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".