Sunday, July 24, 2005
SHAW FESTIVAL’S 2005 season reviewed!
Every trip to the Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, convinces me that it is the premiere theatre venue in North America. The plays are generally excellent, the acting company superb, the show variety allows for something for everyone, and the settings and costumes are creatively and lavishly conceived.
The Shaw Festival is conducted in three theatres. The shows are performed Tuesday through Sunday. Each day has matinee, evenings and even some lunch time productions. For real theatre buffs that means a three-night/four-day stay can result in experiencing seven shows. The festival is an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland on roads which pass through the wine countries of Ohio, New York and Canada. Niagara on-the-Lake is a lovely city brimming with flowers, classical architecture and inviting shops. This is like going to theatre heaven.
Jackie Maxwell, Shaw’s Artistic Director, each year chooses a focus for the plays. This season its the family. It is carried out with a blend of comedies, musicals and dramas.
George Bernard Shaw's ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ has been called the most controversial of Shaw's works. The play, which was first produced in 1905, is filled with Shaw's criticism of Christianity and society as a whole. The play was an instant success and has remained popular because of its compelling plot and strong philosophical statements. Theatre critics consider the script not only among Shaw's best but as one of the greatest plays in modern theatre.
The central conflict of the play is between the extremist ideas of Andrew Undershaft , an armaments dealer, and the thoughts of his aristocratic relatives, representing the ideals of society. Undershaft’s devilish power and wit make the outcome inevitable. By closing curtain the audience is well aware of Shaw’s view of the fusion of money with morality.
One of Shaw’s most powerful statements in ‘MAJOR BARBARA,’ is that “the greatest of our evils and the worst of our crimes is poverty.” Shaw is saying that the Church and the state should eliminate poverty as if it were a crime instead of praising it as a virtue (i.e., “blessed are the poor”).
‘MAJOR BARBARA’ illuminates Shaw’s statement that “I am and shall always be a revolutionary writer, because our laws make law impossible...”.
Don’t get the idea that this is an overly abstract and boring play. It definitely is not. This is a Shavian comedy. It is filled with irony, humor and plot twists. In the case of the Festival production, under the wondrous direction of Joseph Ziegler, it is engrossing. Shaw uses the play to entertain his audience, to make people laugh, while examining issues that are as important today as they were when the play was first written.
Ziegler has perfectly cast and interpreted the show. He carries the audience along willingly on his focused journey.
There is not a weak acting performance. Everyone from leads to supporting cast are emotionally and physically enmeshed in the happenings. Special praise must be given to Mary Haney, as Lady Britomart Undershaft representing the upper class British, Diana Donnelly as the well-intentioned Major Barbara, Evan Buliung as the bumbling Charles Lomax, and Benedict Campbell as the humanly demonic Andrew Undershaft.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The production of ‘MISS BARBARA’ is flawless. Everything works. The sets, the costumes, the musical interludes and the acting are perfectly keyed. This is theatre at its best! If you have only one production to see at Shaw this season it is a flip-up between this and the equally superb ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’
THE CONSTANT WIFE
The ingenious and creative wordsmith, Somerset Maugham, gives great advice about love in his play ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’ He states, “How do you know if you are in love?” His answer, “If you are willing to share your toothbrush with the person.” Gee, and you thought love was complicated.
‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ is set in a 1920s drawing room. As the play starts, Constance Middleton, Maugham's heroine, who is an attractive, intelligent, and remarkably level headed woman, is confronted by a friend who bursts into her drawing room and says, "I thought you might like to know that your husband is my wife's lover." Unfazed, Constance, who has known all along, states, “Of course, a good wife always pretends not to know the little things her husband wishes to keep hidden from her." And so, starts a delightful bonbon of theatrical delight.
Adultery has been a theme of comedy for as long as there has been theatre in the Western world. It remains funny because it generates secrets, which generate lies, and nothing is funnier than a stage full of people lying their heads off. And Maugham is a master at inventing lies, discoveries, and surprises. His writing style and his ability to play with words allows him to lead the audience to an obvious conclusion. Then, with a few well chosen utterances he surprisingly changes the course of action.
The success of the Shaw Festival production is not alone. ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ has been running on Broadway with Lynn Redgrave in the starring role. The production has been so triumphant that its run has just been extended. As much as I admire Miss Redgrave, I can’t believe that the Big Apple production can be better than that at Shaw.
Deftly directed by Neil Munro, the production proves that Maugham has not lost his power to amuse, while intriguing an audience and teaching them some valuable lessons.
Laura Paton is wonderful as Constance. She lights up a stage. Her long monologue concerning her husband’s affair is mesmerizing. Patrica Hamilton is delightful as Ms. Culver, Constance’s mother. Catherine McGregor is properly uppity as Catherine’s sister. Blair Williams, as John, Constance’s husband, bounces between cad and victim with delightful ease. Glynis Ranney makes for a perfect twit as John’s paramour.
William Schmuck’s gorgeous drawing room set and the elegant costumes enhance the production.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE’ is a charming, light hearted satirical comedy, jam-packed with the wit for which Maugham’ is famous. It’s a must see at the Shaw Festival.
The word on the street in Niagara-on-the-Lake was that ‘GYPSY,’ the big, brash, bouncy musical was the “must see” of the season. It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I went to the production.
Though commonly referred to as ‘GYPSY,’ the true name of the show is ‘GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE’. It has music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. and a book by Arthur Laurents. It is loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist.
The focal point of the show centers on Gypsy’s struggle with her mother, Mama Rose, whose name has become synonymous with "the ultimate show business parent." The musical has a wonderful score which contains such standards as "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," and "Let Me Entertain You."
The show originally opened on Broadway on May 21, 1959 and starred Ethel Merman. A 1962 film version starred Rosalind Russell. Few know that they were really listening to Lisa Kirk dubbing Russell’s voice. The musical has been revived three times on Broadway, running from 1974 to1975 with Angela Lansbury, from 1989 to1991 with Tyne Daly and in 2003 with Bernadette Peters. A television movie in 1993 starred Bette Midler as Rose.
In the pre-show discussion it was revealed that Nora McLellan, who normally plays Mamma Rose was ill and Kate Hennig, her understudy, would stand in. We were assured that Hennig had played the role before. In fact, due to the demanding vocal requirements of the part she is scheduled to perform more than twenty times during the season. The speaker’s conclusion, “Don’t worry, she is excellent.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mamma Rose is the center piece of the play. Without a big, brassy, belter with chutzpa the show sinks. Hennig has none of those qualities. She has a pleasant but not belting voice and develops a character lacking in dynamism. She sings words, not meanings, so many of her songs lack clarity of purpose. She often speaks to the audience rather than the actors to whom the lines are directed. Her version of “Rose’s Turn” had none of the heart-wrenching self discovery that should bring the show to a climax. This is definitely not a stellar performance.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Julie Martell makes the transition from plane-Jane Louise to seductive Gypsy Rose Lee with style. She has a beautiful singing voice. Her duet “If Momma Was Married,” as sung with Trish Lindstrom (June), is a show highlight. Jeff Lillico (Tulsa) lights up the stage as he sings and dances “All I Need Is the Girl.” Ric Reid is a perfect nebbish as Herbie, Rose’s long suffering suitor. Gabrielle Jones, Patricia Vanstone and Cathy Current stop the show with their stripper antics in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
The sets, costumes, orchestrations and the show’s technical aspects are excellent.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘GYPSY’ could be a wonderful production. The version I saw wasn’t. My advice is: If you are scheduled to see a performance in which Ms. Hennig is going to be featured as Mamma Rose, or they announce that she is replacing Ms. McLellan, run, don’t walk to the box office and trade in your ticket!
MORE ON THE FESTIVAL
Besides the plays themselves, the Festival includes a reading series, Sunday coffee concerts, a Village Fair and Fete, seminars, backstage tours, pre-show chats, Tuesday Questions and Answers and Saturday Conversations.
For theatre information, a brochure, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.
In a forthcoming segment of my reactions to the 2005 Shaw season, I’ll discuss four more plays and make some recommendations on things to do and places to stay and eat.
Saturday, July 23, 2005
‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ hits right notes at Carousel
‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC,’ which is now on stage at Carousel Dinner Theatre, is one of the most beloved and produced musicals of all time. The show, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, opened on Broadway on November 16, 1959, and starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Captain von Trapp.
Most theatre-goers are familiar with the story. In Salzburg, Austria, Maria, a young novice, is sent from her convent to be the governess of the seven children of Captain von Trapp, a widowed naval commander. The children, initially hostile and mischievous, come to like her, and she finds herself falling in love with the captain. He is to be married to a baroness but he marries Maria instead. The Nazis take power in Austria as part of the Anschluss, and want Captain von Trapp to serve in the Reich’s Navy. During a singing performance at a musical competition the whole family manages to flee and “climb every mountain” to Switzerland.
This is a true story, right? Well, not exactly. Some details of the von Trapp tale were altered for the play and the film. The real Maria was sent to be a nurse for one of the children, not to be a governess to all of them. The Captain's eldest child was a boy, not a girl, and the names of the children were changed to avoid confusion, as the Captain's eldest daughter was also named Maria. Also, the von Trapps spent some years in Austria after Maria and the Captain married in 1927. They did not have to flee right away. And when they did leave they fled to Italy, not Switzerland.
The film version, which was released in 1965, was named Best Picture of the Year. Hammerstein died before the movie was made, and the two songs that were added to the film’s score ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good") were written solely by Rodgers.
How did the show come to be? In 1956 Vincent Donahue, a well known director, saw a German film called "The Trapp Family Singers." He proposed to Mary Martin’s husband that a stage musical with the score to consist of von Trapp songs star Martin. Rogers and Hammerstein, who were hired to write only one new song, eventually proposed an entirely fresh score. In March, 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein laid out the placement of the songs using a book prepared by Lindsay and Crouse. One of the difficulties faced by Richard Rodgers, who was Jewish, was that of writing Catholic ecclesiastical music. To add to the problems, while working on the lyrics Hammerstein was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In spite of the difficulties, on the 14th October 1959 the show opened in Boston. During that tryout the musical duo felt the show needed a signature number. So, one song was added--”Edelweiss.” (No, “Edelweiss” is not the Austrian national anthem. It was created specifically for ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Austrians never heard the song before the musical was produced there.) It was the last song ever written by the most prolific of musical theatre teams.
On November 16th the show opened on Broadway. The reviews were mixed, mainly praising the score and criticizing the sentimentality of the play. In spite of the reviews the show lasted over three-and-a-half years on the Great White Way, thus becoming the second longest running Broadway musical of the fifties.
The Carousel production, under the direction of Mitzi Hamilton, will generally please audiences in spite of the fact that it is stilted and drops some of the material’s emotional triggers. Part of this is due to some of the performers, but it is mainly due to Hamilton’s heavy handed interpretation. For example, the van Trapp children, who were noted for driving away nanny’s with their mischievous tricks, show no negative reaction to Maria when she first arrives. Therefore, there is none of the winning over which makes the Maria role so endearing and pivotal. The foreshadowing of the eventual break up of the Captain and his fiance is lost because Niclole Haimos’s Elsa isn’t aloof enough. Also, some of the cast seems on automatic pilot, moving and responding with stilted smiles, robot-like movements and a lack of spontaneity.
Cristin Mortenson is effervescent as Maria. Whenever she comes on stage she shines like a moonbeam! Her characterization is right on target and her voice is glorious. The same can be said for Sharon Alexander, The Mother Abbess. Her version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is worth the price of admission and, fortunately you get to hear it twice--at the end of each act.
The nuns are glorious. Their vocal sounds are pure beauty. The children are all acceptable, but often too preprogrammed to stand and smile and look childlike...they lack the needed impishness. The usual delightful “So Long, Farewell” lacks playfulness and charm.
Ray Luetters is unbelievable as Captain von Trapp. He seems uncomfortable, his acting is on the surface and his singing voice is not up to the requirements of the role. Adam Crawford is physically right for Rolf, the oldest van Trapp daughter’s suitor, but moves too automatically, especially in what should be the enchanting, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
The sets and costumes are excellent, as are the orchestrations.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel’s ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ will please most audience members. It’s a shame that director Mitzi Hamilton found it necessary to stilt some of the enthusiasm and delight of the show.
Monday, July 18, 2005
Martin Cespedes (choreographer)
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Elton John and Tim Rice's 'AIDA' worth seeing at Beck
Disney productions is best known for escapist entertainment. Elton John is known as a pop singer and writer of emotional and schmaltzy songs. Tim Rice is noted for his straightforward lyrics...no word-games here. The trio came together for the blockbuster ‘THE LION KING’ which resulted in not only an award winning film and then a stage musical, but the best-selling recording of 1994. Sir Elton received his first Oscar for that score.
The trio came together again in 2000 for the musical, ‘ELTON JOHN AND TIM RICE’S AIDA: THE TIMELESS LOVE STORY,’ better known as ‘AIDA.’ ‘AIDA’--sound familiar? Yes, there is a Verdi opera by the same name. And the Broadway version, now on stage at Beck Center, is the same story, with a slightly cotton-candied ending, but entirely new music...pop music!
The story of ‘AIDA’ is a love triangle of loyalty and betrayal. Radames, an Egyptian captain, captures a group of Nubian women while on a scouting expedition into that country. Among the women is Aida, the daughter of the King of Nubia. Radames finds himself enamored with her and in order to spare her from a life of hard labor, he gives his new slave to his future bride, the Egyptian princess Amneris. Eventually, Aida finds herself torn between her duty to her countrymen, her impossible love for Radames, and her growing friendship with Amneris.
As Sir Elton says of the tale, "It's a beautiful, complex love story, where bigotry and hatred are swept out the window, and love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding triumph. In this day and age, I'm a great believer in the human spirit triumphing over evil in any way."
The Broadway show opened on March 23, 2000 and closed on September 5, 2004, running for 1852 performance.
Those who think of opera as a scary proposition need not worry about this pop version of the classic tale. The show is neither deep nor profound. Its a light, soap-opera. The show’s strength and appeal rests on the Elton John-Tim Rice score. There is country music, a little Rock and Roll, some Caribbean beat sounds, and lush and lovely ballads.
Beck’s production, under the capable direction of Scott Spence, starts slowly, but builds effectively. Working with a huge cast, he has paced the show well. The voices are fine, the visual elements are excellent and the choreography creative.
Colleen Longshaw, the cast’s only equity performer, acts and sings the role of Aida proficiently. She doesn’t have the charisma for holding an audience mesmerized, but in this cast of mostly high school and college students, she stands out.
Ian Atwood, who was so outstanding last year in Beck’s production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ again displays a strong and well-keyed voice as Radames. He doesn’t have the desirable “bigger than life” image, but he carries off the role more than adequately.
Carlos Cruz, as the Nubian slave Mereb, sings well and displays excellent stage presence and acting skills. Laurel Held-Posey, as Amneris, needed a little sharper initial attack, but grew nicely as the production progressed. She has a fine singing voice.
The choral sounds were excellent and the orchestra, under Larry Goodpaster’s direction, not only played well, but wisely backed up rather than drowning out the performers.
The production’s musical highlights included: “How I Know You,” “Elaborate Lives,” and “A Step Too Far.” The “Dance of the Robe” was a production high point.
The multi-Times Tribute’s Theatre Award winning choreographer, Martin Cespedes, was his usual creative self. Working with few real dancers, he was able to invent routines that allowed for a lot of walking and movement in time to music. He incorporated into the choreography traditional Egyptian motions and poses that appear on the country’s ancient pottery.
Don McBride’s set design was extremely functional and creative. His use of triangle and pyramid shapes carried out the proper visual images. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the costuming. For some unexplainable reason the costumes had no central theme. Modern dress mixed with Asian, Egyptian and African styles and fabrics. A fashion show which was intended to show off Aida’s sewing skills was a mock modern day runway show with hats and styles that often had no bearing on the script’s themes. The inconsistency was highlighted by the clothing used for the climactic dual death scene when Aida is sent to her demise in a contemporary black sheath while Radames is wearing a Nehru styled suit. Why?
The light design and execution was also problematic. Lead singers were often in the shadows due to uneven flooding and the trouble of the spotlight operators following and setting the images.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though not a perfect production, Beck’s AIDA is yet another of the Center’s continued level of raising the bar for local theatre musical productions. It is worth seeing.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Reflections on Bill Allman: A Friend Remembers
Bill Allman was a very special person in my life. He was not only a personal friend, but a professional colleague. He was not only responsible for my becoming involved in Berea Summer Theatre and the BW Theatre program, but furthered my son’s theatrical career by casting him as Younger Patrick in ‘MAME.’ Bill’s passing leaves a hole not only in my heart, but in the very essence of the theatre community.
John Nolan, who was a performer at Berea Summer Theatre, Bill’s student at BW and the last Managing Director of the BST before it was closed under questionable conditions by the college, represented Bill’s many friends at the memorial service held on Sunday, July 31. Here is a brief segment of his speech:
William Shakespeare wrote in ‘AS YOU LIKE IT’: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Our beloved Billy did play many parts. He was a much-loved son, brother, father, father-in-law, grandfather, neighbor, teacher, director, colleague, showman, and mentor.
And within-and above -all of those roles, Bill Allman was that most treasured of all gifts -- a true friend.
Although there are many different stories about Bill, they all have common elements. Bill was a warm, kind man, with a broad, inviting smile and an infectious laugh, who never met a person he couldn’t talk with (and, parenthetically, probably did talk with). He was generous to a fault, with a heart as big as all outdoors, and our world is a much richer place for his having been a part of it.
Bill was a remarkably humble man, too. In an interview he gave in 1996, Bill said : “I’d like to think that somewhere along the line in my teaching and working with plays, that maybe one moment I’ve had just a little bit of effect on somebody, and then that person goes out and there’s a little bit of me there.”
Billy, Billy, Bill. This room is full of people, and the many others whose schedules did not allow them to be with us today, stand as an absolute testament to the fact that you did have a profoundly powerful effect on many of us, and that we are proud to carry you with us, in our hearts, wherever we go.
No reflection on the life of Bill Allman would be complete without some mention of Berea Summer Theatre. In fact, the two were nearly synonymous in the minds of decades of loyal theatregoers who remember Bill welcoming them at every performance.
Bill’s life was one long, loving, entertaining show. So, in the words of the master himself, please join me in completing Bill’s most quoted line: “If you enjoy the show,
please tell your friends!”
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
At GLTF, ‘MERRY WIVES’ are merry, but....
When the name Shakespeare is invoked, most Americans, having been exposed mainly to his tragedies, such as ‘HAMLET’ and ‘MACBETH’ think of such terms as “abstract,” “difficult to understand” and “academic.”
That image of Shakespeare and his works is basically wrong. Shakespeare was, or so it is recounted, a rebel for his time. He was a playwright for the common people. Many of his plays are bawdy and filled with sexual innuendoes. His comedies have a great deal of farcical undertones and lend themselves to broad interpretation. ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR,’ now in production at the Great Lakes Theatre
(Shakespeare) Festival, is a case in point.
Upon entering the Ohio Theatre, you will quickly realize that this is not your traditional Shakespearean production. The audience is confronted with an orange and teal Howard Johnson motel. As the play, under Sari Ketter’s direction proceeds, we are hit with more “non-Shakespearean” effects and doings. Pop music from the 50s is used for transitions as the sets are changed by a crew of Howard Johnson waitstaff. Costumes are from the same era. One of the lead characters, resembles Elvis Presley complete with DA haircut, jeans with rolled cuffs, and white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve. Another is a Marilyn Monroe knock-off complete with white dress and halter top which is ready to fly over her head if she passes over an air-shaft. It doesn’t take long to realize that thisis going to be a no-holds barred, over-the-top farcical attack on the Bard of Avon’s work.
‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR’ is often termed a bourgeois comedy. Many critics consider it to be one of Shakespeare's weaker plays, mainly because he has taken Falstaff, the superbly developed character of the two Henry IV plays, and made him as a lesser character. In addition, the writing is more visual image than the usual Shakespearean language-centered plays. It is also theorized that the play was quickly written when the Bard was commissioned to scribe a piece in early April of 1597 for The Garter Festival in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, which was staged the third week of April. Interestingly, the plot may have been prescribed by Queen Elizabeth, a great theatre goer, who wanted to see Falstaff in love.
The play’s story line places Sir John Falstaff, a conniving lecher, in Windsor with the intent of improving his financial lot by courting Mistresses Ford and Page, two wealthy married women, . These "merry wives" are not interested in the aging, overweight Falstaff as a suitor, but for the sake of their own amusement pretend to respond to his proposals. At one point, Falstaff is forced to hide in a laundry basket which is then thrown into the river.
In another instance, he is forced to dress in women’s clothing to avoid being caught in his scheme. As in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, all’s well that ends well. Falstaff is exposed as the fool he is, young love wins out and the merry wives are destined to live happily ever after.
As has been the case since Charles Fee became the Artistic Director at GLFT, comedy means exaggerated farce. Fee loves to hear audiences laughing. He obviously has a partner in Sari Ketter, who directs with a manic intensity that would make the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges happy. Many of the gimmicks work, others do not. After a while some of the shticks become tedious, such as the overly choreographed set changes. On the other hand, the audience does have a good time. Whether it has anything to do with the script’s intent or not is obviously irrelevant. As evidenced by the preteens sitting in our row who were hysterical, children will love the slapstick so this production might be a good way to introduce them to the joys of Shakespeare.
The cast is right in sync with Ketter. No one mumphers, phumphers and makes frog like eye pops like Andrew May. He is given many opportunities to be the Andrew we know-and-love as Master Ford, the jealous husband. Kathryn Cherasaro and Lynn Allison are wonderful as Mistresses Ford and Page. Skinny and gangling Jeff Cribbs makes for the perfect geek as Master Slender, a reluctant wooer of Anne Page. Tom Weaver is his equal as his spindly-legged companion. Gum chewing Nina Domingue, complete with “New Yawk” squealing accent, is delightful as the nosey housekeeper.
In this production that knows no boundaries, Paul Kiernban’s underplaying of Falstaff was off-setting. His belly and clothing were funny, but his characterization often goes astray. Nicholas Koesters as Master Fenton, who is the final victor in the wooing of Anne Page, has difficulty maintaining his Elvis/cool guy sound and mannerisms. Marc Moritz overdoes the accent of Dr. Caius to the extent that he is often impossible to understand.
Capsule Judgment Director Sari Ketter’s interpretation of ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR’ is not for everyone. If you are willing to put aside your thoughts of what Shakespeare should be, and will yourself (pardon the pun) to just sit back and accept that this isn’t the traditional format, or that many of the shticks and gimmicks don’t completely work, you’ll enjoy yourself. If you don’t like slapstick, and are a Shakespeare purist, stay home.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
A touching ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR’ at Porthouse
Tom Griffin's ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR,’ now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is the kind of play that in the wrong hands could become an emotional disaster. The story of four developmentally disabled men living in a communal apartment, under the supervision of a social worker, walks the fine line between drama and comedy. If it is presented as a farce, a potentially rewarding experience becomes a mockery.
In the play we meet the men who are living under the supervision of an earnest, but increasingly "burned out" young social worker named Jack. Norman, who works in a doughnut shop and is unable to resist the lure of the sweet pastries, takes great pride in the huge bundle of keys which dangles from his waist; Lucien P. Smith has the mind of a 5-year-old, but imagines that he is able to read and comprehend the weighty books he lugs about; Arnold is the hyperactive ringleader and compulsive chatterer, who suffers from deep-seated insecurities and a persecution complex; while Barry, a schizophrenic who is devastated by the rejection of his brutal father, fantasizes that he is a golf pro. These four, as is true of all of us, want only to love and laugh and find some meaning and purpose in life.
When it opened off-Broadway the production received positive reviews. Written commentaries stated that the play "hits squarely on the truth of life,” that it was “the most unusual and one of the most rewarding plays in Town” and that it was “a sensitive play that can be funny and touching at the same time." In spite of this, the show didn’t garner the crowds it should have. It was felt the reason was that many were nervous about laughing at the mentally challenged or couldn’t believe that someone could write a play about these people which didn’t mock them. I was not among the doubters and found the show then and now to be both a delightful and rewarding experience.
"Boys" is particularly challenging for the performers and director as they work to present the characters as human beings rather than as stereotypes. There is a fine line between laughing with and laughing at that must never be crossed. Even more, there are moments of loving tenderness juxtaposed with just plain silliness that test the actors’ and director’s adaptability and concentration.
Porthouse Theatre’s fine production, under the direction of John Woodson, is right on course. Under his guidance the excellent cast has found a way to walk the tight-rope that allows for empathy without ridiculing the plight of the intellectually and psychologically impaired.
The ensemble cast is superb. Brian Zoldessy develops a high-tensed Arnold that we can laugh with, not at. The character’s hyper-hysteria is made endearing with a consistent and creative character development.
Hollis Hayden, Jr.’s Lucien P. Smith becomes an adult-child whose very essence makes for heart-ripping reality. This is a finely tuned performance. I defy anyone not to be touched by the character’s presentation before a Senate committee that is attempting to force him into being something he is not.
Church Richie gives an award winning performance as the donut desiring Norman. Richie’s scenes with the wonderful Megan Elk, portraying Sheila, the love of Norman’s life, are amusing, believable and tender.
Andrew Cruse so well portrays Barry one wonders early in the play why he is in the group home. It is only after we are exposed to the rejection by his feared, yet revered father’s visit that we truly gain understanding. The father-son scene is emotionally wrenching.
Michael Anderson has the difficult role of being the rational character in the play. Rational from the standpoint of being mentally and psychologically normal, but in reality searching for who he really is after suffering a marital tragedy. Anderson is excellent, especially in the final scene when the effects of leaving his irritating yet lovable “guys” becomes a reality.
Ben Needham’s set design sometimes leads to place confusion as areas flow together but that is aided by Paul Denayer’s lighting which often helps clarify. Chaela Schmidt’s costumes help enhance the characterizations.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As Jack and his boys face the ups and downs of daily life, we all discover the magic of laughter and the power of love in Porthouse Theatre’s fine production of ‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR.”
Aliens invade convergence-continuum
No matter your reaction to the plays they produce, you have to give credit to Artistic Director Clyde Simon and Executive Director Brian Breth--they never pick plays that are ordinary. The dynamic duo seems to search out scripts that create an itch that is hard to scratch and incite intellectual chaos in viewers. They have done it again with Constance Congdon’s ‘TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS.’
Cogan is a Guggenheim Fellow who has received several playwriting awards. She has been described as “a genuine pioneer,” “a truly original writer,” a “kind of post modernist who desires to explore the collective nervous breakdown of American society.” She is noted for departing from the tradition of narrative dramatic realism and creating a theatricality of theatre. This is much in the vein of the early twentieth century dramatists and directors who intentionally made audiences aware that they were not seeing reality by using fragmented settings and devices to make the audience realize that they were watching a play.. She supposedly was one of the leaders in making theatre into a “kinetic event.”
With this said, you can understand why seeing ‘TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS’ is not your every-day theatrical experience. And that’s exactly what convergence continuum is all about. The theatre has been able to survive by cultivating an audience of like-minded people who don’t want to see “every day theatre.”
The ‘TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS’ could be termed a tragic comedy which is part dream play and part sci-fi. It is formed around the premise that space aliens are observing and interpreting suburban life though the lens of their own culture.
The play follows the story of Cathy and her dysfunctional family. After her husband impregnates one of his students, she leaves him and moves from New York City to her childhood home in a midwestern suburb to care for her father who is battling Alzheimer's disease. Her rebellious son, overbearing mother, self-destructive best friend and spaced-out neighbor complete the real-life characters. In addition, a group of alien narrators observe.
The aliens dub the humans “Formicans”--users of Formica. The goings on are caught on film which the extraterrestrials “rewind” several times when they realize that things are in the wrong place as they make pronouncements about their subjects’ behavior. Such statements as “they reproduce with difficulty” and “they are grouped in loosely structured units called families” resound with objective certainty. Others, however, suggest that the alien researchers are having difficulty deciphering the “complex but strangely intangible” culture they unearth and the numerous artifacts they find. For example, they carefully examine a kitchen chair, upholstered in plastic with chrome legs. Admitting that they do not know “the significance of the hole in the backrest,” they speculate that it may have been “a breathing hole for the spirit of the sitter, or even the ever-present eye of God.”
As is usually the case at convergence-continuum, the play is well directed and acted. Clyde Simon has paced the show well; wisely plays it as comedy instead of farce; has incorporated many appropriate multi-media devices into the staging; and has assembled an excellent cast.
Wes Shofner is right on target as the Alzheimer infected father. Multi-recipient Times Tribute Award winner Lucy Bredeson-Smith develops the role effectively as his wife and mother of Cathy. Though much too young for the role, Amy Bistok is generally believable as Cathy, but needed a more mature approach to the role. Robert Walker is full of the proper teenage angst as Cathy’s son Eric. Geoffrey Hoffman effectively develops the character of the neighbor who believes in conspiracies and aliens. Christine McBurney is generally unbelievable as Cathy’s friend Judy. Her lines often sound memorized and lacking in meaning. Arthur Grothe has watched enough sci-fi movies to duplicate the expected sound and moves of the visitor from outer space.
Adding somewhat to the confusion was the use of the same actors to play aliens and humans. Were we to believe they were one in the same, had invaded human bodies or that they were, in fact, different beings? Hmmm......
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: To some, ‘TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS’ will be a funny, deeply moving, and insightfully revealing play. To others it will confound and confuse. Whatever, the convergence-continuum production is generally well performed and fulfills the avowed mission of the theatre to present plays not normally produced by other local venues.
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
A further glimpse at the Stratford Festival of Canada, 2005
Several weeks ago I reviewed the Stratford Festival of Canada’s ‘AS YOU LIKE IT,’ ‘THE TEMPEST and ’HELLO DOLLY.’ In addition I recommended places to stay, eat and shop while enjoying the area. If you missed these and want a copy of the reviews contact me by clicking on my website: www.royberko.info.
Now, let’s look at three other Stratford Festival of Canada productions--‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV,’ ‘INTO THE WOODS’ and ‘WINGFIELD’S INFERNO.’
‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV’
Adaptations of literature are a common basis for theatrical scripts. Some transposing is easy as the length of the novel and the language development of the original work lends itself to easy transition. However, the thought of making a one-thousand-plus page book, and a Russian novel at that, into a reasonable length stage play appears to be a task beyond comprehension. Russian writers are noted for their extended story telling. They state, restate, go off on literary tangents, and use multi-names and diminutives of names for their characters. It doesn’t make for an easy read. Trying to convert a book such as Dostoyevsky’s ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV’ is a daunting task.
Jason Sherman is one of Canada’s leading playwrights. His adaptation of ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV’ was penned specifically for the Stratford Festival and runs there through September 24.
Written in 1880, ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV’ is a novel about murder, ethics and religion. Some of Dostoyevsky’s personal life is reflected in the play. His youngest son, Alyosha, died at the age of three, of epilepsy, a disease inherited from him. After the boy's death, Dostoyevsky went to the Oiptina Monastery to consult a famous spiritual director, Father Ambrose. Father Ambrose is the model for Father Zossima in ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.’
‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV’ is the story of a parricide. Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha, and their half-brother, the epileptic valet Smerdyakov, are the children of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov who is fringing on senility, is mean, and obsessed with sex. All his children, except Alyosha, hate Fyodor, but for different reasons. Dmitri is in love with the same woman as his father; Ivan hates his father because he so nearly resembles him; Smerdyakov loathes him for corrupting his mother and for keeping him a serf. All three want the old man's money. When he is mysteriously murdered, all are filled with guilt, although it is Smerdyakov who has actually committed the crime.
Much to my surprise, having struggled though the complexity of many Russian novels, I found Sherman’s script easy to follow and I was intrigued by the stage goings-on. This is a tribute to Sherman’s translation and the brilliant directing of Richard Rose. He has the entire cast stay on or on the fringes of the stage throughout the production. This makes for smooth transitions and forces the audience to become part of the action as we find ourselves part of the action.
The entire cast is excellent. Jonathan Goad is mesmerizing as Dmitry, the “bad” son. As Fyodor, the oppressive father, Scott Wentworth was so effective that audience members did much to control themselves and not boo when he made his curtain call. Ron Kennell was excellent as Pavel, the bastard son.
Charlotte Dean’s drab costume designs heightened the oppression of Fyodor.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though not a perfect play, I’d strongly recommend seeing Stratford’s ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.’ It may be your only opportunity as the complexity of the show will probably dissuade other theatres from staging this literary epic.
‘INTO THE WOODS’
Stephen Sondheim is the reigning king of American musical theatre writers. Since he charged onto the scene with ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ he has written hit after hit. His ‘INTO THE WOODS,’ which opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran 764 performances was recently reprised on the Great White Way. The winner of 3 Tony awards, it is a popular selection for community theatres.
Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's book, ‘THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT,’ the musical intertwines a collection of Grimm Fairy tales in an unusual format which uses a Baker and his Wife's quest to begin a family together with the stories of Little Red Ridinghood, Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. Also thrown in are a wolf, Jack’s mother, a giant and his wife, and a couple of princes.
Act I opens with a wish, a witch, and a curse. Each separate tale interacts with the others throughout. As the first act proceeds we become aware that each of the characters and their conflicts are motivated by selfish wishes.
Act II explores what happens after "happily ever after," when these wishes to have, to be and to get, have come true.
The script explores the consequences of the actions taken in the quest for getting our wishes granted, and the need for community in order to survive in "the Woods"--our world.
Songs in the musical include "Into the Woods", "Hello, Little Girl", "Giants in the Sky", "Agony", "Moments in the Woods", "No More", "No One Is Alone", and the haunting "Children Will Listen".
In an unusual method of writing language, Sondheim makes heavy use of syncopated speech. The characters' lines are delivered with a fixed beat that follows natural speech rhythms, but is also purposefully composed in rhythms to create spoken songs.
The Stratford production is excellent. The voices are good, the show is nicely paced by director Peter Hinton and, for the most part, the acting is on target.
Kyle Blair (Jack) is superb. Bruce Dow (the Baker), Mary Ellen Mahoney (the Baker’s wife) and Jennifer Waiser (Little Red Ridinghood) are wonderful. On the other hand, Susan Gilmour’s screeching as the Witch becomes tiresome and ear shattering after a while and Thom Allison as Cinderella’s Prince seems bored with the role and is less than princely.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘INTO THE WOODS’ is a pleasant production of one of Stephen Sondheim’s lesser shows.
The passing down of tales from generation to generation are important for carrying on the values, mores and morals of a culture. Some people are master storytellers. Think Mark Twain, David Sedaris and Bill Cosby. Often, it is necessary to be a member of a cultural group to totally appreciate the tales.
Walt Wingfield, the central character in a series of Canadian-based stories, is the creation of playwright Dan Needles. Wingfield has been performed by actor Rod Beattie for many years. Their latest collaboration, ‘WINGFIELD’S INFERNO’ centers on an elaborate ruse to fulfill the requirements of a restoration grant for a community hall that has been destroyed by a fire by pretending that the fire never took place.
Beatty portrays an entire countryside of characters with ease and clarity. Using few props and many voices and facial expressions, Beatty is excellent.
Unfortunately, for US Americans attending this production, many of the jokes and innuendos are beyond us. Comments regarding insurance, fire departments, horse plowing, wild turkeys, building committees, unicorn hunts, perception versus reality, and weather forecasting, which convulsed the Canadians in the audience, zoomed in and out of my Yankee ears.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Yes, it does help to be Canadian to truly appreciate the goings-on in ‘WINGFIELD’S INFERNO.’
INFORMATION ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
Founded in 1953 as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, the company is the largest classical repertory theater in North America. Until November 6, it will stage 14 shows in a rotating repertory in its four theaters. The Festival takes place in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. about six hours from Cleveland.
Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet. Stratford Escapes, a division of Niagara Falls Tours, is an efficient way to make reservations. For information call 877-356-6385 or go on line to www.niagarafallstours.com. For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to www.stratfordfestival.ca.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
Porthouse's 'WEST SIDE STORY' oky, but lacks the needed edginess
In September of 1957 I made my first of what was to become many visits to New York City to see Broadway productions. One of the shows I saw on that trip was the newly opened ‘WEST SIDE STORY.’ I fell in love with musical theatre that night when I viewed the dynamic, edgy and compelling show. That production stared Carol Lawrence as Maria, Larry Kert as Tony and Chita Rivera as Anita. I have seen many productions of that musical since then. A few were superb, some bad and most, like that now being presented at Porthouse Theatre, are okay, but not mesmerizing.
‘WEST SIDE STORY’ transfers Shakespeare's ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ to modern-day New York. The love story of Romeo and Juliet becomes that of Maria and Tony. The feud between the houses of the Capulets and the Montagues is re-created in one involving two teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The famous balcony scene of the Shakespeare drama transpires on a fire-escape of a New York tenement. And, as in the original, the star-crossed love affair ends in doom.
As in all well-conceived musicals the elements in ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ combine to make a seamless work. Leonard Bernstein’s music is passionate as well as memorable. Jerome Robbins' original choreography conveyed the tension and violence of city life. Arthur Laurents' dialogue and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics skillfully draw the audience into the story.
‘WEST SIDE STORY’ took Broadway by storm. Four years later it was made into a film, which won an Academy Award as the best film of 1961. Unfortunately, the movie contained much sham. Instead of using the mutli-talented Lawrence and Kert, the powers that be cast non-singers Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony. (A little-known fact is that Elvis Presley was originally considered for the role of Tony.) The former child star Jimmy Bryant was Beymer’s musical voice and Marni Nixon’s singing was dubbed for Natalie Wood. Even the great Rita Moreno, who played Anita, had her voice enhanced by Betty Wand.
‘WEST SIDE STORY’ is a difficult play for amateurs to do well. First, there is Bernstein’s music which is both difficult to sing and play. Then, there is the necessity for superb dancing which is so integral to the plot. In addition, there is the requirement for the cast to understand and duplicate the frustration of the ghetto, the immigrant desire for territory and assimilation, and the basis for the cultural clashes.
Porthouse’s orchestra, under the able musical direction of Melissa Fucci, was excellent. The musical interpretation incorporated the proper urgency, the impending conflict, the underscoring of what was happening and what was to come.
The singing, on the other hand, was not always well accomplished. Kayce Cummings (Maria) has a wonderful voice. She interprets song lyrics well. Stephen Brockway (Tony) has a pleasant voice, but not the full sound needed for such powerful songs as “Maria” and “Something’s Coming.” In fact, in their duets Cumming’s voice so overshadowed Brockway’s that when the two were singing together in “One Hand, One Heart” it was more Maria’s solo than a duet. Sandra Emerick (Anita) has a wonderful voice. Too bad her dancing abilities didn’t parallel her vocals and fiery acting.
Choreographer John Crawford wisely did not attempt to duplicate Jerome Robbins extremely difficult movements. What he did use was often, with few exceptions, beyond the abilities of the dancers. This was especially true with the males. David Gregory and Andrew Mills held their own, but you could almost see some of the others counting their movement beats. Well conceived and performed was the sprightly “America.” On the other hand, due to poor physical movements and some questionable line interpretations, the usually hysterical “Gee, Officer Krupke” was pleasant, at best.
The major place the show stumbled was in attitude. The edge simply wasn’t there. These were, for the most part, clean scrubbed suburban teenagers pretending to be tough. The tension and violence of city ghetto life was just too far removed from their experiences for them to feel it, to create reality. The show has to be dynamic, compelling, engrossing, real. The Porthouse production was pleasant, well-intentioned and nice. That’s okay for lots of musicals, but not for “WEST SIDE STORY.”
Nolan Dell’s scenic design was excellent. T. C. Kouyeas Jr.’s lighting was generally good, but the climax of the rumble at the end of Act 1 was diminished by the lack of incessant flashing police lights and the lazy movement of the spotlights. The lack of compelling vividness failed to give the needed emotional spark.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Porthouse’s ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ is a perfectly acceptable summer theatre production. Unfortunately, it lacked the edge, the needed compelling quality to make it a special experience.
Saturday, July 02, 2005
‘THE THING ABOUT MEN’ delights at Actors' Summit
‘The Thing About Men’ is written by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, authors of the long running Off-Broadway hit ‘I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change’ which had very successful local runs at both Actors Summit and The Hanna Theatre.
The play is loosely based on the 1985 movie ‘Men.’ The story concerns a womanizing advertising executive, upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, manages to become the roommate of the hickey-bestowing artist with whom the neglected lady has been sleeping. The hubby, thinking only to spy on his competition, discovers that he likes the other guy and schemes, once he's given up on winning his spouse back, to help his new pal win wifey's hand in marriage. Unfortunately, he rids the artist of his charms, makes him as boring as himself and winds up messing up the reason for the wife’s attraction.
DiPietro has a facility for the well-turned remark and the comic set-up, both in his book scenes and his lyrics. Roberts has a knack for tossing off easy tunes. The result is an entertaining and escapist script.
This is not intended to be a message musical, even though the title seems to hint at that. This is meant to be a sit and laugh and forget the real world. And, it works by use of sexual innuendoes and a little of bit of off-color language.
When it opened off-Broadway in New York, VARIETY’s review stated: “The thing about ‘The Thing About Men’ is that ‘thing’ is just the word for it. No more descriptive noun seems appropriate for this bland and insipid new Off-Broadway musical about that most generic of subjects, marital infidelity.” That may have been the word in the Big Apple, but it surely isn’t the reaction the show is getting at Actors’ Summit Theatre. Audience comments included, “That was cute.”, “I loved it!” and “I loved the way it was staged.”
Okay, so it does come off sounding more like a concocted pilot for a TV sitcom with lots of logical weaknesses, but there is enough charm to make the production work, especially in the creative hands of director A. Neil Thackaberry and a talented cast.
Sandra Emerick, a past Times Tribute Theatre winner, is delightful in the role of Lucy, Tom’s wife and Sebastian’s lover. She belts out her songs in a strong voice and makes the words meaningful.
Scott Boulware is wonderful as Tom. He bounces between outraged and vindictive and pussy cat with ease. He has a mobile face, a nice way of turning a line and a very good voice.
W. Jamie Koeth, though he doesn’t have the sensual elements that might have helped flesh out the part, builds nicely in the role of Sebastian. One could only wish that his wig might have been a better quality as the one he wears makes him look like he’s wearing something left over from Halloween. As with all the members of the cast, he has a nice singing voice.
Kent LeMar plays his many roles with hysterical accents, delightful facial and body expressions, and a wonderful sense of comic timing. Ditto for Tricia Bestic in her multi roles.
Pianist Michael Flohr performs well, though a fuller musical sound would have added to the festivities.
The only real flaw in the production were the costumes which were often ill-fitting and not well-styled.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Actors Summit’s ‘The Thing About Men’ is a delightful pastiche, perfect for a hot summer evening get away.
GROUNDWORKS again displays perfection at Cain Park
Humans are storytellers. The narratives they tell perpetuate the values, morals and history of their culture. David Shimotakahara, the Artistic Director of GroundWorks Dancetheater, has taken this theme and built it into the company’s Cain Park program.
The small Alma Theatre is a perfect venue for GroundWorks whose selections tend to work best when the audience is up-front and personal.
The program opened with choreographer Beth Corning’s ‘At Once There Was a House.’ The piece, which is a series of vignettes, has become part of the company’s continuing repertoire with good reason. It lets the cast members not only dance but narrate. It also allows for some lightness and humor. Danced in solos, duets, trios and quartets the piece, which includes music by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, Lou Harrison and others, spans the blues, Asian, operatic and classical sounds. Using almost every modern dance technique, the variety of movements in the performance catch and hold the audience’s attention. Highlights were a section in which each dancer holds a freeze and exchanges positions with another company member; Shimotakahara coupling with a stuffed puppet; Felice Bagley exploring a fence and its role in life’s passages; Mark Otloski dancing around, on and beside a chair; Amy Miller exploring a house; and the entire company in oversized shoes going out into and interacting with the audience.
‘Ephemeral,’ choreographed by Shimotakahara, was conceived to the music of Gustavo Aguilar, who often supplies the sounds for the company. Combining primitive and plaintive music, the high energy piece was perfectly executed. Enhanced by the lighting of Dennis Dugan Felise Bagley and Mark Otloski created the image of being attracted to the lighting shadows while attempting to escape their hold, much like moths to a flame. The duo’s unit of moves was visually compelling.
The world premiere of Shimotakahara’s ‘Kabila (The Tribe),’ was magical. Janet Bolick and fabric artist Esther Montgomery’s isometric costumes added much visual excitement to the performance. Danced to sounds of African voices, the choreography recreated traditional dark continent movements into modern dance action, following the musical changes from chants to heavy drum beats. Again, the theme of narratives was showcased with various tales told through bodily movements.
GroundWorks has the best complete dance company in the area. Each dancer has total control over his/her movements. Honed by Shimotakahara’s perfectionistic philosophy of choreography and dance there appears never to be a stumble or error or unnecessary movement. It is amazing to watch Amy Miller, Felise Bagley, Mark Otloski and Shimotakahara display complete understanding of the need to make and the ability to create each movement into a complete set of beginning, middle and finality. Trainee Jennifer Lott has improved greatly since she has come under the guidance of Shimotakahara which is taking her on the journey to become a dancer of the quality of the rest of the company. It was also pleasing to see that Otloski has completely recovered from an injury which kept him out of the company’s last several concerts.
Capsule Judgment GroundWorks Dancetheater’s latest concert at Cain Park was slam dunk. As has come to be expected from this fine company, the evening was one of excitement and enjoyment!