Sunday, March 1, 2015

ASF: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a leader of the Art Nouveau movement of the late Nineteenth Century, so it is appropriate that James Wolk has incorporated the iconic "Mackintosh Rose" into his steel scenic design framework for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Oscar Wilde's 1895 comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, as flowers feature prominently in dressing the stage throughout the play's three acts.

Wolk's arching architectural outlines create a transparency and lightness that compliment the glorious silliness that Wilde promotes in his "trivial comedy for serious people" as he skewers the English upper classes with some of the wittiest language to grace the modern stage.

Director Geoffrey Sherman's charming production features a nine-member ensemble cast of ASF veterans who delight audiences with their individual character quirks and spot-on delivery of Wilde's epigrammatic bon-mots.

At the center of the plot are two friends -- John Worthing [Nathan Hosner], who is known as Ernest to his city friends, and Algernon Moncrieff [Bjorn Thorstad] -- who each have invented excuses to avoid what they perceive as social burdens; Jack escapes the boredom of the country by inventing a libertine brother Ernest who he must rescue from time to time in London, and Algy creates a sick country friend named Bunbury as an excuse for getting out of family obligations in the city. With evidence contained in "Ernest's" cigarette case, Algy gets him to admit his double-life and learns that Jack has a pretty young "ward" named Cecily Cardew [Jenny Strassburg] who lives at his country estate.

In Act I, Jack comes to town intending to propose to Algy's cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax [Alice Sherman], but is thwarted by her pretentious and formidable mother Lady Bracknell [Diana Van Fossen] when she finds out that "Ernest" is an orphan who was found in a handbag that had been left at Victoria Station.

Act II introduces Cecily and her prim and proper tutor Miss Prism [Greta Lambert] who is taken with Rev. Canon Chasuble [Paul Hebron], both of whom are fastidious and old-fashioned. -- Algy arrives, pretending to be Ernest, and falls instantly in love with Cecily and asks for her hand in marriage. -- Jack arrives home in mourning clothes [having decided to get rid of his "brother" Ernest], and Gwendolyn shows up to secure her engagement to Ernest despite her mother. -- As each of the women has a fascination with marrying a man by the name of Ernest, and each believes she is engaged to Ernest, there's a lot to be resolved.

That resolution concludes Act III with Lady Bracknell's pursuit of her daughter bringing her to Jack's country home, and finding Miss Prism, who had been in her family's employ years ago and who had absentmindedly placed her three-volume novel in the baby's carriage and the baby in a handbag which she left in Victoria Station.

All the actors are top-notch in their roles; even the servants have their moments. Rodney Clark as the aloof manservant Lane, and Brik Berkes as the doddering butler Merriman, provide comic counterpoints to the upper classes. And Ms. Lambert and Mr. Hebron are so sincere in their depictions of simpler times, that they too give a balance to the sophisticated witticisms of their social betters.

The play is about love, after all; as a comedy, all will turn out for the best, and ASF audiences have been charmed by Wilde's oh-so clever study of the ramifications of love.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Millbrook: "Clue, the Musical"

"Mr. Green...with the revolver...in the kitchen!" is but one of the 216 possible outcomes of the Millbrook Community Players' production of Clue, the Musical.

Based on the Parker Brothers board game that's been around since 1944, this stage version -- book by Peter DePietro; music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci; lyrics by Tom Chiodo -- has already made the rounds of many River Region theatres, and has achieved some degree of popularity nationwide since its 1995 debut.

Sam Wallace directs on a set that replicates the "Clue" game-board and which adds a few unexpected flourishes with nicely disguised entrances. -- The board game's rules are so familiar, but the script adds Mr. Boddy [the host at the mansion who is to be murdered by one of the six characters] and a female detective brought in to solve the murder and disclose whodunit, with what weapon, and in which room of the mansion.

It seems (in an over-long and convoluted first act exposition) that all the guests have some relationship with Mr. Boddy and might just have a motive for murdering him. Mr. Boddy serves as a kind of narrator who provides clues to the audience throughout Acts I and II, and invites them to interact by figuring it out by the play's end. -- And there is an unremarkable musical score that only occasionally puts some life into this diverting but rather ordinary story.

The ensemble cast play their roles with assurance providing some clever details to enhance their cartoonish personae to garner appreciative laughter from the audience, though some of the dialogue is either rushed or covered by audience responses that we often miss some of the script's witty references.

The deliberate pace of many scenes often slows down the madcap energy so necessary here. But the clear good will of the cast helps make a pleasant evening in the theatre.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Theatre AUM: "The Vagina Monologues"

Eve Ensler's award-winning and provocative The Vagina Monologues, continually revised and updated since its 1996 Off-Broadway debut, has spawned an annual global movement to raise awareness and to help organizations to end violence against women. With "V-day" productions around the world from February through April each year, Theatre AUM's current production directed by Neil David Seibel is one such event.

Ms. Ensler performed all the monologues in the original presentation, but theatres are encouraged to add as many actresses as they see fit to present these pieces that unflinchingly showcase voices that demand to be heard some twenty years since they first insisted on getting attention to issues that are, unfortunately, still too much with us.

Mr. Seibel has gathered an ensemble of thirteen veteran and neophyte actors to express through words and movement, a melange of subjects that once were taboo or rarely given public notice: the freedom that the text claims expresses both the darkness of brutal treatment of women [rape, genital mutilation, domestic violence] and the joy of self-discovery and self-worth. [Like in ntozake sange's for colored girls..., women, independent of men, often get the strength from one another that they need to survive.]

On a dark multi-leveled platform set, and with a few screen projections, this production focuses attention on the subject matter and the words. "Words" are important for Ms. Ensler, who conducted countless interviews that became the germs of her play. They liberate the speakers whose voices had been ignored or silenced for too long.

While the directness of the language in this play and subject matter may have shocked audiences almost twenty years ago, there were very few moments on opening night that elicited any audience discomfort. And they were fleeting.

Hats off to the ensemble who handled a litany of names and nicknames for body parts, and frank assessment of their tastes and smells, without self-conscious immaturity; and for bravely challenging us to correct many issues that impact women unfairly; and hats off to Theatre AUM for continuing its educational theatre mission.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Red Door: "A Southern Exposure"

Only around for a few years, Kelley Kingston-Strayer's A Southern Exposure is on the boards at the Red Door theatre in Union Springs with director Tom Salter at the helm of this four-character comedy-drama.

One of many such popular cottage-industry plays about feisty, eccentric, and stalwart Southern women, this one takes place in the small town Kentucky kitchen of Hattie Belle Hurt [Beth Egan], whose granddaughter Britney [Sarah Smith] announces to her and two doting maiden Aunts -- Mattie [Belinda Barto] and Ida Mae [Betty Hubbard] -- that she is heading to New York with her Brooklyn-born Jewish boyfriend...a shocker to them all. Britney expects a marriage proposal, but as Hattie Belle correctly intuits (since he has never been introduced to the family, and that their cultural differences matter a lot) the relationship is doomed from the start.

Here is a rather standard situation about generational differences: a rebellious college-bound girl at odds with her overly protective grandma who raised her. As in real life, families often avoid confrontations or talk around important issues. People we love are frequently the hardest to open up to. -- And as in real life, communication improves once Britney moves to New York; their phone conversations are more relaxed and forthright than when they are face to face.

Britney's fantasy of a better life in glamorous New York City never becomes all she wants it to be, so when Hattie Belle's auto accident brings Britney back to Kentucky, their family bond gets more secure, and it isn't long before she realizes that "homegrown is best" for all involved. -- When Hattie Belle is diagnosed with terminal cancer, their conflict resolves in a touching scene with openness and honesty, and without recriminations. -- Both Ms. Egan and Ms. Smith are convincing in their journeys from combatants to trusting partners; we sense a fine connection between them.

There is a lot of good-natured humor scattered throughout the play's two acts, both between Hattie Belle and Britney, and with the inclusion of the two aunts. Ms. Hubbard inhabits Ida Mae's practical wisdom with an outspoken directness in this production's most comfortably credible portrayal; card-shark that she is, she offers her niece some sage advice with genuine touches of affection. Ms. Barto's Mattie, a gloriously over-the-top depiction of absent-minded dementia, has some tender and assured moments of lucidity. (Her assortment of wigs and costumes to suit seasonal holidays and events are witty and handled with aplomb.)

By the end, we are left with three resilient women we feel will survive.


Faulkner: "Almost, Maine"

Since 2004, Joseph Cariani's Almost, Maine has been one of the most popular plays at high schools and colleges around the country, and is now gracing the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's stage.

In a series of some eleven vignettes, director Jason Clark South's cast of four actors play multiple roles in mostly two-character scenes all of which are set in the fictitious isolated and unincorporated town of "Almost" [hence the name] Maine, and where several of its citizens fall in and out of love in serious and comical ways.

Some of the plays more cloyingly saccharined takes on love and romantic relationships are abetted with elements of magical realism [a lost shoe unexpectedly drops from out of nowhere; a repair man attempts to fix a woman's broken heart that she carries in a paper sack], yet they retain their doggedly optimistic stance.

Allison Turberville, Joe Vasquez, Blake Williams, and Emily Woodring step in and out of their roles in Mr. South's colorful and amusing costumes [lots of winter wear suitable for a USA-Canada border town in winter when the aurora borealis are occasionally displayed on the backdrop]; and though they demonstrate significant comfort in each role, a greater variety of pace and energy and a stronger delineation of their quirky behavior would enhance each moment.

Unfortunately, there are lengthy scene changes caused by large and unwieldy set pieces that are unnecessarily complex (though nicely rendered), and allow audiences to disengage from the action.

Nonetheless, we are entertained by the various situations and declarations of love, and while some liberties have been taken with the text, we can laugh at the outrageousness of people literally "falling" in love, or sob at a broken relationship due to lack of communication, or watch as a couple struggle to admit their love for each other --- sound familiar?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Pastime"

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

Love within a family is, at best, complicated. What with living up to the challenges and expectations of parents, assorted sibling rivalries, assumptions about one another, and individualized illusions of the past -- each of which provides conflicts that elicit tears and/or laughter -- the one constant is that spoken or unspoken love; and its universality connects the audience with characters on stage in Pastime.

Pastime had been generating in Greg Thornton's mind for several years before he entered it in the Cloverdale Playhouse's second annual Page-to-Stage competition. The "blind reading" of his winning script (the committee did not see any of the submitting authors' names) resulted first in a staged reading at the Playhouse late last year, followed now by its debut production -- the first time the Playhouse has produced a new play.

Mike Winkelman's detailed set (the porch and backyard of the Hanson family home), and period specific and character driven costumes by Pamela Upshaw and Romaro Walker create a comfortably atmospheric family home in a suburban neighborhood near New York City.

Mr. Thornton is astutely directing his exhilarating play with an excellent ensemble of seven of the River Region's most accomplished actors: Sarah Adkins, Stephen Dubberly, Matthew Givens, John McWilliams, Scott Page, Mariah Reilly, and Teri Sweeney supply such truthful naturalistic portraits of the Hanson family, that audiences might feel they are eavesdropping on a family gathering in the 1980s, some ten years after the death of its patriarch who had pushed all of his children to be the best.

Whether they are playing a spirited backyard wiffle-ball re-creation of an historic Baseball Pennant game, or grilling chicken, or reminiscing about how their father trained his sons at home to be altar boys, or attempting some house repairs, or arguing about which person received preferential treatment in their childhood, or facing marital challenges, or evading the potential devastation of losing one of them who is shipping out to the Persian Gulf, the primary concern of this close-knit family is for their mother's well-being and for the disposition of the house where she had lived all her married life and where all the siblings grew up.

The ghost of their father and his sometimes suffocating influence on all of them is apparent in almost every scene of the play's two acts. And we come to know them and the family dynamic intimately as they gradually reveal their individual interpretations of incidents of the past that simultaneously shaped their perceptions that caused misunderstandings and drew them together out of a love that is often difficult to express.

This is familiar territory. Ordinary people engaged in commonplace situations that we can all identify with, are given uncommon honesty in this production of Pastime. The push-and-pull of their shared journey is sometimes outrageously funny and sometimes deadly serious, but always credible as Mr. Thornton's ear for dialogue, attention to suspenseful dramatic structure, and compassion for the humanity of the Hanson family are brought to life by his talented actors.

As in real life, the future for the Hansons is uncertain; for good or bad, change for each of them is on the way. And audiences at the Cloverdale Playhouse emerge liberated with a greater understanding of the bond of love of family and of themselves.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"

In a series of some twenty vignettes spread over two acts, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change takes audiences on a progressive musical journey tracking romantic relationships from first date through old age.

Since 1996, Joe Dipietro's and Jimmy Roberts' easy going revue has been delighting audiences around the world who see themselves reflected in many of its scenes; and now, under Kristy Meanor's fluid direction and Marilyn Swears' expert musical direction and piano accompaniment (with Esther Hart on violin adding just the right amount of romance to the agreeably charming score), audiences in the River Region are laughing their way through a diverting two hours that begins the Wetumpka Depot Players' 35th Season.

Originally performed with a cast of four, Ms. Meanor has expanded hers to a fine-tuned ensemble of eight, creating multiple opportunities for them to explore several personae, test their comedic chops, sing out with gusto, and deliver Daren Eastwold's creative and challenging choreography with confidence.

Whether playing a nervous couple on a first date, adolescent children or their frustrated parents, football obsessed macho men or their shopaholic wives, pathetic nerds or baby-talking new parents, sexually needy types or perennial bridesmaids, or senior citizens trolling funerals in search of a hook-up...there's something for every taste -- from innocent banter to risque comments, from outlandish caricatures to touchingly truthful individuals. -- "Find someone to love...and spend the rest of your life trying to change them" is the common theme throughout; sound familiar?

To a person, this veteran ensemble is top notch; Morgan Baker, Andrea Barclay, Adrian Lee Borden, Brooke Brown, David Brown, Joseph Collins, Alicia Ruth Jackson, and Matthew Walter bring an effervescence to their performances that helps elevate commonplace situations and broad stereotypes from quaint familiarity to unexpectedly focussed takes on contemporary relationships. -- Each has an opportunity (actually several of them) to showcase an impressive singing voice as well; and while audiences might have favorite moments (and judging by responses that are sometimes as entertaining as the antics on stage), what stands out here is the consistency of individual performances that support one another with an impressive generosity of spirit.

Thanks to a strong collaborative effort, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change starts the New Year with an infectious charm to warm the winter cold...and the closing performance is on Valentine's Day...coincidence?!