Tuesday, April 22, 2014

AUM: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

David Wilson's directing project at Theatre AUM -- the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams -- has a lot going for it: challenging roles for his ensemble actors, Michael Krek's open-plan evocative set that is enhanced by La'Brandon Tyre's sensitive lighting and Val Winkelman's period costumes. With such collaborations aligned, Williams' script comes alive in some interesting ways.

It is Big Daddy's [Mike Winkelman] 65th birthday on his Mississippi Delta plantation -- "28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile" -- and his family have gathered ostensibly to celebrate his birthday, but also to lay claim to inheriting the property. To complicate matters, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, and everyone but he and Big Mama [Blaire Casey] know it.

Successful lawyer son Gooper [Jordan Lewandowski] and his fertile wife Mae [Tina Neese] and their brood of "no neck monster" children intend to wrest the fortune from favorite son, alcoholic ex-football hero Brick [Chris Howard] and his childless wife Margaret [Sarah Worley]...Maggie: "the Cat" of the title".

Brick has been brooding with disgust and sinking deeper into drunkenness after the death of his best friend Skipper, whose homosexual advances he had rejected; Brick insists that it is possible for two men to have a "clean and decent" friendship, one that is "too rare to be normal" in other people's eyes. But he has also not made love with Maggie since Skipper died, which brings his own sexuality into question, and gives Gooper and Mae more ammunition against them. Even Big Mama intuits early in the play that "marriage problems start in bed".

In the 1950s, homosexuality was rarely broached on stage, and though today it is far more common, Williams' script that talks around this and several other issues, makes plain how hard it still is to talk about sensitive topics, especially with close relations and those we love. -- Much is made about truth telling and lies -- "mendacity" is the key word here -- and how we damage ourselves and one another by skirting around the truth, innuendo, avoidance, and denial: all forms of mendacity.

Though Big Daddy is clearly the man in charge -- all public bluster and arrogance -- in his softer moments of fatherly concern for Brick and genuine affection for Maggie, Mr. Winkelman adds a necessary dimension to the role that all too frequently is rendered hard to hear with rapid speech and high volume. While he complains about mendacity, he too keeps things hidden.

Ms. Neese is frighteningly accurate in her depiction of Mae as an ever-present annoyance, but Gooper only shows his true colors in Act III; Mr. Lewandowski's petulance and sibling rivalry emerges with a resounding nastiness.

Big Mama is a steadfast defender of her husband, and tolerates his insults and infidelities, choosing to deny that he means what he says; but Ms. Casey is devastated on hearing the truth about Big Daddy's terminal illness by Dr. Baugh [Garrett Wilson], and rejects the solace offered by Rev. Tooker [Tony Atkins].

Mr. Howard is so solemn in his portrayal of Brick, that it is hard to imagine him as a one-time sports hero, but his commitment to this manner creates a vulnerability that both Big Daddy and Maggie can pounce upon, and which gives a glimmer of hope for his reclamation and for Maggie's potential triumph.

In Ms. Worley's capable hands, Maggie is the one realist in the house. It is clear from the start that she is a practical woman who acknowledges the truth, a woman who loves her husband and will do most anything to get him back -- including telling a big lie that for the moment no one can either prove or disprove. Mendacity indeed.

Mr. Wilson has given Montgomery audiences a lot to consider in this fine production of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Faulkner: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde's brilliantly witty The Importance of Being Earnest is Matt Dickson's first directing project at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Mr. Dickson also serves as Faulkner's Technical Director and is the Scenic Designer for this production -- quite a few hats that he wears with distinction. His impressive resume as an actor and designer (along with a stint behind the scenes at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival) gives him ample credibility to venture into directing, and the choice of Earnest allows him to create three detailed evocative sets for each of the play's three acts, and to guide a small ensemble of experienced and relatively new actors through the charm and silliness of Wilde's plot.

Two bachelor friends -- witty and supercilious city-dweller Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff [Joe Vasquez] and steadier John (Jack) Worthing [Blake Williams] -- each lead double lives. Algy has invented a chronically sick friend named Bunbury so he can escape family and city responsibilities, and Jack escapes the country pretending to be Ernest in town where he plans to propose marriage to Algy's sophisticated cousin Gwendolyn [Jesse Alston]. -- When Algy discovers Jack's ruse, he learns that his friend is the guardian of a pretty young girl named Cecily [Brittney Johnston]; he determines to meet her, and he maneuvers Gwendolyn's formidable mother Lady Bracknell [Angela Dickson] out of the way so Jack can propose.

Lady Bracknell refuses the match between Ernest and Gwendolyn when in her interview she finds out that Ernest has no social connections, and that he was a foundling left in a handbag at Victoria train station. But, enamored by the name of "Ernest" Gwendolyn secretly determines to visit her Ernest in the country, a plan that Algy overhears and which sets his own plan in motion to meet with Cecily pretending to be Ernest before Jack returns.

Cecily is being tutored by Miss Prism [Alicia Ruth Jackson], a very prim and proper spinster who is infatuated by the Rev. Dr. Chasuble [Brandtley McDonald]. Cecily has romanticized views of marriage, and has been "in love" with her Uncle Jack's rapscallion brother Ernest for some time, so when Algy shows up as Ernest, they instantly agree to get married.

On Gwendolyn's arrival in the country, she meets Cecily and both women claim to be engaged to Ernest; their tea party manners are tested to the fullest until Jack arrives in mourning, telling them that his brother Ernest died from a severe chill, only to find Algy there pretending to be Ernest.

Much confusion, of course, that the ensemble actors handle with considerable aplomb; and when Lady Bracknell storms in to rescue Gwendolyn and sees Miss Prism, everything comes to a head. Miss Prism, it seems, was once a servant to Algy's parents and had absentmindedly deposited an infant she was caring for in a handbag and left it in the cloakroom of Victoria Station -- and the mystery of Jack's parentage is solved, and it turns out his name is actually Ernest John...a very happy ending for all.

Only a few minor quibbles with this production. The Faulkner actors turn in creditable work in interpreting Wilde's witty script, notwithstanding a few projection inconsistencies and imprecise diction so necessary in such a mannered play. And the contemporary sound of their voices and modern postures and movement belie the otherwise detailed period look and feel of this show.

Monday, March 17, 2014

ASF: "The Taming of the Shrew"

Ever since its debut in the 1590s, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has been controversial for its apparent misogynistic treatment of women. Was Shakespeare actually a male chauvinist, or was he merely reflecting Elizabethan assumptions, or is the play meant to be a farce-satire on marriage and male/female relationships?

Troublesome for some, and today's audiences tend to be dismayed at seeing men's presumptive control over women, let alone wagering on their own dominance of their wives...and for women apparently accepting subservient roles.

In the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's current production, director Dianna Van Fossen seems to favor the farce-satire approach, with persistent clownish elements and a myriad of humorously anachronistic references to match her updating the time and place from Renaissance Italy to 1959 in Hawaii and Alaska.

What's that, you say? Never mind. There will always be nay-sayers objecting to any concept-updates of Shakespeare; but once one buys into Ms. Van Fossen's conceit, the rampant onstage silliness is infectious, and its mockery of character types, social foibles, and attitudes about marriage, might just allow Montgomery audiences to assess how far (or not) they have advanced.

"Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best" never gave a completely accurate picture of 1950s America, no matter how comforting they might have been. Surely, the feminist movement was already underway by then, though it wasn't until the 1960s that the women's lib movement began in earnest. -- And there is all too much evidence in the daily news that there is still a lot to do to ensure equality. If we can recognize these flaws in ourselves and laugh at them, perhaps we might be on the way to a remedy.

Ms. Van Fossen has recognized that Shakespeare offers so many comic possibilities in The Taming of the Shrew: plenty of disguises resulting in comic confusion, commedia dell'arte stock characters, multiple rival lovers, and a rich battle of wits all contribute to a lively entertainment that might provoke as well as delight.

In Hawaii, wealthy Baptista [Rodney Clark] has two marriageable daughters -- sweet and pretty Bianca [Jenny Strassburg], and her elder sister, the shrewish Katherine [Paula Jon DeRose]. While Bianca has numerous suitors, Baptista has decreed she can't marry with a sizable dowry until Kate has found a willing husband. Not an easy task until Petruchio [Anthony Marble] struts in from Alaska in search of a wife, accepting the challenge of wooing Kate with the utmost macho confidence in his success. -- How appropriate it is then for Bianca's suitors to join forces in support of Petruchio and set themselves up as tutors to Bianca, insinuating themselves to get Baptista's favor.

The clownish behavior of Hortensio [Bjorn Thorstad demonstrates wonderment and befuddlement with apparent ease]; Tranio [Brik Berkes is a master of disguise with a clever assortment of voices at his disposal]; Gremio [Paul Hebron] hasn't got a chance with Bianca because of his age, but Mr. Hebron's portrayal is so sympathetically earnest that he garners deserved applause at his exit. -- Grumio is Petruchio's servant played by James Bowen as a shrewd conniving sort; and Christian Castro as the wily Biondello is a nimble bundle of energy as he tries to sort things out. -- The sheer number of "silly walks" reminiscent of the 1960s escapades of Monty Python that punctuate numerous scenes are bit annoying after a while (Python is an acquired taste, after all), but do get big responses from the audience.

And it is the sets of lovers who dominate the proceedings. -- Ms. Strassburg, for all her petulance as Bianca, changes to a more romantic partner when the disguised Lucentio [Christian Ryan] reveals his true identity. Mr. Ryan's persistent earnestness is irresistible. -- Mr. Thorstad's Hortensio manages to secure the affection of the Widow [Alice Sherman, both arch and elegant simultaneously; and her song "Try a Little Tenderness" is given in a sensitive rendition that comments on the style of love that works best].

Mr. Marble and Ms. DeRose first appear as excellent sparring partners in the initial wooing scene in Act I, exchanging verbal barbs with gusto that makes it clear they are meant for each other. As Petruchio proceeds to tame the shrew by "wooing her with good words" while subjecting her to his will, we see the gradual softening of each partner till they acknowledge each others' strength and appear unafraid of society's criticism.

Much of the controversy surrounding The Taming of the Shrew centers on Kate's speech near the end in which she lectures Bianca and the Widow [and all women] about wives' and husbands' respective roles: men are to be in charge, and women to do their bidding willingly. -- Interpretations abound, with a feminist stance being very popular today. Yet here and in keeping with Ms. Van Fossen's concept, Ms. DeRose delivers the lecture sincerely, without a mocking tone -- just a sly nod that suggests complicity between Kate and Petruchio that might just produce a solid and happy marriage between equals.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Red Door: "Mama Won't Fly"

Mama Won't Fly, the latest installment of quirky Southern comedies from Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, is making the rounds of community theatres this year, most recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a large cast of veteran and neophyte actors at her disposal, director Kim Mason draws the most from even the cameo roles, sustains the action through the play's slower sections, and offers some side-splitting moments in her arsenal of comic invention.

This is a road-trip comedy, where three women -- mother Norleen [Janet Wilkerson], daughter Savannah [Elizabeth Roughton] and soon-to-be daughter-in law Hayley [Valerie Jackson Sandlin] -- drive (because Mama won't fly) from Birmingham, AL to Santa Monica, CA for Hayley's wedding to Norleen's son Walker; and with numerous adventures along the way, they learn a great deal about one another.

There is a lot of predictable eccentric behavior in this trio and in the relatives, hotel managers, truck drivers, showgirls, bartenders, policemen, and brassiere museum guide they encounter along the way. It is through the seemingly ordinary incidents that draw the women together and heal old wounds that we come to know and care for each of them in turn.

Ms. Sandlin's self-proclaimed "bad luck Haley" -- sincerity personified -- is immediately sympathetic, and her self-effacing manner makes us warm to her predicament of facing the mother-in-law she has never met while spending days and nights on the road in ever increasing anxiety of getting to the church on time. -- Ms. Roughton, as the daughter with marriage issues who is intent on reviving a past relationship with Spud Farley [William Harper, in a guise reminiscent of Harvey Korman from The Carol Burnett Show], and who has always had a strained relationship with her mother, draws our sympathy.

But it is Ms. Wilkerson's tell-it-like-it is rendition of a strong-willed matriarch that takes top honors here. Ms. Wilkerson has an uncanny ability to deliver her lines with dead-pan efficiency and spot-on comic timing -- things that threaten to corpse the other characters sharing the stage. Even the glib, cliche-driven dialogue she sometimes speaks is given with absolute confidence...gleaning well deserved laughs.

Ms. Mason directs with a sure hand. She knows that audiences will recognize these oddball characters, and allows her actors to enjoy the ride across the country with them.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Millbrook: "The Sound of Music"

From Mary Martin to Julie Andrews to Carrie Underwood, the role of Maria Ranier von Trapp has captivated millions of fans on stage, film, and television in countless productions of The Sound of Music.  Certainly one of Rogers and Hammerstein's most beloved musicals, it is now showing at the Millbrook Community Theatre under John Collier's direction, with a cast of 40 actors from the local area.

Most people know the story of how Maria [Austin Flaherty in her Millbrook debut] left the convent to become the governess for Captain von Trapp's brood of children and soon became his wife. Set in Austria at the onset of World War II and the threat of Naziism imminent, it is the feel-good story of nice people caught between love of country and family and hard choices of sticking to their principles.

Marked by a musical score that contains several hallmark songs -- "Do-Re-Mi", "I Must Have Done Something Good", "Edelweiss", "The Sound of Music" among them -- the Millbrook Company delivers individually and collectively. What a treat to hear the nuns singing a cappella at the start in clear Gregorian manner that switches to the clever "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" that gently questions Maria's religious vocation and sends her on her way to the von Trapp's as a test of her convictions. -- Lead by the Mother Abbess [Angie Mitchell], whose clear tones and effective interpretation of all her songs -- most particularly "Climb Every Mountain" -- keep us engaged.

Captain von Trapp [Lance Eiland in his stage debut] is a widower courting Elsa Shraeder [Jennifer Gay], and running his children's lives with military precision. When Maria shows up and throws things out of kilter with her more relaxed style [she instantly realized that the children desperately need affection, especially from their father], she is an instant hit with the kids but must convince von Trapp. And we know from the start that Maria and the Captain are meant for each other.

Ms. Flaherty carries the show on her capable shoulders. With a clear and strong voice matched with energy and an effervescence that fills every moment she is on stage [and that is most of the play], her confidence makes her someone to watch. Hopefully, she will grace this local stage in future productions.

Of course, there is another younger generation love interest between the teenaged Liesl [Kari Kelly] and a local swain named Rolf [Chris Kelly] who has sided with the Nazis. Their "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is handled with sensitivity and good humor.

Max Detweiller [Mark McGuire] is a local government official who runs a Festival while taking numerous phone calls from the Nazi headquarters, and is caught between protecting his friends the von Trapps who show nothing but disdain for the Reich, and being true to the business of the new cause.

The children here -- Ms. Kelly, David Russo, Caitlin Garnett, Joshua Russo, Christianna/Gianna Russo, Lilla Wilson, Jaycee Parker -- appear to be having a good time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Whether they play pranks on Maria, or delight in the play-time she affords them, or sweetly sing and dance their ways through "Do-Re-Mi", "The Lonely Goatherd", and "Goodnight", whenever they take the stage, all eyes are on them.

Though there is a lot of dead-time in blackouts between scenes, the action moves along pretty well, coming in at over two and a half hours. Nonetheless, the commitment of the ensemble, the fine vocal delivery of the songs, and the clear messages regarding being true to oneself and one's beliefs, and the strength of family are unmistakable.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

ASF: "Twenty Seven"

Literature is full of examples of natural disasters that point out human limitations, and often demonstrate our best qualities in helping others in such times. The impacts of recent hurricanes, typhoons, and floods around the world are still being felt, showing brute untamed Nature determining much of mankind's outcomes.

William Faulkner used the 1927 Mississippi River flooding as the focal point of his story "Old Man" in which an unnamed convict is sent to rescue an unnamed pregnant woman from the flood and, though he is presumed to have died in the attempt and has various opportunities to escape, he eventually returns to the Penal Farm only to receive a longer sentence as a political pawn.

"Old Man" has been adapted several times in film and for television, and now a new version World Premier of Twenty Seven by Edward Morgan is playing on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon stage.

Mr. Morgan's two act drama is given a sensitive-ironic-minimalist showing in director Nancy Rominger's production featuring a strong seven member acting ensemble. And while it takes several liberties with its source (Faulkner purists will disapprove, no doubt), the script easily shifts time and place, incorporates unobtrusive narrative into the dialogue, maintains suspense in its plot and character development, and issues provocative philosophical questions with some crudely humorous language -- all in keeping with Faulkner's prose.

The muted tones of an enormous mural depicting a Mississippi backwater serves as a backdrop to simple platforms and minimal furniture in Peter Hicks' understated set, affording the company significant freedom to shift location and explore the nuances of Mr. Morgan's script. And the audience is brought into the intimacy of the space.

Making an impressive ASF debut, Justin Adams portrays Aikins as a complex man whose answer to "What is the natural state of man?" is simply and succinctly that he is "born to die"; but how he gets there is so important to this Aikins and his sense of duty that he can't accept freedom "till I've earned it". As he recounts his adventures on the river to fellow inmates who can't fathom Aikins' voluntary return -- Drew Parker as the youthful and sex-obsessed Tommy, and Larry Thomas as the sardonic older guitar strumming Ike (both excellent)-- events of the present and the recent past alternate, allowing these two foils to follow Aikins' journey as he tries to make sense of the world he has been thrust into, a world that bioth mystifies and threatens him, victimizes and affords him release.

Vasnessa Bartlett plays Ellie, who avoids eye contact with Aikins at first rescue, and who maintains her own secret despite the intimacy of sharing a small boat. -- In the course of their few weeks together, we see a gradual development of a relationship; Aikins is confident in his abilities to manage a boat through the flood and appears to live in the moment but is reluctant to connect with Ellie, her "belly is a millstone around my neck"; she, on the other hand "needs a plan" from him; and ultimately there is a softening in their relationship. -- Mr. Adams and Ms. Bartlett work so well together that we can get involved in their respective plights, and understand their different solutions; very credible performances.

Eleven other characters are brought to life by a cadre of three actors -- Carl Palmer, Kevin Hearn Cutts, Brian Wallace -- who create memorable characters. Among them: Mr. Wallace's outrageous depiction of a Cajun gator hunter who comes to the couple's aid; Mr. Palmer's Deputy Buckworth as both a comic caricature and a reprehensible sadist; and Mr. Cutts as the Warden caught between doing what he knows is right and what is convenient...a finely nuanced portrait.

Ms. Rominger moves the action at a brisk pace, mixing humor and seriousness, and her actors are so finely tuned to one another, shifting time and location effortlessly while depicting in thoroughly credible characters, that audiences are left pondering their own decisions.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Into the Woods"

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

Bravo ! -- The Third Season at The Cloverdale Playhouse started Thursday night with director Randy Foster and his excellent ensemble actors in their exquisite "Sold Out" production of multiple award winning Into the Woods, the 1986 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical that takes fairy tales to increasingly intriguing, challenging, and thoroughly entertaining heights.

As the play weaves the plots of some of the Brothers Grimm's familiar tales -- Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, et al. -- they take on significant dimensions relevant to modern adult audiences, while retaining the child-friendly wonder and magic of the original stories.

Sondheim's score is one of his most challenging to even the most experienced and highly trained singers, and the Cloverdale cast do more than justice to it...they appear to be relaxed and comfortable with the music, and they are clearly enjoying the experience.

While so many productions of Into the Woods and other large-scale musicals rely on lavish sets and special effects, Mr. Foster wisely chose to use the small Cloverdale Playhouse stage to its best advantage: provide simple and imaginative set pieces (thanks to scenic designer Layne Holley), reduce the number of actors to thirteen for the more than twenty characters in the play, create effective and clever costumes (headed by Eleanor Davis), and allow the acting company to focus the attention on the plot, the themes, and the music.

With Mr. Foster at the keyboard onstage (the sole musical accompaniment -- and really all that is needed), this talented ensemble go through their paces for over two and a half hours without any lapse of energy or commitment, creating memorable renditions of their fairy tale roles, and enlivening the evening with insightful interpretations of the songs and themes.

Everyone, it seems, has a dream or a wish to fulfill: Cinderella wants to go to the King's Festival where she will meet her Prince, Rapunzel yearns for freedom from her tower, Little Red Riding Hood is on her way to Grandma's house, Jack has to sell his "pet" cow Milky White to make ends meet at home, and the Baker and his Wife desperately want a child, but have been cursed by the Witch who will only lift the curse if the Baker can bring her "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold" -- so everyone sets off "into the woods" on specific quests that get more and more intertwined to both comic and serious ends.

The original stories contain significant lessons, mixed with comic and sometimes macabre events, and Into the Woods capitalizes on this. And when actors give it their all, audiences can get caught up in each moment.

Versatility is an important element of this production. What a delight to see Jonathan Conner and Scott Page as two narcissistic princes whose mugging and one-upmanship is so cleverly showcased in their duet "Agony", but also to see each actor in a completely different guise: Mr. Conner as a frighteningly sexy Wolf to Katie Maiello's shoot from the hip Little Red Riding Hood, and Mr. Page as a most believably devoted Milky White Cow to Matthew Walter's exuberantly naive Jack (as in the Beanstalk).

Bill Cobb as the Mysterious Man keeps popping up throughout the play to deliver clues and urge characters on -- no spoiler alerts here; you'll have to see the play to discover what the mystery is all about.

A masterful handling of Sondheim's fast patter lyrics is given in the opening exposition by David Rowland as the Witch, and carried often by other members of the ensemble. Mr. Rowland's interpretation of the double role of the Witch who transforms to Rapunzel's Mother is mesmerizing; the darkness he brings to the role is made palatable by the insistence that Rapunzel is kept in the tower to protect her from the evils of the world. Brittney Johnson as Rapunzel dares to risk it by running off with her Prince. -- And it seems that there are significant prices to pay for their actions.

Several lessons are learned by the characters, lessons that can benefit all of us. Act I ends on a note of some hope, but Act II demonstrates the lengths to which we will go to achieve our goals or desires will all have consequences.

The Baker [Chase McMichen in his best performance yet in Montgomery] and his Wife [Emily Lowder Wooten; her first role at the Playhouse that sets a high bar for what is to come] are so intent on getting the aforementioned "cow...cape...hair...slipper..." that they manage to con Jack into selling Milky White for a sack of beans, try to steal Little Red's cape, cut some of Rapunzel's hair, and swipe Cinderella's slipper. Ever at odds with one another, their arguing threatens the relationship, and the Wife even has a fling with one of the Princes who excuses his behavior saying he was brought up to be "charming, not sincere". -- And when the inevitable Beanstalk brings down the Giants' wrath, the blame game begins with a vengeance.

There is definitely "something about the woods" that is different from their regular lives. It is a magical place where defenses are down and things aren't always what they seem. Cinderella [Gillian Lisenby Walters, whose comic pratfalls are hilarious ] learns that her fantasy Prince can't provide anything more than fleeting happiness; and her nasty Stepmother [Katherine Taylor] and Stepsisters [Summer Gagnon and Brittney Johnson] will get their deserved comeuppance; Jack and his Mother [Eleanor Kerr Davis has a few delightfully feisty moments] learn that family is what matters most, and that ill-gotten riches (golden eggs and harps) looted from the Giants are only transitory.

Growing up is hard, and not everyone can do it. Being responsible is important, but not everyone is cut out for it. Doing what is right rather than what is convenient is essential. We influence others by what we do and say: "Children will listen", after all.