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?"