Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Theatre AUM: "Cross Cast: acting showcase of songs, scenes, and monologues"

At the start of each academic year, Theatre AUM produces an Acting Showcase, affording student actors opportunities and experiences in presenting short selections that demonstrate their individual strengths. 

This year's title is Cross Cast, with selections performed by an ensemble of eight actors -- all male -- performing [with the exception of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from the musical South Pacific], some 16 selections written for female characters.

As an exercise, there are a number of challenges, not the least of which is to bring a fully realized character to life in an excerpted monologue from a play, without the luxury of developing a role over two full acts; in addition, in order to make a significant impact, each selection needs to stand on its own in a clear moment independent of the play's context; ideally, in both monologues and scenes, there ought to be clear beginnings, middles, and ends; and they should be presented with full-on energy and clear diction from the very start, and end on a strong note.

There is a range of acting talent in this group, and not every selection hit the challenges above.  Yet, there is strength in both individuals and in shared selections.

While several pieces were excerpted from familiar plays like Crimes of the Heart, Nine to Five, and A Chorus Line, the less familiar scripts made us listen more attentively -- and guess what? In almost every selection performed in just 45-minutes, one could almost forget that men were playing female roles; the subject matter hit on topics that are more universal: "Am I ok?" in this world today; "What is my worth?"; "Do we succumb to outside pressures?" -- quite the accomplishment.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Nora's Playhouse at the Sanctuary: "Ashes & Ink"

 The World Premier of emerging playwright Martha Pichey's potent Ashes & Ink opened at The Sanctuary in Montgomery to a welcoming opening night audience.

Produced by New York based "Nora's Playhouse", an organization dedicated to "creating opportunities for women theatre artists", the play focuses on addiction and mental health, topics which many people find difficult to address, especially when they impact immediate family.

Sensitively directed by "Nora's" founding Artistic Director Caroline Reddick Lawson, the two-act play's episodic structure shows us how these issues impact the developing relationship between Molly [Mariah Reilly] and Leo [Michael Buchanan], each of whom has lost a spouse and are now made to face their respective sons' issues, as well as their own.

There's a lot packed into the two-hour running time: various forms of addiction, enabling and denial, good intentions with questionable results, control vs. freedom, trust issues, parental roles and children's needs, the difficulty of being honest about one's self and others especially under stressful circumstances.

Molly's almost adult son Quinn [Chason Marvin] is an aspiring actor who has been in treatment for drug addiction, and whose clashes with his Mother shift on his good and bad days. -- Leo's young son Felix [Austin Wendell] has difficulty expressing his needs and feelings about the loss of his Mother, though he and Quinn manage to strike up a bond.

Molly's blind sister Bree [Meghan Yapana Ducote] helps catalogue recordings of bird songs for Molly's research project, and becomes a sounding board for Molly's challenges.

And Molly and Leo -- polar opposites in personality [she gets frustrated easily, and he is calmer, even as he pursues a PhD] -- try to make their relationship work while attempting to manage their sons' problems.

The journey isn't easy for any of them. Or for the audience. The ensemble of actors dig deeply into their characters, sometimes exhibiting raw emotions that can't help but impact anyone with a compassion for the problems facing their fellows.

Played on Rita Pearson-Dailey's finely detailed unit set contrasting Molly's city apartment with Leo's rustic country place, that allows for smooth transitions; and with Katie Pearson's well-chosen costumes, the action only occasionally slows down during scene changes.

Ashes & Ink provides a powerful evening in local theatre, with attention to difficult subjects made accessible through an intelligent script and a strong acting ensemble.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Adapted by Eric Schmiedel from Lee Smith's novel, with music and lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, Fair and Tender Ladies debuted at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the late 1990s, and is being given a sensitive re-boot at the Wetumpka Depot.

Under Kim Mason's astute direction [Ms. Pell is also the Musical Director of this production], the key to Fair and Tender Ladies is in its ensemble performances. -- Central to it is the character of Ivy Rowe [Adrian Bush], whose lifelong journey of dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, of mistakes and compromises, and of lessons learned and taught, is told through a narrative of flashbacks to her youth in an impoverished backwoods community that eventually lead her to leave, seek out new and sometimes illicit experiences, marry and have numerous children, and finally recognize that the bonds of family and life's simple pleasures are more fulfilling than any grand endeavor. And, Ms. Bush has the wherewithal to imbue Ivy with a natural sensitivity that allows audiences to get caught up in her life.

Through the play's two acts, she interacts with a catalogue of family, friends, and neighbors, all played by two principal actors and an ensemble: Leanna Wallace plays her mentally slow sister Silvaney and cousin Geneva; Sarah Housley plays impatient sister Beulah and three other roles; Ms. Wallace's welcome return to the stage affords her the opportunity to deliver a luminous depiction of Silvaney that is balanced by the no-nonsense Geneva; Ms. Housley's chameleon-like changes of character bring insights and subtleties to each.

The remainder are played by the on-stage musicians. Amanda Borden, Lee Borden, Tim Henderson, Lloyd Strickland, and Matt Wallace masterfully play some ten musical instruments among them, while depicting the ensemble characters in Ivy's life. -- Each character is clearly delineated in the performances, and indicated by Carol Heier's period and character driven costumes that contribute significantly to this production.

The music and lyrics from the aforementioned trio captures both the rural-country flavor of period and place, as well as the poetry of language that captures simplicity of speech with vivid images and insightful and sometimes profound commentary. 

Despite a disappointingly small opening night audience, a few tentative moments, and an all-too-steady pace that cried out for some variety to move the narrative more quickly, the Depot's Fair and Tender Ladies ought to make its mark in the annals of River Region theatre.