Saturday, October 28, 2006

And Baby Makes Seven (convergence-continuum)

Another thought-provoking and weird experience at convergence-continuum

At intermission, the woman sitting next to me at the opening night production of Paula Vogel’s ‘AND BABY MAKES SEVEN,’ at convergence-continuum theatre, said, “Well, it’s another one of those Clyde Simon thought-provoking, weird experiences.”

Yes, thought-provoking and weird are the general rule at convergence, Cleveland’s off, off, way off Broadway home of scripts that no one else in the Cleveland area drama scene will produce.

On the surface, the play seems to be straight forward. Two lesbians (Ruth and Anna) decide to have children with the help of Peter, their gay male friend. Okay, no problem there. That’s what you think. Vogel’s creativity lets lose, and in order to prepare for the impending birth, she has the women develop child alter-egos. The fantasy rug rats aren’t your run of the mill kids. Orphan is a feral wild-child raised by dogs at the New York Port Authority, who may or may not have rabies. Henri is a misplaced Parisian, borrowed from the movie ‘THE RED BALLOON.’ Cecil is a savant and Darwinian, to boot. (You are probably thinking, “What? No way.” Come on, would I make this up?) In the final week before their real baby is due, Peter suggests they need to clear their apartment of the make-believe children. The trio decide to “kill them off.” They supposedly accomplish their deed, but, of course, to make the plot thicker, when the real baby shows up, the pretend kids return. So, baby does make 7!

The script has been called, “funny, allusive and edgy." At times, the audience gets off tracked as Vogel throws in lines from ‘TEA AND SYMPATHY,’ Shakespeare and snippets from lots of pop songs that may well be beyond the reach of the youngish audiences we tend to show up for convergence productions. As we watch, there is a tendency to play amateur psychologist and figure out whether the fantasy children are really flashbacks to personal histories of the women.

The convergence production is quite good. Denise Astorino, who is quickly establishing herself as a local superstar, is excellent. Not only does she make her human character real, but her dog-like feral child and French speaking Red Balloon kid are right-on.

Jovana Batkovic is equally fine as the real Anna, and the fantasy Cecil, she of child actions but adult wisdom. Her pregnancy out-of-control hormones scene is hysterical.

Only Geoffrey Hoffman falters slightly. Hoffman is one of my favorite local actors. He has good character-centered instincts and is usually on target. Therefore, I cannot understand why either he, or director Simon, decided that he needed to be fay, sound affected and feigned an over-extended “gay” presence. His saving grace? His giving the baby a bath scene is priceless. Oh, and for those who have become accustomed to seeing Hoffman showing off his gym-toned body on the convergence stage, yes, fear not, Simon makes sure that he does scenes with his shirt off.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: So, what’s the verdict? I guess Simon’s onslaught of off kilter plays has finally gotten to me. I surrender, I found myself interested, even absorbed. As for you, the bottom line is, either you want to play Vogel's fantasy game, or you don't. If the answer is, “yes” then go, think, and be weirded-out.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Modern Orthodox (Jewish Community Center/Cuyahoga Community College)

‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ pleases some, upsets others at JCC

When ‘MODERN ORTHODOX,’ the play now being produced by the Jewish Community Center in association with Cuyahoga Community College, opened in New York, it was met with very mixed reviews. Most theatre observers forecast a short run. In actuality it stayed open for six-months. This neither made it a hit nor a flop, kind of in-between.

An on-line site surveyed people coming out of the Big Apple production. Their comments included: “It’s hysterical.” “It's an awful, unfunny, sexist, overly schticky, cliched, trite show.” “I loved it!” “I hated it!” “It’s insulting.” Listening to reactions at the opening night of the local production, opinions were about the same. Thumbs up, thumbs down, and some hands wiggled from side-to-side.

Daniel Goldfarb’s ‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ attempts to examine love, relationships and sex from a Jewish cultural stereotypic viewpoint. The use of stereotypes isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just that Goldfarb doesn’t have the writing ability to pull off the comedy while making relevant points. This doesn’t mean there isn’t humor. There are plenty of laughs. But at the end of the play the question arises as to what was the author’s intent? Comedies are intended to have a message. Neil Simon, for example, wrote for laughs, but his plays make a point. What is Goldfarb trying to tell us?

Maybe from Goldfarb’s view, religion and relationships are inextricably linked. His two major characters, Ben Jacobson and Hershel Klein, are at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Ben is a "high holiday Jew," while Hershel is Orthodox in dress, speech, and behavior. Ben wants to buy a diamond ring from Hershel so he can propose to Hannah, his live-in girlfriend of six years. Hershel disapproves of the live-in arrangement. As they bicker, Ben's innate distaste for Orthodox Jews becomes evident, even taunting Hershel to remove his yarmulke in order to seal the deal. Hershel does so. The question must be raised as to the significance of that act. Is this a comment on the role of the Jew being more in love with money than religion? This is not the only unanswered question in Goldfarb’s script. He wanders around making fun of orthodox sexual practices, Jewish dietary concepts, wedding rituals, the guilt of those who aren’t “true” believers, attitudes toward women. And, for what purpose? For laughs? To make a point? You got me...I’m not sure. It’s always been my belief that comedy writers use humor to make a point. What’s Goldfarb’s point?

Logical questions arise. Why, when Herschel appears at his doorstep doesn’t Ben toss him out on his tuchis (Yiddish for rear-end)? Is Herschel’s presence enough to stimulate Ben and Hannah having a relationship crisis? Why is Rachel, a woman with a master’s degree who Ben finds as a potential wife for Hershel on the on-line Jewish dating service so shallow? Is she so desperate to have sex that she’ll marry anyone?

The local production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, generally does a nice job with what they have to work with. Brian Zoldessy is hilarious as Hershel. Zoldessy, as is his classic trademark, flits around with his feet hardly ever hitting the stage. He is appropriately a “cheleria” (nervous wreck) of the highest order. It’s worth going to the production just to see him in action.

Larry Nehring, is believable in his “nice guy” role, often looking like a puppy dog whose purpose in life is only to please. Unfortunately, the script never gives us a clue as to why he would act this way.

Lara Mielcarek makes Hannah as real as she can be with the lines she’s been given. The kissing scene with Hershel, while hysterically funny, is again one of those unexplainable Goldfarb moments.

Holly Facer, is off-key as Rachel, Hershel’s intended wife. Part of the problem is her inappropriate costume. No orthodox Jewish woman would be seen in costume designer Aimee Kluiber’s ill designed garb. Long sleeves, long skirt are requirements, not low cut revealing clothing. Facer doesn’t seem to get the underlying motives of the character to crave sexual attention because she isn’t allowed to express natural desires. She is not a sex-pot as Facer seems to make her.

Ben Needham has the difficult task of attempting to design a supposedly small New York apartment in the massive CCC theatre stage.

Richard Ingraham’s musical interludes are appropriate to the script.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Its difficult to predict any audience member’s reaction to this production. There are lots of laughs, but for what purpose? There is the potential to offend many in the audience, yet please others. “All I can say is OY VEY.”

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Pillowman (Dobama Theatre)

Dobama’s ‘THE PILLOWMAN’--another memorable theatrical experience

Dobama may not have a permanent home, but it is surely reestablishing itself as the place to find to see well-honed, thought-provoking important new plays. No theatre in the area can match the performance center which was Don Bianchi’s dream and is now Joyce Casey’s life work. Their latest works, ‘A NUMBER,’ ‘NIGHT BLOOMERS,’ and “GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA’ have all been superlative. That streak continues with Martin McDonagh’s ‘THE PILLOWMAN.’

After a 2003 opening in London, the show moved to Broadway in 2005. It starred Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup. It won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play, and was nominated for a Tony as best play.

A serious drama with ironic overtones, it tells the tale of Katurian, a fiction writer living in a police state who is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories, and their similarities to a number of bizarre incidents occurring in his town. Before it’s over we are exposed to four lives that have all been subjected to abuse and the effect it has on their existence.

Big Apple critics called the play, "the season's most exciting and original new play" and stated that "Those who skip it will miss the best play of the season."

It is interesting that the two strongest plays on Broadway in 2005, ‘DOUBT’ and “THE PILLOWMAN’ both concerned child predators. These plays are art reflecting life. ‘DOUBT’ examines priest pedophilia and McDonagh presents a series of parables of what happens when the human brain conceives a concept and through a series of ironic twists, the parables become realities.

Those who know McDonagh as the author of ‘THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE’ will not be surprised by the script’s strong, metallic voice that has established him as one of today’s theatre wunderkinds. As with his other writing, there is a Kafka-like examination of bureaucratic violence. Even Katurian's name (his first and middle names are also Katurian) makes him a linguistic kin to Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's ‘LOLITA’ and Major Major of Heller's ‘CATCH-22,’ two other Kafkaesque writers.

Dobama’s production, under the able guidance of Sonya Robbins, holds the audience’s attention during the long show. The cast is strong, yet uneven.

Todd Krispinsky as Katurian, the writer, is outstanding. He is totally believable in both his confusion and suffering. His final speech is emotionally and visually wrenching.

Joel Hammer as the chief detective, is properly harsh and cunning. Daniel McElhaney is compelling as Katurian’s child-like older brother. John Kolibab fails to develop any texture to his role as the “bad” cop. He yells from his initial speech, giving his character no place to go when emotional changes are needed. Laura Stitt (mother), Michael Regnier (father) and Jessica Gill (child) are acceptable in their character development.

The meaning of the title? Can’t give that away. You’ll have to see the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As a line in the play states, “There are no happy endings in real life.” So, too, is the case with this disturbing play. You don’t go to see ‘THE PILLOWMAN’ to be entertained, you go to be fascinated and disturbed. Keep it up Dobama!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

My Fair Lady (Cleveland Play House)

Must see ‘MY FAIR LADY’ at CPH

Cleveland area theatres are in the midst of a series of “let’s take a different approach to scripts” experiences. A male Hamlet, an all male Shakespeare presentation and now, Cleveland Play House’s totally off-beat production of ‘MY FAIR LADY,’ a very, very traditional musical.

‘MY FAIR LADY,’ with lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe opened on Broadway is in 1956 . In contrast to popular belief, it was not a direct adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘PYGMALION,’ but was based on a screenplay adopted by Gabriel Pascal which had been based on the Shaw play, which was based on the Roman myth of Pygmalion. The stage musical was made into a popular film in 1964. A contemporary version of the Pygmalion motif was developed in the 1980s play, ‘EDUCATING RITA.’

The Broadway version, which starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, ran for 2717 performances, a Broadway record at the time. It introduced the world to “Why Can’t the English,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

The play, which takes place in 1910, centers on Henry Higgins, an opinionated linguistics professor and confirmed bachelor, who makes a bet that within six months he can transform an uneducated cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady who can take her place in high society. Eliza agrees to take the lessons in order to fulfill her dream of working in a flower shop. Higgins wins the bet, but doesn't bargain for the profound effect Eliza has had on his life. Melded into the story line are Shaw’s attacks on the British social structure and educational system.

The original Playbill and cast album included art by Al Hirschfeld, which depicted Eliza Doolittle as a marionette being manipulated by Henry Higgins, whose own strings are being pulled by a heavenly puppeteer who looks like George Bernard Shaw. Some Shaw experts were quite offended by Hirschfield’s depiction, because they felt that Shaw’s statement regarding the battle of women to be independent beings was misrepresented by the puppet characterization.

Going to see yet another production of ‘MY FAIR LADY’ did not excite me. I’ve seen the play over twenty times. Well...I was in for a big surprise! The CPH production breaks the traditional staging patterns used for a presentation of ‘MY FAIR LADY.’ There is no set, per se, and no orchestra in the pit. Instead, two pianos stand center stage surrounded by bleachers on which the chorus sits throughout the show. For the various roles the chorus puts on costumes which have been distributed around the stage. Instead of a realistic look, we are confronted by the alienation style of Bertolt Brecht. We know that we are in the theatre, we see all the costume and setting changes. For some this will be off-setting, but for those who are willing to trust director Amanda Dehnert’s concept, the results are glorious.

Dehnert takes the audience into the story with creative staging, wonderful shticks and gimmicks and clarity of song lyrics. Except for making the audience continually blink away the glaring electric lights of a MY FAIR LADY sign above the action, the alienation works to enhance the goings-on.

Devon Painter’s costumes are splendid. She even breaks the tradition of having the Ascot racing scene done in black and white costumes. (BTW...the reason for the traditional dominance of black clothing in that segment was because King Edward VII died on May 6, 1910, the traditional opening date of the Ascot season, the year in which the play is set.)

Don Wadsworth does a great job of working with the dialects. Kelli Wicke Davis’s choreography lacks panache, and he is hampered by the Bolton’s small stage and having a cast that is mainly actors and singers and not dancers.

Vocal Supervisor Tim Robertson has done an excellent job making sure Lerner’s lyrics, which integrate perfectly into the spoken script, are given meaning. This is usually not the case in many productions where the musical sound is often stressed over the ideas of the lyrics. Except for some blending problems with the male chorus, and some upper range issues with Rachel Warren (Eliza), the music was wonderful. It was also nice to have a Henry Higgins who can actually sing, rather than using a cadence count for the songs. Backing up the dual pianos (well played by Bill Corcoran and Tim Robertson) with random violins and a cello, enhanced the musical sound.

The cast is wonderful. Rachael Warren gives a non-Julie Andrews take to Eliza. She is more appropriately earthy, even when she becomes a “lady.” Timothy Crowe, is a more human Henry Higgins than was Rex Harrison. He embodies the role with clueless arrogance. George McDaniel makes the understanding Colonel Pickering a perfect counter to the emotionally retarded Higgins. Larry Daggett is right on target as Eliza’s father. The chorus fulfills their multi-roles with acting quality.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Amanda Dehnert’s take on ‘MY FAIR LADY’ gives new life to the show. The CPH production is one for everyone to see...both those who have experienced the script before and those who have not had the delightful pleasure of seeing Shaw’s ideas morphed into a musical through the talents of Lerner and Loewe.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

M4M (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Marvelous ‘M4M’ AT CPT

A quick look at local entertainment listings might lead someone to believe that Cleveland has become the off-beat Shakespeare center of the theatre world. A female Hamlet, a production of a Bard-light script that many think shouldn’t even be part of the Shakespeare portfolio, and an all-male version of ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ which has a spotty history, at best.

The Cleveland Public Theatre production of ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE, ‘ dubbed by the theatre, ‘M4M’ is the best of the trio.

‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ had only one recorded production during Shakespeare’s life time. In addition, it was not staged after that initial display for over a century because it was said to have “offensive characters and dialogue.” In fact, one Bard critic called it “a hateful work.”

From my perspective, the evaluators of those days were all wrong. ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ makes strong social points, is an excellent example of a tragic-drama (it was originally called as a tragic-comedy), and is a wonderful vehicle for a talented director and company.

Fortunately, CPT has both the talented director, in the person of Craig J. George and a very, very talented ensemble of actors.

George’s vision for the play is totally creative. He envisions scene after compelling scene using only a large white tarp, a desk, a table, a hanging platform, and some black curtains. He is aided by Jenniver Sparano’s costumes which flip on and off bodies as fast as rabbits can be pulled out of a magician’s hat. As an audience, you can’t see all the clothing changes but dressers Curt Arnold and Sparano must be the best quick change artists for dressing and undressing the 6 male members of the cast who play 16 different roles. Not once is there confusion over who is who.

The cast is universally excellent. Michael Mauldin, the only equity member, mesmerizes as the Duke and Friar. He controls the stage with his commanding presence.

Geoff Knox, portraying Angelo, the acting Duke while the real Duke takes a break from his reign, as well as a Friar, a prostitute and several other roles, makes the transitions with ease. This is a very talented young man.

John Paul Soto portrays many of the female roles with wonderful dexterity. He embodies each with a unique characterization.

Rob Mayes plays the condemned Claudio, a pregnant Juliet (who is carrying Claudio’s child), and numerous other roles with a high degree of acting and singing excellence.

Ashley Davenport is properly pompous as Escalus, a court aide, as well as an executioner. He transitions well between characterizations.

Andrew Marikis is not as adept as the other members in the cast in creating meaningful characters, but he does well in breathing life into the lying Lucio.

I think CPT did a disfavor to potential audience members by stressing the production’s use of men playing all the roles. The ads and public relations releases gave the idea that this might well be an S&M, gay take of Shakespeare, a transvestite show. It’s not. Yes, there are tight black pants and bare male chests and simulated sex but it is not the major theme. Men played all the roles in Shakespeare’s day, and there is no reason that they shouldn’t do the same today, especially if they do it as well as the “M4M’ cast.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CPT’s ‘M4M’ is one of the better of this season’s theatrical productions, well outshining the other Shakespeare shows in the area, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in seeing a creatively directed and expertly acted production.

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! (Karamu)


There is an emotional love-in going on at Karamu House! The audience is singing, hand-clapping, foot stomping, shouting out and paying homage. Why? They are enveloped in ‘GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL!,’ a historical investigation of the role gospel music has played in the life of blacks from the 1920s until today.

Conceived by Otis Sallid, the Karamu production is a world premiere before it starts on a national tour. It is being produced by James Pickens, Jr., a Clevelander and Karamu alum, who portrays Dr. Richard Webber, the hospital director on TV’s “Gray’s Anatomy.”

The show starts with a prologue which sets the tone and the story line into action. That transitions into 1920 which is represented by such songs as “Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley.” The 30s finds “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and ”I Love the Lord He Heard My Cry.” Yes, these are all the gospel songs that were sung in churches and gave hope and faith to the believers. The 40s found Negroes the victims of Jim Crow laws (“Goin’ on With The Spirit”) and leaving the South for the North (“Packin’ Up”). The World War II armed forces experiences made for attitudinal changes among both whites and blacks (“Surely God is Able”) and ushered in the 1950s (“Didn’t It Rain”/”How I Got Over”/”Walk With Me”) and the civil rights movement (“Where Is Your Faith In God,” “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and “We Shall Overcome”). Following enactment of integration laws, gospel transposed from religious into secular music and became mainstream (”A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So”).

The songs, hooked together with spoken transitions, make for a very revealing story.

The Karamu production is blessed with some excellent voices. Michael Burns has a nice sound and a playful presentation. His “Two Wings” is a show highlight. Eddie Sands had the audience howling as he sang the moving “Peace Be Still.” Angela Love sang a pretty version of “Perfect Praise.” Bernita Ewing wailed her way through “My Tribute,” “I Looked Down the Road” and “I Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” Leathia Williams, who has a big voice, sang a compelling version of “Peace in the Valley.”

Too bad the whole show isn’t songs, because, in general the cast isn’t much on acting or dancing. In fact, the spoken transitions were often flat and missing meaning. Neal Hodges, as the narrator, was often difficult to hear and understand. Many of his lines were poorly phrased and lacked meaning. The same can be said about Don Harris’s attempts at narration, though he made up for it with a nice song version of “Praise Is What I Do.”

What are the professional commercial prospects of the show? The script, with some transition changes and the elimination of extraneous songs, has potential. As for the production qualities of this show, there are enough weaknesses in the cast in their acting and dancing to make it questionable whether an audience, other than one as tied to the performers and the venue as the Karamu throng, will be willing to pay the big bucks needed to mount such an undertaking.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Karamu’s GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL! is an engaging experience. Members really get into participating in the goings-on, something which could be off-setting for some more traditional audience members not used to singing and speaking the praises of the Lord. All in all, though not a professional level production, the show is worth seeing in its present form.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Love's Labour's Lost (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)


‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST,’ which is now appearing in repertory at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays. In fact, many scholars believe that it should not even be listed in the Bard’s portfolio.

Written in the mid-1590’s during the London plagues, when theatres were closed for fear of spreading diseases to those who assembled in large groups, it is conjectured that Shakespeare was commissioned to write ‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST’ for a small social gathering. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, the script has been described as “A laughing play about wry couples, rhymed couplets, and the impossibility of securing true love in two hours.

The script is written in regular meter and rhyme and is filled with lots of puns which often go right over the heads of modern day viewers due to their lack of present day references.

The story concerns the King of Navarre, who, along with his trio of lords, has sworn that for three years they’ll forswear sleep, food, and the company of women in favor of pious study. So what are sworn men to do when a beautiful Princess and three attractive attending ladies arrive on diplomatic business? Ah, that’s the rub!

The Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s production is creative and a pleasant, though not a compelling experience. Director Drew Barr has inserted lots of schticks and gimmicks to spice up the goings-on. The issue is not Barr or the performers, it’s that the play itself is just not compelling.

Tom Ford as the King and David Anthony Smith, Lynn Robert Berg and Matt Lillo as the lords attending the King, are all fine. Andrew May is his usual hysterical self as Don Adriano De Armado, a fantastical Spaniard, who not only looks but acts like Salvador Dali. Jeffrey C. Hawkins properly overdoes the role of Costard, a clown. Laura Perrotta, is fine as the Princess of France. Julie Evan Smith, Julie McKay and Laura Welsh are charming as the ladies in attendance to the Princess.

The sets, the costumes, the lighting and the sound are all well done.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF does all it can with ‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST.’ Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make a mediocre script into a great production. For those who are interested in seeing a Shakespearean play that is not often performed, the GLTF production is a good choice because this is about as good as it will get.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Spamalot (Playhouse Square Center)

Funny, funny, funny SPAMALOT at State and oh, it's funny.

Anyone who can sit through ‘MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT,’ now on stage at the State Theatre, and not hysterically laugh their way through most of the show’s skit-like segments, should try out for the part of the Muppet’s Oscar the Grouch.

The show, which self-proclaims it is “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’,” is outlandishly, hilariously, creatively, well-conceived and performed.

As a song in the show says, “this is a very expensive forest.” The entire production is an expensive and expansive undertaking. Nothing has been spared in bringing this touring production of the still-running Broadway show to town. The sets, the costumes, the special effects are over-the-top. If you are sitting in the first dozen rows, you’ll wind up being showered with shiny circles of plastic, one member of the audience will be dragged on stage to get a special award, horses gallop (well, the horses aren’t actually there, but it matters little), clouds ascend and descend, a Las Vegas show room appears complete with a row of high kicking scantily clad dancers, castles come and go, and even God appears (well, at one point his legs and at another point his hand).

Now, be aware that not everything is in good taste...there are lots of sexual innuendos, lots of passing gas jokes, almost every ethnic and religious group is skewered. The skit which insists you can’t do a Broadway show without lots of Jews, is nothing short of uproarious and the ballet scene between a priest and a nun is offensively delightful.

So, what’s it all about? With book by Eric Idle, and music and lyrics by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical centers on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and their search for the mythical (or mystical) Holy Grail, which could be a vessel, a bowl or an idea. Matters not, this is not a religious play, it is an irreverent romp.

For those who have seen the film, the musical differs in many ways, so those who haven’t seen the flick need not worry. More than anything else, the musical parodies the Broadway theatre (skewing everything from ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ to ‘FUNNY GIRL’ to ‘RENT.’

Under the direction of Mike Nichols, there is highlight after highlight. “I Am Not Dead Yet” is nothing short of side-splitting as is “Knight of the Round Table.” “Find Your Grail,” and “Come With Me” are belted by the wondrous Pia Glenn (Lady of the Lake). “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” complete with an umbrellas-twirling kick line, is pure cotton candy. (Be prepared to do a sing-along to this at the end of the show.) The three song unit, “Where Are You?,” “Here Are You” and “Lancelot” is a gender bending scream.

Only “Run Away,” a French Castle conflict between the British and the French grates a little, but with the negative relationship between the Tea-swiggers and the Frogs it may just not be something an American can appreciate.

The touring cast is terrific. Between all the cross-dressing and double casting, you’ll find it hard to keep track of who’s who, but it matters little, for there isn’t a weak cast member. Standouts are Pia Glenn who has a voice so fine and loud it can, and does, shatter a chandelier. Jeff Dumas is pure joy as the put-upon Patsy. Michael Siberry is a perfect foil as King Arthur. David Tuner shines as the less-than-brave Sir Robin. Rick Homes (Sir Lancelot) and Tom Deckman (Prince Herbert) play their gay-discovers-gay scenes with charming abandonment.

Capsule judgment: From its delightful overture through its over-the-top ending, ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’ is just plain fun. If you don’t have a sense of humor, are easily offended, or are a red state fanatic, this isn’t going to be for you, but for the rest of us, it’s a romp. Oh, you might consider wearing Depends as your ability to control your bladder may be compromised by your non-stop laughing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Hamlet (Beck Center)

Gender bending ‘HAMLET’ at BECK

What do Asta Nielsen, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlotte Crampton, Anna Dickinson, Clare Howard, Bertha Kalisch, Alice Marriott, Wineta Montague, Alma Murray, Louise Pomeroy, Julia Seaman, Janette Steer and SarahMorton all have in common? They are all females who have played the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s epic play of the same name. Of these, locals probably know best the name of Sarah Morton, who is presently on stage in the gender-bending role at Beck Center for the Arts.

There is nothing unusual about actors playing opposite-sex roles in Shakespearean productions. In the Bard’s time, women were not allowed on stage, so boys or young men played female roles. But, with Hamlet there is a slightly different twist. There is some conjecture among Shakespeare experts that Hamlet actually was a female, pretending to be a male. This, again, isn’t far fetched as many of Shakespeare’s plays had females dresses and pretend to be males.

The Hamlet script, however, has some differences. Many references are made to “him” in the dialogue. Even in the birth scene at the beginning of the play there is reference to Hamlet being the heir to the throne. That role was reserved for males.

Actually, after a while of watching director David Hansen’s interpretation of the play one almost forgets that a female is playing the role except for some very feminine like reactions...the style of crying, the tenderness, the body carriage often displayed by Morton. Feminine, in this case is as described in the research of Sandra Bem, who has carefully documented masculine and feminine traits.

Hansen adds to the questioning by throwing in a passionate kiss at the end of the play, which either has some homoerotic overtones, or clearly indicates that Hamlet was a woman in love with her best friend, Horatio.

The play’s plot, in its simplest form, centers on Prince Hamlet, the son of the late King Hamlet. The young Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge the king’s murder by his brother, which the young Hamlet finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier at the end of the play.

Beck’s production is effective in some ways, lacking in others. This is an uneven, yet creative and bold production. At times it could have been hoped that Hansen had more carefully heeded Shakespeare’s words, “Suit the words to the action and the action to the purpose.” At other times, the intent was clear.

Using many theatrical techniques...projections which give the setting and titles to each segment, stylized acting mixed with realistic presentations, reinterpretation of the script that might drive traditional Shakespearean viewers to scream in protest...the long production, is often off-setting. Part of this is the inconsistent quality of the acting, part is the breaking of the flow by throwing in gimmicks, some of which seem gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks, and the choppiness of the pacing. Some of the pacing problems may sort out as the players get more comfortable.

Don McBride’s set of off-kilter flats and off-balanced levels, works well to create this interpretation of the script. Richard Ingraham’s sound, especially the music and echoing voice of the king, also add to Hansen’s interpretation. Alison Garrigan’s costumes, like the production, run from “right on” to why does the queen not look queenly and why is Polonius’s garb so different from the rest of the cast?

The dumb-show segments were creatively choreographed by Alison Garrigan and the fights, especially considering the closeness of the audience to the action, were well developed by Joshua Brown and Kelly Elliott.

Sarah Morton is generally on-key as Hamlet. At
times, Morton, seemed absorbed in the role, at other times her concentration wavered and caused some meaning discord. Often played like the words of a total madman, or a psychotic on the brink of suicide, the famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech, was underplayed, giving it a thought provoking interpretation not often heard.

Nicholas Koesters was excellent as Horatio. He created a clear character as did George Roth as Polonius.

On the other hand, Mark Cipra was unbelievable as Claudius. His interpretation was all over the place. Some of his lines were meaningful, some meaningless, others overacted, some mumbled. The same can be said for Anne McEvoy who played Gertrude, she of a weird hairdo, and lack of consistency and clarity of character. Rachel Lee Kolis’s early scenes as Ophelia were shallow, but she created a properly paethic and psychotically grief stricken orphan after Polonius, her father, was killed by Hamlet.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAMLET’ is an awesome undertaking. David Hansen has developed a production which can be very off-setting in its inconsistency and interpretation, yet it is a brave attempt to create a different slant on the most-oft produced of Shakespeare’s plays.