Monday, June 23, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Clybourne Park"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley -- River Region Theatre Artist

Is post-racial America a reality? Audiences at the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park" may find themselves grappling with this and many similar questions regarding how well we have or haven't accepted the "other" in our society.

Norris's script, awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" (staged recently at the Playhouse), about a Black family's struggle to brake out of the confines of poverty and the racism they encounter in their efforts. -- The play is a witty, often scathing examination of racism and other "isms" that still exist and may even be made worse by people's attempts to make themselves and others believe that they don't.

"Clybourne Park" opens in 1959, just two hours after the conclusion of the action in "A Raisin in the Sun", in the home of Russ and Bev (Michael Krek and Maureen Costello). -- Danny Davidson's costumes are a solid success in establishing the period. -- Russ and Bev, a white couple in an all-white neighborhood, are grieving over the loss of their son who was taunted by neighbors when the returned from the Korean War, and have just completed the sale of their Clybourne Park home to a Black family: the Younger family from "Raisin". -- Neighbor, friend and fellow Rotarian, Karl (Mark Hunter, continuing his willingness and honing his ability to portray "the man we love to hate"), is the one character who also appears in Hansberry's play, where he represented the "Welcoming Committee" in trying to convince the Youngers to back out of their plan; here he barges in to inform Russ and Bev that this Black family will destroy the neighborhood and drive down property values. But, as Bev asks: shouldn't Black people have the right to live in better neighborhoods?

Although Bev seems sympathetic to Black people's endeavors to improve their circumstances, her patronizing behavior towards her housekeeper Francine (Christina Okolo) and her husband Albert (William Allen, III, who has natural comic timing), as well as toward Karl's deaf wife Betsey (Sarah Adkins), reveals that she has her own prejudices, even if she is unaware of them. Ms. Costello handily balances both the silliness and gravity of Bev's blithe un-awareness of her flawed perspective.

Karl is relentless in his argument. He threatens to reveal Russ and Bev's family tragedy that took place in the house as a way of driving the Black family to back out of the sale. Russ is disgusted by Karl's blatant racism, but even more so by Karl's attempts to control him.

Matters are not helped by the presence of Jim, the local minister (Cushing Phillips, III) who would of course offer to help with moving day activities if only his back wasn't injured; Jim's physical impotence mirrors his inability to offer spiritual guidance in the argument between Karl and Russ.

Act II opens fifty years later when the now all-Black neighborhood is re-gentrifying. -- Ed Fieder's simple, warm, functional set undergoes a transformation that captures well the passage of time and condition. -- The same actors return as a new crop of characters, arguing now about the same house and how the new homebuyers (white yuppies Steve and Lindsey, played by Mr. Hunter and Ms. Adkins) will ruin the historic value of the neighborhood.

Homeowners Association members a Black couple (Lena and Kevin, played by Ms. Okolo and Mr. Allen) and a gay man (Tom, played by Mr. Phillips) are trying to reach an agreement with Steve and Lindsey about their planned house renovations. --Lena, it seems, is related to the Youngers from "Raisin", and is actually named after Mrs. Lena Younger from that play, so she has a critical stance in the proceedings. -- Seemingly friendly negotiations about setbacks, easements, and elevations among a racially and socially diverse group, whose members appear to be forward thinkers when it comes to acceptance and equality, slowly devolve into accusations and downright actions of prejudice and stereotyping, complete with crude jokes that run from insidious to blatant in their offensiveness to various groups of people. As might be expected, negotiations break down, leaving everyone somewhere between enmity and actual hatred toward one another.

The play ends with a flashback to the 1950s, just before Russ and Bev's family tragedy. Their son Kenneth (Braxton McDonald) is composing a suicide note when Bev interrupts him and with worried optimism tells him that she feels that things are about to change. -- This brief scene captures the irony that runs throughoUt the play; yes, things are changing, but not perhaps in the way we hope or expect.

This production of "Clybourne Park" makes audiences both laugh and cringe, even at themselves. Director Greg Thornton has thoughtfully led this ensemble to a victory in showing us a mirror of out successes and failures as a "unified" society. -- It deserves the audience ovations and praise it has received in its opening weekend.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

ASF Interns: "Romeo and Juliet"

Director Greta Lambert's abridged version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with this year's ASF Acting Intern Company lives up to the high standards she has been setting for the last few seasons in productions that tour to many cities and schools.

With intelligent editing that preserves plot and theme which gives actors all the tools to develop their characters, and matched with Tara Houston's flexible multi-level grid-like set and Elizabeth Novak's effectively romantic period costumes, the focus is on the beauty and humanity of Shakespeare's text.

The Bard's "star-crossed lovers" are arguably the best known romantic duo in Western literature, and their tragic end has been depicted with endless variety around the world on stage and screen since the 1590s. -- Ms. Lambert's production trusts the script's universality to resonate today without fussy concepts to distract us. Bravo!

Though they are the teenage offspring of two feuding families, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall instantly in love, and marry secretly; when one of many street fights results in the deaths of two young men, Romeo is exiled to a "life worse than death" away from Juliet. -- Meanwhile, Juliet's parents arrange a wedding which she refuses despite threats of being disowned; and the Friar who married them convinces Juliet to take a drug that will replicate death for a short time, allowing Romeo to return to Verona to take her away; on arrival at the tomb, Romeo believes Juliet to be dead and commits suicide at her grave. When Juliet awakes and sees her husband dead, she stabs herself. Their families agree to a peaceful coexistence as a result of their loss.

Most of the ensemble play more than one role requiring either complete costume changes or as simple an adjustment as donning a pair of spectacles and assuming a different posture. The choices are clear and demonstrate the flexibility of these talented actors. -- We never for a moment doubt who they are portraying whether they capture their characters' youthful energy and adolescent excesses or the authoritarian steadfastness of parents, servants, priests, or royalty.

Brennan Gallagher is convincing both as the compassionate Friar and as Juliet's commanding intractable father Lord Capulet; he is matched by Lea McKenna-Garcia's Lady Capulet who shifts from maternal concern to complicity with her husband's demands that Juliet obeys him.

Daniel Solomon portrays Tybalt, the "prince of cats", with effective swagger that is counterbalanced by his role as a servant. -- Christian Castro is a bundle of energy as Romeo's friend Benvolio and a more contained and elegant Paris who is set to marry Juliet as her father arranged.

Rivka Borek is a powerhouse Princess whose judgments are not to be questioned, and as Juliet's Nurse, a woman who is both a substitute Mother-figure and confidante, and a go-between for Juliet's marriage to Romeo.

Joshua Marx plays Romeo's father, Lord Montague, with stolid composure that is contrasted by his aggressively excitable Mercutio. His masterly swordplay (thanks to Seth Andrew Bridges for staging the believably dangerous fight sequences) and "Queen Mab" speech make him an endearing character whose accidental death is all the more hurtful, and his "curse on both your houses" a reminder to us that petty arguments too often result in needless violence and death.

The focus is on Romeo and Juliet throughout, and Morgan Auld and Christina King deliver with conviction all the contradictions and fickleness of adolescence. We watch them grow up before our eyes from naive teenagers caught up in the throes of first love to serious adults who make decisions with full realization of their consequences. -- And we like them because they touch some impulses in all of us.

There is hardly a moment in this production for audiences to catch their collective breath as Ms. Lambert's vigorous direction sweeps us up in the conflicts, and has us -- regardless of knowing the outcome -- fully participating in the lives depicted on the intimate Octagon Stage.

While there are moments of humor that elicit well-earned laughs inherent in Shakespeare's verse, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is a hushed silence from an audience thoroughly engaged in the tragedy to come. Well done!

Monday, May 5, 2014

WOBT: "Nunsense"

Playwright Dan Goggin has created a veritable cottage industry with his nine plays about the "Little Sisters of Hoboken", a rag-tag group of nuns whose misadventures have been entertaining audiences since the mid-1980s. -- The first of these is Nunsense, now playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre in a frequently revised and updated version under the direction of Sam Wallace.

In this one, the nuns are preparing a benefit performance of a musical revue featuring their assorted and sometimes surprising talents in an effort to keep the Health Inspectors at bay after an incident when their cook, Sister Julia Child of God (get it?) accidentally killed off 52 of the nuns with a batch of deadly vichyssoise; they managed to bury 48 of them, the remaining 4 are being kept on ice in the freezer. So much for subtlety.

It is clear from the outset that there is a pecking order in the convent, and there are innumerable stereotypical nun jokes and other references to Catholicism that only the initiated can fully appreciate; nonetheless, there is enough here to tickle most people's funny-bones regardless of religious affiliation.

The Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina [Margaret White] runs a strict house with unquestioned (almost) authority; second in command is the Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert [Tara Fenn], who only thinly disguises her desire to one day become a Mother Superior herself. Sister Robert Ann [Michon Givens] is the rebel of the group who wants to be a star, but whose attempts to secure a place in the revue are thwarted by Mother Superior. Sister Mary Leo [Mary Givens] is a novice in the convent who expresses herself in dance ("Dancing is the way I pray", she says.). And Sister Mary Amnesia [Alison Mykes] can't remember her actual name -- or much else, at times -- but who can belt out a country song or an operatic aria with the best of them.

The ensemble's good intentions and attempts to engage the audience with witty repartee and parlor games work some of the time, but seem forced at others. Yet their combined individual efforts warm the audience who engage in the silliness on stage. -- With a script full of strained puns and risque double-entendre comments unbefitting nuns (though keeping an innocent demeanor), and with continual references to musical theatre history and now out-of-date or esoteric social commentary, many of the jokes fall a bit flat. And the energy level often wanes between the twenty or so musical numbers.

Each of the cast members brings some strength to the entertainment. We can laugh scornfully at Mother Superior's haughtiness, but Ms. White redeems her character in a delightfully uninhibited sequence when she gets high and prances around like Carmen Miranda. Ms. Fenn's self-control as the second-fiddle is redeemed in a rousing Gospel number. Ms. Michon Givens' frankness is disarming, and she is most successful in sharing with the audience, making us complicit in her every action. Ms. Mary Givens is so sincere in the novice's tentative questioning of her vocation and brings a truthful human touch to the proceedings. And Ms. Mykes, in fine singing voice and comic hand-puppetry with a nun-puppet that seems to have "tourette syndrome", is so refreshingly animated as the bewildered Sister Mary Amnesia, that out collective hearts go out to her and stay with her for the duration of the play.

While individual moments shine in this production, picking up the pace and energy levels would make for an even more enticing evening's entertainment.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Millbrook: "The Nerd"

Larry Shue's untimely death in a plane crash at age 39 cut short a career that had already achieved some notoriety. The Nerd and The Foreigner have become staples in contemporary theatre; each one a farce that takes a simple situation and builds its comic potential with witty dialogue and eccentric characters.

The Millbrook Community Players have aired a production of The Nerd (1981) recently, under the direction of Stephanie McGuire. -- A 44th birthday party for Willum Cubbert [Joe Nolin, Jr.] is thrown into chaos on the arrival of the eponymous "nerd" of the title, one Rick Steadman [Michael Snead], who had saved Willum's life in Viet Nam; but there's a catch: while Willum was unconscious at the time, and Rick left before they could actually meet, their only connection since then has been through long-term correspondence.

The party is hosted by friends -- caustically witty drama critic Axel Hammond [Marshall Simpson], and long-suffering girlfriend Tansy McGinnis [Tracy Algrove] -- who both wish that milquetoast Willum would develop some gumption in both his professional and personal lives instead of trying so hard to be nice to people. -- Willum's architectural designs are continuously being questioned by Warnock Waldgrave [Sean Wallace], the man with the money for the project; and Tansy wishes Willum would be more demonstrative in his affection for her. Waldgrave brings his ditzy wife Clelia (sp) [Tracey Quates] and obnoxious son Thor [Micah Tyler] to the party, where they and the others are horrified by Rick's behavior.

Though uneven in places, with a lot of the clever dialogue and groan-inducing puns spoken too softly or with little energy, and in need of a more sprightly pace and commitment to character relationships, this production of The Nerd has one outstanding performance that carries the show. -- Mr. Snead is so fully engaged in his character that he often causes others on stage to almost collapse with laughter. He is so thoroughly obnoxious in his seeming ignorance of all the social norms, and speaks with an irritating high-pitched voice that could cut through steel, and shows no awareness of his character's foibles. So, when he moves in as Willum's roommate, bringing all his household goods with him, he becomes the nightmare guest-from-hell who shows no desire to leave, and there is a concerted effort to get rid of him.

And it takes a predictable sit-com plot to make it happen, with Willum ultimately getting the gumption he so needs to stand up to Mr. Waldgrave, and to free himself of the obligation he owes to Rick for saving his life; enough is enough.

There is a twist at the end that makes it all worthwhile, with Mr. Snead again demonstrating a command of character.

Wetumpka Depot: "Boeing Boeing"

The Wetumpka Depot Theatre has hit magic again with its hilarious production of Marc Camoletti's farce Boeing Boeing. -- If there is a recipe for success, the Depot has concocted a gourmet dinner: one brilliantly witty script, a sure-handed director, an inventive design team, and a multi-talented veteran acting ensemble who collaborate to make Boeing Boeing a laugh filled riot.

The 1962 hit has been revived in recent years in London and New York, where it received several awards, and has been making the rounds since then at university, professional, and community theatres across the country.

Director Ed Drozdowski works the play's magic with his actors, whose physical and vocal energy, split-second timing, and spot-on delivery of dialogue keeps audiences laughing throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time.

It is the "swinging sixties" in bachelor architect Bernard's [Lee Bridges] Paris apartment. Bernard is 'engaged' to three stewardesses who fly for different airlines: Gloria [Jaymee Vowell] for TWA, Gabriella [Leanna Wallace] for Alitalia, and Gretchen [Madyson Greenwood] for Lufthansa. By his pure mathematical calculations, "Lothario" Bernard plans his time with each woman around their various itineraries, keeping each one ignorant of the others existence.  -- Until, of course, flight delays and new and faster Boeing-jet engines disrupt his plan, bringing all three women to the apartment at the same time.

Complicit in Bernard's design is his housekeeper-cook Berthe [Erika Wilson], who has to think on her feet to accommodate every turn of events. -- And the unexpected arrival of Bernard's long-time friend Robert [Brad Sinclair] a nerdy rube from Wisconsin and the polar opposite of Bernard's sophistication, complicates matters as he gets involved in and is eventually transformed by Bernard's scheme and its allure.

Kristy Meanor's scenic design -- a sleek '60s-modern room with seven doors so necessary for quick hiding places and escapes that heighten the farcical elements -- accommodates the action. Bill Nowell's lighting, with specific colors and intensity to match the personalities of the three women and the colors of their uniforms, adds to the comedy. And the costume team has created a period look, taking both characterizations and professions into consideration; the stewardesses uniforms and accessories are particularly vivid red, blue, and yellow reminders of a time when air travel still had some glamor.

But everything comes together through the efforts of the actors, who create clear characters who never flinch from their individual concerns while being generous to one another on stage. Mr. Bridges' Bernard is arrogantly convinced that his plan will endure forever, so his eventual melt-down when things are falling apart is extremely funny. Ms. Wilson's Berthe, seemingly unflappable in the midst of mayhem, punctuates the action with barbs and forewarnings that go unheeded until she threatens to leave and negotiates terms for staying; her tongue-in-cheek delivery is exquisite.

In addition to physical attractiveness, each of Bernard's "fiancees" has a distinct personality that appeals  in some measure to him...and to we never doubt the attraction. Ms. Vowell portrays Gloria as a practical no-nonsense woman who is after her man, but who will leave him if another more suitable offer comes along; Ms. Wallace embues Gabriella with a Mediterranean passion that is seductive; and Ms. Greenwood depicts Gretchen as a Teutonic force who can switch on a dime from charm to threat -- in combination, they are simply wonderful, and the chemistry between each of them and Mr. Bridges is most credible.

The men are a comic double-act that keeps the action and the laughs rolling at a rapid pace. Mr. Bridges and Mr. Sinclair have a different kind of chemistry, a re-discovered friendship and an instant male-bonding that doesn't require explanations for acting the way they do. And yet, Mr. Sinclair has the responsibility for most of the farcical pratfalls and turns of events. His initial befuddlement and gradual seduction into Bernard's hedonistic world are masterful as he throws himself into the role with an innocence that makes his multiple discoveries about the world and about himself, and his change from introvert to extrovert, the comic delight of this production.

Mr. Drozdowski and his team of collaborators have put together an exceptionally brilliant production that should remain a highlight of this River Region season.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ASF: "Timon of Athens"

One of William Shakespeare's least performed works, Timon of Athens completes the canon of the Bard's plays to be produced by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Likely a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon is one of the Bard's later plays that combines satire with the tragic.

Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kenneth Cavander's "transcription for contemporary voices" retains some of the original's words while re-writing much of it to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. Cavander and director Geoffrey Sherman also move the setting to modern day Wall Street, where people manipulate one another as well as their financial investments. -- And, though Wall Street itself is rarely if ever referenced here, it works, once your ear becomes accustomed to it.

Timon [Anthony Cochrane in a powerful performance] is an overly generous sort who gives away fortunes, assists people in financial distress, and -- though he assumes that his generosity will be repaid if needed, claiming "I am rich in my friends" -- he "learns doubt and suspicion too late" when everything collapses around him. Not heeding several warnings, Timon gets so far into debt that he has to rely on the very people he had helped to now come to his aid. As they refuse him with weak excuses as in the medieval morality play Everyman, Timon leaves town for the wild place where he will feel free "to hate Man and all humanity"; and like King Lear upon the heath, he is free to rail against the elements until word gets out that he has found another fortune and the sycophants return.

Cavander respects the stylistic inconsistencies in the Shalespeare/Middleton text in his own modernized script, and there lies at least some of this production's challenges. Whereas Shakespeare's elevated verse [the early-on formal, patterned gregarious speeches and later the high emotional drive of Timon's epithets against his "pseudo-friends" who desert him in his need, for example], are given with passionate conviction by Mr. Cochrane; and the scenes between Timon and his three loyal countrymen -- the aggressively straightforward conscience of Apemantus [Rodney Clark is solid in the role]. the honest and trustworthy soldier Alcibiades [Brik Berkes turns in a stalwart rendition] and the ever faithful steward Flavius [Paul Hebron's understated frustration with his master is finally recognized as the "one good man" in Timon's world] -- are provided appropriate gravitas that makes these sections resonate with universal appeal regardless of setting.

By contrast, Middleton's satiric scenes with the various hangers-on and fawning artists and public officials, Senators and creditors, are more prosaic and thereby have less weight; and Cavander's modern vocabulary, which is only sporadically spoken in thick Brooklynese misses out on an opportunity to create and capitalize on a potentially devastating world of familiar caricatures that could have made the satire more convincing.

Messrs. Clark, Berkes, and Hebron -- each touching on a different aspect of Timon's nature -- give sympathetic treatment and a humanizing element to a man whose stature has fallen to tragic dimensions.

And it is Mr. Cochrane who carries the weight of the play on his able shoulders; his performance is impressive, and he never falters in his depiction of a man who learns the seductive power and lure of gold that can transform mankind's behavior. As Apemantus says: "Show me a man who has spent all his money and I'll show you a man without friends." Not an appealing point; however, in today's greedy consumer-driven world, where money and possessions often blind us to see the value in honesty and loyalty and compassion for those in need, and where appearances trump reality, we might do well to take heed to the lessons in Timon of Athens.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red Door: "Cotton Patch Gospel"

The narrative of Cotton Patch Gospel tells the New Testament stories in a rural Southern accent that speaks from the heart with sincerity and good humor, much like the medieval Mystery Plays that infused local dialect to make the Bible's characters more accessible. The delightfully modernized script is by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, and the clever musical score by Harry Chapin.

Mixed with numerous songs to help narrate, analyze, and inspire as it recounts the life of Jesus, the show has audiences clapping hands and tapping toes in time to the music at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

Director Fiona Macleod (no stranger to Cotton Patch Gospel with several previous productions in her extensive resume) has gathered an impressive ensemble of actors and musicians who tell the story with enthusiasm and commitment on Ray Thornton's simple rustic set of platforms and benches that helps focus attention on the play's messages.

As the actors [William Harper, Jordan Allen, Belinda Barto, Elizabeth Bowles, David Carter, Joseph Crawford, Beth Egan, Ellis Ingram, Craig Stricklin, and Janet Wilkerson] each play several characters, we witness Jesus' birth, early life being "about my Father's business" in the Temple, turning water into wine at Cana, meeting "Joan" the Baptizer, rejecting the Devil's temptations, recruiting the twelve Apostles, and performing several miracles that raise suspicions and target him as a criminal.

Act II continues with Jesus entering Jerusalem [Atlanta], through to the Last Supper, his betrayal by "Jud", and on to his suffering, death, and resurrection, all told with sincerity through the play's most commonplace language and rustic simplicity.

It is a true ensemble performance, complete with a remarkable seven member band of accomplished musicians who enliven the story with "a joyful noise", and accompanying the actors in memorable moments: some like "Somethin's Brewin' in Gainesville" and "Goin' to Atlanta" give an upbeat energy that is infectious; some like "When I Look Up" and "You Are Still My Boy" are quiet pieces that keep the audience in hushed reverence.

The Red Door continues its mission of presenting plays with a Southern flavor, and Cotton Patch Gospel hits the mark, and garners newcomers into their often sold-out houses. One of them was heard to say that she would definitely be returning for such high quality productions as this one. Excellent!