Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Wetumpka Depot: "Christmas at the Canteen"

 For some family friendly holiday Entertainment with a capital "E", Adrian Lee Bush's Christmas at the Canteen fits the bill at the Wetumpka Depot. -- A nostalgic 90-minute non-stop melange of song and dance set in a replicated World War II canteen for service men and women, this show should get everyone into the Christmas spirit.

Ms. Bush has gathered a multi-talented 13-member ensemble who weave their assorted back stories and relationships with an array of standard holiday songs and dynamic tap dances led by choreographer Daniel Grant Harms, whose mastery is evident in every step.

The recorded instrumental soundtrack could benefit from higher volume at times, especially in group numbers, to establish pitch and rhythm for the company; but that's a minor quibble in an otherwise vibrant celebration of Christmas. It is an effervescent evening out.

With its mix of reliably familiar classics, novelty numbers, comic bits, and recorded wartime messages from President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to remind us of our own need for peace and understanding, Christmas at the Canteen encourages all of us to welcome the holidays by showing humankind's best characteristics that will leave audiences smiling and happy to be in one another's company.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)"

Local theatre offerings abound for the Holiday Season, and The Cloverdale Playhouse is showing a partly scripted/partly improvised laugh-fest with Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!). This popular comic mash-up of reliable Christmas fare by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez has been making the rounds at theatre across the country since 2003.

Played by a trio of actors who each take on multiple roles -- Sarah Housley, John Selden, and Hunter Stewart -- and at the Playhouse abetted by an Australian warm-up comedian [Nick Morgan-Moore], the success of the show depends on the audience's input and participation as well as the acting and improvisational skills of its nimble cast.

Directed by J. Scott Grinstead on a forced perspective Dickensian set he also designed, with inventive costumes by Katie Pearson, zany props by Rita Tidwell, evocative lighting by Chris Roquemore, creative sound design by Jason Grinstead, and atmospheric projections by Mr. Roquemore and Clyde Hancock, the flexible nature of the script also allows for local Montgomery references and acknowledgements of current events to liven up the proceedings.

After an extended warm-up that sets a relaxed tone to the evening, the matter at hand is that one of the rag-tag theatre company members' determination to perform A Christmas Carol is continually thwarted by the others who want to explore alternate plays for their group...and we're off as they deliver on the title's promise, assisted by suggestions from the audience and a couple of audience members being conscripted to join them on stage.

With outlandish versions of and references to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Misfit Toys, A Christmas Story, The Gift of the Magi, The Nutcracker, Star Wars, and pretty much every Christmas song and every celebrity who appeared on a television special at Christmastime, the impish delight of the actors is evident throughout...and their collective skills are impressive. Several of the scripted sections are quite demanding; yet is in the improvised moments that their abilities and ensemble performances shine.

At a time when we need to laugh and forget about the world's problems, this production is a welcome antidote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

During last year's lockdown, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival community could only download Greta Lambert's delightful one-person adaptation of the 1843 Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol; this year, with all COVID protocols in place and enforced [thank you again ASF for doing your part to keep theatergoers safe], Ms. Lambert's live and in-person performance on the intimate Octagon stage will make you laugh and cry, but most of all exercise your imagination as you listen attentively to its pertinent messages of hope for humankind. 

No stranger to editing other classics [witness the numerous brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare she has developed over the years], this 75-minute version of A Christmas Carol weaves its magic and engages audiences as Ms. Lambert brings to life its narrator and a myriad of familiar characters.

While most staged and filmed productions of A Christmas Carol emphasize spectacle [nothing wrong with that], the key to Ms. Lambert's remarkable performance is storytelling and staying true to her primary source. -- Yes, Ebeneezer Scrooge starts out as a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" prone to exclaiming "Bah, humbug!" at the mere mention of Christmas, and through the intervention of the ghost of his "dead as a doornail" business partner Jacob Marley and visitations from the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to come, is reclaimed and ends up as a benevolent and generous man who possesses the true spirit of Christmas all the year long.

Ms. Lambert is so respectful of Dickens's composition that her judicious editing maintains the flow of the narrative and targets its important and essential moments. But there is more.

Dickens composed his masterpiece by dividing it into "Staves" [i.e. musical staffs] with such colorfully delicious words that Ms. Lambert speaks so eloquently, attending to the rhythms of speech and the vivid descriptions of places and characters, so that the music of the words is enhanced, and all our senses are engaged. 

She invites us to visualize the details of Victorian London and such characters as the diminutive cripple Tiny Tim, the effervescent Mr. Fezziwig, and Scrooge's ever optimistic nephew Fred; we can almost taste the meager banquet at Bob Cratchitt's table and the opulent array of foods surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present; we can smell the roasting chestnuts as well as Old Joe's dank backstreet shop; we shiver in the winter's cold and warm ourselves by a toasty fireside, and tremble along with Scrooge as he awaits his fate; we hear the crunch of footsteps in the snow and the joyous peal of church bells on Christmas morning. -- Truly, music to the ears of the opening night audience who were wrapt with attention to Ms. Lambert as she recounted Ebeneezer Scrooge's journey.

With nuanced direction by Rick Dildine, and with a set and lighting by Jeff Behm and sound design by Melanie Chen Cole that become the play's supporting characters without intruding on the narrative or performance, Ms. Lambert triumphs in her masterful version of A Christmas Carol, one which leaves us with hope for the future and a challenge to all of us to witness Tiny Tim's prayer: "God bless us, every one".

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

ASF: "Cinderella"

Thank you, Alabama Shakespeare Festival -- keeping safety first with mask mandates, proof of a negative COVID test or COVID vaccination documentation, and digital programs only -- about the only infectious thing about the opening night production of Cinderella was the collective actor and audience enthusiasm and sheer joy of a live in-person performance after an 18-month hiatus. If only more public places would do the same.

Though there were a few technical glitches during the two-and-a-half-hour playing time [Artistic Director Rick Dildine announced that it was the first time the company had been able to run the entire show], the on-stage magic, melodic score sung by the gifted actors, dynamic choreography by Dell Howlett, stunning costumes by Lex Liang, evocative lighting by Alan Edwards, and clever storybook sets by William Boles were all brought to delightful fruition by Director Shelley Butler and Music Director Angela Steiner and her 15-piece pit orchestra. 

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was given a 2013 updated script by Douglas Carter Beane, retaining the essence of the traditional story [the heroine is still put upon by her miserable step-family, her Fairy Godmother weaves her magic to enable Ella to go to the Prince's ball and find her true love, and yes, that glass slipper], but this is a Cinderella with a difference: she is, in the person of ASF newcomer Alexis Sims, a modern woman with a purpose -- to bring about needed social and political changes through kindness and concern for all citizens. 

Ms. Sims' brightness and nuanced soprano commands every moment in the central role, and her Ella's modern approach to romance includes several challenges to Prince Topher [Andrew Brewer's naïveté gradually diminishes in a subtle performance] that ultimately teach him to find the courage is so desperately needs to stand up for himself [and for all the citizens of his kingdom] against the wiles of major domo Sebastian [Robert Mammana gives us a two-faced villain] who has been manipulating the Prince for much of his life, along with his duplicitous henchman Lord Pinkleton [Brian Klimowski].

Back at her home, of course, Ella has been reduced to servant-status and is harassed by her stepmother Madame [Anne L. Nathan depicts a person we love to hate, and she delivers her caustic lines with impeccable comic timing], and stepsisters Charlotte [Alexis Tidwell's aggressive attempts to win the Prince threaten to bring down the house], and Gabrielle [Lauren Elder turns out to be a confidante and co-conspirator to Ella]; Gabrielle falls for local revolutionary Jean-Michel [Pedro Ka'awaloa], whose frustrations in politics and love make a nice counterpoint to the Ella/Prince duo.

And then, there's Ann Arvia as the eccentric Marie who changes before our eyes into Ella's Fairy Godmother. Ms. Arvia's return to ASF is most welcome, as she shrewdly controls the destinies of most of the principal characters. -- As she weaves her magic transformations of animals, a pumpkin, and Ella into footmen, a golden coach, and an elegant lady, there's little doubt that all will be set aright by the end.

While the production values are top notch, the 14-strong ensemble of dancers/singers play a multitude of roles and impress us all with their dexterity, precision and energy in interpreting the show's many dance numbers.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's reminiscent score features such familiar songs as "Me: Who am I?", "The Prince is Giving a Ball", "In My Own Little Corner", "Impossible", "Ten Minutes Ago", and "There's Music in You", all of which contribute to the plot and character relationships. With committed energy from the principles and chorus, this is a win-win combination.

ASF's Season is off to a fine start with Cinderella, a show that promises to engage audiences of all ages with its infectious spirit of kindness, a magic that is so needed today.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Millbrook: "Not a Creature was Stirring...not even a Moose"

The holiday season is off to a good start with the Millbrook Community Players' gently affectionate production of Pat Cook's Not a Creature was Stirring...not even a Moose.

A lot of silliness occurs in the office of J. J. Garnes [Steve Phillips], the editor of a weekly newspaper who is always looking for an angle on a story that would sell more papers than those of his frenemy Winona Pershing's [Tracey Quates] rival newspaper.

While he bemoans the commercialization of Christmas, it is clear that J. J. is eager to reap its benefits when he discovers a sentimental note to Santa from "Joey", and sets out to discover the boy's identity to capitalize on his heartwarming story. -- Act I is replete with two staff members -- Delilah [Karla McGhee] and Sarah [Donna Young] --whose pointed quips entertain us and challenge J. J.; and a corrupt Mayor [Michael Snead]. 

To complicate matters, there is a story about a mysterious "wish-granting ornament" in the shape of a Moose that seems to fulfill the wishes of anyone holding it.

Act II brings in an eccentric crop-duster pilot aptly named Buzzy [Carol Majors adds significant energy every moment she is on stage]; her escapades as Santa in dropping presents from her plane to needy children are hilarious. The presents are provided by Fiona [Cheryl Phillips] whose compassion for the children is laudable. -- But when concerns arise regarding the presents, both the Mayor and his inept henchman Sgt. Slattery [Hudson Lee-Thor] get more in the way than being helpful

At the center of the play's Christmas themes is the janitor Barney [John Chain], whose pearls of wisdom and unassuming demeanor in describing the magical ornament and his repeated message os Hope and Faith argue the true meaning of Christmas, and force others to wonder whether Barney is the real Santa or one of his Elves.

There is a kind of Scrooge reclamation when J. J. finds out "Joey's" true identity, and he winds up doing something decent for the needy children [and perhaps for his employees as well].

An enjoyable light comedy to start the holiday season.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Theatre AUM: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde's ever witty The Importance of Being Earnest has been a theatrical staple for professional, community, university, and high school companies for as long as one can remember, and is now showing at Theatre AUM in director Mike Winkelman's fast-paced, energetic, and inventive interpretation.

With its attention to COVID protocols [everyone on stage and in the audience wears a mask, and safe distanced limited seating is observed], the ensemble acting company once again exhibits AUM's commitment to quality productions that explore various aspects of world theatre. -- Here is a comedy from a bygone era presented [with a few contemporary mannerisms] that affords actors and audience members a glittering display of witty dialogue from actors who embody their characters eccentricities with aplomb. 

Whether its contrived plot is credible, or whether anyone ever actually spoke with such precious affectation is beside the point; the actors carry it off. -- It's all about the language, and as one of the characters notes: style is more important than sincerity. The script shows Wilde at his best, and though some of the actors often lack the vocal support that stresses operative words to communicate information and make the cleverness understood, they make up for it in delineating the character relationships that keep the plot moving forward.

It is also an old-fashioned three act play that sets up the action, brings it to a climax, and resolves the confusions. -- Jack Worthing [Jared Jones] visits his London friend Algernon Moncrieff [Worth Harris] who interrogates him about his name: you see, Ernest is the name he uses in town, and Jack is his name in the country, having invented a fictitious brother to afford an excuse to leave one or the other place. And Algy has a fictitious sick friend Bunbury he uses for the same purpose. -- Complicating matters is that Ernest/Jack is in love with Algy's cousin Gwendolyn [Tabitha Neyerlin], but his desire to marry her is being thwarted by her mother, Lady Bracknell [Cole Hamric], whose interrogation of Ernest finds that he is an orphan who can't prove his heritage, and concludes that he is not a proper match for her daughter.

Jack returns to the country, having determined to get rid of his fictitious brother to avoid further complications; but Algy gets there before him and falls for Jack's ward Cecily [Kaylee Baker] by pretending to be Jack's brother. -- Cecily is schooled by Miss Prism [Yahzane Palmer] who likes the local man of the cloth Canon Chausuble [Brandon Baggin]. -- Both of the young men have proposed to their chosen ladies who know them by the name of Ernest; so when Gwendolyn shows up in the country, much confusion occurs...and, as it is a comedy, must be resolved, not the least of which is Jack's parentage.

Mr. Winkelman guides his troupe through the complications of the plot, and engages us with their assorted antics along the way. Even the servant roles -- Lane [David Wilson] and Merriman [Jonah Maynard] -- are expanded with quirky stage business. He is abetted by Val Winkelman's character driven period costumes [with a few modern touches], and an evocative minimalist scenic design by Aileen Zeigler. And a clever use of Gilbert & Sullivan tunes sustains a spirited lightheartedness throughout.

The Importance of Being Earnest at Theatre AUM tickles the funny bone in this delightful production.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

"Everyone should go to the theater. Because it is there that we see the struggles of those we might otherwise misidentify as 'other.' It is there that we go to see ourselves." [Playwright Theresa Rebeck on the NYTimes Opinion page A17, Friday, October 15, 2021]

The opening night audience at the Cloverdale Playhouse clearly saw themselves represented on stage as they laughed, cried, applauded, and cheered throughout The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, who made history in September as the first Latino to win in the "Best Play" Tony Award for The Inheritance.

Not so long ago, and before "Ru Paul's Drag Race" became mainstream, it would have been problematic in River Region theatres to feature actors in drag, or a loving mixed-race couple, but in ...Georgia McBride they are both depicted successfully and without editorial comment.

Casey [Jay Russell] is a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator at a Panama City, FL bar called "Cleo's". With overdue bills to pay, and impending eviction by landlord Jason [Michael Buchanan] for missing rent payments, and his African American wife Jo [Lavia Walker] announcing her pregnancy, Jason breaks the news to her that he has been fired from his Elvis gig by bar owner Eddie [Chris Roquemore], and relegated to bartender.

What he doesn't tell her is that Elvis has been replaced by a drag show featuring flamboyant Miss Tracy Mills [David Rowland] and her unreliable stage partner Rexy [John Selden]...and that he has been conscripted to join the show. -- Much to resolve in the two hours' traffic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

Lopez's script has an improbable plot, underdeveloped characters, and several songs that are a lot of fun to watch though they do not otherwise contribute to the action, yet audiences get caught up in the show largely due to its exuberant performances, sensitive attention to significant social issues, some technical wizardry, and the spot-on direction by Eleanor Kerr Davis and Scott Page.

Davis and Page [sounds like a vaudeville double-act, doesn't it?] keep the action moving at a steady pace, finding a rhythmic mix of comedy, pathos, social insights, and dynamic lip-synched songs. -- J. Scott Grinstead again impresses us with a minimalist set design that evokes specific locations and utilizes  a revolving stage for the first time at the Playhouse. -- Costumes by Ms. Davis and Beth Shephard and their team contrast working class characters with spectacular drag personae. -- David Rowland [wigs, make-up, choreography] adds a drag-professional standard that impacts the signal moments in the play; his alter-ego is, after all, the inimitable Chloe Von Trapp.  -- This is a fine collaborative effort that supports the play's themes and the ensemble cast's many talents.

Each of the characters is on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. -- Mr. Buchanan's good-old-boy Jason seems oblivious of others' needs at first, though he ultimately admits to a regretful decision he made in the past. -- As the narrator/emcee and tunnel-visioned bar owner, Mr. Roquemore is a delight as he slowly accepts both the economic impact of the drag show to his business as well as the "otherness" of the divas.

In her Playhouse debut, Ms. Walker delivers a quietly natural quality in Jo. If "quiet ones often go unnoticed", that is not so here. Ms. Walker is an "other" force to deal with when she discovers Casey's lies; it is his lack of trust in her that must be remedied, and she knows it. And, as much of the play emphasizes the importance of love of all sorts, she becomes the catalyst for it.

Mr. Selden's Rexy [full name Anorexia Nervosa; "It's Italian", she quips] bears the brunt of early derision as the bitchy drunkard; yet Rexy consistently returns from stupor to claim a place in the show, and in an Act II confessional provides the most compelling back-story of a violent teenage assault on someone who appeared as "other" to the perpetrators and that garners compassion. Indeed, "Drag is not for sissies."

The biggest journey of self-discovery resides in Mr. Russell's Casey, abetted by Miss Tracy Mills. -- Miss Tracy questions Casey's abilities as a drag performer, but recognizes his potential and determines to mentor him, exercising both maternal concern and realistic expectations. Whether delivering sassy repartee, or offering necessary advice to "find yourself and be true to it" or to "make fewer messes in your life", or performing several show-stopping numbers, Mr. Rowland's Miss Tracy is, in a word: dazzling!

Watching Casey's transformation under Miss Tracy's tutelage lets audiences into both the sense of "otherness" Casey feels when he first dons women's clothes, and the gradual comfort as he assumes the role of country music diva Georgia McBride. Mr. Russell inhabits the role so that audiences might share with him their own discomforts with "otherness" of any sort, and to be able to join with him and the entire cast at the Finale's rousing celebratory dance party.

At a time when intolerance and misunderstanding abound, when LGBTQ-bashing rears its ugly head all too often, when anyone perceived as "other" becomes a victim of hate crimes, when bias and prejudice are excused in the name of exercising one's rights, or when one refuses to listen to an "other" point of view, The Legend of Georgia McBride points the way to rectifying such issues as cast and audience join together to celebrate their unique differences and common humanity.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

WOBT: "The Addams Family: a new musical comedy"

First-time director Hunter Smith cut his performance teeth at Faulkner University, and furthered his acting career at the Wetumpka Depot, The Millbrook Community Players, and others; so he shows up here at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre to deliver a well-crafted, energetic production of The Addams Family: a new musical comedy.

Abetted by spooky costumes [Kevin Mohajerin] and set pieces [Tanner Parrish], strong musical direction [James Keith Posey], and vibrant choreography [Alex Rikerd and Mr. Posey], as well as strong performances by his 22-member acting company who are only occasionally placed in overcrowded staging, it looks like Mr. Smith is off to a good start.

As a lead-up to Halloween, The Addams Family is an appropriately ghoulish selection for the season, and WOBT has taken appropriate COVID measures to ensure the safety of its limited audiences in this sold-out run.

Based on cartoon characters created by Charles Addams, and the cult-classic television show, the sometimes plodding plot/book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa are filled with both the familiar characterizations of the principal characters and clever dialogue references to contemporary social concerns.

The characters, for all of their otherworldly eccentricities, have always been rendered as "normal"; their domestic lives are much like ours, but with a tongue-in-cheek stamp that is meant to make us reflect on our own eccentricities. -- So, when Wednesday [Kristen VanderWal] falls for the normal Lucas Beineke [Tanner Parrish], and invites him and his parents Mal [Eric Arvidson] and Alice [Kayli McNally] to dinner at the Addams' home...well, you can imagine the result.

But we discover, as do they, that "normal" is a part of shared family values, and not the exclusive domain of regular folks like the Beinekes. Just like the Beinekes, Gomez [a charismatic James Keith Posey] and Morticia [Alex Rikerd reprises the role with comfortable pizzaz] have trust issues; Pugsley [Amy Lynn Miller] has a teenager's doubts; Grandma [Melanie Boulware] is unabashedly frank; Wednesday and Lucas are challenged by meaningful conversations about their relationship; and Fester [Sam Wallace gives a touching idiosyncratic performance as a "moonstruck" devotee]. Even the silent Lurch [Connor Carraway] gets a moment to actually speak.

Musical numbers serve to both comment on and move the action forward, and are mostly delivered with assurance, especially by the principal actors. Ms. Rikerd and Mr. Posey have a fine chemistry, and their talents are showcased in numerous songs. Ms. McNally's confession in "Full Disclosure" is powerful. Ms. VanderWal and Mr. Parrish are at their best in "Crazier Than You". And Mr. Wallace will steal your heart in "Fester's Manifesto" about love and Act II's declaration of his love in "The Moon and Me".

The ensemble of Addams Ancestors are given individualized roles to play, and the group numbers show off their ensemble skills.

Though there are obstacles in the way of Wednesday's and Lucas's romance, all will be resolved by the end [it is a musical comedy after all], and audiences should exit the theatre feeling just a little bit better about returning to the "normal" world.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Wetumpka Depot: "Big Fish"

 Big Fish -- just say the title around these parts and get ready for a chorus of glowing sentiments about Daniel Wallace's novel, the popular film with an adapted script by John August, the recent HGTV program that transformed Wetumpka and featured the "Big Fish House", the Wetumpka High School production not long ago of the John August and Andrew Lippa musical version which is now being staged at the Wetumpka Depot to almost sold-out audiences.

Opening night's limited and [mostly] masked audience gave director Kristy Meanor's production an enthusiastic reception as the Depot returned to in-person shows. -- Her fluid minimalist set design had actors shifting its many moveable parts in full view. Daniel Harms' efficient choreography, along with Carol Heier's character-driven costumes and Thomas Rodman's evocative lighting, combined with energetic performances by the 17-member cast made for an enjoyable evening's entertainment.

Randy Foster's music direction was in full force, with the actors steadfastly singing along to a recorded soundtrack; they met the challenge, though the soundtrack itself occasionally overpowered some solo singing voices.

Though there are few surprises in this retelling of Big Fish, our enjoyment relies on the freshness of the production, and we fill in the missing pieces of the narrative [some of the set decorations help with this].

Essentially focused on a contentious father/son relationship, Big Fish centers on Edward Bloom [Chris Kelly] and his grown son Will [Gage Leifried] as the son tries to decipher the decades-long autobiographical stories his father weaves, with added romanticized embellishments that confuse the younger man who doesn't understand his father, something he needs to do before it's too late, and in order to pass on the heritage to his pregnant wife Josephine [Xandria Hataway] and his yet unborn son. 

And these stories include a Witch [Desirae Lewis] who has told Edward the truth about his death, a circus ringmaster named Amos [Cushing Phillips] who is also a werewolf, and a misunderstood giant named Karl [Jordan Berry]. Add Jenny [Kyndall Stoker] a lovestruck schoolmate, and a high school rival Don [Johntavious Osborne], and even a Mermaid [Kaitlyn Lawless] who shows up every once in a while, and Will's confusion is understandable.

While the Young Will [Shepherd Grier] bridges the past and the present, Edward's wife Sandra [Angela Dickson] is the rock of the family. The love of Edward's life from the time they first met, her steadfastness, and Dr. Bennet's [Michael Hall] diagnosis that Edward hasn't long to live, gently brings about the connection that both father and son have wanted for so long.

The actors in the featured roles do yeomen's work in telling the Big Fish story, and deliver some fine individual moments in song. -- While the "Ensemble" troupe play numerous other roles and develop some recognizable portraits, they often let loose with energy and volume that could be pulled back a bit to support rather than dominate the action.

All in all a solid production, Big Fish ought to complete its run on a high note that keeps its audiences entertained by its fresh approach.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

ASF: "Shoebox Picnic Road Side: Route One"

 There are only a few days left to see the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's "World Premier" production of Shoebox Picnic Road Side: Route One held outdoors [weather permitting] under a peaceful grove near the theatre building.

Deneen Reynolds-Knott' 40-minute play hearkens back to the 1950s. Ramona Ward's finely rendered period costumes, and a soundtrack of popular songs blaring from classic cars complete the picture as a small caravan of an African-American family stops en route between New York City and North Carolina  for a roadside picnic; and after the actors/characters "bless the food", a shoebox picnic awaits each audience member.

While this scenario could depict almost any American family in the 1950s, it is clear that, though white people might choose a picnic as an alternative to a restaurant, the characters in this play do so out of necessity to avoid being turned away from a "whites-only" establishment, or worse, to have risked their lives had they tried.

There is no mention of the well-known Greenbook listing safe places for African-Americans to stop, and for the most part, the atmosphere of Ms. Reynolds-Knott's script is comfortably light-hearted, with colloquial dialogue that is disarmingly ordinary; the women share recipes for fried chicken and potato salad and talk about fashion and music icons like Dinah Washington; the men talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers and take friendly digs at the one of them who always arrives late; the children talk about their dreams of the future and don't quite understand why they can't stop at a Howard Johnson's for a clam roll.

The ensemble acting company create recognizably naturalistic characters who appear to be living relatively happy lives -- they banter, gently discipline their children, make plans for a better future -- but underneath all this seeming comfort is a continual and almost undetectable watchfulness. Their parked cars shield them from the public road, there is a real concern for the people in the car that lags behind, their words are guarded when it turns to the subject of race. 

There is one moment when car horns are heard from nearby -- a signal probably from white people that they ought to move on -- that causes a well-practiced ritual that positions the men as sentries, and the women distracting the children by bringing them near the cars and protecting them from danger.

Other than that one discomforting moment, there are no incidents to speak of. Audiences have been offered a peek into the characters' lives and can relate to them. We like them; they are good people; their hopes and dreams are ours. We have invested in their lives. 

Before they leave, Ms. Reynolds-Knott provides a coda in which the assorted characters break the fourth wall to tell us what happens in their family "five years from now...ten years from now...twenty-five years from now...fifty years from now"; though a lot has been accomplished, and a lot has changed, their journey isn't yet over. So, when they pack up and get back on the road, we miss them and wish them well.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Guys"

"Where were you on 9/11?" "Are you ok?" "Why would someone do that?" "Is a return to normal even possible?" -- Questions relevant both then and now on the 20th anniversary of both the attacks that changed the world forever and the costly war in Afghanistan that followed.

For two nights only on its outdoor "Courtyard Stage", The Cloverdale Playhouse is presenting a staged reading of Anne Nelson's The Guys, in commemoration of the legions of men and women first responders at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as well as those serving at the Pentagon and the brave citizens on United Flight 93 who diverted it from its targeted destination, the U.S. Capital, and crashed it in a field in Pennsylvania. -- It is also a fund-raiser for Montgomery Fire and Rescue.

Written in just nine days, The Guys premiered Off-Broadway at The Flea Theatre in New York in December 2001. Based on the playwright's experiences, it recounts the meeting of its two characters who piece together their experiences, their grief, their bewilderment, their anger, and their helplessness in coming to terms with events they could not control. -- Nick [Scott Page] is a NYFD Captain who lost eight members of his team, and is conscripted to deliver eulogies for his fallen friends -- "the guys" of the title; Joan [Sarah Walker Thornton] is a journalist who comes to Nick's aid to help shape his thoughts into meaningful words to deliver to the bereaved.

With all the media attention on this anniversary from networks and cable stations, we tend to get lost in the overload from talking heads touting the first responders as "heroes". -- But it is words that matter, and Ms. Nelson is so keenly aware of this that she avoids such heightened language by referring to the men as "the guys": ordinary people who have families, go to church, drink with their buddies, welcome newcomers into their midst, and work as a team. These are "the guys" we should commemorate. -- And audiences get to know them and respect them through the conversations between the two characters.

Mr. Page shows Nick as a good "guy" so broken and guilt-ridden by the catastrophe that he can't express what needs to be said, and is apologetic for dragging Joan in to his predicament. Ms. Thornton's presents Joan's anger and frustrated empathy unapologetically. Once she gets him to talk about his friends with her open-ended questions and then molds the details of their lives and experiences into ordinary words, they create a bond that enables them to continue, and they emerge as fully realized and empathetic characters.

Directed sensitively by Greg Thornton, who affords his actors room to explore the nuances of the script's themes and character relationships, and supported by J. Scott Grinstead's technical direction, the result is a touching and provocative evening that has audiences riveted throughout its 75-minute running time.

An America that seemed unified after 9/11 when politics, religion, and social status did not seem to matter, is now fraught on almost every quarter some 20-years later, where insurrectionist citizens threatened the fabric of our democracy, and where a global pandemic has become an excuse for divisiveness. The question remains: "Is a return to normal even possible?"

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Millbrook: "Steel Magnolias"

 Though none of them ever appear on stage, there's a lot of talk about the men in the lives of the six women in Steel Magnolias, now playing at the Millbrook Community Theatre. Whether they are good-old-boys, successful young lawyers, deadbeat tv couch-potatoes, criminals, born-again Christians, former mayors, or unwanted exes, we can't help but sympathize with the women who escape to Truvy's hair salon every week to literally and figuratively let their hair down in a place where no man would dare to enter.

Director A. John Collier's take on this Community Theatre staple doesn't break any new ground; rather he presents the intertwining stories of the characters with a straightforwardness appropriate to the script, and the opening night audience responded approvingly, often anticipating several of the play's most quotable lines.

By now, most local audiences know the plot of Robert Harling's 1987 play, centered on the plight of young Shelby's journey from her wedding day, ill-advised pregnancy, and death, and her effect on the lives of the other characters. -- So it is up to the ensemble performances of the actors to develop their roles truthfully, combining humor and pathos. 

The Millbrook cast are up to the task, and show the mother-daughter dynamic between M'Lynn [Joannie Deneve] and Shelby [Hannah Moore] as a complex love-hate relationship; Truvy [Rae Ann Collier] and Annelle [Shea Jackson] grow closer as Annelle gradually becomes more assertive; and frenemies Ouiser [Margaret White] and Clairee [Vicki Moses] bicker constantly, but are always there for support.

And, while their physical and vocal energies lag at times, this two-and-a-half-hour production demonstrates the steely strength of women who rely on one another for the strength to overcome even the most challenging events...and without their men.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Giver"

After a year-and-a-half away from indoor theatre performances, returning to the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of The Giver was exhilarating on many levels. -- With attention to COVID protocols, the theatre maintained a safe space atmosphere that allowed audiences to engage in the play's themes, and afforded many opportunities to get caught up in the performances of the talented ensemble actors.

Director La'Brandon Milbry-Tyre guided the cast through Eric Coble's adaptation of the Newberry Prize-winning novel by Lois Lowry: a dystopian fiction set in a not-too-distant future, where blandness, control, and safety pass for an ideal life in the "community", where everyone accepts their assigned roles; that is, until the "Ceremony of the Twelves", where twelve-year-old children are given their life assignments, and one boy named Jonas [Ashana Woodson] is tapped with the distinct honor to be the next "Receiver of Memory". He is taught in secret by the Giver of the title [Cushing Phillips] all the long historical memory of the "community" -- the knowledge of both joy and pain, good and evil, peace and war -- and comes to realize that his previous utopian world isn't all it is cracked up to be.

From the opening curtain speech [a disembodied voice welcomes us to the theatre and controls our responses], to the grey set that snakes its way into the auditorium [J. Scott Grinstead masterfully disguises its several moving parts that reveal new places and expanding knowledge given to the boy; and the "projections" along the theatre's side walls depicting war and travel are stunning], to the drab utilitarian costumes [Sarah Walker Thornton's olive/beige choices emphasize military discipline, and fluid drapery of outsiders is remarkable], to the eerie soundscape [Noah Henninger's choices keep us on the edge], and hard-focused lighting [Joseph Crawford softens many scenes to excellent effect], all the production elements conspire to insinuate that all is not well in this seemingly ideal place.

In this ideal "community", a lengthy exposition introduces us to a typical nuclear family [Father, Mother, Jonas, and Lily], their assorted neighbors and friends, and we feel comfortable with them as they try to fit in to the demands of their leaders. The introduction of an infant to the household -- one of a pair of twins that Father [Kevin Mohajerin] dotes on -- adds some tension to the family unit. Things liven up when Jonas interacts with Asher [Michael Pritchard] and Fiona [Bella Dennison] in recognizable pre-teen fashion, their quirky personalities at the forefront. 

But we also hear reports of people who, for whatever reason, are "released" to an unknown and purportedly good "elsewhere". And the children are curious, but not put off by not knowing.

While the focus of the plot is on the Giver/Jonas relationship, the gifted ensemble players imbue their characters with distinct personalities, and demonstrate a fine-tuned collaborative spirit in supporting one another while contributing individually to the plot and its tensions. Mr. Mohajerin, Mr. Pritchard, and Ms. Dennison are particularly convincing, as are Valerie Roberts as Mother, and Riley Carroll as Lily.

Mr. Phillips subtly shows the conflicted role of the Giver with admirable restraint -- one who must teach all the memory to Jonas no matter how hurtful it may be, and advise the danger ahead should the boy choose to go elsewhere and thereby release all the memory back to the "community", while maintaining some secrecy about his own past. Their relationship is based on trust, and both these actors/characters demonstrate it fully.

And, Ms. Woodson -- in a stunning debut stage performance -- carries the bulk of the production on her capable shoulders. Her confidence in the role as she interacts with family, friends, and authority figures in a variety of ways; her vocal clarity and power; her emotional and intellectual range as she investigates and decides on a course of action to pursue with her new-found knowledge; her ability to share the stage with her fellow actors,  all make for an impressive performance that ought to jump-start her theatrical future.

Though the ending does not draw to a neat conclusion, the audience is left to deliberate on the choices we make to know our own history and how we can contribute to our own life's course.