Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years"

Disclosure: The reviewer serves on the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Oral histories -- especially of people from humble origins who had instilled in them a high regard for family, hard work, and moral values -- often are told repeatedly and with such simplicity as to obscure the profound ideas at their core.

And so it is in Having Our Say: the Delany Sisters' First 100 Years that is currently playing at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Adapted from the 1993 book by Sarah L. (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, the play is deceptively simple: Sadie [Yvette Jones-Smedley], the elder sister at 103 years of age, and the 101 year old Bessie [Cynthia Harris], invite us the audience into their home as they prepare a birthday dinner in honor of the father they admired, and regale us with memories and stories that show their achievements that "contradict the false stereotypes which fuel much of the prejudice against African Americans".

The descendants of slaves, but "brought up to 'reach high'", each earned academic degrees through sacrifice and tenacity: Sadie became a respected teacher and Bessie a highly regarded dentist. They never married, and lived together all their lives, becoming so close that they often complete one another's sentences while retaining individual personalities. They balance one another. Sadie is a self described "Mama's child", while Bessie is more independent; Sadie is shy, while Bessie is outspoken; Sadie is the molasses and Bessie the vinegar in their complimentary roles.

They participated in and survived the most important events in recent American history, from early Jim Crow laws, through seeing Haley's Comet twice, to two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam, to the Harlem Renaissance and Negro activism in the 1920s, to advocating for women's right to vote, to the beginnings of the NAACP, to the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and into the 1990s. In short, their history is our history, though unlike most of us, they knew so many of the leaders of the last 100 years: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Eleanor Roosevelt are among the many dignitaries we see through their eyes.

And what eyes they are. As centenarians, they assume some prerogatives of old age: speaking their minds without fear of recriminations. At their age "everyone we know is either dead or they're boring us to death", and they know full well that "oppressed people have a sense of humor". Whether they chase away the "rebby boys" who antagonize them, or consider the list of hurtful words that dehumanize them ["auntie", "boy", "coon", "jigaboo", "pickaninny", and the n-word] -- but don't call them "African American" or "Black" when "Negro" or "colored" or just plain "American" are more to their liking -- or proclaim the value of healthy food, regular Yoga exercise, listening to the Macneil/Lehrer Newshour, and prayer, Ms. Jones-Smedley and Ms. Harris are as warm and comfortable in their characterizations they they become everyone's great-grandmothers: the ones we come to for instruction, for solace, for wisdom.

Directed by Georgette Norman with a sensitivity to the complexities of the Delany sisters' lives, the play's two acts engage audience attention and connection to these two iconic women. Audiences go away refreshed and challenged to consider their own participation in the world around them, and to face up to the important issues of the 21st Century.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

AUM: "The Inspector General"

Never shy about adding contemporary popular culture references to the canon of dramatic literature, director Mike Winkelman is at it again in Theatre AUM's production of Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, a Nineteenth Century satire. And for satire to hit its mark, the audience should see itself reflected on stage; so, not a bad choice considering an almost 200 year gap in time, and cultural distance as well.

What could aggravate some might delight others, and Mr. Winkelman's insertion of songs ("Those Were the Days", "Something's Coming", etc.), gender-switching some roles, Marx Brothers and Monty Python "silly walks", exaggerated make-up and wigs to match Val Winkelman's clownish costumes, adolescent suggestive punning of locations and character names, and numerous modern references to "update and enliven the audience's understanding of the piece", make his point.

Whereas Gogol focused his satire on individuals' greed, political corruption in 1830s Russia, and the stupidity of people in their everyday lives, these targets can certainly be applied across time and country; so Mr. Winkelman's assertion that contemporary American culture is not immune to the same criticism is fair game.

In a small town where everyone from the Mayor [David Wilson] to the least public servant is corrupt, word reaches them that an Inspector General is coming incognito to investigate them. Fearful of being found out, they plan a course of action that is tested when they hear that a stranger has been staying in a local inn for the past two weeks, and that his behavior suggests he might be the dreaded inspector. Concluding that he is the man in question, a delegation goes to the inn where they find Ivan Alexandrovitch Hlestakov [Kodi Robertson] has been running up hotel bills. Mistaking him for the inspector, they fawn on him and give him money, and the Mayor invites him to his own home, where the clever Hlestakov takes advantage of their error by pretending to be the inspector and flirts with both the Mayor's wife [Tara Fenn] and daughter [Amber Baldwin], going so far as to propose marriage to the daughter before skipping town when he fears being found out as a fraud. -- When word arrives that Hlestakov is not the man they thought him to be, and that the real Inspector General has arrived and wants an immediate meeting with the Mayor, chaos ensues and everyone realizes they will pay the price for their corruption.

Mr. Winkelman's 21-member ensemble of actors give full vigor to his concept; and there are several moments of sheer comic madness. A scene when the Mayor's wife and daughter are rivals in their attempt to seduce Hlestakov is made into a burlesque of two voluptuous women almost smothering the diminutive Hlestakov with their heaving breasts; and Ms. Fenn, Ms. Baldwin, and Mr. Robertson are delightfully unrestrained in their performances.

Mr. Wilson's Mayor is both a buffoon and a charlatan whose comeuppance is anticipated from the start, and he blunders in ways reminiscent of Will Ferrell. Yet, the impact of the satire hinges on Mr. Robertson's depiction of Hlestakov: his ability to switch gears in mid-sentence, his agility in many of the play's more slapstick moments, his combining of a superficial innocence with a quick-witted and devious bent to bilk the town's rubes of cash and property, are the components of a sophisticated portrayal of an inherently unlikable petty crook.

Perhaps this is the key to The Inspector General: there are no sympathetic characters, no good-guys among the group; so audiences can focus their attention on the satire and perhaps see themselves and contemporary culture with a critical eye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

A magical moment happened in 1985: Winton "Red" and Carolyn Blount brought the Alabama Shakespeare Festival from its Summer home in Anniston to establish a professional year-round theatre in their backyard in Montgomery. -- Under the brilliant guidance of Founding Artistic Director Martin Platt, the initial "Cinderella Season" opened with a lavish production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with acting luminaries Olivia de Havilland and Tony Randall in attendance, along with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The cast featured two of ASF's most respected and celebrated actors -- Greta Lambert and Philip Pleasants -- in its inaugural repertory company.

So, it is fitting that the 30th Anniversary 2015-2016 season includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, this time directed by Diana Van Fossen; and there is still magic in the air.

Composer James Conely opens the show with a romantic flourish and continues to punctuate scenes and characters with motifs and a light-hearted sense of humor that carries much of the production's magic; James Wolk's deceptively simple set shifts to reveal a variety of locations, and is abetted by Brenda Van Der Weil's effective costumes to distinguish the play's three worlds: a severe aristocratic Athens of an indeterminate time, a diaphanous Classical Greek-oriented magical fairyland, and rustic patchwork clowns for the "rude mechanicals", working-class actors who [with intentional "coarse acting"] entertain the aristocrats with their amateurish version of "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby".

An uneasy alliance between Duke Theseus [Bjorn Thorstad] and Hippolyta [Vanessa Morosco], the Queen of the Amazons, is to be secured by their upcoming marriage, but is interrupted when Egeus [Rodney Clark] brings his daughter Hermia [Becca Ballenger] to the court, insisting she marry Demetrius [Jackson Thompson] as he had arranged; however, she prefers Lysander [Matthew Goodrich] while her friend Helena [Alice Sherman] loves Demetrius. -- To thwart her father's demands, the young lovers escape to the woods outside of Athens where most of the remaining action takes place, and where the feuding fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania [also played by Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco], get caught up in the love affairs of the two young couples.

Meanwhile, the clownish acting troupe meet in the woods to rehearse the play they hope to perform at Theseus' nuptials. Led by Peter Quince [Paul Hebron], the company's self-important leading actor Bottom [Brik Berkes], attempts to steal all the attention for himself.

Well, "the course of true love never did run smooth", and much of the play serves to connect these three worlds and secure the several happy marriages. With the assistance of the mischievous Puck [Alexis Camins], Theseus bewitches Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees on awakening; Puck places the head of an ass on Bottom, so Titania instantly falls in love with him. And the lovers are similarly tricked, so there is much confusion in the woods, and lots to resolve by the end.

Ms. Van Fossen's two-hour and forty-minute production insistently drives home the exposition details so one can't mistake the complexities of Shakespeare's plot, allowing audiences to engage with the Bard's vibrant characters and enjoy the comic diversions he provides.

Chief among them are the frenetic fights among the four youthful lovers, matching extraordinary timing of Shakespeare's witty dialogue with full athletic commitment to Parke Fetch's inventive fight choreography. Well done Ms. Ballenger, Mr. Goodrich, Mr. Thompson, and Ms. Sherman.

Titania "in love with an ass" plays on audience sympathies and gets Oberon to relent on his treatment of her; and the sequences building up to it between the sensually amorous Ms. Morosco and Mr. Berkes' bewildered Bottom tickled the audience.

The downright silliness of the "Pyramus and Thisby" performance depends on the clownish depictions of the entire troupe [Andrew Dahreddine, Parke Fetch, Christopher Lemieux, and Michael Quattrone] made even more comical by Mr. Berkes outrageous characterization of Pyramus; and Mr. Hebron's sincerity and desperation in wanting to please the courtiers adds a much needed truthfulness to their attempts.

Double-casting Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania is a device seen frequently in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco are ably cast here to show the similarities between the real world characters and those of the fairy kingdom.

Shakespeare's magic is always at the center of this production: masterful storytelling, outrageous situations, foolish behavior, remarkable poetry, and the transforming power of true love all meet on the ASF stage.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Faulkner: "She Loves Me"

She Loves Me, the sweet 1963 Joe Masterhoff-Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's Parfumerie [perhaps best known for the 1940 Ernest Lubitch film "The Shop Around the Corner" starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan] is the last production of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's 2015-2016 season.

Opening night played to an almost full house who clearly appreciated the vocal strengths of director Jason Clark South's ensemble of Faulkner students, alumni, and local actors.

Staged on Matt Dickson's colorful flexible set, the action takes place mostly in a 1930s Budapest parfumerie, where George [George Scrushy] and Amalia [Brittney Johnston] -- whose clash of personalities on their first meeting is a clear signal that they must fall in love by the end of the second act -- display old-fashioned storytelling at its best that is matched by a lyrical score, played here in a recorded sound-track that, with over-amplified and frequent static-riddled microphones for the actors, unfortunately muddies the sound.

This notwithstanding, the acting and singing are uniformly strong, from Hunter Lee Smith's naive and bright-eyed delivery boy Arpad singing "Try Me" in his effort to become a salesman in the shop, to Morgan Baker's credible good-guy Sipos whose "Perspective" adds a bit of reason to the lovers' dilemma, to Chris Kelly's subtly sleazy playboy Kodaly who enlivens things even as he is caught out in a sarcastic rendition of "Grand Knowing You", to Tony Davison's impressive shop owner Mr. Maraczek, who suspects that George is having an affair with Mrs. Maraczek, and whose controlled nostalgic delivery of "Days Gone By" is touching.

Special notice is due to three of the principal actors. Mattie Earls is always on target as Miss Ritter, the sometime lover of Kodaly; her vocal delivery is flawless, and is delivered with remarkable stage presence that earns audience connection, especially in Act II's "A Trip to the Library" where she asserts her independence from Kodaly.

Together, Mr. Scrushy and Ms. Johnston engage us with their story: each has a secret pen-pal in answer to a lonely hearts advertisement, writing letters to "Dear Friend" and oblivious to the fact they are writing to one another while continuing their workplace feud. -- When they agree to meet their "Dear Friend" and eventually fall in love in earnest, all ends happily for them as it must.

On the way, audiences are treated to some fine singing. Mr. Scrushy's youthful voice is developing well and his interpretation of the lyrics is excellent. His unabashed delight in the title song, "She Loves Me" is infectious. Ms. Johnston's clear soprano has hardly been better than here as she asserts herself in "No More Candy", breaks your heart in "Dear Friend", and effortlessly reaches into her high register in "Vanilla Ice Cream".

She Loves Me is a delightful way to end Faulkner's current season -- a tribute to Springtime and young love.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

WOBT: "On Golden Pond"

Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, best known for its multi-award winning 1981 film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman, is currently playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Featuring a strong acting ensemble, the play takes us to a lake cottage in a remote corner of rural Maine, where Norman and Ethel Thayer [Roger Humber and Teri Sweeney] have spent the last forty-eight Summers. As is clear from the start, Norman and Ethel are devoted to one another, have grown to tolerate the eccentricities that developed over time, and recognize with varying degrees of acceptance that life for them is growing short, and the ease with which Mr. Humber and Ms. Sweeney inhabit their roles is a gently reassuring reminder that long-term marriages are not a thing of the past.

But all is not sweetness and light on Golden Pond. At eighty years of age, Norman's dementia and heart palpitations are a matter of concern [as is punctuated early on in his distracted conversations with Janie Allred's officious telephone Operator], and when semi-estranged daughter Chelsea [Lauren Morgan] arrives with her current beau Bill Ray [Douglas Mitchell] and his son Billy [Will Chieves] in tow, many of the family's skeletons come out of the closet. Additionally, local mailman Charlie [Joey B. Fine], a childhood sweetheart of Chelsea's who has never lost his feelings for her, is an occasional distraction and source of much of the play's humor.

There is a lot to accomplish in the production's almost two-and-a-half-hour running time to set things aright. -- Jason Morgan is growing more assured as a director: he crafts a clear story with his actors, but allows lengthy scene changes with a lot of dead time to slow the pace and let audiences disconnect. Plus, he rushes through a few key moments -- Chelsea's reconciliation with her deliberately cantankerous father is over in a flash, and curmudgeonly Norman's developing connection with the willful Billy [Mr. Chieves's attitude and posturing speaks a lot] over fishing and literature is often so quiet and restrained that it is hardly noticed.

The focus is most certainly on Norman and Ethel. Mr. Humber delves into Norman's purposefully difficult personality, a man slowly coming to terms with his growing dementia and heart condition while holding on to his position as head of household. His interrogation of Bill as an acceptable suitor for his daughter is one of his better scenes, and Mr. Mitchell [a most welcome newcomer to the local community theatre stage] gives a credible and truthful depiction of a man in love who must make nice with his prospective in-laws, and who relies on honesty to get him by. He is a good match for Norman's testiness.

Ms. Sweeney, one of the River Region's most accomplished actors, gives simply the most natural and believable characterizations in this production. She is a model of physical comfort and vocal honesty for her fellow actors, and her generosity in sharing the stage and supporting them makes everyone better. Her Ethel looks after Norman with an eagle eye and an understanding of his health and well-being, while her affectionate appelation of him as an "old poop" serves to lessen his fears. As a go-between for Chelsea and Bill and Billy, she unobtrusively is the strength of all the relationships. And her final scene with Mr. Humber as Ethel and Norman say good-bye to Golden Pond's loons is comforting to both them and us that simple things have value. (For tis final weekend, the role of Ethel will be played by Angie Mitchell; she's got big shoes to fill.)

Though not without its flaws, the WOBT production of On Golden Pond is a gentle confirmation of family and long-term relationships.

ASF: "White Lightning"

"Gentlemen, start your engines." Award-winning Gee's Bend playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's latest offering is having its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, strategically or coincidentally scheduled during this year's "Sprint Cup Series". Directed by Geoffrey Sherman, White Lightning -- a mixed-bag of a play combining "racing, moonshine, and revenuers" with a few doses of romance -- features Ms. Wilder's gift for naturalistic dialogue that captures the colloquial speech patterns that delineate her characters and skillfully evoke time and place: the time here being the late 1940s, and the place mostly in rural Georgia.

Whether the scope of her subject (a feel-good fictionalized account of the often anonymous participants of the rustic racing circuit and the beginnings of NASCAR) will have wide appeal is yet to be determined, but White Lightning's two-hour running time on ASF's Festival Stage provides some engaging performances and background to what has become one of America's most established and profitable institutions. How times have changed since then.

The plot centers on Avery McCallister [Matthew Goodrich in his ASF debut], an Army veteran fresh from World War II, whose less than perfect past is made up for by his eagerness to change and to pursue his version of the American Dream by becoming a champion race car driver. He ingratiates himself to Hank Taylor [Rodney Clark], the scheming owner of a local garage and purveyor of gum-ball machines that make him a "legit businessman", but whose profitable side-business is running bootleg moonshine using fast cars on the back roads of Georgia. In exchange for improvements on his $50 junkheap, Avery agrees to work for Hank, but predictably has second thoughts after meeting Dixie James [Becca Ballenger, also new to ASF], whose first appearance looking like Rosie the Riveter establishes her as a challenge to Avery to live up to his potential.

Larry Tobias returns to ASF after his memorable role as Ike  in Twentyseven a few seasons back, this time as Mutt, a former driver and ace mechanic who can work his magic on any car, and whose one-word humorous comments and seeming unconcern make him an intriguing character who leaves audiences wanting more. As the numerous short episodes accumulate, and with Mutt's unerring guidance, the on-stage car gradually becomes race-worthy as stage crew dressed in garage overalls add the assorted bits and pieces to it.

A smarmy revenuer named Chester Pike [Brik Berkes], has a long-term "arrangement" to turn a blind eye on Hank's business for their mutual profit; and it should come as no surprise when Mr. Berkes (who cleverly seems to always lead with his paunch) reneges on their "arrangement". For both men, profit is the driving force.

There aren't many surprises or revelations in store in White Lightning, and the uninitiated might need a few more details about NASCAR's history, but the acting ensemble are all solid in their characterizations. -- There is a sweetly youthful romantic discovery between Mr. Goodrich and Ms. Ballenger, and the inevitable face-off between Mr. Clark's conniving Hank and Mr. Goodrich's newly discovered decency as Avery has a palpable tension.

The pursuit of the American Dream, whether through education, business, or pick-yourself-up-by the bootstraps philosophy (as it is in White Lightning) shows that although a lot has changed since early days, America's persistent optimism never falters.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

In the true spirit of community theatre at its best, the Cloverdale Playhouse opened its Fifth Season with Christopher Durang's uproarious 2013 Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. -- At the eleventh hour, Maureen Costello stepped in to play the role of Masha, glancing at her hand-held script but otherwise fully realizing the role, and being graciously supported by the rest of the cast; and the control booth suddenly crashed shortly before the start, leaving Stage Manager James Treadway to work miracles so the audience was hardly aware of any technical difficulties. -- And so, the "show went on" to the delight of the almost full house.

Directed by the Playhouse's new Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton, the pace occasionally slowed down as a consequence, its two acts coming in just short of three hours; but that should be remedied once Ms. Costello is more confidently off-book and the light and sound cues are restored.

In rural Bucks County, PA, middle-aged Vanya [George Jacobsen] and his sister Sonia [Katie Pearson] bemoan their economic and social condition -- unemployed and unemployable and steadfastly resigned to doing nothing about it but complain, and supported by their successful movie-star sister Masha [Ms. Costello], who pays the bills since the deaths of their parents -- and spend their time bickering and wistfully awaiting the appearance of a blue heron at the nearby lake.

Their maid Cassandra [Danielle Phillips], true to her classical mythology namesake, predicts doom and leavens the plot with dire warnings that no one believes, until of course, they begin to come true, especially on the arrival of Masha with her handsome, sexy, and obtuse boy-toy Spike [James MacFarlane] in tow. Masha plans to sell the house, with seemingly no concern for what happens to Vanya and Sonia.

Add to this mix a naive local beauty and aspiring actress named Nina [Sarah Worley], who Spike brings back with him from a swim in the lake, and who serves as a distraction from his attention to Masha, and the ensemble is complete.

With a debt to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov [theatre cognoscenti will catch the numerous references to The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull among others, as well as to several other theatre nods], knowledge of these is not necessary for an appreciation of Durang's masterful plotting and acerbic wit. -- For example, though a rare occurrence on local stages, several actors here received deserved applause on their exit lines.

There is a fine sense of ensemble acting in this production, each individualized character contributing to the others in serving Durang's text. -- Ms. Phillips plays Cassandra as a Caribbean "psychic" who can revert to in-your-face street-wise patois in a split second. And she saved the day a few times with references to her "psychic powers" to cover for missing sound cues. Ms. Worley's naivete as Nina is a delightful contrast to some other characters' more overbearing demeanors; her ability to sustain innocence is laudable, and her attachment to "uncle" Vanya marks the sweetest moments of the production.

Mr. MacFarlane's Spike is reminiscent of Chance Wayne from Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth -- a callous gigolo companion to fading movie-star Alexandra Del Lago; but here, Spike is a more likable sort due to Mr. MacFarlane's winning smile, relaxed attitude, and ability to accept whatever comes his way. And he seems as comfortable wearing only underpants or fully dressed.

Durang focuses attention on the siblings, their idiosyncrasies, and long-held rivalries. Since Masha holds the purse-strings, and is used to getting her way on everything, she assumes that others will submit to her every whim; but when Ms. Costello starts giving orders about attending a local costume party as the Disney version of Snow White [Danny Davidson's costumes are a treat], assuming that the others will compliment her persona by dressing as Dwarfs, or in Spike's case as Prince Charming, she is in for unexpected resistance. Vanya insists on portraying Doc instead of Masha's choice of Grumpy; Nina willingly goes along with anything her idol Masha wants, so dresses as Dopey; but it is Ms. Pearson's insistence on playing the Evil Queen ["as played by Maggie Smith going to the Oscars", complete with sequined gown and shining tiara] that takes center stage away from Masha and allows Sonia to bathe in the limelight for a while. -- Ms. Pearson not only puts the attention on Sonia, but relishes the fact and earns audience sympathy.

There's a lot more in the two acts for actors to sink their teeth into, not least is Vanya's tirade against today's obsession with electronic media which Mr. Jacobsen delivers with an intensity that has the audience firmly on his side despite the slow pacing of a long speech.

With its many laugh-out-loud moments, controlled direction, brilliantly realized costumes, Mike Winkelman's evocative set, and ensemble acting by some of the area's finest Thespians, the Cloverdale Playhouse's season is off to a solid start.