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.