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.