Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Member of the Wedding"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse continues its 2015 season with director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Georgia novelist and playwright Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. More than the simple coming-of-age story of 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams [Rita Pearson-Daley], McCullers investigates race relations, the impact of war on everyday people, and the need for love and belonging in a bewildering society.

Set in the Summer in the mid-1940s [the kitchen and backyard of Frankie's house is given an authentic if Spartan look by Layne Holley and Joe Collins] and populated chiefly by Frankie, her family's "colored" maid Berenice Sadie Brown [Yvette Jones-Smedley], and her younger cousin John Henry West [Charlie Hill], the action takes place in just a few days as preparations are being made for the wedding of Frankie's brother Jarvis [Kodi Robertson] to Janice [Bailey Johnson].

Very much an outsider who senses the lack of warmth of her widowed father Mr. Addams [Buddy Rousso] and resents the exclusion of the neighborhood children, Frankie wants adventure in her life and determines to escape the boredom at home by accompanying Jarvis and Janice on their honeymoon.

Mr. Thornton has cast veteran and neophyte actors from around the Montgomery community, including several school and university students, to create an ensemble to bring to life these complex characters. And while the supporting roles including John Henry's mother Mrs. West [Sarah Worley], Berenice's current boyfriend T. T. Williams [Greg Faulkner] and his "no-account" friend and Berenice's relative Honey Camden Brown [Jeffrey Sean Lewis] provide some insights into social and political issues of the day, the focus is largely on the threesome -- Frankie, Berenice, John Henry -- and the production is at its best when they talk, argue, play cards, and share meals in the kitchen.

Indeed, the comfort with each other that these three exhibit gives remarkable credibility to their very ordinary conversations. -- The often married Berenice becomes Frankie's sounding-board and surrogate mother; Ms. Jones-Smedley gives a frank and honest interpretation to the dialogue that makes us feel as Frankie does that she is the most trusted member of the "family" they have created. Young Mr. Hill inhabits John Henry's naively perceptive and uninhibited nature to the fullest. And Ms. Pearson-Daley's Frankie is a constant bundle of contradictions that are completely recognizable adolescent traits. And each of them is somehow yearning for love and acceptance, though they have difficulty in expressing these needs.

As Frankie matures throughout the play's two-and-a-half hours [she doesn't get to go on her brother's honeymoon despite her belief that she would be welcome], she questions Berenice, John Henry, and herself about love and relationships, the racial divide, and the consequences of war, and with Berenice's sage advice begins to move on.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Millbrook: "Ghost of a Chance"

Billed as "a deadly romantic comedy", Ghost of a Chance by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus appears at first to have a lot going for it; but the authors can't seem to settle on what their play is going to be, and switch gears in Act II, much to the detriment of the comedy.

Directed by Susan Chain and staged on John Chain's finely detailed set, it begins as a witty story about Bethany [Heather Allen], a young widow, with fiance Floyd [Miles Joye] in tow, who arrives to sell her deceased husband's hunting lodge before embarking on a second marriage. Accompanied  by her busybody soon-to-be mother-in-law Verna [Pat McClelland], Bethany is shocked when the ghost of her dead husband Chance [Brandon Gonzalez] shows up. -- Get it? Ghost of a Chance!!!

Bethany hires a "medium" named Crystal [Karla McGhee] to exorcise the ghost before Adam [Michael Snead] arrives to purchase the cabin. -- Of course, Chance is visible and audible only to Bethany, setting up a series of clever scenes where dialogue addressed to the unseen Chance is misinterpreted by the other characters.

Though clearly derivative of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, and with references to the delightful film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Act I is full of comic possibilities; but slow pacing and tentative movement make much of it fall flat.

And then, the play changes gears at the end of the first act, with revelations of attempted suicide and terminal diseases. -- Act II then becomes more serious and didactic about love and relationships, making the most of life and the cards we're dealt, business ethics, greed, and the afterlife, driving points home with a preachy quality, and leaving the actors struggling to maintain the play's initial comic impulses.

Energy lapses all too frequently, and in an over two hour playing time, many of the clever lines are hardly audible. -- Too bad, really, since the first act and the combined efforts of the cast make one want to enjoy it more.

AUM: "The Lesson"

In a mere 45-minutes' playing time, Theatre AUM's version of absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson (1950) manages to both entertain and infuriate. Ever cognizant of its educational theatre mission, AUM's Theatre Department regularly offers a wide variety of dramatic styles for local audiences to experience, and for their students to explore beyond the classroom, essentials for a well-rounded education.

Theatre of the Absurd plays are not always easily digestible, as they show a world that defies logic, one which can not be comprehended, leaving mankind to maneuver a world vacant of meaning in seemingly foolish ways. -- So, here is The Lesson, a "comic drama" in which a Pupil [Haeley DePace] comes to the Professor [Allyson Lee] to prepare to take the "complete doctorate" exams. Add in a Maid [Blaire Casey] who serves as a kind of gatekeeper into this hell as well as a conscience for the Professor, and the stage is set.

Simple arithmetic and basic language lessons deteriorate into confrontations on "literal" vs. "theoretical" approaches with their concurrent frustrations that result in deadly violence and the knowledge that this is but one in a long series of similar lessons that will be repeated ad infinitum and with the same results. Reminiscences of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are hard to miss.

Played on Frank Thomas' dark Spartan set [a raked rectangle with walls, doors, and a few sticks of furniture], director Val Winkelman has chosen to emphasize the comic side of Ionesco's "comic drama", and abetted by La'Brandon Tyre's garishly toned clown costumes, guides her all-female cast of three through their paces. -- Curiously and confusingly, some gender-specific references to the professor as "him" or "sir" have been retained, leaving one to wonder how the dynamic between the Professor and the Pupil might have been in Ionesco's original, since virtually no sexual tension between them is evident in this production.

With exaggerated movement and physical reactions, voices that range from naturalistic tones to heightened screeching, and adding contemporary popular culture references to such films as The Princess Bride and Chicago, Ms. Winkelman's ensemble are fully committed to their roles, and clown around with gusto.

But underneath the buffoonery there are serious layers. Especially topical is the commentary on the state of an educational system that gets so bogged down in theory and the need to understand mathematical processes and linguistic subtleties above and beyond rote memory with its simple answers, points out some of the confusion and arguments facing public education today. -- While this almost gets lost amidst the frenetic antics, it is ample reason for Theatre AUM's educational theatre mission to produce a play that still resonates some 65 years after its debut.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Picnic"

In the 1950s, William Inge was one of the most highly regarded American playwrights with a string of Broadway hits (Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs) which not only garnered Oscars and a Pulitzer, but were also made into popular award-winning films.

These well-written plays evoked a middle-America with quintessentially conservative values that had certain rules of behavior that were largely unquestioned, but were soon thereafter seen as outdated. Inge's popularity faded, and he was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. -- Today, however, his hometown of Independence, Kansas hosts its annual "William Inge Theatre Festival", helping to secure his stature in American theatre.

The Wetumpka Depot Players are currently reviving a production of Picnic (first performed at the Depot in 1992, after having achieved immense popularity from the film version starring Kim Novak, William Holden, and Rosalind Russell). Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, River Region theatregoers are transported to a 1953 late Summer in a small Kansas town whose Labor Day picnic is the most anticipated event of the year, and whose ordinary citizens are easily recognizable.

The action takes place in the adjoining back yards of Mrs. Owens [Kim Mason] and Mrs. Potts [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as preparations are underway for the picnic, and where pretty much everyone has a dream to fulfill.

Mrs. Owens lives vicariously through her two daughters -- Millie [Ashlee Lassiter], an awkward tomboy eager to learn as much as she can, and Madge [Jennifer L. Haberkorn], the pretty one who is tired of the burden of beauty. Each one want to break out of their stereotypical roles, and Madge's wealthy boyfriend Alan [Jay Russell] seems to be an ideal match for her.

Rosemary Sydney [Kristy Meanor] is a spinster schoolteacher who boards with Mrs. Owens and wants desperately to marry her long-time boyfriend Howard Bevans [Lee Bridges], a set-in-his-ways businessman who seems to be afraid of commitment.

When, at the beginning of the play, Mrs. Potts hires handsome stranger Hal [Jerry S. Cappadona] to do some odd jobs at her house, all the women's eyes turn to him with varying degrees of admiration: the mysterious good-looking outsider with a ready smile and disarming demeanor. -- While Mrs. Owens views Hal with suspicion and mistrust, the others (especially Madge) are captivated; when it is disclosed that Alan and Hal were fraternity brothers, and Alan vouches for him, Mrs.Owens' misgivings are eased a little.

Mr. Cappadona's presence is felt even when he is offstage. We wonder if his bragging is truthful or a mere deception. But there is little doubt that Hal's presence has made a difference in everyone's life. His date for the picnic with Millie is doomed when drinking makes people tipsy or sick or uninhibited; and it becomes clearer by the  minute that Madge falls for him.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Bridges give two remarkable performances as Rosemary and Howard; their true to life confrontation that eventually results in a marriage proposal is both touching and passionate. -- Ms. Mason's depiction of a caring mother who suffocates her children is credible throughout. And the magical chemistry that grows between Ms. Haberkorn and Mr. Cappadona grows from denial to trepidation to complete commitment.

All this allows Inge to explore various themes that resonate today, outside the 1950s setting: unrealistic dreams don't always get resolved the way we want -- in fact, we often have to "make the best out of the hand we're dealt"; social rules may provide a sense of security, but breaking them is often necessary for personal growth and understanding; appearances don't always provide accurate assessments; being pretty can be a curse. -- And the Depot's production of Picnic delivers on all accounts.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Faulkner: "Into the Woods"

Ever since its 1987 debut, the multi-award winning musical Into the Woods has proved to be among Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's most popular and enduring plays. -- No stranger to the Faulkner University stage and to other Montgomery theatres, and given more notoriety from the recent film version, Faulkner is once again mounting a production under Angela Dickson's direction, with musical direction by Randy Foster.

Placed on Matt Dickson's darkly romantic set [lots of gnarled trees evoking a deep perspective], Ms. Dickson has brought together a solid ensemble of students, alumni, and guest actors to bring the play to life. -- She capitalizes on the strong singing voices of her actors, always a quality of Faulkner productions. And they interpret the challenging score with confidence.

The play introduces several well-known fairy tale characters -- Jack [and the beanstalk] (Matthew Klinger's naivete is endearing), Cinderella (Valla Brooke Johnston in fine soprano voice), Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Wilson turns in one of the most delightful performances), and Rapunzel (a captivating Emily Woodring), and creates a story of the childless Baker and his Wife (Brandtley McDonald and Kari Kelly dominate the proceedings with their excellent performances) -- having them all attempting to fulfill their individual wishes, and cleverly intertwining them by adding several twists to their stories as they travel "into the woods" to secure their desires. Throw in a couple of narcissistic Princes (Colby Smith and Blake Williams strut their stuff with assurance). -- Complicating matters is a curse brought on by a Witch (Jesse Alston creates a complex character; a force to reckon with), and the threat of Giants in the neighborhood.

The Witch it seems has placed a curse on the Baker's family but says it can be reversed and they can have children if they will get for her "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold"; so, off they set on the quest, ultimately securing these items: Jack has a cow called Milky White, Little Red's cape, Rapunzel's hair, and Cinderella's slipper. -- And, oh yes, those magic beans that are bartered and thrown down to cause the beanstalk home of the Giants.

"There is something about the woods" that mystifies and seduces the assorted characters. And in Act I, the quest for the spell's ingredients is uppermost in their minds. Laced with some deftly humorous dialogue, we get involved in their lives, and applaud the seemingly happy ending. But wait; there is Act II. -- Once each character gets what they want -- Jack has money, Cinderella has married her Prince, Little Red thwarted the Wolf, and the Baker and Wife have their promised child -- it seems that in the light of day, these things have not brought them happiness (they are either bored or want more). They each have a lot to learn about real life vs. fairy-tale dreams.

And as the Giants return to seek revenge, the characters we have come to know so well turn on each other in sometimes deadly fashion. There are lessons to be learned as the survivors realize they must work together in harmony in order to be successful.

Monday, April 13, 2015

ASF: "King Lear"

William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies -- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra -- were all written between 1600 and 1607, a transitional period between the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a time of the Bard's exceptional output as governments were shifting and the English Renaissance world continued its obsession with lust for power, shifting allegiances, and individual ambitions.

Fittingly, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has opened director Geoffrey Sherman's provocative production of King Lear amidst our own political in-fighting that too often shows little regard for reasonable discourse or consideration of the consequences of rash and stubborn self-serving actions reminiscent of this bygone era. The next Presidential election is a year and a half away, and already the gloves are off; heads might roll by then. -- Costumed with a lush pallet by Pamela Scofield, and placed on Robert F.Wolin's stone fortress set, welcome to our own version of Game of Thrones.

From the beginning of the play, certain themes and refrains are evident. Shakespeare's contemporaries were concerned with the Natural world and often contrasted "natural" with "unnatural" behavior. Throughout King Lear these contrasts are painted so we see the "natural" [loyal, honest] actions of Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, and the Fool in opposition to the "unnatural" [deceptive, scheming, disloyal] actions of Goneril, Regan, Albany, Cornwall, and Edmund. -- For the Renaissance audience, it was important for conflicts to be resolved and the "natural" order of things to be restored; the wicked are to be suitably punished, and while Lear and Cordelia die tragically, the kingdom is restored by Albany and Edgar. -- While there is argument for change in the play [out with the old feudal ideas, in with a new rational approach], Shakespeare appears to be more of a traditionalist here.

The play opens with the aging Lear [Rodney Clark in one of Shakespeare's most demanding roles] distributing his kingdom among his three daughters before he dies, though he stipulates that he will retain the honors and trappings of kingship and live by monthly turns with each of his daughters, assuming that peace and prosperity will be assured. They are each made to profess the degree of their love for him to deserve their portions. His two elder daughters -- Goneril [a cruel vindictive Jennifer Barnhart] and Regan [Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel at her most seductive] -- proclaim their love in excessive terms and Lear succumbs to their flattery. The youngest and favorite daughter Cordelia [Alice Sherman is understated and sincere in her honesty and love] can not follow suit and can say "nothing" to equal her sisters. When Lear banishes and disowns her ("Nothing will come of nothing..."), the King of France [Jonathan Weber] takes her for his bride, claiming that she herself is dowry enough.

When the loyal Kent [Brik Berkes, a master of disguise and sardonic humor] intervenes by pointing out Lear's foolishness, he too is banished, but returns in disguise in service to his king.

And Gloucester [Paul Hebron balances the Lear story with complete conviction], another loyal subject and himself the father of two sons -- legitimate Edgar [Bjorn Thorstad, meek at first but stalwart in consideration of his father's plight] and the bastard Edmund [Nathan Hosner's virile amoral portrait is a man we admire for his directness but loathe for his deceit] -- tries to keep the peace while the duplicitous Edmund schemes to pit his father and brother against one another, causing Gloucester to disown Edgar, who disguises himself as the mad Tom o' Bedlam. Edmund then aligns himself with each of Lear's favored daughters for his own gain.

While Goneril and Regan and their husbands Albany [Wynn Harmon has a conscience that will not let him continue the fight with Lear] and Cornwall [Jonathan C. Kaplan: low-keyed and brutal] plot to wrest all power from Lear, the king is reduced to scrambling for any sense of royal dignity as both his kingdom and mental faculties crumble around him. -- Accompanied by his Fool [James Bowen whose desperate attempts to get through to Lear are evidence of loyalty that knows no bounds], Lear abandons his daughters and rages against a storm as his inner turmoil reaches a breaking point. -- Soon afterwards, Cornwall and Regan gouge out Gloucester's eyes as punishment for his assumed guilt in aiding Lear and the French army led by Cordelia who are on their borders. The reunion scene between Gloucester and Edgar is one of the most touching in this production, and is balanced by the final scenes that reunite Lear and Cordelia.

Duplicitous and power-hungry siblings, lustful men and women, and greedy outsiders are pitted against honest and loyal retainers; and Shakespeare makes a lot of these contrasts. -- Lear is most certainly guilty of rash and stubborn actions, whether due to naivete or dementia, and could learn from the loyalty of Kent and Gloucester [and even from his scheming daughters who on the surface present reasonable arguments for their father in his old age to be ruled by younger and more vibrant people]. -- But Mr. Clark's Lear does garner sympathy as he justifiably claims "I am more sinned against than sinning" and "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child", and his ineffectual response to his punishments: "I will do...such things."

Lear is at the center of all the action; whether or not Mr. Clark is on stage, his plight and his presence are deeply felt. The consequences of his rashness in Act I become too much for Lear's already compromised mind to bear, and the subtle ways Mr. Clark bridges brief moments of lucidity with confusion and madness are exquisite signals of his acting powers. His is a monumental performance that carries the play to its tragic conclusion.

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.