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.