Friday, February 21, 2020

Millbrook: "Always a Bridesmaid"

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten have a virtual cottage industry of comedies they've co-written about eccentric Southern women and their exploits that challenge long-term friendships; one of them -- Always a Bridesmaid -- is now at Millbrook, directed by Stephanie McGuire, who clearly understands the mischief the characters get into.

The premise is simple: four "women of a certain age" when we meet them had long ago promised one another when none of them had prom dates, to be in all their wedding parties "no matter what" -- and that's a big test, since much has changed in the intervening years.

A young bride Kari [Hannah Moore], getting progressively more tipsy from champagne, narrates the story of her Mother's and Godmothers' fulfilling their promise. -- In several flashbacks, her Mother Libby Ruth [Tracy Quates], along with the frequently-married Monette [Donna Young], salt-of-the-earth Charlie [Carol Majors], and successful lawyer Deedra [Karla McGhee], don a series of outrageous bridesmaid dresses as they meet every few years at weddings fraught with misunderstandings, arguments, physical injuries, ex-husbands, reluctant lovers, and shifting allegiances, all under the watchful eye of Sedalia [Vicki Moses], the proprietress of a wedding venue called Laurelton Oaks.

This solid ensemble of veteran actresses render each of their character's stereotypical oddities with a comic conviction that delighted the opening night audience. -- And yes, we know these women; they're our neighbors, friends, and even family!

There were a few opening night jitters that impacted the timing of the script's often witty dialogue, but once they settle in, this should disappear. -- And the message comes through loud and clear when they re-affirm at Kari's wedding that a long-lasting friendship is one of the most important things to treasure.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Theatre AUM: "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Before he came into prominence with award-winning productions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, playwright Rajiv Joseph had penned a lesser-known two-hander. Another unexpected treat from Theatre AUM, Gruesome Playground Injuries runs a little over an hour, but delves deeply into the lives of two damaged people whose co-dependency goes unrecognized.

Director Val Winkelman stages the play on an open area minimalist set by Emily Aveldanez, with evocative lighting by Cheyenne Singleton, and choreographs her "deck crew" [Ashley Allen and Tabitha Neyerlin] to shift the simple furniture pieces and assist the actors as they change into Faith Roberts's effective costumes in full view of the audience, thus serving as visual stimuli to what to expect in each successive scene.

Over the course of some thirty years, from age 8 to 38, and told backwards and forwards in time, Kayleen [Jacquelyn Vaughn] and Doug [Josh Williams] sidestep every chance they have of meaningful contact. -- Oh, they talk and argue a lot, and curse a lot, and accuse one another of not caring, dismiss many regrettable choices they have made, and reject physical and emotional intimacy, yet somehow these two actors make audiences care about them and their fraught relationship. Ms. Vaughn and Mr. Williams have a comfortable stage chemistry; as they adjust their voices and postures to accommodate the age differences per scene, they carry us along their calamitous journey.

When we first meet them at age eight, it is clear they they are already damaged goods: Kayleen complains of stomach ache, and Doug has just ridden his bicycle off a roof. Curious whether their injuries hurt, and admitting it does "a little", this becomes a constant refrain, though it often refers to emotional or psychological pain rather than the series of accidental or self-inflicted injuries each one experiences. -- Kayleen "cuts" herself, and the risk-taking Doug is responsible for several and sometimes life-threatening accidents.

They come into each other's lives infrequently over the years, but seem to always know about one another. So they show up unexpectedly, only to be confronted with accusations of not caring.

The gap between them grows so wide that in the last scene they talk to each other across the expanse of the playing area, neither one of them capable of crossing the void they have created. -- And audiences are challenged to re-valuate how we see ourselves in relation to others, to recognize that damage is not always visible, and that compassion and honesty towards people in need can go a long way to make relationships meaningful.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

To inaugurate their 9th Season -- "Seeing Through Different Eyes" --  the Cloverdale Playhouse has chosen the multi-award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a remarkable stage adaptation by Simon Stephens of Mark Hadddon's novel. Opening night sold out performance of this not to be missed production provided ample evidence of the increasingly high quality productions at the Playhouse.

Staged as a kind of play-within-a-play, The Curious Incident...  is narrated by Siobhan [Kacey Walton], a teacher/mentor using the voice of the central character Christopher Boone [Piper Doyle], a self-described "mathematician with some behavioral difficulties" [read: Asperger's, high functioning autism, etc.]; he comes from a broken home, always tells the truth, can't abide being touched, does not comprehend metaphors, has few if any social skills, counts using prime numbers, and goes nowhere without adult supervision.

The play invites audiences to "see the world as Christopher does" when he discovers a neighbor's dog killed with a pitchfork and determines to investigate on his own to find the culprit.  -- As Christopher puzzles his way, he also unearths many secrets in his family and neighborhood, learns how to maneuver in the larger world around him, is taught that one's actions have consequences, and realizes that love is often made meaningful through sacrifices and compromise.

Mr. Stephens's script shows how incomprehensible Christopher is to many people. The  solid performances by ensemble actors playing multiple roles: strangers who find him intriguing or frightening keep their distance, neighbors try to help but don't know how, and parents [Christopher Roquemore and Sarah Worley] whose frustrations with each other and with him cause outbursts that threaten their well-being -- all challenge audiences to put themselves in their places: to "see through different eyes".

Ms. Doyle carries the show on her most capable shoulders; she is hardly ever off-stage, and is the center of virtually all the action. Her commitment never falters; her mannerisms and vocal interpretations adeptly reflect Christopher's psychological condition; her generosity with actors she shares the stage with is admirable. It is a mesmerizing and professionally nuanced performance that signals future success in theatre.

Yet, the Playhouse production would not be as successful as it is without another "star": the brilliant design elements that reflect Christopher's state of mind and manipulate every moment. -- Director-technical director-set designer J. Scott Grinstead, along with lighting by Mike Winkelman, sound by James Treadway, and videos and projections by a team including Clyde Hancock, Christopher Roquemore, and Kodi Robertson, collaborate on the sophisticated production elements that dazzle the eye and ear as they punctuate the action with ever-increasing inventiveness and intensity, and let us "see more clearly through different eyes". This is theatricality at its best, a seamlessly integral component of a challenging play.

There are minor articulation issues and inconsistent English dialects, and actors sometimes step out of the light so their faces are obscured, but these should be remedied as the company settles into the run of the show.

Laudably, the Playhouse has connected with "Easterseals" to advocate for education and intervention for people in need of autism services, and with the "Montgomery Humane Society" [there is an adoptable live puppy on-stage for each performance].

With its mixture of humor and pathos, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time challenges all of us to "see through different eyes".

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

ASF Acting Fellows: "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank"

A common thread resonates among the offerings at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this season: warnings of the danger of history repeating itself if we ignore our past errors can be found throughout -- in Pipeline [common school to prison pipeline for too many African American youth]; in All is Calm [the irony of the "war to end all wars"]; in The Agitators [unequal rights for women and Blacks]; and now in And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank [a powerful one-hour exploration of the Holocaust: the dehumanizing and slaughter of millions of Jews] -- each one a call-to-action with a collective willingness to stamp out bigotry and work for equal justice.

A post-show forum after Sunday afternoon's performance [one of only two public performances] pointed out the appalling truth that there are countless Americans ignorant of the facts about the Holocaust, as well as far too many Holocaust-deniers. So, a question posed at the beginning of the play regarding the Holocaust -- "That could never happen again, could it?" -- is an ominous projection to our own times. In polarized times such as ours, it is disheartening to see so many examples of anti-Semitism and attacks on synagogues that have forced Jewish congregations to enhance security with armed guards to protect them during services.

Played by the ASF Acting Fellows Company on the Festival Stage, this multi-media production by James Still features filmed interviews with Holocaust-survivors Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg projected onto television screens while the acting company portray them and others from 1938-1945 in episodes that track the plight of European Jews from the rise of Naziism, to the carnage in the concentration camps, to the aftermath following the Russians' liberation of Auschwitz.

We hear a lot about Nazi butchery from the stage, though Mr. Still is more intent on highlighting the impact on Jewish people before and after their time in concentration camps. -- The eight member acting ensemble go beyond the documentary approach of the script to infuse their characters with a sincerity and commitment  that garner audience sympathy at the horrors inflicted upon them.

Teenaged Anne Frank's Diary is one of the most famous depictions of the conditions facing Jews during World War II. Published by her father in 1947, and made into a play in 1955 and a film in 1959, her often quoted assessment of human nature -- "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart" -- sets a standard we ought to achieve. People are "carefully taught", and whether it is to be divisive and mistrustful of anyone perceived to be "other", or to be willing to be inclusive and welcoming, our own history should point the way to actively resolving differences.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Wetumpka Depot: "Big River"

Despite Mark Twain's pronouncement hat there are no moral lessons in Huckleberry Finn, one would be hard-pressed not to discover them in Big River, Roger Miller's and William Hauptman's rousing and award-winning musical adaptation of his seminal work now playing at the Wetumpka Depot.

To start the Depot's 40th Anniversary Season,  director Kristy Meanor, matched with masterful musical direction by Randy Foster, gives audiences a lot of lessons to consider, both as reflections of pre-Civil War America, and commentaries on the racial prejudices evident at many levels of society in 2020.

Well-known from Twain's novel, the crux of the relationship between an adolescent white boy Huck [Chase McMichen] and a runaway slave Jim [Tony Davison] is expressed in the sensitive duet  "Worlds Apart" where they show how people view the world through two distinct lenses, each one yearning for freedom: Jim from the bonds of slavery, and Huck from the constraints of the Widow Douglas [Cheryl Jones] and Miss Watson [Kim Mason] who want to civilize him with education and the Bible. -- The on-stage chemistry between Mr. McMichen and Mr. Davison is so very truthful, no doubt due in part to their many years sharing the stage at Faulkner University, so audiences are quickly caught up in their characters' lives.

During their many escapades on the Mississippi River, their bond is tested by outside sources and by Huck's dilemma: his natural goodness challenged to overcome society's dictates regarding slavery. Jim has become a surrogate father, his honorable qualities a direct contrast to Huck's persistently drunk and abusive Pap [Scott Page], causing the boy to re-think the teachings of virtually all his authority figures.

Though they try hard to avoid conflicts with bounty hunters, they do meet up with two comical snake-oil con-men who pretend to be a King [Hunter Smith] and a Duke [Jeff Langham], and try to bilk them of Huck's inheritance and "found money".

Further complications arise from Tom Sawyer [Mr. Smith again], whose naively unrepentant exaggerated schemes for adventure jeopardize Jim's life. -- And the hint of a possible youthful romance occurs when Huck restores an inheritance to Mary Jane Wilkes [Stanton Yarboroughs].

Twain's story is enhanced by the musical score of Big River, a compilation of a variety of musical genres, from novelty numbers ["The Royal Nonesuch" and "Hand for the Hog"], to energetic group songs ["The Boys" and "Arkansas"], to spirituals ["The Crossing" and "Free at Last" -- with heart-rendering vocals by Tara Fenn and Taylor Finch], to laments ["You Oughta be Here with Me" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go"], to Pap's drunken tirade against the "Guv'ment" [a tour de force by Mr. Page that ensures his brief stage time will be remembered, both for his delivery and for the similar complaints so many people have today].

The ensemble cast have significant vocal talents, and follow Mr. Foster's interpretations to enhance the plot and their individual characters. -- And the focus of most of the score is left to the expressive, sensitive, and high-quality singing of Mr. McMichen and Mr. Davison: "River in the Rain", "Muddy Waters", and the aforementioned "Worlds Apart" are highlights both of their abilities as singers and actors in powerful roles that make this production of Big River a memorable evening of theatre.

Monday, February 3, 2020

ASF: "The Agitators"

Much of the state of the world today confirms philosopher George Santayana's warning that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". -- In the course of experiencing The Agitators at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, for twelve performances only, audiences are provoked to wonder at Susan B. Anthony's 1849 query: "How is this still happening?" as it addresses the 21st Century's same concerns regarding racial and gender inequalities.

The crux of the matter in playwright Mat Smart's script is a potent reminder that vestiges of the 19th Century barriers to the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage still exist, that America has yet to live up to its promise of equal justice, that "nothing changes if people don't talk about it",  and more: that they must agitate in order to ensure permanent change. -- And while there have been significant advancements for women and racial minorities, it will be up to the young people to realize that, in the words of Ida B. Wells: "it is always time to speak out against injustice".

Telling the decades-long remarkable friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass -- two icons of equal rights -- it broaches subjects we still too often find uncomfortable to address, as if the abolition of slavery and legislating the right to vote ended with the enactment of a few laws.

And we are party to seeing how two individuals who passionately agree on correcting the injustices inflicted on women and Blacks can be divided in their approaches and priorities: Susan B. Anthony's confrontational style and reluctance to compromise is countered by Frederick Douglass's favoring diplomacy. -- In the persons of actors Madeleine Lambert and Cedric Mays, who originated the roles when The Agitators debuted at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY in 2016/7, these characters come to life once again on the Octagon stage under Logan Vaughn's  direction.

With the play's messages at the forefront, Ms. Vaughn's direction seems intended to provoke audience action beyond the theatrical experience; laced with humor and pathos, Ms. Lambert and Mr. Mays invest a mixture of passion for a cause with a reservation that highlights the difficulties facing women and Blacks who dare to interact as friends at a time when their mere presence together, let alone any semblance of intimacy, would have raised the ire of too many.

As they grapple with breaking barriers and a challenge to "stay in the room with people who hate us", the fact that as a former slave, Douglass had been stripped of his humanity, and that as an unmarried woman, Anthony risked public ridicule in order to retain a woman's right to make her own decisions rather than become the property of a husband, with no rights of her own. -- Though she perceives her position to be as dangerous as his, Douglass reminds her that "your skin will keep you safe".

If and when people join forces with the courage of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass to agitate for what is right by speaking out against all aspects of inequality, then "failure is impossible".