Saturday, February 26, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "A Storm Came Up"

An important new play receiving spontaneous standing ovations has opened at the Wetumpka Depot. Kristy Meanor's assured adaptation of Doug Segrest's debut novel A Storm Came Up tackles sensitive subjects that were prominent in the Jim Crow South, issues that unfortunately are still too much with us.

Set in the fictitious town of Takasaw, Alabama in the 1960s, the racial divide and the Civil Rights Movement may be ancient history to some, but for those of us who lived through it, our collective memory will be triggered by this play.  

References to such things as George Wallace's "segregation forever" narrative and the deaths of the "four little girls" at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, as well as various details of Alabama's rural places, keep the play's fiction firmly within the realm of possibility. And the presence of KKK members depicted on stage, and characters conflicted by the imminent de-segregation facing them, vividly show what many people might want to forget: that enablers can be just as guilty as overt racists in promoting hatred and bigotry.

We know the place and the people. And we ought to be uncomfortable with its truth-telling, despite the misinformed Critical Race Theory rhetoric from some of our leaders.

The plot centers on the lives of three teenage friends -- boys who witnessed a brutal murder of a Black man, and who promised to keep it secret for the rest of their lives out of fear of repercussions. Cousins Braxton [David Shelnutt] and Andy [Jay Russell] are white, and Moses [Drey Wingate] is Black. They seem to be living an idyllic life, but the times are changing.

A few years after that traumatizing event, the world is transforming around them: a bi-racial committee has been organized to propose among other things that the local high school be integrated. Some of Takasaw's citizens resist change peacefully while others are in denial regarding their own deep-rooted prejudices; and others are active Klan members. The boys' individual actions that go beyond their adolescent dreams of football victories or romantic conquests impact their families and friends as they are confronted by the choices they will have to make in order to survive into adulthood.

The plot is narrated by Rufus [Tony Davison], the local gravedigger who serves as a kind of all-knowing and ever-present Greek Chorus. Ms. Meanor cleverly intertwines non-dramatic narration with Rufus' gradual direct participation in the story, and Mr. Davison keeps a calm note amidst the two acts' growing tension.

Ms. Meanor directs her cadre of actors who create credibly detailed characters in support of the main plot, and help illustrate the play's messages. -- There is no "star" in this production, rather, a fine tuned ensemble whose task it is to tell a nuanced story through their relationships and actions; and in this they succeed, by mixing serious and gently humorous moments that are true to life.

And she clearly trusts her audiences: the script does not flinch from using offensive racist language or adult subject matter, both of which are integral to honestly portraying these very real subjects; so while we may occasionally be jolted out of our comfort zones, we also can drop our objections and consider the weight that the past still imposes on our 21st Century behavior. 

We are clearly meant to take sides with the decent folks in Takasaw: Braxton's parents [Douglas Mitchell and Leslie Blackwell] and Moses's grandmother [Adele Burks] and mentally challenged brother [Johntavious Osborne] are people who live by a moral code in a world growing dirtier by the minute, pitted as they are against the hypocritical Klan leader [James Ward] and his ilk who have enticed Andy to join them in burning churches and meting out their form of terrorist justice on people of both races who resist them.

There are several scenes that sensitively show how Black and White families who have lived closely together as equals and who would come to one another's aid in times of need, might drift apart because no matter how close the friendship, they can never quite understand that race and racial discord impacts them differently.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Segrest do not resolve the issue of racism in A Storm Came Up -- indeed, it is too much with us in 2022. But there is hope at the end of the play. Hope in second chances. Hope that if we agree to do what is right, we might emerge better. Hope that we should not be afraid of change. Hope that people can and ought to be judged by their character and not their skin color. Hope that we might be able to face a future without regret.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

With today's worldwide tumultuous state of affairs, it seems that we could all use a good laugh. And the Cloverdale Playhouse delivers in spades as they open their COVID-cautious 11th Season with actor-comedian Steve Martin's outrageous Picasso at the Lapin Agile, its first appearance in the River Region since its debut in 1993.

Sam Wootten's stellar debut directing project since taking the helm as the Playhouse's Artistic Director is a fast moving, inventive 80-minute romp that taps into the improbable premise, the witty dialogue, and the headier themes of Martin's script. 

He is abetted by a collaborative design team -- J. Scott Grinstead/Set, Rebecca Huguet/Costume, Mike Winkelman/Lighting, Clyde Hancock/Sound -- whose combined efforts create a remarkable mise-en-scene for the actors to inhabit.

It's 1904 in Paris -- a fin de siecle moment almost at the end of "La Belle Epoque" -- set in a bohemian cafe called the Lapin Agile, where Martin imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein [Kevin Mohajerin] and Pablo Picasso [Kendrick Golson] when both geniuses were in their 20s and were on the brink of making/changing history with the "theory of relativity" and the tradition-breaking "cubist school of art". Their questioning of what the future holds, and their debate on whether science or art is the most important contributor to mankind's progress, ignites in Messers Mohajerin and Golson their characters' youthfully passionate defenses of their respective fields, yet they ultimately realize that they can live in harmony and align their ideas as a new way of looking at the world.

But, in comes larger-than-life "inventor" and self-proclaimed "genius" Schmendiman [John Selden] to steal their thunder as a third person needed to save the world through commercial enterprise as well as science and art; and in an antic display reminiscent of Martin's "wild and crazy guy" routine and John Cleese's various Monty Python personae, Mr. Selden's too-short stage time ups the ante of comic possibilities.

A talented acting ensemble of Playhouse veterans and neophytes portray a host of other eccentrics whose lives intertwine at the cafe, and who keep the comic dimensions on track: Freddy [Bo Jinright] who runs the cafe with his girlfriend Germaine [Katie Schmidt] who has had a relationship with Picasso; Gaston [George Jacobsen] who suffers from prostate problems but has a straightforward attitude to both art and science; Suzanne [Valorie Roberts] who has recently had an affair with Picasso and comes to the cafe to meet him; effete art dealer Sagot [Chris Roquemore] who claims that the only paintings people won't buy depict Jesus or sheep; the Countess [Annie Gunter] who is there to meet up with Einstein; and Schmendiman's Female Admirer [ Dominique Taylor] with a slight case of mistaken identity.

There's something else up Martin's sleeve when he introduces a hip-swiveling, blue-suede-shoes-wearing,  time-traveling Visitor [Gage Leifried] to tell them what the future has in store. Kind of a let-down from the charming witty contrivances of the early Twentieth Century fiction we have come to enjoy.

Whether people prefer to see themselves as forward looking ["Neo-"] or reflective looking ["Post-"] change-makers, there is no doubt that this current smart and silly production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile will make its appeal their own. And that's a comforting thought.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

WOBT: "Anatomy of Gray"

Set in rural Indiana sometime in the 1800s, Jim Leonard, Jr. follows his award-winning play The Diviners with another story of mysterious healing after the loss of a loved one in Anatomy of Gray which opened this weekend at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

Directed by Brady Walker, the action is bookended by its narrator June Muldoon [Margaret Lind] who begins the play with a fairy-tale opening line "Once upon a time..." to preserve for her baby sister the memory of her journey out of the town of Gray, Indiana, a place she calls "the most boring place in the world". She is mourning her father's death, and yearns to leave the town, praying to God to deliver a doctor to them so no one will ever die again. So, when a tornado conveniently delivers Dr. Galen Gray [Kevin Morton] by way of a hot-air balloon, June anticipates a way out. The town is no longer boring.

An ensemble of local residents' lives, both religious and secular, are heavily influenced by Pastor Wingfield [Eric Arvidson], who prefers faith healing to medical science. But the largely uneducated townspeople seek Gray's expertise when his treatments cure their various ailments, even though he is often misunderstood. -- And when mysterious "markings" appear on their bodies, and several of them die as a result, the citizens turn on Gray and accuse him as the cause of the plague. [No spoilers here, but the actual cause is revealed late in the second act].

Though modern medicine was still in its infancy in the 1800s, it is easy to see in Anatomy of Gray a corresponding reluctance to trust experts in science and medicine during the current COVID pandemic. Rumors spread from ignorance and fear lead to a lynch-mob mentality in the play that must be diffused; and it doesn't help matters when it is revealed that Dr. Gray is Jewish, or that he has an unexplained aversion to blood, or that his unconventional and experimental treatments test the fundamentalist beliefs of the townspeople. Nonetheless, June falls for Gray and becomes his medical assistant.

Some of the doctor's practices are played for humor, especially a hilarious treatment for the Pastor's kidney stones; but most are given more serious attention: June's mother Rebekah [Tammy Arvidson] is pregnant with her late husband's child and wants an abortion which Dr. Gray, having fallen in love with her, refuses on moral grounds; Belva and Crutch Collins [Janie Allred and Rodney Winters] don't understand their conditions; the Pastor's sister Tiny [Bre Gentry] succumbs to a fever; church choir director Maggie [Jan Roeton] is in denial, proclaiming "I can't be marked...I've not done anything wrong".

The only ones not afflicted are June, who so admires the doctor that she mimics all his medical precautions, and Homer [Gage Parr], a boy who has a crush on June and drinks only soda-pop. -- It is up to them to continue the circle-of-life, and the play ends as it began with June once again addressing the audience with her story.

Played on a simple open platform set with a rural painted backdrop, Mr. Walker's emphasis is on the inherent messages of the script that has compassion without passing judgement on its characters. Indeed, we could all benefit from trusting the experts and trying to understand one another better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

ASF: "Macbeth"

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair" is a refrain often repeated or suggested throughout the Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, showing on the Festival Stage for the next two weeks only. This all-too-short run of the Bard's shortest tragedy, called "the Scottish play" by many superstitious theatre folk, and often considered a compliment to England's first Stuart monarch: James I [James VI of Scotland] who reigned when the play was written c.1606, is an action-packed, visually stunning foray into the realm of a power-obsessed couple that resonates in the 21st Century.

Adroitly directed by Rick Dildine, whose "goal of creating a timeless folktale" is reflected in a mixture of music choices that underscore or compliment the action and costume choices that approximate a number of time periods, this Macbeth's focus on the seductive corruption that power inflicts on its hero can't help but connect us to heads-of-state who are willing to sacrifice anyone who gets in the way of their quest to rule.

Though audiences today say that they go to "see" a play, Elizabethan audiences went to "hear" a play in order to submerge themselves in the sounds and poetic rhythms of the dialogue; so it is a pleasure to hear Shakespeare's words spoken with confidence by such ASF veterans as Greta Lambert, Chris Mixon, Ann Arvia, Chauncy Thomas, and Christopher Gerson -- words that advance the plot, develop character relationships, stress the play's themes, and stimulate audience imagination. -- And this, regrettably, is the only time in this ASF Season to "hear" a classical play.

The "fair is foul" theme contrasts appearance and reality in so many ways: Do the Witches [Ann Arvia, Greta Lambert, April Armstrong] control or merely prophesy events that lead battle-triumphant hero Macbeth [Benjamin Bonenfant] and Lady Macbeth [Meghan Andrews] to murder King Duncan [Christopher Gerson] and set them on their disastrous course? The Macbeths' plan to "...look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under't" underscores the theme. The Witches' prophecies appear to be impossible, but are ironically accurate; and their proclaiming that Banquo [Cordell Cole] is "Lesser than Macbeth and greater./Not so happy, yet much happier/ [because]Thou shall get kings, though thou be none" infects Macbeth and urges him on. Even Duncan's description of Macbeth's castle at Inverness paints a bright and welcoming place that makes the dark and sinister murder even more impactful. Strategically placed just after Duncan's murder, the drunken Porter [a masterful portrayal by Chris Mixon], equivocates with a series of perhaps the first "knock-knock jokes" that testify to the unnatural behavior of the protagonist, and mark a turning point in the action to follow.

As the power-couple, Mr. Bonenfant and Ms. Andrews have a vibrant chemistry; it is clear from the outset that their passions and mutual understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses seem to mark them for greatness, but as their choices to eliminate anyone who gets in their way -- Lady Macduff [Laura Darrell] and her family, for example -- drive them to their respective tragic ends, we witness the numbing effect of their actions, and are horrified by the disintegration of their marriage. Ms. Andrews' "sleepwalking scene" and Mr. Bonenfant's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech encapsulate the degree of their collapse.

As Scotland is falling apart under Macbeth's sway, opposing forces gather; and in a striking scene that elevates them to potential heroic status, Macduff [Justin Blanchard] urges Duncan's heir Malcolm [Anthony Michael Martinez] to take up arms and set things aright, at the same time he hears of the slaughter of his family. -- And the climactic battle makes Macduff victorious and restores the crown to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

Played on a stunning but simple platform set designed by William Boles that affords maximum fluidity of the action, and with dynamic fight choreography by Paul Dennhardt, Mr. Dildine's exciting production of Macbeth provokes ASF audiences to engage with Shakespeare's words and ideas, and to think about them as they apply today. And that's what good theatre ought to do. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Theatre AUM: "Good Trouble: A Showcase"

Theatre AUM's Good Trouble: A Showcase had an all-too-short run last weekend. Short in two senses: only five performances, and each performance running between 20-30 minutes. It featured AUMcappella vocal group under Dr. Mark Benson's direction, and a five person acting ensemble who presented an assortment of monologues, songs, and quotes in tribute to Civil Rights icon John Lewis and the importance of his challenging message for people to get into what he called "good trouble" as a moral obligation to say or do something to help correct the racial inequities in America.

Directed by Val Winkelman, and strategically produced just before Black History Month, much of the content of the brief selections might be well-known to the audience [John Lewis's words, references to "Black Lives Matter" and the Pulse nightclub incident, To Kill a Mockingbird], and some not quite so familiar [Paul Robeson, No Place to be Somebody].

Bookended with songs: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around" performed by AUMcappella, and "Glory" from the film Selma performed by the acting troupe, there are some powerful moments that resonate over time that amplify the necessity for change in our society.

With COVID protocols in place [both actors and audiences wore masks], the challenges for the actors to speak slowly, distinctly, and energetically were not always met, leaving audiences struggling at times to hear the words and receive the impact behind them. Nonetheless, the young ensemble were committed to their roles, and delivered an important message for all of us to do better.