. Wingate and Ms. Johnson where their love for one another is still shown, but neither one can compromise their steadfast belief: the divide between his secular world and her spiritual one.

When an inconsolable Ida returns after the death of her baby [Ms. Lee is riveting in this scene], all Margaret can suggest is that she return home to grieve with her husband.

By the end, and though Margaret is widowed, left alone when David pursues a jazz career, and churchless, she learns that the best choices come from being honest and loving all people equally. -- Lessons we all could benefit from.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "tick, tick,,,BOOM!"

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

The sound of anxiety fills the darkened theatre; a clock ticks ominously; then a narrator's voice explains his distress at approaching his 30th birthday without opening a successful musical in New York; his roommate has landed a dream job on Madison Avenue, and his dancer girlfriend is considering a move outside the city. What's a boy to do? -- Author-composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson started his autobiographical tick, tick...BOOM! as a solo piece in 1990 to come to terms with his condition; after his untimely death just as his production of the landmark rock-opera Rent was about to open in 1996, playwright David Auburn turned it into a 90-minute 3-character play, and now The Cloverdale Playhouse has opened its 8th Season with tick, tick,,,BOOM!, co-directed by Randy Foster and Eleanor K. Davis.

J. Scott Grinstead has designed yet another stunning set -- a black and white abstract combination of platforms, steps, and ramps, suspended window frames, and painted deconstructed clock-works -- that afford height and depth to the Playhouse's small stage, an upstage platform for the admirable four-piece band, and plenty of space for the actors.  -- Mr. Grinstead's ambitious designs cry out for equally ambitious lighting; an investment in additional lighting instruments would afford James Treadway the opportunity to enhance each set with his creative flair and eliminate unfortunate shadows.

Larson's picture of New York in the 1990s evokes the lives of artistic GenX-ers eking out a living in dingy SOHO flats while hanging onto dreams of "making it" before age gets in the way of accomplishments. -- And, while their anxieties can be attributed to almost any age bracket, the demographic appeal of tick, tick...BOOM! is limited. This caveat notwithstanding, the Playhouse company engages and entertains on many levels.

The focus here is on the three-person ensemble: David Rowland as Jon, Jesse Alston as his girlfriend Susan, and John Selden as roommate Michael (Ms. Alston and Mr. Selden also play a number of other characters in the narrative). -- Each comes with an impressive resume, and an ability to fill the room without amplification of their voices. [If only other amateur and professional performing companies would follow their lead instead of bombarding audiences with deafening instrumentation and over-amped voices that distort the sound of the natural singing voice.]

Larson's score is a pleasant mix of light rock styles, and while there is no signature song to anchor the narrative as there is in many blockbuster musicals, each one carries the story and develops character relationships, easily conscripting audiences into the characters' lives.

Mr. Selden's portrayal of the gay roommate Michael, who wants his best friend to have a share in his success and introduces him to the corporate world that can never be a good fit for Jon, along with his understated comical persona of Jon's father, are spot on. Gifted with a singing voice that registers clearly on all counts, Mr. Selden is one to watch.

Ms. Alston, always a powerful force on stage, runs the gamut from romantic lyricism to brassy comical  vocals, shining both as Jon's girlfriend Susan and in other supporting cameo parts. Her ability to modulate from one format to another while demonstrating Susan's love for Jon keeps the play grounded and her performance memorable.

Mr. Rowland is never off the stage or out of our sphere of attention. In a masterful display of singing, and of generously sharing the boards with his co-stars, he is assured and comfortable in the role. The clarity of his voice, and the stamina it takes to control the narrative and emotion, make for a remarkably nuanced performance.

This trio of actors-singers-dancers is a tight ensemble; Directors Foster and Davis make the 90-minutes fly by, while Daren Eastwold's uncomplicated choreography smoothly moves the ensemble from moment to moment. -- A pleasant evening with an agreeable company, and a disarmingly sophisticated rendition of tick, tick...BOOM!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "Girls' Weekend"

The 39th Season at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre is showcasing one of its major strengths in Karen Schaeffer's Girls' Weekend. -- The Depot players are adept at farce with all its bold comical strokes, fast-paced action, broad characterizations, and split-second timing, all of which are delivered in spades by director Brady Walker's cast of Depot veterans and newcomers. Girls' Weekend is an uproarious romp that has audiences cheering and laughing throughout the sometimes raunchy two acts.

The premise is simple: four women go to a remote cabin in the dead of winter without their men to ostensibly discuss the latest volume their book club is reading; however, it becomes clearer moment by moment that the amount of wine they collectively bring (along with a generous supply of marijuana) will sidetrack any literary discussion. And the fact that three of the foursome plot separately to meet up with their men for romance and devise elaborate signals that are coincidentally alike to make their secret assignations happen, the scene is set for the mayhem that follows.

Come a predictable snow storm that cuts them off from the world, and the men shivering outside awaiting the women's signals, and a local sheriff to further complicate their schemes, the plot twists abound in the madcap goings-on that Mr. Walker choreographs with attention to slamming doors, dropped trousers, hyper-sexed partners, and uninhibited performances.

This is a well-toned ensemble of actors who unabashedly commit to the antics of the script, never losing sight of its comic possibilities: a shrug or a "look" or a dead-pan delivery, and mutual trust in one another helps make even the most bizarre behavior seem right.

A hapless sheriff [Lee Bridges], a couple determined to "make a baby" in the short time she is ovulating [Leanna Wallace and Brad Sinclair], a December/May couple trying to keep their relationship secret [Kristy Meanor and Blake Robertson], a Millennial woman and a local good-old-boy [Amber Rigby and Allen Jackson], and the weekend's hostess who gets drunk and stoned [Elaine Cash], and all the convoluted plot elements make for surprises galore, and almost constant laughter before an ending that restores much of the harmony that is well earned.

Well done, Depot Players.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

ASF: "Nina Simone: Four Women"

"We gotta sing for ourselves even if we don't like the sound of our own voices." 
"We must claim our real voices or we disappear."

Four dresses float above Sean Fanning's compelling setting of the bombed-out debris-ridden basement of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in Christina Ham's Nina Simone: Four Women now showing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre. Next door on the Festival Stage, Ms. Ham's Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 compliments this play as they both an attempt at healing through revisiting painful experiences of the past.

Reminiscent of Ntozake Shange's powerful 1979 "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf, the four women in Ms. Ham's play begin their separate fragmented journeys full of self-doubt, presumptions about each other's worth, and stuck in racial stereotypes; but they gather strength along the way and find unity and strength as Black women by facing topics they would rather not discuss.

Director Lydia Fort keeps the character of Nina Simone central to the story: she serves as a kind of "griot" [an African poet-musician-storyteller and keeper of oral history], who in actuality felt compelled to become an activist after the 1963 deaths of Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson [the four little girls], and of Medgar Evers earlier that same year.

Ms. Simone was a classically trained pianist and singer who achieved popularity in many musical genres, and whose controversial "Mississippi Goddam" became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. -- In the person of Crystal Sha'nae, she controls every moment with a passionate desire for individual identity and a rightful place in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "dream" for Black women in a Jim Crow society where even "Black men don't want Black women beside them...but behind them."

Ms. Sha'nae is complimented by a trio of women who represent archetypes of African American womanhood perceived by many as embarrassing: Darlene Hope plays "Auntie" Sarah, a church going domestic worker whose faith is undeterred by circumstances; Soara-Joye Ross plays "high yellow"-skinned Sephronia who can pass for white and thereby receive preferential treatment; and Gabrielle Beckford plays Sweet Thing, a prostitute whose hardened exterior hides the impact of abuses heaped on her by men and the loathing of other women.

In an intermissionless hour-and-forty minutes, Ms. Fort's powerful ensemble engages the audience with their engrossing commitment to the play's themes, told in a combination of naturalistic dialogue and an array of musical genres: the women are abetted by the masterful piano accompaniment of Darrian Stovall in a heartfelt rendition of the Gospel song "His Eye is on the Sparrow", a promise for the future in "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" taken from Lorraine Hansberry, the questioning of value in "Brown Body", an exorcism of the ghosts of people who were lost in "Mississippi Goddam", and the final tribute to identity and worth in "Four Women" that brings Ms. Ham's story to a fitting close as the women claim their proper selves.